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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:47 am on 10th November 2020.

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Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 10:47 am, 10th November 2020

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. My first very pleasant duty is to thank Jim Shannon for securing this debate. It has been an hour and a half of people coming together. We know that we have a problem and we have tried to come up with solutions. As has come out from across the Chamber, we know it has taken us some time to get here, and we know that it will take more than one individual silver bullet to get to the place that we want to be. Although one is often pleased to be at the top of a list, being at the top of the list or second to Malta on the obesity statistics is nothing to be proud about. As many hon. Members have outlined, the concomitant of that results in links to poor outcomes from covid-19, whether it is the links to heart disease, diabetes, cancer or any one in a plethora of things. It is really about an individual’s ability to have a good quality of life for as long as possible, because we know that obesity affects it quite dramatically.

I thank all hon. Members for their considered and thoughtful contributions in what has become very much a theme of the moment. Much of the work that has been done—the House of Lords report and the national food strategy—has led to this debate and highlights much of the work that needs to be done. The obesity strategy is the pathway of the marathon that is needed to help change those behaviours, and to help drive us in a direction where we see results and—as my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes said—see them for a long time, because we want this work to produce results.

We have known for decades that living with obesity reduces life expectancy and increases the chances of disease, as I have said. The life of the hon. Member for Strangford, from being 17 stone and consuming Coke and Chinese food, has obviously now been totally turned around. However, as he said—indeed, it is the one thing that I want everyone to keep in mind—losing weight is not easy. It can be depicted in a Sunday magazine as something that can be achieved in four weeks, but actually it is incredibly hard. It is really, really hard to sustain weight loss. Given the way that we talk about this issue, I was really grateful that Wera Hobhouse and others spoke about the tone in which we talk about it, because it is really important.

Over the past few months, evidence has consistently shown that people who contract covid-19 who are overweight are—as my hon. Friend Dr Davies spoke about, both from the perspective of a doctor and as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on obesity—will have poorer outcomes. We know that those outcomes get substantially poorer with age and with weight. We know that the one thing we cannot do in life is change our age, but we can modify our weight. Weight is the one modifiable factor that we have.

We have also heard from many hon. Members that the problem is more prevalent in black, Asian and minority ethnic populations and in those living in deprived areas, which was articulated by my hon. Friend Jo Gideon. People in those populations and in those areas are at greater risk of experiencing poorer health outcomes, not only from covid-19 but right across the health spectrum. And they have an elevated risk of being overweight or suffering from obesity.

Across all Departments, we are actively tackling obesity, because many different factors are involved and we need to make sure that we target them. Covid-19 has provided a laser focus on obesity, so it is crucial to support people in achieving a healthier weight, and to help families, because we know that there is also a common link between mothers and fathers who are overweight and their children’s weight; the likelihood is that their children will also be overweight, or obese.

So, in July we published the new strategy, “Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives”, which sets out the overarching campaign to reduce obesity, including taking measures to get the nation fitter and healthier. I will look at some of those messages. This process is about building blocks and not about hectoring. As we all know, it is about helping people and having holistic policies. We know the statistics and we have heard them several times, so I will not repeat them. But it is right that our policy focuses on improving diet and reducing obesity.

Since we published the first chapter of the plan in 2016, we have seen important steps forward, and we have spoken to other nations. Just recently, I spoke to Joe FitzPatrick about calorie labelling on alcohol. I have also reached out to the other devolved nations, because, as has been said, it is important that we have such conversations.

We have also looked internationally. My hon. Friend Andrew Selous mentioned Amsterdam and the good work being done there, but I also had a very insightful conversation with Dr Jebb on Singapore, because it has done a great deal of work on how best to incentivise people on the journey to weight loss.

The soft drinks industry levy has been a huge success; the latest statistics show that the sugar content of soft drinks has dropped by 44%, which is a remarkable reduction. We know that sugar content in breakfast cereals, yoghurt and fromage frais has also dropped. However, we also know that calories have gone up in out-of-home desserts. So, we have a really mixed picture and that it is likely that further measures will be needed.

During the pandemic, we have seen people snacking more, with more snacks being purchased, as well as a reduction in levels of physical activity. The cessation of weight management and obesity services, as the NHS focused on covid-19, has not helped the situation, but we very much welcome local authorities’ efforts in adapting weight management, so that we have much greater results; there are many more remote and digital options available to us now.

I will now move on to consider the tangible things. First, the current advertising restrictions for products that are high in fat, salt or sugar are not protecting children. We are seeing significant levels of such advertising on TV and online, and we know that children are now viewing much more of their content online. The advertised diet in the UK does not reflect the healthy diet that so many hon. Members have spoken about. We have set out in the strategy that we want to ban those adverts on television before 9 pm, but we want to go further. This is a very auspicious day for the hon. Member for Strangford—it is almost as if he knew—as we launch the six-week consultation restricting advertising online. We have made it six weeks because we want it to be short and pithy and we want to get to a result, which is what so many hon. Members are keen for us to do.

We are taking decisive action on promotions. We spend more money on buy one, get one free promotions in this country than any other European country. We know they influence preferences and we want to shift the balance to help shoppers. As a further strand, we will legislate to stop the promotion of high fat, salt and sugar products by volume and prominent location— removing them from the gondola end. Those restrictions will apply online and in store and we will publish that result very shortly.

Food eaten out of the home—on-the-go food—which was mentioned by several Members, forms a growing part of people’s diet. That is part of the bigger narrative and bigger conversation about children’s learning to prepare food, eating as a family and all those other things that, if we had had more time, we would probably have discussed at more length. We are introducing legislation to require large out-of-home sector businesses with 250 or more employees to calorie label the food they sell. We will also encourage voluntary calorie labelling by smaller businesses, and we will look at the scope.

Many people mentioned weight management services, and the hon. Member for Strangford asked how we can evaluate them. We can see success through the child measurement programme, but we are very much aware that our bariatric referrals are much lower than across Europe, as is people’s ability to access weight loss programmes. There is some brilliant work going on in pockets and in some of the more deprived areas across the country, and there are great cook schemes. There is a brilliant weight loss project in Sheffield, and I met the people who run it. There is also a “dads and lads” project, helping dads and lads to cook, because it is not always a woman who needs to prepare the meal—says a mother of four, married to a man who does not cook very often. I will leave that there.

Our progress in work includes the NHS 12-week weight loss plan app, as we advertised in the summer, helping people with different levels of intervention to live better with obesity and hypertension and to get the support they need. We have accelerated the expansion of the NHS diabetes prevention programme and we hope to start to target some of the loss of limbs that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire spoke about. That programme has already helped half a million people. The better health campaign aims to reach millions of people who need to lose weight and encourage them in that behaviour change. The app also provides direction to weight loss programmes at discounted prices from Slimming World and WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers.

I am aware that I have not had time to canter through everything. To respond to the hon. Member for Bath, we are very aware that we ensure that messages are attenuated in the right way for those people who are struggling with eating disorders. They are a serious disease, and we work hard to ensure that the language and policy efforts do not have an adverse effect; we do impact assessments and put those on gov.uk. I also talk to my colleague the Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, my hon. Friend Ms Dorries, who holds the portfolio for mental health, so we are very much attuned to ensuring that these policies are aligned. However, we know we have to do more. It is not our intention that anyone should be harmed in our raising awareness of obesity, but we do need to tackle this matter and we need to tackle it full-on.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central and for Vale of Clwyd spoke about levelling up. I am going to stop, although I have plenty more that I wish to say. It is a combined national effort—I could not have put it better—and I think we are all united in knowing that we must work hard to meet it.