It turns out that digitisation of the Healthy Start Vouchers hasn’t gone smoothly. Long planned, and delayed several times, the welcome transfer of people on this valuable benefit from paper vouchers to card should have been relatively easy but according to experts Sustain, “over 300,000 families in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are set to miss out on a free food scheme they are eligible for as a digital switch over has gone badly wrong”.

Today (10 March) is the very last day for people to apply to transfer, and despite Government’s efforts to encourage people, a coalition of organisations are writing to Government to point out the flaws in the switch over:

“Users contacting the Healthy Start customer service centre have experienced lengthy waiting times (up to 120 minutes) and are being cut-off in some cases. Additionally, users not on payment plans are being charged up to 55p a minute for their calls. Based on the NHS call charges , we calculate this charge could range from £36 to £66 for a 120-minute wait. A single call at that rate would quickly exceed a low-income family’s meal budget for the entire week. Users of a low-income welfare scheme should not be charged to access this support.”

Co-operators have been at the forefront of chivvying along the UK Government’s lacklustre approach to Healthy Start, whether it’s forcing the Prime Minister to increase the value of the scheme by supporting Dimbleby’s recommendation and Marcus Rashford’s brilliant campaigning, and promoting the scheme locally to in-need families. Doubtless MPs will again raise this in Parliament and support campaign groups’ efforts to temporarily extend the voucher scheme whilst the Government sorts out the mess it has presided over in terms of the digital handover.

The catalogue of failure the campaign groups have flagged up is heart-breaking. There is no excuse for Government. Applicants are facing huge phone bills as the helpline is not a free 0800 number. Users are reporting that they have to separate their Healthy Start items (fresh fruit, vegetables, and milk products for youngsters) and pay for these separately, which generates stigma – the whole point of digitising the scheme was to avoid the stigma of vouchers. The cards in England, Scotland and Wales cannot be used to shop online, penalising those self-isolating.

The Government has taken its eye of the ball. It must act quickly and speedily to rectify the issues with the digitalisation of Healthy Start.