Prescriptions for cycling rolled out as government tells public to lose weight ahead of potential second wave

Downing Street aims to target 35 million as part of Boris Johnson’s obesity strategy

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Sunday 26 July 2020 08:31
The PM said he was 'not normally a believer in nannying'
The PM said he was 'not normally a believer in nannying'

Boris Johnson is to urge GPs in England to prescribe cycling as he launches a major public health drive aimed at tackling obesity in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The intervention comes experts at Public Health England warned that the overweight – those with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9 – are at higher risk of hospitalisation and death if they contract Covid-19.

Launching the “Better Health” campaign on Monday, the prime minister is expected to outline a series of measures, including GPs prescribing cycling, greater access to NHS weight loss services and 12-week plans for everyone to use to improve eating habits.

Downing Street said the government will identify areas with poor health rates to participate in a cycling pilot. GPs in the scheme “will be encouraged to prescribe cycling where appropriate for patients”. Similar trials have been carried out by charities in Yorkshire while a pilot scheme of GPs prescribing town bikes in Cardiff to cut the risk of heart disease for patients was launched last year.

Other trailed policies include banning junk food adverts on television before the 9pm watershed and introducing calorie labels on alcoholic drinks, restaurant meals and takeaway food.

No 10 is aiming to reach 35 million Britons through the scheme in an effort to prevent the onset of more serious diseases and reduce the risk of being severely affected by Covid-19.

“Covid-19 has given us a wake-up call of the immediate long-term risks of being overweight, and the prime minister is clear we must use this moment to get healthier, more active and eat better,” a government spokesperson said.

They added: “We will be urging people to use this moment to take stock of how they live their lives, and to take simple steps to lose weight, live healthier lives, and reduce pressure on the NHS.”

Speaking last week, Mr Johnson said losing weight is one of the ways individuals can reduce the risk associated with the coronavirus, adding: “I’m not normally a believer in nannying, or bossing type of politics. But the reality is that obesity is one of the real comorbidity factors.”

But the drive by the prime minister also coincides with warnings the country could face a collapse in its health and leisure infrastructure. The chief executive of Swim England said that even before the pandemic, around 40 per cent of the country’s ageing pool stock was facing closure by the end of the decade.

Speaking to the BBC, Jane Nickerson said: “We know every single pool returns around £7.2 million in community benefits – in social cohesion, crime prevention, education attainment and health benefits.

“So a little bit of support now from the government will have its payback within months. It is 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.”

According to the report released by PHE, while weight has no discernible impact on the risk of contracting the virus, excess fat can affect the respiratory system and is likely to affect inflammation and immune function.

“I think this has really brought to the fore that obesity is not just the chronic health problem we’ve always known, but actually is now a more acute issue for people who have Covid,” said Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford, who peer-reviewed the report.

Speaking on Saturday, Professor John Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England, said that being overweight affects the risks associated with the virus.

“You’re more likely to be admitted to hospital, more likely to need treatment on an intensive care unit, we also know that it does increase your risk of death and it contributes to the various disparities we’ve seen,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He added: “As people get older, there is more obesity and the outcome is worse from Covid as you get older. People who live in poorer communities, obesity is significantly associated with that and obesity will explain some but not all of the effects of deprivation on the outcome of Covid.”

Professor Newton also said calorie labelling – reported to be part of the government’s obesity strategy – would help people make decisions. “Telling people what to do isn’t enough on its own,” he said.

“But at the same time people do need information, people need to understand, for example, if you’re ordering a takeaway and it turns out it’s got 3,000 calories in it, it would be helpful to know that at the time of ordering. So information has an important role.”

He added: “The timing of this report [PHE study into Covid and obesity] is not accidental, it is a heightened awareness from the public, there was a need to respond to the pandemic and we are optimistic that government is serious about tackling obesity and that is just based on what the prime minister has been saying. We are optimistic about next week.”

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