One of the many ‘inadequate’ food parcels sent out, to Mirror reader Karen Marvin

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Schools have been told not to provide free school meals or £15-a-week vouchers to needy pupils during the February half term – despite previously being forced into U-turns over holiday hunger.

The Government set itself on a collision course with campaigners once again by advising there is no need for food parcels or vouchers to continue during the week-long break.

Instead, schools are told pupils will be helped through a new Covid Winter Grant Scheme.

The scheme is worth £170m and at least 80% is earmarked for "food and essential utility costs". But unlike the free school meals in term time, it is not a blanket offering to every child who fits a certain definition of poverty.

Instead councils are expected to "directly help the hardest-hit families" and "identify" those most in need on an area-by-area basis.

That is despite the fact England will still be in a national lockdown in half-term. It will be reviewed in the half-term week but changes aren't expected until around February 22 at the earliest.

Schools are expected to rely on a wider Covid Winter Grant Scheme (file photo)
(Image: PA)

The advice comes despite hints from Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson that some schools may remain shut when the lockdown is reviewed in mid February.

Union bosses said the move was "simply astonishing" and accused ministers of a "total disregard for those hardest hit" during the pandemic.

Footballer Marcus Rashford, who is campaigning to end child food poverty, forced ministers into a u-turn over holidays schemes last summer. He then led a successful campaign over the October half term and Christmas.

It comes after a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford
(Image: Getty Images)

It also comes after days of outrage of woeful food parcels sent to children eligible for free school meals.

Official DfE guidance says schools must provide free school meals during the national lockdown, until the week beginning February 8.

This can be in the form of food parcels, or the £15-a-week national voucher scheme which allows parents to buy food in supermarkets.

However it adds: "This guidance will be regularly reviewed and will expire when schools are no longer asked to limit attendance.

"Schools do not need to provide lunch parcels or vouchers during the February half-term. There is wider government support in place to support families and children outside of term-time through the Covid Winter Grant Scheme."

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Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: "It is simply astonishing that the Government has, once again, revealed its total disregard for those hardest hit by the ongoing health pandemic. After a year in which the stark inequalities faced by millions of children and young people has been at the forefront of the minds of the public, the ugly spectre of holiday hunger is now looming yet again."

He said asking local councils to stand up a new system using the Covid Winter Grant was "an unnecessary logistical nightmare" which would put millions of children at risk.

Mr Courtney added: "Ministers should hang their heads in shame and unless they reverse this decision never again speak of their concern for disadvantaged children. Their actions show very clearly that they do not care."