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Boris Johnson's u-turn on obesity is welcome, but real action must follow

Ministers are considering an outright ban on advertising junk food online as part of a wide-ranging plan to tackle obesity

3 min read

After years of inaction, the Government has revealed a plan to tackle the obesity crisis. But we'll judge ministers on their actions, not their words

Across England, almost one in four 4-5 year olds begin primary school either overweight or obese. By the time these children leave, aged 11, this will have risen to over one in three.

For these children, this can mean a lot of things. During childhood they’re at higher risk for conditions like asthma and sleep apnoea as well as being more likely to suffer from poor health in general. 

Childhood obesity tracks into later life for many as they grow up – with 67% of men and 60% of women in England having a weight classified as overweight or obese – increasing the risk of devastating diseases.

This year we have seen the impact that obesity has had on those suffering from Covid-19, with Public Health England confirming on Saturday that being obese or excessively overweight increases the risk of severe illness and death. There is also increased risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart and liver disease and some cancers.

These personal costs extend to society as a whole – costing the NHS more than £6 billion per year, while the wider cost to the economy is much higher, estimated at £27 billion.

And none of this happens equally. In the most deprived parts of the country, 27.2% of primary school starters are overweight or obese. In the least deprived, it’s only 17.3%. By age 11, this is 41.5% vs. 24.1%.

The Government is aware of all of this and we’ve heard similar noises from various places over the last five years, all the while the current Prime Minister spent this time fighting against the influence of the ‘nanny state’.

He has now changed his mind. This is a welcome u-turn, but in truth, we’ve heard this all before. Four years ago, they published the first chapter of a plan to half childhood obesity by 2030. But why hasn’t it been acted upon?

We’ve had the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, and then what? Where is the promised review of sugary milk drinks? Where was the 2019 review of the sugar reduction programme? Where is the implementation of the Calorie Reduction Programme? Why has there been no action on labelling?

What the Government has announced today is much needed. It contains a lot of good ideas that Labour has been calling for. Our 2019 manifesto promised stricter rules around the advertising of junk food to children. It’s right not to sell these unhealthy products with enticing discounts; cycling and other exercise should be encouraged; and we need a practical labelling scheme that gives meaningful information. And rather than cutting local public health services like school nursing and health visiting, ministers should have properly supported services to promote children’s health and wellbeing.

It’s 75 years since the election of transformational 1945 Labour Government. So, in the spirit of one of Clement Attlee’s favourite maxims: the Government will be judged on what they succeed at, not what they attempt.  


Alex Norris is Shadow minister for Public Health

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Read the most recent article written by Alex Norris MP - "Communities Need Levelling Up Now More Than Ever": Labour's Alex Norris