It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I am grateful to Jim Shannon for having secured this incredibly important and timely debate. The contributions we have heard so far show how broad a subject this is, and how vital it is that we discuss it in full. As a member of the all-party parliamentary group on obesity and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy, I am very much aware that this issue should be top of our agenda as we come out of covid and look at public health. I join my hon. Friend Andrew Selous in congratulating the Food Foundation on the excellent work it has been doing on this issue.
The global pandemic has made us all aware of our vulnerability. It has forced us to question how our underlying health might impact our personal level of risk from the virus. Although current evidence does not show that excess weight increases a person’s chances of contracting covid-19, it does indicate that obese people are far more likely to become seriously ill and to need intensive care. Over the past 12 months, we have seen a dramatic shift in public attitudes towards measures for tackling obesity, as a result of many people seeing only too clearly the health consequences and risk factors of being overweight. Reducing the risk of serious illnesses and the raised risk of suffering badly with covid-19 is reason enough to prioritise tackling obesity; other reasons include the estimated cost of £6.1 billion to the NHS every year, and three times that cost to the economy through absences for sickness, as well as the increased risks associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.
Tackling obesity is central to our commitment to levelling up. Statistics tell us that excess weight is more likely among those living in deprived areas, those with disabilities, and those without qualifications. That means that areas such as Stoke-on-Trent Central, my own constituency, have higher than average levels of obesity. Levelling up is not just about the left-behind areas catching up with other parts of the country: it is about tackling the entrenched economic and social inequalities of our society—the social inequalities that hold people and communities back right across the country.
In my own constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central, a number of socioeconomic inequalities are known to have direct links to higher rates of obesity and poor nutrition, which in turn can lead to malnutrition. A recent analysis conducted by the Health Foundation charity found that people living in post-industrial towns and cities across the midlands, the north-east and parts of Wales have unequal exposure to the potential causes of obesity. That means that, on average, residents living in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent live much closer to fast food and junk food outlets compared with the rest of the UK—on average, they have 114 fast food outlets per 100,000 people, compared with 77 per 100,000 in the south-east. That matters, because evidence shows that an individual’s ability to be active or eat healthily is strongly influenced by the circumstances in which they live.