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Covid-19: Obesity

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 21 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the World Obesity Federation COVID-19 and Obesity: The 2021 Atlas, published on 4 March, which shows a correlation between obesity rates and COVID-19 death rates; and what steps they intend to take in response.

My Lords, the World Obesity Federation’s Covid-19 report makes stark reading for us all. It is clear that excess weight is one of the few modifiable factors that contribute to severe symptoms of Covid and, very sadly in some cases, to death. This is a wake-up call. Britain is clearly carrying too much weight. That is why the Government are committed to helping the country reduce obesity and get fit and healthy.

My Lords, I am delighted to hear my noble friend’s response because this research shows that being obese is a huge factor in deaths from Covid, second only to old age. It was described as a wake-up call to Governments by the head of the WHO, and last week the British Heart Foundation published research that showed that 31,000 deaths per year from heart conditions are caused by excess weight. The Prime Minister has said that it was obesity that nearly killed him with Covid last year. I welcome the steps that the Government are taking over junk food, but what further action can they take so that everyone, especially those in leadership roles—be it in schools, the NHS or, indeed, Parliament—understands that being obese should not be socially acceptable, because obesity is killing people?

My Lords, I completely agree with my noble friend that obesity has been a sad and tragic driver of death from Covid. Overweight people are 67% more likely to need intensive care from Covid than those who are not overweight. The list of the measures that we have in place is extensive—there are 17 in number before me—and we are not going to stop there. This is a really important project for the Government. It is not our business to shame those who are overweight, but it is our business to enable those who seek to lead fit and healthy lives to take the necessary steps to reach that objective.

My Lords, the reduced use of school space during lockdown highlighted an opportunity for us to make use of school kitchens as community kitchens. This holds real potential for addressing multiple issues such as poverty, obesity, lack of food or loneliness, all at one time. Will the Government consider supporting school kitchens to become community kitchens when not in use by students in order to tackle obesity in underserved neighbourhoods where people often have limited choices in their nutritional options?

The right reverend Prelate puts the case extremely well. The community kitchen measures she describes are beyond my brief. I do not have the details to hand, but I should be glad to follow this up and write to her.

My Lords, as we know, there are no real redeeming features to Covid but, my goodness, it has managed to magnify the obesity problem in this country. As my noble friend said, it is a real wake-up call. Does the Minister feel, like me, that we have had enough initiatives that last for a period and then disappear without any real success? Is it time to put someone in charge of this serious health problem who has time and real clout to take on the food industry, tackle the root causes and work with all government departments to deliver change?

I do agree with my noble friend that the answer to this issue is sustained action. This is not something where snazzy initiatives are going to have the necessary impact. But the key to our efforts is creating cross-governmental co-ordination—that very difficult thing to achieve. We are working extremely hard with other departments, particularly with DCMS and DCLG, in order to address the kind of housing, cultural, advertising and nutritional issues at the heart of this problem.

My Lords, the UK has among the highest rates of obesity in the whole world— 28% compared with the benchmark, Japan, at 4%. We know, however, that payback on public health investment is high—witness our historic success with cigarettes, safety belts and AIDS. All of us are painfully aware of how difficult it is to control our weight, but does the Minister not agree that we need a massive and truly transformative programme of public health and education to reverse this deadly trend?

As the noble Lord rightly points out, the cost is enormous: £27 billion is the estimated cost to society, and 64% of people are classified as overweight. The challenge is enormous. We have to strike the right balance between government action and personal agency. The noble Lord is right that the return on investment is huge, but the Government cannot lose weight for people on their behalf. No amount of government initiative will shed the pounds. We have to get people to change their behaviours. We are trying to understand what the right measures are to give people the inspiration and information they need to take the right steps.

My Lords, this Government’s proposal is the 14th government obesity strategy since 1992. Despite 689 policies having been introduced in the past 29 years, obesity rates have increased. Another major indicator is deprivation. Children from deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese as children from the richest areas, as acknowledged by the Government’s strategy. However, the strategy was criticised for not going far enough on poverty. Healthy foods are three times more expensive per calorie than less healthy foods. Can the Minister address this grave and vital matter of people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds not having access to, and being unable to afford, healthy and nutritious food?

My Lords, I agree with the correlation pointed out by the noble Baroness. We must acknowledge and address the fact that areas of deprivation undoubtedly have higher levels of obesity. However, we have to be careful about taking away people’s sense of agency. It is possible to buy affordable healthy foods at any price point. Food has never been cheaper than it is today. We must put into people’s hands the knowledge and inspiration to take the steps necessary to shed the pounds that need to be shed.

My Lords, can the Minister assure me that the Government will not renege on their promise to ban the advertising of high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt foods online? Will he ignore the objections of junk food producers and advertisers, and remind them of the similar ban on Transport for London when the amount of advertising actually went up? Reformulated and low-calorie options generate revenue too.

My Lords, the Government take the advertising of unhealthy foods seriously, which is why we have commissioned this consultation. It has not finished yet so it is not possible for me to pronounce on its findings, but I assure the noble Baroness that we are looking at this issue extremely carefully indeed.

Does my noble friend agree that the determination of the opposition parties and much of the media to pin the blame for the high level of deaths in this country from Covid on the Government has obscured the fact that the major reason why we suffer from a high mortality rate, compared with other countries, is that we are fatter than other countries? Nearly two-thirds of adults in this country are overweight, and the number of obese people in this country is six times the proportion of obese people in Japan. Can we give those facts to people? They can then make their own decision on whether to take this risk or not.

I thank my noble friend for his question. It is for others in the post-mortem process to pronounce on the exact cause of deaths during Covid, but it is an unavoidable fact that, of the 2.5 million Covid deaths reported by the end of February, 2.2 million were in countries where more than half of the population is classified as overweight; that includes Britain. This is a stark fact that, as my noble friend rightly points out, is sinking in among the British public. We want to use this fact as an inflection point—it is an opportunity —to give people the inspiration they need to take the necessary steps towards healthy and fit living.

Is it not important to bear in mind the fact that people who are poor and obese are living in a permanent emergency? That emergency starts in the early years of their lives and carries on; they take food and do many short-term things. We must break this emergency and remove the poor from it through education, social opportunity and giving people jobs that raise their wages. Also, social security is often used as a way of saying, “Go over there and we’ll forget about you for a certain period of time.” It is the emergency that they live in that we have to challenge.

My Lords, I defer to the noble Lord’s expertise and authority in speaking on behalf of those who live in deprivation. He is a valued spokesman for people in such conditions. However, on his analysis, I do not think that poor people cannot lead healthy and fit lives. I do not believe that they cannot make the right decisions for their futures. I have the utmost respect for those who live in poverty; it is for us to give them the inspiration and knowledge that they need to make the right decisions.