The UK has suffered the worst coronavirus outbreak in Europe, with over 46,000 deaths to date. Public Health England officials failed to scale up our testing regime early. That, along with a myriad of other mistakes, contributed to our bungled response to the pandemic, the tragic consequences of which are plain to see.
Yet, somehow, Boris Johnson has now decided to place immense trust on the words of those same officials at Public Health England in his new effort to regulate obesity out of existence. The man who once decried sugar taxes has apparently abandoned his belief in liberalism in order to cater to the desires of the quangocrats.
The same man who was elected on a platform of rolling back the “continued creep of the nanny state” is now whole-heartedly endorsing compulsory calorie counts on menus, daytime advertising bans for “junk food” and a prohibition of “buy one get one free” offers on food items the government considers to be obesity-inducing, which include honey, yoghurt, mustard and tinned fruit.
To make the whole situation even more baffling, this new anti-obesity strategy has been unveiled at the same time as the Eat Out to Help Out voucher scheme. As the infamous Westminster saying goes, the only real difference between The Thick Of It and real life is that in the former, people don’t go around saying “Wow, this is just like The Thick Of It!” all the time.
That this is happening in 2020 says a great deal about the outdated and harmful ways we still think about obesity. Ministers speak brashly and with great confidence about how they can “tackle” the “problem” of obesity. As an obese person, I find that incredibly dehumanising. I am not a problem for the government to solve.
Obese people are not damsels in distress, waiting for the benevolent hand of government to reach down and rescue us from our plight. My diet is not something the government should be concerning itself with at all. I am reminded of an old Spectator cartoon in which a portly man stands on a weighing scale and remarks, “Why doesn’t the government do something about my weight?”
If there is a problem to be solved here, it’s not obesity. Poor health and obesity are not the same thing. In fact, the links between the two are wildly overstated. For instance, studies estimate that up to 75 per cent of obese people are metabolically healthy.
If we must treat obesity as a public health crisis, it seems perfectly clear that the “solution” is an increased focus on health and social education. Most of us simply don’t know enough about our own health to make properly informed choices. The answer is certainly not ham-fisted policies with disastrous consequences for those suffering with eating disorders.
The way ministers speak about this issue is very telling. They talk about obesity as a blight on the country, as if it is somehow getting in the way of the government realising its glorious vision for an impossibly prosperous post-Brexit Global Britain.
All this does is serve to amplify harmful stereotypes about fat people leeching off the NHS. In a public display of crippling myopia, health secretary Matt Hancock proudly declared recently that “if everyone who is overweight lost five pounds, it could save the NHS £100 million over the next five years."
Even if that were true, that amount would equate to less than 0.02 per cent of the NHS budget. But more to the point, why villainise fat people in this way, as if we are willingly taking money out of the pockets of hardworking British taxpayers? Overweight people, especially those under the age of 25, are already particularly susceptible to serious mental health issues. We don’t need state-condoned fat-shaming on top of that.
Obviously, the government’s anti-fat crusade will not work. Its own research predicts that its ad ban, for example, will eliminate 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day – the equivalent of half a Smartie. And that’s before we get into the immense economic costs of putting the advertising industry in a straitjacket during a global pandemic and economic disaster.
This package of measures gives a disturbing peek behind the curtain. The government appears to be under the impression that fat people are simply too stupid to do anything about it themselves. How must you see obese people if you think that banning “buy one get one free” deals on unhealthy foods will cause people to lose weight?
This attitude is condescending and demeaning, and it achieves nothing. Obese people are not some sort of political football that you can throw about here and throw about there. We are human beings, not a problem for you to solve. Leave us alone.