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Covid-19: Obese and Overweight People

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 4 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the number of obese and overweight people dying from COVID-19.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, Britain is overweight. For too long, obesity has been a huge cost to the health of the individual, the NHS and the economy. Covid is a wake-up call. Initial evidence suggests that obesity may be associated with a higher rate of positive tests for Covid, of hospitalisation, of admission into intensive care and, I say with great sadness, of death. The Prime Minister spoke movingly of his experience. The Government remain committed to halving childhood obesity by 2030 and we are looking at other ways of making a bigger impact on this national scourge.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Now that Covid has joined diabetes, heart disease and cancer in targeting the obese, I am glad that the Government are finally taking the obesity epidemic seriously. I encourage my noble friend to look at the measures ready now to be implemented, such as chapter 2 of the childhood obesity plan. What advice is being given to people about how to boost their immune systems to improve their general health but also to be ready to combat Covid if it comes for them?

My noble friend is recognised for her hard work in this area, and we all admire her championing of healthy living. The CMO’s advice is to focus on weight; that is the best way that you can prepare for winter, for the second spike, to defend yourself against Covid.

My Lords, I welcome the very firm statement from the Minister and I welcome, too, the Prime Minister’s public statement about him accepting personal responsibility for his size. Can the Government, in taking this renewed, stronger position, recognise that the public need to have all the facts that they can about what they are eating and drinking? In many areas, they are left in the dark and therefore cannot make the right choices. On alcohol, for example, drinking has shot up during lockdown, yet people do not know how much sugar there is in alcohol; there is no proper labelling, including on calories. Can the Minister commit to ensuring that, in the review being undertaken, the public will know what choices they have to make and will know the facts about what they are eating and drinking?

The noble Lord makes a good case. Chapter 2 of the obesity recommendations makes it very plain that clear labelling and data play a critical and pivotal role in helping people to make choices, but so do interventions on the actual content on the food. We will look at both of those for future options.

Section 8.3 of yesterday’s PHE review on disparities and Covid demonstrated very clearly that Covid, obesity, hypertension and diabetes type 2 were all severely raised for the BME community. Given that the Minister said in the House yesterday that this review was just the first step in understanding Covid in our BME communities, what urgent guidance is going to our primary care sector to advise our BME communities on what they need to do?

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is entirely right. The review has done an excellent job of laying a path for greater understanding of the disease and is informing the PHE response. GPs already have a very clear work plan for advising BME communities on the threat of diabetes, in particular, and on obesity and healthy living for all circumstances. This will be redoubled during the epidemic that we are experiencing.

I welcome the Minister’s statement and indeed the leadership shown by the Prime Minister, but we need to take this further and show leadership from everybody in positions of authority and in politics. I particularly home in on health professionals and teachers because, for too long, there has been, I regret to say, a large number of very overweight people in the NHS and in our schools, setting a very bad example to children and people in hospital. People must be encouraged to take personal responsibility. I am afraid that they know what makes them fat, they need to be told what makes them fat and, dare I say it, they need to be shamed for eating and drinking too much.

My noble friend is right that personal responsibility and the leadership of those in areas of responsibility are incredibly important. Shame is not a policy that the Government particularly endorse, but I will confess to personally having a sense that I need to lose a stone in order to be match fit for the winter. I commit to my noble friend to undertake this arduous and difficult task over the next three months and will account to him on what progress I have made.

My Lords, global scientific data is clear: obesity weakens immune systems, resulting in increased susceptibility to a range of diseases. Covid-19 has shone a light on the effects of being overweight, and I welcome the Government’s concern and intervention for the future. What plans do they have to work with survivors of Covid-19 who are overweight? There is a real risk that many will suffer post-viral fatigue, which will further exacerbate unhealthy lifestyles and could well result in a significant number of subsequent deaths that are in fact associated with the recovery—or non-recovery—period following Covid-19. Will the Government deliver clear and transparent guidance on healthy lifestyles and provide support to overweight people who have survived Covid-19?

The noble Baroness is entirely right: there is nothing new to the impact of Covid on those with a high BMI; it is entirely consistent with the impact of other diseases. She is also right that one of the nasty aspects of Covid is its long-term effects, which are not fully understood yet. Evidence suggests that these may be extremely damaging, and it is true that the Prime Minister has spoken about the impact of Covid on him. I have had pneumonia; I know the long-term damage of these kinds of diseases on people. We are looking very hard at offering the kind of support that she describes to those who have been hard hit by Covid.

My Lords, as many noble Lords have said, obesity is a significant risk factor in Covid-19. It is critical that we turn the tide on obesity at the earliest opportunity, and this means starting early in life. What steps are the Government taking to implement the measures outlined in chapter 2 of Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action? Will the Minister commit urgently to restart existing plans to reduce salt, sugar and calories in our everyday foods, extend the soft drinks levy to other sugary and high-calorie foods, limit the advertising of junk food to children and ensure that people are not inundated with promotions for unhealthy food and drink?

The noble Baroness is entirely right that chapter 2 outlines an extremely thoughtful road map for how to address this issue. It is currently being reconsidered. I cannot make the guarantees she asked for from the Dispatch Box, but I can assure her that we are working hard to see how we can use the example of Covid to make progress on this important agenda.

My Lords, given the Prime Minister’s welcome recent statement that a more interventionist stance is needed to tackle obesity, is the Minister aware of a recent poll by the Obesity Health Alliance showing that 72% of those surveyed supported restrictions on shops promoting unhealthy foods in prominent areas, including checkout areas, and 63% wanted the sugar tax on soft drinks extended to other sugary foods? What plans do the Government have to introduce these measures, working collaboratively with supermarkets and other food retailers?

The noble Baroness is entirely right to suggest that Covid might be the inflection point—the intervention necessary to wake up the nation to the dangers of obesity. We are keen to use that moment to make progress on this important issue.

My Lords, I declare a very personal interest in this issue: a recent Lancet article raised concerns that obesity is now shifting severe Covid disease to younger ages. Will the Government put in place public messaging not of shame but of sympathy and encouragement to younger adults?

The noble Lord is entirely right to raise the issue not only of younger adults but of children. These habits are formed extremely early and are hard to kick; if interventions are to be effective nationwide, they need to be aimed at all parts of society, particularly younger ages, when people pick up the behaviours of a lifetime.

My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. That concludes the final Virtual Proceedings on Oral Questions. I thank everyone who has contributed today and over the last weeks, not only those who have asked questions but the Ministers for answering them. Virtual Proceedings will resume at 12 noon for the Private Notice Question on humanitarian aid to Yemen. Thank you very much indeed.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.