Wednesday 29 July 2020 4:30 am

Lose five pounds for the government? It’s thanks to the government I gained it in the first place

I cannot be the only person who has gained five pounds during lockdown.

I am still far from overweight (the NHS BMI calculator helpfully tells me that I am in the optimum range for my age and height), but the government’s sudden fixation on slimming down the nation has not exactly been great for my self-esteem.

Obesity has become the new smoking, a scourge that must be tackled by advert bans, calorie counts, and heartfelt videos of the Prime Minister sharing his own weight loss story. None of this is new — the sugary drinks tax came into force in 2018, and junk food adverts have been banned on the Transport for London network since 2019 — but now campaigners have a new rallying cry: losing weight will help you fight coronavirus.

Read more: DEBATE: Is the government right to focus on obesity as its top public health issue?

The inarguable link between obesity and greater risk of complications or even death from Covid-19 is one of the first things we learnt about the virus. The evidence is clear. And at a time when previously inconceivable government interventions are accepted without question as long as there’s a Covid justification (lockdown, school closures, track and trace systems), it is not surprising that an obesity strategy which would once have seemed intrusive and hectoring is suddenly not only popular, but championed by a Conservative Prime Minister who once branded the very policies he is enacting “the continuing creep of the nanny state”.

I have nothing again public health campaigns which urge people to adopt healthier lifestyles. Obesity is a serious health issue, and has almost certainly played a role in Britain’s unacceptably high Covid death rate when compared to other countries. But Boris Johnson’s new campaign infuriates me.

First, the government seems to have decided that urging people to lose weight for their own benefit isn’t enough — they must be guilt-tripped into it by constant reminders to “protect the NHS”. It is something of a rightwing cliche to point out that the NHS is a taxpayer-funded health system designed to protect us, not the other way round, but it is undeniable that the terms of debate are becoming increasingly warped. Instead, of discussing how the NHS can help people improve and maintain their health, the issue is being framed as though anyone who is obese or overweight is selfishly putting an extra strain on the health service, and should be shamed for it.

This is a dangerous route to go down. For a start, the evidence on whether the obese are on average more of a net cost burden on the NHS is far from clear. Like smokers, they may in fact save the health service money by dying prematurely. 

More fundamentally, once we begin talking about who is using up a disproportionate amount of healthcare, we get into some very troubling territory. An 85-year-old costs the NHS nearly six times as much as a 30-year-old, while two fifths of all health spending goes to over-65s. Beyond a certain age, the more healthcare increases our longevity, the more healthcare spending we are going to need. The very real strain on the NHS is the result of an ageing population, with more people requiring more expensive care for longer.

Start arguing that certain “irresponsible” lifestyle choices are unduly burdening the health service, and you inevitably have to confront who the most high-burden individuals are — a very uncomfortable thought.

But let’s take out the NHS angle and assume that the government wants us to lose weight for our own sakes. The messaging is still exasperating.

To return my own weight gain, I will freely admit that I have become less active in lockdown — because the government radically upended my lifestyle. Whereas once I would walk 10,000 steps a day as part of my commute without even noticing, suddenly I was housebound. The gym where I would take weight classes twice a week was shut down. 

Yes, I could exercise once a day, but Michael Gove went on TV to scold people for running for more than half an hour (barely a workout), and the messaging to “stay and home and save lives” was so pervasive that my anxiety spiked every time I left the house, terrified that I would be cautioned by police if my jog overran. In many parts of the country, even the parks were closed, and police forces issued terrifying videos forbidding people to travel for exercise.

As for food, when a nice meal at the end of the day is the only thing to look forward to, a little over-indulgence is inevitable. Similarly, my one glass of wine quickly became two. My anxiety was out of control, seeing friends who could have supported me was now illegal, and no provision at all had been made for the rise in lockdown-related mental health issues. I don’t think it’s surprising that my drinking — and, indeed, much of the nation’s — increased.

Now, the government is urging people back to work so they can resume buying expensive sandwiches near their offices, and offering discounts for eating in restaurants. Gyms have only just been allowed to reopen, and with such strict social distancing rules that classes are severely limited. No provision at all has been made for childcare, so goodness knows how working parents who have been balancing jobs with home-schooling for four months are meant to squeeze in time for exercise. 

The government is not seeking to address any of these fundamental issues. Nor is it proposing better physical education in schools so children can find a form of exercise they love early on, or proposing better public facilities in parks so people who can’t afford to join a gym can stay active. Downing Street’s video shows the Prime Minister walking his dog in a gorgeous open field. Is he offering more public green spaces — or, indeed, access to dogs?

No. The Prime Minister’s only strategy is to pressure people with calorie counts on menus and hope that they’ll stop wanting junk food if they don’t see adverts for it before 9pm.

If obesity is indeed a national crisis, it is one that the government has helped create. So no, I don’t take kindly to being urged to lose five pounds for the sake of public health policy. It’s thanks to public health policy that I gained it in the first place.

Read more: Boris Johnson’s calorie labelling plan is well-intentioned but economically inept

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.