Obesity: Covid-19 — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:25 am on 10th November 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 10:25 am, 10th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I add my congratulations to Jim Shannon.

We have had an important and interesting debate. I would like to follow what my hon. Friend Jo Gideon said by stating that we need to look at the issue holistically. This is not just a health problem; it is also an education problem and a Department for Work and Pensions problem.

I was particularly struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford: we cannot use fat shaming and stigma to force people to lose weight. Over the summer, we learned from the Prime Minister’s brave words about his own battle with covid, his own unwellness and how that had been exacerbated by his weight. It might be easy from Downing Street to recruit the services of a personal trainer, but that is not open to everybody; we have to find routes to enable individuals to empower themselves to take control of their own wellbeing—whether that be through exercise and diet, or through receiving the emotional and mental support they need.

We all know that weight is not just a physical issue—there is an inextricable link between food and the way people feel about themselves. It is critically important that the support services are there to dig into that and to find the best routes, because we all know it will be an individual journey for each and every person.

I have to admit that the Prime Minister inspired me throughout lockdown; I made sure my “covid stone” was in the right direction, but for many that was not the case. It has been demonstrated that people have put on weight, and as we go into another lockdown there is real anxiety about the impact on people’s wellbeing.

I keep banging on about wellbeing—people think that I have gone all airy-fairy and am about to break out the crystals and the twinkly music—but the reality is that mental, physical and emotional wellbeing are all linked. Just yesterday, I was at Focus Fitness in Southampton talking to the personal trainers, who are all operating over Zoom in a covid-secure way. They made the point that there has to be a wellbeing approach that reaches across all generations and socioeconomic groups, and that we must find routes to help the poorest in our society embrace these initiatives as well.

Many people have mentioned cooking. During half-term, I was at the community pantry based at Romsey Community School, where we were talking about the Connect4Summer courses that were run over the summer and the half-term courses. They bring families together and give them ingredients, recipes and those basic cooking skills, which are so important. What really struck me was that the pantry gives away fruit and veg—there is a free bag of fruit and veg that people can take. I asked, “Why are people not taking it unless it is free?” I was told that it was because people did not know how to cook with it.

The point is absolutely crucial. I was blessed, in that my mother taught me how to cook reasonably well, but I know that I am lazy and do not have the time to cook properly from scratch. Lockdown enabled me to hone some of my cooking skills, but we have to make sure that those who are time-pressured—who in some cases are working two or three jobs—also have the ability to pick up that bag of vegetables and know they can cook something nutritious, quick and, mostly importantly, tasty.

I turn to the comments from Wera Hobhouse. I have a lot of sympathy with what she said about calorie counting. Some of the major chains such as Costa Coffee and McDonald’s have been advertising calorific values for years, yet the trajectory has been in the wrong direction: we are still getting fatter. In many instances, the battle has already been lost the minute a person walks through the door. Regardless of what the indication of calories on a menu is, people are in the wrong place to be making healthy choices.

It is important that we make labelling really straightforward. There is less than two seconds between someone picking up something in a supermarket and putting it in their trolley. That is no time to be inspecting the calorific fat and salt levels, so traffic lights or whatever mechanism makes things quick and easy have to be the way forward. People also have to have the skills to cook the healthier choices.

We have seen a rush over the last few days: the national media have been talking about how to lose a stone before Christmas and how to drop a dress size. Yet again, this is appearance-based, with little understanding that the issue is about people’s long-term wellbeing. I recognise that in some instances diets do not work and people will engage in yo-yo dieting, but in other instances they do. We have to find a way to empower people to make the lifestyle choices to bring about sustainable long-term differences to their way of life.

I think I have covered everything that I wanted to in a very limited time, but I look forward to the Minister’s coming up with some practical solutions as to how we can make a real difference to the people in our constituencies who need the most help, the most encouragement and the most support.