Why The Government’s Anti- Obesity Policy Overlooks Social Inequality

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The Covid-19 outbreak in the UK has demonstrated that inequality kills. So, who will the ‘Better Health Plan’ benefit?

On Monday 27th July, the UK government published the policy paper ‘Tackling Obesity: Empowering Adults and Children to Live Healthier Lives,’ which unveiled the ‘Better Health Campaign’ in attempt to tackle the “obesity time bomb [which] has been brought to the fore by evidence of the link with an increased risk from COVID-19.”

The policy will ban TV and online adverts which market food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm and end deals such as buy-one-get-one-free on foods considered unhealthy. Restaurant and cafè goers will also see calorie labelling displayed on menus, while venues serving alcoholic drinks could soon have to list hidden ‘liquid calories’.

The plan comes with a campaign video featuring Boris Johnson explaining his personal experience of weight loss since recovering from Covid-19. The Prime Minister encourages people to lose weight to lessen the strain on the NHS, claiming “if you get your weight down, and protect your health, you will also be protecting the NHS,” encouraging people to “bring down their weight a little bit, not in an excessively bossy or nannying way”.

Alongside the policy, the government reported that “obesity is one of the biggest health crises the country faces. Almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity – and 1 in 3 children leave primary school overweight or obese, with obesity-related illnesses costing the NHS £6 billion a year.”

For years, the government has been tiptoeing around the subject of obesity, yet this is another policy which misses the mark, failing to tackle the root cause of worsening health: food poverty and inequality. In 2019, the House of Commons library published figures revealing that 4.2 million people were living below the poverty line in the UK – and these figures have not been formally updated since the rise in unemployment and poverty this year.

Social Inequality

The Covid-19 outbreak has demonstrated that inequality kills. Although the virus doesn’t discriminate based on wealth or appearance, social inequality is a huge factor which contributes to worsening health. In the ‘Disparities in the Risk and Outcomes From Covid-19’ report, the government acknowledged that “the mortality rates from COVID-19 in the most deprived areas were more than double the least deprived areas, for both males and females” and other findings such as “people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had around twice the risk of death when compared to people of White British ethnicity.” Yet, the surface level nature of the ‘Better Health’ campaign, exemplifies the government’s widespread ignorance towards how the wealth gap and racism contribute to worsening health, by failing to assist the communities most affected by Covid-19.

Through the policy, people will be encouraged to prepare meals from scratch and exercise more frequently; activities which are more doable for those who already enjoy a middle-class lifestyle, who have the economic freedom to explore different foods and purchase a bike or gym membership. Whilst, poorer families who rely on buy-one-get-one-free deals will have increasingly limited options for budget friendly food shopping.

The government has long placed blame on ‘junk’ food for obesity and poor health, yet they have failed to regulate rising food prices and food inequality. Those who work long-houred, low-paid jobs will experience limited daylight hours, meaning less time to exercise and to prepare nutritious meals. For many families, cooking meals from scratch is both expensive and time consuming, cheaper foods that are quicker to prepare and more filling, are usually higher in fat, salt and sugar. Moreover, cheaper housing usually has less storage space for the full range of ingredients necessary to prepare a nutritious meal.

In many working class homes, there is limited outdoor space to exercise, whilst running or walking in urban spaces can be dull and unpleasant with pollution and traffic.

Since lockdown began, the wave of unemployment has created a sharp rise in food insecurity and outright hunger. There were 1.5 million universal credit claims made between 13 March and 9 April, official fi