Large restaurants will be required to include calorie counts on menus, and junk food adverts will be banned before 9pm, as Boris Johnson launches a major drive against obesity in preparation for a potential second wave of Covid-19.
The interventionist action from the prime minister, who has previously railed against what he described as the “nanny state”, follows a stark warning from Public Health England (PHE) that overweight people are at higher risk of hospitalisation and death if they contract the coronavirus.
Among a range of measures to tackle obesity, the government will also bring in legislation to restrict the promotion of foods high in fat and sugar, including ‘buy one, get one free’ deals, and ban shops from presenting unhealthy items in prominent locations such as checkouts and store entrances.
Restaurants, takeaways and cafes with over 250 employees will also be forced by law to add calorie labels to food they offer, while a consultation will be launched before the end of 2020 to introduce calorie labelling on alcohol, the government said.
The Department of Health and Social Care, which said obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS around £6bn per year, added that adverts on television and online that promote unhealthy food will be banned before the 9pm watershed “when children are most likely to see them”.
The measures will be unveiled alongside the government’s “Better Health” campaign – to be launched by Mr Johnson on Monday – urging people to lose weight. With around two-thirds of adults in England classified as overweight, or obese, No 10 aims to reach 35 million people with the new scheme.
On Sunday, Downing Street added that other policies will include a pilot scheme of GPs prescribing cycling to patients in areas identified with low activity and poor health rates. Similar schemes have already been trialled by charities in Yorkshire and the NHS in Wales.
“Losing weight is hard, but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier,” the prime minister said. “If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS.”
Mr Johnson, who just last year criticised what he described as “sin taxes” on unhealthy foods, claimed last month he had changed his approach towards obesity after his own experience of weight loss as a result of time spent in intensive care with Covid-19. On Friday, experts at PHE added that while evidence does not suggest that being overweight increases people’s chances of being infected with the virus, “excess fat can affect the respiratory system and is likely to affect inflammatory and immune function”.
“This can impact people’s responses to inaction and increase vulnerability to severe symptoms of Covid-19,” they said.
Addressing the new strategy on the Sky News programme Sophy Ridge on Sunday, cabinet minister Dominic Raab said: “We know that obesity is related to the worst outcomes from the virus. The prime minister himself came through a very close-run thing with coronavirus; he came out saying, ‘You know what, I’ve really got to get in better shape.”
“We’ve all got to do a bit more of that, I think, health-wise across the country, life-style decisions, things like that; we need to take some more personal responsibility for that, but the government’s got a role to play as well,” he added.
Responding to the obesity drive, the shadow minister for public health and patient safety, Alex Norris, said: “We’ve had big promises before from Tory ministers on banning junk food advertising only for measures to be kicked into the long grass of consultation.
“But an effective obesity strategy needs action, not consultation. The Tories have pared public health to the bone and people are paying the price for 10 years of this complacency.”
Adam Briggs, a senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation charity, added that while the announcements included some positive steps, the government’s strategy is likely to be a “missed opportunity” and fail to address the root causes of obesity.
“A credible strategy would go further to modify the environment and the circumstances in which we live – the multiple factors that shape whether we can be active or eat healthily,” he said.
“Many of today’s announcements are not new ideas – they have been included in previous childhood obesity plans but never implemented. Too much time has already been lost; we must now see decisive action.”
Mr Johnson faced pleas at the weekend to inject cash into struggling leisure centres and prevent a collapse in the country’s health infrastructure. The chief executive of Swim England, Jane Nickerson, said that even before the pandemic, about 40 per cent of the country’s pool stock was facing closure by the end of the decade.
“We know that every single pool returns £7.2m in community benefits – in social cohesion, crime prevention, education attainment and health benefits,” said Ms Nickerson. “So a little bit of support now from the government will have its payback within months. It’s not like it’s asking for money that just gets thrown away – by tackling the health and obesity crisis in the pool, it actually saves a lot of money.”
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, added: “To help support people, we need to reduce unhelpful influences like promotions and adverts that affect what you buy and what you eat. Taken together, supported by an inspiring campaign and new smart tools, will get the country eating healthily and losing the pounds.
“We know obesity increases the risk of serious illness and death from coronavirus – so it’s vital we take action on obesity to protect the NHS and improve our nation’s health.”
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