The government’s Healthy Start scheme, using supermarkets to help feed families in food poverty, has descended into renewed chaos, with campaigners today calling for urgent intervention from health secretary Sajid Javid.

Families struggling with huge cost of living increases, including soaring food prices, claim to have been left humiliated at the tills of major retailers due to breakdowns in a new digital system being introduced to replace the scheme’s paper vouchers.

Despite a high-profile campaign by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, who formed a retailer taskforce to expand the scheme, it has struggled for take-up and campaigners warned the new setback was another hammer blow for those on the breadline.

With just weeks to go before paper vouchers are removed from circulation on 31 March, they warned nearly 350,000 families who are expecting babies or have small children, entitling them to vouchers for fruit, veg and milk, have still not switched to the digital cards, with the final date to apply being this week.

The IT chaos is the latest controversy to hit the scheme, which has been dogged with problems since it launched at the beginning of the first lockdown.

In December 2020 a report by the National Audit Office found tens of thousands of families had faced long waits for school meal vouchers after the government awarded a controversial contract to a private provider, while a raft of supermarkets were excluded from the scheme.

After intervention by Rashford and Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy report, a raft of supermarkets have been offering top-up payments to boost the value of the scheme.

But in a letter to the health secretary this week, health charities Sustain and the Food Foundation claimed many users had been left embarrassed at the checkouts of supermarkets taking part, including Aldi, Co-op, Lidl, Asda, Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

It said problems in the system meant their payments had been declined, and they were hit by premium charges when they called to try to resolve the issue.

“Many users are experiencing issues in activating and using the card and with accessing balance information,” says the letter. “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.”

It said the digital card was causing “serious issues” for users, food businesses and retailers.

“Firstly, the card does not allow for part-payments. Users are reporting having to separate out their Healthy Start items at the checkout and pay for these separately, generating stigma and too many instances of shopping baskets being declined at the checkout. This is causing delays in payments, longer waits for other customers and stress, embarrassment and stigma for users who we fear may stop using the card as a result.”

Card users have also been voicing their frustration on social media.

One wrote on Facebook: “Just wanted to use my card for the first time in Aldi. Used it with Pin and choose only Fruits and Vegetables. It was declined twice!!! Try to contact them and nothing. Too busy!!!”

Another added: “It literally doesn’t work anywhere, I’ve tried to use it 3 times and it gets declined for use, there’s definitely a balance on there so can you explain, it’s embarrassing.”

“Card keeps getting declined in Asda for fruit, veg and milk,” wrote one parent.

Campaigners are now calling for an urgent investigation into technical errors being reported and an extension of the scheme’s paper vouchers beyond March until the application issues are resolved.

They are also demanding the Healthy Start helplines switch to free 0800 numbers, similar to Universal Credit call lines.

Sustain campaigner Sofia Parente said: “We welcomed the digitisation of the service as it was supposed to make it easier to apply and use, as well as reduce stigma.

“But the opposite has happened. Eligible families are being rejected, cards are failing at tills and calls to the helpline go unanswered. The government needs to extend the paper vouchers until the digital scheme is working, otherwise families exposed to increasing food prices will miss out.”