So in one hand I’ve got a leaked copy of what would have been David Cameron’s obesity strategy ‘Making the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice: A Healthier Future for all our Children’. In the other I’ve got Theresa May’s actual published strategy ‘Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action’, although to be frank it’s more a plan of suggestion than action.
The Dispatches investigation has allowed me to see these two documents side-by-side for the first time, and the differences between them are really quite remarkable. Mr. Cameron’s strategy – prefaced by a personal declaration from him – is 37 pages long and bravely commits to halving England’s childhood obesity levels within ten years. Mrs. May’s plan is only 13 long, and her voice and personal commitment don’t ring through on a single one of those pages.
Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Cameron’s plan still had gaps, but I feel we could have worked hard to fill most of those before its release. So why is one leader’s vision so different from the other? After two years in the making, it took just 36 days for Theresa May to completely dismantle his plan, and she hasn’t replaced it with something better, bigger, bolder, braver or something that’s even fit for purpose. What happened? Was it too big for her? Did parts of the food industry start to bite back? Nothing’s changed to logically warrant milder action. Things haven’t got better, they’ve only got worse, especially in our most disadvantaged communities. Our reliance on food banks is growing and holiday hunger for free-school-meal kids is increasingly becoming an issue.
If she was too busy, post Brexit, why even release the strategy at all? I received a letter from Mrs. May earlier this month. She wrote: ‘the launch of this plan represents the start of a conversation, rather than the final word’. But surely this plan, with so much at stake, needs to be about bringing hundreds of conversations into one unified voice. We’ve done the work, now we need to move from conversation to action.
Treating obesity and its consequences is currently estimated to cost the NHS £5.1 billion every year. That means that British taxpayers spend more on obesity-related problems than on the fire and police services combined. Obesity is one of the risk factors for type-2 diabetes, which accounts for a whopping £8.8 billion of spending a year, almost 9% of the entire NHS budget. Big fact to ignore, isn’t it.
Reversing bad public health statistics of the last 30 years, shifting the dial on our children’s health prospects, and protecting the NHS has become a giant game of political Jenga. You need all the right blocks in place at the same time. The reality is, that it’s our most disadvantaged communities who are at greatest risk. And it is young people, who are most vulnerable, who need our care and attention the most, because as we all know, what happens in the early years has huge implications later on. And yet, support for new parents and their families is waning, with a reduction in the number of health visitors in many parts of the country. Both versions of the obesity strategy failed to acknowledge the importance of the time from pregnancy to the end of the first 1000 days of a child’s life. Not to mention that Mrs. May pulled out the tougher restrictions around marketing junk food to our children, which Mr. Cameron had previously proposed.
We have to strike the right balance between enough legislation, mandatory requirements and the threat that if voluntary strategies don’t move companies to the next level, then government will step in and deal with it. If the balance is wrong, it doesn’t work – it all comes tumbling down.
Without a robust plan to adhere to, nothing will ever change. I can’t work out what it is that keeps preventing leaders from joining the dots, creating a cohesive strategy and, frankly, doing their job. I’m sure you’re getting tired of listening to me talk about this, and believe me, I’d love to stop, but I’m too invested in it. This strategy is for the next generation – we’ve been letting our children down for years and we cannot go on. We need our government to step up, help us look after our kids, and allow our country and communities to prosper.
All the recommendations Theresa May was given were backed up by science, and supported by Her Majesty’s health institutions. And all of it would have gone on to in turn support the NHS and our schools, creating a virtuous circle. Yet there’s nothing in her strategy that will monitor progress, so how are we supposed to know if this plan has been a success? We need the data in order to make more informed choices, and to remain agile in the fight against obesity. Mrs. May could have been bold and reinstated the National Childhood Measurement Programme, which would have seen the government leading evaluations and sharing insights, but instead she’s left it to local authorities to sort out. To me, they may as well state categorically that they don’t care.
Our government believes their plan is one of the leading strategies on the planet, but I can assure you it’s not. There’s really nothing genius or new in there, and there is a long, long way to go. I know a lot of people feel disempowered and think they can’t do anything, but today you really can make a difference. We have the power to get these strategy discussions back on the table.
Simply go to tweetyourmp.com, then reach out to your local representative. Urge them to challenge Theresa May about obesity at the next Prime Minister’s Questions, using the hashtag #TellTheresa. The more ballots the better, so that Mrs. May is obliged to answer the question on everyone’s lips. Why do you think it’s acceptable to fail our future generations?
The Secret Plan to Save Fat Britain: Channel 4 Dispatches is on Monday 31 October at 8pm on Channel 4
(Article taken from The Times newspaper)