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In this file photo taken on Dec. 1, 2019, Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford applauds supporters at Old Trafford, in Manchester, northwest England.

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not often that a 22-year-old soccer player can force a government to change course within 48 hours and deal a humiliating blow to a struggling Prime Minister.

Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford has not only managed to upstage British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with a heartfelt message about child poverty, he’s also prompted more questions about Mr. Johnson’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and pushed the government into spending £120-million, or $204-million, to help needy families during the outbreak.

Mr. Rashford grew up in a poor part of Manchester and is a rising star in the English Premier League as well as a key member of England’s national team. He’s also an advocate for ending child hunger, and on Monday he issued an open letter calling on the government to continue a free school meals program during the summer.

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The program provides food to more than one million children across the country. It has continued during the pandemic even though most schools have been closed since March 20 as part of a nationwide lockdown. School officials have been distributing vouchers and food parcels to underprivileged families, but that was slated to end this summer.

In his letter, Mr. Rashford pleaded with the government to continue the program through July and August, referencing his own experience growing up in a single-parent household where his mother relied on food banks and school meals to feed her five children.

“My story to get here is all-too-familiar for families in England: My mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough,” he wrote. “As a Black man from a low-income family in [Manchester] I could have been just another statistic.” He urged politicians to set aside their differences and keep the meals available. “Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?” he asked.

His comments touched a nerve with a public that has become increasingly wary of Mr. Johnson’s response to the outbreak. Nearly 300,000 people in Britain have been infected with the virus and almost 42,000 have died. The government has faced growing criticism that it waited too long to address the crisis and that it hasn’t come up with a coherent plan to kick-start the economy. There have also been complaints and confusion over when schools will reopen and whether the government will change its two-metre physical-distancing policy so that restaurants can again welcome patrons. Opinion polls show that support for Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives has been falling sharply: The party’s lead over Labour has dropped from around 26 points two months ago to five points today.

Within hours of posting the letter on Twitter, Mr. Rashford received an outpouring of support from celebrities, teachers, soccer fans and players. Several of Mr. Johnson’s fellow Conservative MPs also came forward to back the idea. "Free School Meals are a lifeline for many v low income families,“ tweeted Tory MP George Freeman. “Let’s do the right thing: extend FSM thru summer.”

Initially, Mr. Johnson stood firm and the government refused to consider any change. The Department of Education released a statement on Monday that said other programs had been launched to help families during the pandemic. “Free school meals are ordinarily term time only, and the national voucher scheme will not run during the summer holidays,” it said.

But by Tuesday morning, the pressure had become too intense and Mr. Johnson relented. He announced a £120-million “summer food program” for schoolchildren and congratulated Mr. Rashford on the campaign. “I think he’s right to draw attention to this issue,” Mr. Johnson said. “I do think it’s right that we should be looking after families of the most vulnerable, the neediest, right now.”

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Mr. Rashford seemed overwhelmed at the quick response. "I don’t even know what to say,” he wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”

His crusade also gives a boost to the Premier League, which suspended play on March 13. The season resumes Wednesday with games played behind closed doors. Mr. Rashford has provided the league a good news story after months of uncertainty and complaints from some politicians that players weren’t taking pay cuts during the lockdown. Richard Masters, the league’s chief executive, congratulated Mr. Rashford and insisted that players had done their part. "If you look at the way clubs have supported their communities, lots of players and ex-players [have been] getting involved,” he said.

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