Last week, ConservativeHome wrote that Boris Johnson would have to abandon his libertarian instincts to tackle the obesity crisis; a fact fairly well hinted at, due to his own experience with the Coronavirus. It was said that he’d had a Damascene conversion after his previous resistance to interventionist methods.

Today, Johnson appears to have confirmed that through the Government’s new strategy, titled: Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives. It outlines a series of measures that will do little to please freedom fighters – and, by some indications, may not win over pro-interventionist minds either.

As everyone knows, the obesity crisis has long been in successive governments’ sights. The document calls it “one of the greatest long-term health challenges this country faces” with “around two-thirds (63%) of adults above a healthy weight” and “1 in 3 children leaving primary school who are already overweight”. 

The need to reduce obesity levels has become more urgent as a result of Covid-19. During the crisis it was well known that being overweight or obese increased the risk of hospitalisation, and Government statistics show that nearly eight per cent of critically ill patients in intensive care units with the virus were morbidly obese, compared to 2.9 per cent of the general population.

Furthermore, the Government document says that “[o]besity prevalence is highest amongst the most deprived groups in society”. Given Johnson’s “levelling up agenda”, and the clear exposure of social inequalities throughout the crisis, the Government felt it had a mandate to tackle obesity more radically.

The Government’s main proposals include:

  • Banning adverts for high fat, salt or sugar products on TV and online before 9pm; 
  • calorie labelling in restaurants, cafes and takeaways;
  • ending the promotion of high fat, sugar or salt products in store and online (meaning no more “buy one get one free meals”), and
  • further down the line there will be a consultation on calorie labelling for pre-packaged drinks.

Alongside these plans, Public Health England has brought out softer measures, such as a “Better Health” campaign. It encourages users to lose weight through a new NHS BMI tool, and a free NHS 12-week weight loss plan app.

In addition, the NHS will extend its weight management services, as well as its Diabetes Prevention Programme, meaning that tens of thousands more people will be able to use the services than ever before.

The Government is also engaging in nudge theory. It has noticed, for instance, that “43% of all drink and products located in prominent areas… were for sugary foods and drinks and less than 1% of food and drink products were promoted in high profile locations in stores were fruit and vegetables.”

These insights are important, as they lay out small, not particularly drastic measures that shops can embrace to influence consumer behaviour, such as putting healthy snacks nearer to checkouts.

Some say the Government has no right to tell people what to eat, but the truth is that society currently does that – in the opposite direction to the one complained about. There are numerous offers encouraging people towards unhealthy habits, which have a negative effect on people’s finances, too. It has been shown that “buy one get one free offers” increase the amount people spend by 20 per cent. So it makes sense to take action.

What’s the verdict on these moves, however? By all indications, the Government’s plans may not please either libertarians or those more pro-interventionist for a number of reasons.

In regards to the former group, there will be considerable disappointment about the direction Johnson has gone in, not least because many will have voted for him on the basis of his past aversion to sin taxes and his claim of being a “libertarian” in regards to obesity.

There are also economic concerns about whether the obesity campaign will harm a nation trying to find its feet after Covid-19. 

Sue Eustace, Director of Public Affairs at the Advertising Association, has said that the measures were “extreme” and that: “[w]e have some of the strictest [advertising] rules in the world already and children’s exposure to high fat, salt, and sugar adverts on TV has fallen by 70% over the last 15 years or so, but there’s been no change to obesity, so we don’t think these measures are going to work.”

Others say that the Government’s strategy undermines its “Eat Out to Help Out”; Rishi Sunak is trying to get people going to restaurants, which will no doubt boost the nation’s waistlines, all the while there is this strategy.

ConservativeHome believes that there’s no getting away from the fact that the nation has a growing obesity crisis, and that the Government was realistic and right to take bold steps. 

The question is whether these methods will work, or if they target the wrong things. 

The Government’s strategy, for instance, rests on the assumption that with the “[r]ight information” in stores, people’s behaviour will change, hence why it wants to put calorie content everywhere.

Its guidance reads: “It’s hard to make the healthy choice if you don’t know what’s in the food you are eating”. But is this going to stop someone from making a trip to McDonalds? The point is that temptation often overrides information.

It may be that actions such as investing more in gastric bands (which, as I wrote last time in ConHome “seem dramatic – but can improve people’s quality of life and the coping ability of the NHS in enormous ways”), and substantially increasing sports lessons at schools, can have a more sizeable effect.

The other issue Johnson will have to address is his re-establishing his political brand, having steered far away from his libertarian principles.

Coronavirus, in general, has challenged what people expected from the Conservatives; there have been huge levels of spending and, with the public now forced to wear face masks in shops, many voters will need assurances of a return to a small state.

Some of this confusion over what Conservatives now stand for will be exacerbated by the obesity document, which sounds incredibly left-leaning in parts. One statement suggests that “tackling obesity is not just about an individual’s effort, it is also about the environment we live in”. Even though others have preached about “personal responsibility”.

One hopes, of course, that the Government makes some breakthroughs in regards to its obesity strategy. But it may be about to achieve the worst of both worlds, exaggerating the role adverts play in promoting obesity (and causing economic damage in regulating them), while alienating libertarian voters. 

This “worst of both worlds” pattern seems prevalent in other parts of the Coronavirus crisis. We are trying to revive the economy, for instance, but there are so many rules and regulations on restaurants, shops and bars now that it may be the case we neither protect the NHS/ people from Covid-19, nor businesses.

Whether fighting obesity, or reopening the economy, “going for broke” may be the philosophy this Government needs – whichever direction it takes.