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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:29 am on 10th November 2020.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 10:29 am, 10th November 2020

I want to begin by thanking Jim Shannon for his comprehensive exposition of the issue, setting out the scale of the challenges in tackling obesity and how the Governments across the United Kingdom must do all they can to tackle obesity across the UK in a holistic way. I am glad to be able to participate in this debate on obesity and covid-19 because it is very important, as many have said. There is huge consensus across this Chamber today: we have a real public health challenge and we need to tackle it with all the influence and tools that we have.

The pervasiveness of obesity in our society coupled with the health and economic consequences and the additional associated risk between obesity and covid-19 shows that supporting adults and children to be a healthy weight is, must be and must continue to be a public health priority. The recent report from Public Health England provided evidence-based insights into the relationship between excess weight and covid-19. We have heard today that the higher a person’s body mass index, the more likely they are to test positive for covid-19, they are more likely they are to be admitted to intensive care and, potentially, more likely to die a covid-related death. We heard from Dr Davies that if someone is obese, they are 37% higher than average more likely to die of covid-19. Those facts persist when studies are adjusted for confounding factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and comorbidities.

Over the years, since 2015 when I was first elected, I have spoken in a number of debates on issues such as healthy eating, junk foods, healthy lifestyles and so on. One thing I always think is important, and it has been noted today, is that we must always try hard not to sound as if we are telling people off for the food they eat and stigmatising them for the food they give to their children. If we sound as if that is what we are doing, we will not get our message across, as Wera Hobhouse said. The message we want to get across is that we understand that obesity is one of the most complex and biggest public health challenges of our time. As Andrew Selous reminded us, the UK is the most obese country in Europe, with the exception of Malta.

I believe this is a matter that has to be treated with a bit of sensitivity. We know that it is easy to eat healthily the better off you are financially. By way of illustration, it costs £3 in Tesco for 250g of blueberries. Blueberries are very healthy; they are a superfood. However, in Iceland supermarket, we can buy 10 chicken burgers for £2, which are not so healthy. If someone is on a budget, as a parent, their priority is to feed their children and keep them safe from hunger if at all possible. No one has the right to tell those parents that their choices are bad. The fact is they are doing the best they can with the income they have. Using another example, in Tesco, four oranges cost £1.50, but a multipack of 10 packets of crisps cost 99p. Although we know the blueberries and oranges are the healthy choice and the burgers and the crisps are not, if someone is on a very limited income, healthy choices are not always on the menu, as others have pointed out.

It is clear that the key to tackling obesity is tackling poverty and inequality. We also know that the poorer people are, the poorer their health and lifestyle outcomes. I know that because I grew up in poverty. My parents both died in their early 50s: the same age that I am now. Their poverty and early deaths are not coincidental—not at all. It is the same story up and down our constituencies wherever poverty thrives and preys on our constituents.

Obesity does not just make people more prone to covid and its serious consequences, although it certainly does that. Obesity prevents people from living fulfilled and active lives. It is the second-biggest preventable cause of cancer and is linked to around 2,200 cases of cancer every year in Scotland. Living with extra weight or obesity is the most significant risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes and can result in increased risk of other conditions, including cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

The annual cost in Scotland of treating conditions associated with being overweight and obese is estimated to range from £363 million to £600 million. The total annual cost to the economy in Scotland of people being overweight and obese, including labour market costs such as lost productivity, is between £1 billion and £4.6 billion, and Jo Gideon set out the overall UK costs. Studies last year showed that 66% of adults in Scotland over the age of 16 were overweight, with 29% being obese. Men are more likely to be affected, but obesity rates are consistently higher in our most deprived communities. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd reminded us that tackling obesity must ultimately be about tackling social injustice—a sentiment that everyone in this Chamber can accept.

What covid has exposed with crystal clarity, if it were needed, and what it has exacerbated are the shocking health inequalities in our nation. I want to see a Scotland—a United Kingdom—in which people eat well, have a healthy weight and are physically active: who would not want that? The Scottish Government have committed to supporting a targeted approach to improving healthier eating for those on low incomes, expanding and improving access to weight management services for those with or at risk of type 2 diabetes, and extending access to weight management services to everyone living with obesity. They seek to build on and consolidate the positive physical activity behaviour changes that we have seen during covid-19, such as walking, cycling and a range of measures that I do not have time to go into.

I am keen to see the Minister today set out similar actions across the UK and how Scotland and the rest of the UK can learn from each other and share good practice in doing more to tackle obesity. Fundamentally and ultimately, however, the scourge of poverty is at the heart of tackling all inequalities. As in other ways, the covid crisis has thrown inequalities in our society into stark relief, and this debate has been worth while in underlining that.

When the covid crisis is behind us, as one day it will be—the sooner the better—I hope that across the UK we all, citizens and Governments alike, do not forget the lessons it has taught us about our society and the terrible and ongoing impact of poverty on our communities.