The lack of political nous demonstrated by some eminent and highly intelligent public figures never ceases to amaze.
Take Dame Sally Davies, the government’s outgoing chief medical officer.
In her final report she tackles the subject of childhood obesity, which represents a very real problem, even a crisis. The government has a stated aim of halving it by 2030 but she rightly warns that it isn’t going to get close to that as things stand.
There is, therefore, a need for more radical measures than those that have so far been attempted, with the aim of solving an eminently preventable problem that currently costs the NHS a bundle of money it can ill afford.
Trouble is, in calling for a ban on snacking on urban public transport (with exemptions for water, breast-feeding and those of us with medical conditions like type 1 diabetes) Dame Sally has ended up in sillyland.
No government would ever try to introduce such a measure, not least because it’s basically unenforceable but could lead to some fairly awful repercussions for people who might be inclined to try. It would only take a bus driver, confused about the exemptions, chucking off a diabetic who was opening up a pack of Haribos to deal with low blood sugar – a hypo for those of us in the trade – for all hell to break loose.
By touting such an idea, along with the similarly illiberal call for a calorie cap on what food outlets serve up, she has provided a truck load of ammunition to those on the right who don’t want to see anything done to address the issue.
“Her policy ideas have become synonymous with the silliest extremes of the nanny state,” fulminated Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. “The suggestion that it be a crime to eat a sandwich on a train brings Dame Sally’s tenure as chief medical officer to a fittingly authoritarian conclusion.”
That’s a line that might resonate even with some moderates more usually sympathetic to public health messaging.
I suppose Dame Sally could argue that she has at least succeeded in getting the issue onto a news agenda dominated by Brexit and Donald Trump. It’s being talked about.
She could also argue that while people might not accept the ban she proposes, or even the calorie cap, she’s maybe opened the door for some of her more practical, but still potentially controversial, ideas.
These include banning ads for unhealthy foods at major public venues, which could also be painted as authoritarian until you realise that we did it successfully with cigarettes to the public’s great benefit. There’s also a call to ensure healthy meals are provided in schools at a low price. Great idea. Let’s do it.
Dame Sally also has proposals for ways unhealthy food could be taxed more. This too has potential. The existing “sugar tax” has led to a sharp decline in the sugar content of soft drinks, for example.
The problem is that the food on public transport idea is so out there it could strike at the credibility of the exercise. She may have served to make it harder for someone like health secretary Matt Hancock, no one’s idea of a cabinet bruiser, to push her more moderate proposals, given the nature of the current administration.
And that’s not the only problem with what Dame Sally has done here.
She was also the subject of media reports today for warning of the potential for deaths resulting from a no-deal Brexit. The government’s own assessment says this could lead to medicine shortages so her point was well made.
I wouldn’t put it past the vandals pushing for that outcome to respond by painting her as the person who wants to ban snacks on Tube trains, and to use that to undermine her hugely important point.
Conflating the two is a cheap and cynical tactic. But it’s not beneath some people. And it’s worked in the past.
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