Poverty is Our Most Potent Virus

“No virus takes more lives annually than poverty and not even a pandemic should displace it on the political agenda.”

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph: 22/06/2020 [Online] Available: https://www.eveningtelegraph.co.uk/fp/ewan-gurr-poverty-is-the-most-potent-virus-facing-scots-today/  [Accessed: 2020, Jun 16]  

Described as a battle between two number 10s, the timely intervention of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford in the debate over free school meals in England led to a significant U-turn. What made his intervention so powerful is that it was rooted in a story – the story of his upbringing. His letter to the UK Government said he was raised by a mum who “worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a meal on the table.” He added: “But it was not enough.”

In the House of Commons last Tuesday, the UK Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson, said: “We should never be ashamed to listen.” He went onto say: “I am pleased to announce that we will provide additional funding for a Covid Summer Food Fund to enable children who are eligible for free school meals can claim a six-week voucher.” He also committed to ensuring no children goes hungry in their preparation for reopening schools in England. However, in Scotland, things are different.

In 2013, I invited Alex Salmond – who was then Scotland’s First Minister – to meet a group of foodbank managers in Edinburgh. He informed us he had received a request that very morning from a coalition of anti-poverty charities requesting the provision of free school meals and asked what we thought. Unsurprisingly, we were united in our agreement and, in January 2015, he announced free school meals would be provided for children from Primary 1-3.

The debate over free school meals is really part of the wider issue of child poverty. I am ashamed to say I have encountered malnourished parents and children several times in my life. Ranging from parents foregoing meals to ensure their children can eat, to a mum who gave up breastfeeding her six week old because she consumed too few calories to produce milk. A healthy diet is crucial to both mother and child to reduce the likelihood of disease and infant mortality.

New research published by Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children found almost nine in ten parents on Universal Credit or Child Tax Credits in Scotland faced extra household costs due to the pandemic. Almost half saw an income reduction since March and over half are behind on rent and bills. They called upon the Scottish Government to extend a tier of cash-first support to families with children eligible for free school meals to provide a bridge over the summer.

The Scottish Government enshrined the Child Poverty Act in legislation in 2017 yet it has delayed the publication of its forthcoming progress report on child poverty due to coronavirus while insisting that child poverty remains a “top priority”. In his letter, Marcus Rashford correctly described poverty as a pandemic. No virus in Scotland takes more lives each year than poverty and not even a pandemic should displace it on the political agenda.