Tory says people have 'responsibility to exercise'

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Indy Politics

He is a health minister condemned as “out of condition, overweight and a chain-smoker" by a political opponent - and he freely admits that he could lose a few pounds here and there.

But Simon Burns, the Tory “enforcer” helping to shepherd through the Government's flagship health reforms, is now calling on the rest of us to look after ourselves more in order to take the strain off the NHS.

In an interview with the Independent on Sunday, Mr Burns said everyone had a responsibility to take exercise and avoid vices like smoking and a poor diet.

"It's easier said than done, I'm afraid, but I do think people have got to be responsible,” said the Chelmsford MP, who admits he was “staggered” by Labour MP Barry Sheerman's comments on his fitness. “In an ideal world everyone will take X amounts of exercise every day they will not eat certain things but sadly we don't live in an ideal world and we are all in our different ways sinners in that respect.

"Look, of course I could take more exercise. I'd love to lose some more weight and one always aspires. I am a smoker. I'm not proud of the fact but I am. That's life."

Mr Burns's views on personal responsibility chime in with warnings from medical experts, who fear the NHS could be swamped by “preventable conditions”. Wales's chief medical officer Dr Tony Jewell said last month: “More and more people require treatment for conditions related to obesity, smoking and alcohol abuse - preventable conditions that are draining the resources of the NHS."

Labour waged a long-term war on obesity in the UK amid warnings that the rising number of overweight people threatened to “bankrupt” the health service. The last government responded to warnings of an “epidemic” of obesity - and associated conditions including heart disease and diabetes - with a series of schemes encouraging the public to eat better and take exercise.

But Mr Burns said the Conservative approach, which the Coalition will begin setting out in a public health white paper this week, would not take a “hectoring kind of Patricia Hewitt approach”. Ms Hewitt was consistently accused of patronising patients and healthcare workers during her two years as Labour health secretary, after the 2005 election.

"There's a role for government to educate, not to nanny and hector and lecture…in a responsible way,” Mr Burns added. “Yes, we do have a responsibility just as we have a responsibility to bring up our children to know the difference between right and wrong, to behave, etcetera.”

But Mr Sheerman said: “The real burden on the NHS is chronic conditions like smoking and obesity. I am a passionate anti-smoker and I used to nag Alan Johnson about him smoking when he was a Labour health secretary.

“If you are a health minister you should set an example, particularly when you are telling people to look after themselves better.”

Mr Burns, who served as a health minister under John Major, is believed to have been returned to the department to bolster the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley. However, he claims not to recognise his growing reputation as a “bruiser”, and instead maintains that his appointment has more to do with his “love and genuine commitment to a National Health Service free at the point of use to all of those entitled to use it”.

He added: “What these reforms are based on is taking the day-to-day micro-management of the health service away from politicians and civil servants and putting patients at the centre of healthcare

“Patients will be the driving force in getting the finest healthcare possible, rather than sitting there and being told 'you're gong to do that, you're going to take this pill and then you'll get better'.”

Unusually for a Tory, Mr Burns is a committed supporter of the US Democrats, which dates from the day President Kennedy was shot in November 1963. On the same day, at the age of 11, the major's son decided he was going to be a Conservative MP.

His enthusiasm for the NHS does not extend to offering it immunity from the financial squeeze - even though it has been allowed a real-terms increase in funding.

Mr Burns said: “Our aim in four years is to cut back unnecessary bureaucracy by 33 per to save £15bn to £20bn and every single penny of that will be ploughed back in to help with the provision of front-line services.

“Anyone who's rash enough to think that because we've got a protected real-terms increase that everything is wonderful and we don't have to worry just does not understand the situation.”