It is a pleasure to follow Jim Shannon. I congratulate him on initiating today’s important debate and on his thoughtful introductory comments. It is great to see the cross-party representation here today on this matter.
As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on obesity and a practising GP, I am only too aware of the significant health and financial implications of obesity. In the course of this year, a realisation of the link between obesity, its comorbidities and poor covid-19 outcomes has sparked renewed interest in tackling Britain’s obesity crisis. It is the case that 19.8% of critically ill covid patients are morbidly obese; that is almost three times the national average, which stands at 2.9%. And for those who are overweight or obese, the likelihood of dying from this virus is 37% higher than average.
There are of course numerous international league tables that rank covid’s impact on countries, and many people have suggested that the UK’s unenviable position in those tables is due at least in part to the fact that the number of overweight or obese individuals in the UK stands as high as 67%. Of course, obesity is frequently an outcome of poor life chances, but it can also perpetuate them. The economic impact of obesity cripples some of our communities, and tackling it is therefore a matter of social justice. Obesity rates among the most deprived 10% of the population are more than twice that for the least deprived 10%, and the gap in prevalence of obesity between rich and poor is, tragically, still growing.
My constituency in many ways epitomises the national picture. I can travel from one area, a coastal pocket of deprivation and the poorest ward in Wales, where obesity and poor health go hand in hand with economic inactivity and high premature death rates, to another area, just several miles away, where the average body mass index is markedly lower and life expectancy and income levels are significantly higher. To me, that inequality within a single constituency is unacceptable. Not only is reducing obesity levels vital as we seek to minimise the impact of the pandemic; as an issue that I fear will become even more important in the aftermath, it should also be considered a critical element of the Prime Minister’s levelling up agenda.
The harsh truth is that obesity is strongly associated with a number of serious health conditions, including many leading causes of death. It is also associated with poorer mental health outcomes and reduced quality of life. Being overweight can exact a tough emotional toll, from bullying at school to the pain of lifelong judgmental attitudes and stigma.
The overall societal cost of obesity is estimated to be £27 billion a year, saddling the NHS with an annual bill of several billion. As a GP, any day’s work reinforces to me that we live in a society where the freedom to make the right choices is severely constrained for some. Supermarkets are packed with temptingly priced, high-fat, sugar and salt—HFSS—products. There are takeaways on every street corner, bountiful coffee shops serving syrup-laden flavoured drinks, and pubs and bars offering large, 200-plus calorie glasses of wine. We have a culture that normalises these things on a day-to-day basis. It is far too easy for all of us to consume more calories than our sedentary lifestyles can withstand.
While some may navigate this environment unscathed, making healthy choices has become increasingly difficult, even more so in poorer communities. Whether under enormous stresses and strains from other aspects of life or fighting to feed a family on a tight budget in limited time, the long-term health outcomes of what we eat and drink may not always be our top concern. The measures we need to implement are not about taking away choice, but about the Government helping to rebalance the playing field in favour of healthier options, for the benefit of all.
In July, the Government published a new strategy, “Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives”. This committed the Government to introducing a new campaign to encourage all those who are overweight to take action with evidence-based tools and apps. We should not forget the huge impact of exercise and dietary advice; in my experience we often have a very poor understanding of what is healthy.
The strategy also committed the Government to expand weight management services via the NHS; to consult over improving the traffic light system on food labelling; to legislate to require large, and potentially smaller, restaurants, cafés, and takeaways to add calorie labelling to the food they sell; to consult over calorie labelling on alcohol; to legislate to end the promotion of HFSS foods through product placement, online and at the end of supermarket aisles; to get rid of “buy one get one free” offers relating to unhealthy foods; and finally to ban the advertising of these same products online and before 9 pm on television.
These proposed measures follow on from apparent success through reformulation and the soft drinks industry levy, which has reduced the levels of sugar consumed from soft drinks. I have been pleased to join many others in pushing for such measures in my time on the Health and Social Care Committee, particularly as part of the childhood obesity strategy. Obesity in children at reception age currently stands at 9.9%, reaching 21% in year 6. We know that children with obesity are more likely to develop complications and disability later in life at a younger age, and there is a continuously worsening picture year on year.
With this in mind, we need to consider going beyond the measures in the Government strategy. If we look at the world through the eyes of children, I feel we need to attempt to tackle issues such as the location and quantity of fast food outlets on a cross-governmental basis. I would be pleased to hear the Minister’s perspective on this and also when a timeline might emerge for implementing the remainder of the Government’s obesity strategy. Further, how will the Government ensure that support is available across the country and includes those with severe and complex obesity, for whom diet and exercise alone are not sufficient? How and when will weight management services and bariatric surgery become more accessible?
In the immediate future, how do the Government intend to ensure that those living with obesity will be among the first to receive the covid-19 vaccines that we have heard so much about in the last day or so? Looking to the longer term, how do they intend to ensure that tackling health inequalities through the levelling up agenda will proceed despite the huge financial impact of the pandemic?
To conclude, the Prime Minister’s obesity strategy announcement in June created welcome attention and dialogue, which have been continued through an all-party parliamentary group inquiry, today’s debate and, it is now likely, Government action. However, it is vital that we keep up the momentum, especially given that the covid-19 pandemic is still, sadly, very much with us.