Artillery Row

Public health porkers

COVID lockdowns do not excuse endless authoritarian measures

According to The Times, the NHS has spent £40 million on “specialist equipment for obese patients over the past five years”. This includes bigger beds, larger mortuary fridges and bariatric stretchers and chairs. Apparently, there are now “more than 450 beds and 1,150 mortuary fridges solely for obese patients across the 160 NHS trusts that responded [out of 215]”. 

Am I alone in thinking this isn’t very much?

Am I alone in thinking this isn’t very much? We have been told for twenty years that Britain is in the grip of an obesity epidemic that will bankrupt the health service, but all we have to show for it is three super-sized beds per NHS trust and an average of £8 million a year spent on special equipment to accommodate fat people. £8 million seems a lot to spend on what is basically furniture, but it is only the equivalent of running the NHS for 18 minutes. The NHS spends 350 times as much settling clinical negligence claims. The sugar tax alone has raked in over a billion pounds in the same five year period. I think we can cope.

The Times also notes that: “One in four [pregnant] women were obese at the time of their booking-in appointment”. But 26 per cent of women of child-bearing age are obese so what did they expect? There were only 10,780 hospital admissions directly attributable to obesity in 2019/20 (the latest figures available), and this number has barely changed in ten years. 

Still, it is against the backdrop of a terrifying obesity epidemic that the Times has invited its latest guest to “give evidence” to the important-sounding Times Health Commission. The Times Health Commission is an ersatz select committee in which various political has-beens and restaurateurs are wheeled out to imagine that they are king for a day and have to make the proles healthier. So far, proposals have included banning smoking and taxing orange juice (George Osborne), treating office cakes like passive smoking (Susan Jebb), banning so-called “junk food” advertising (Lord Bethell and Henry Dimbleby), treating ultra-processed food like tobacco (Thomasina Miers), taxing salt (William Hague) and — out of left-field — increasing inheritance tax (Dame Sally Davies).

This LARPing public enquiry has been a good source of headlines, but not such a good source of well-thought out ideas. When former health secretary Andrew Lansley got the call, he must have known that Times readers are only really interested in obesity, so that’s what he banged on about, saying:

Obesity will kill more people even than the pandemic did and look what behaviour change was required for that.

The behavioural scientists wouldn’t have believed that people would adapt their behaviour to the extent that they did. So people will adapt their behaviour, but they need to believe that it matters sufficiently and the dangers are sufficiently great.

This is not the first time the Times Health Commission has heard from someone who thinks the pandemic was too good a crisis to waste. Lord Bethell said that it was a “heaven-sent opportunity” to introduce more nanny state policies. Lansley didn’t say which policies he had in mind, but invoking lockdowns as a precedent doesn’t inspire confidence. 

It is true that behavioural scientists didn’t think the British public would go along with lockdowns, but they were wrong for two reasons. Firstly, people were very concerned about catching a novel coronavirus, if not for themselves then because they didn’t want their elderly relatives to be infected. It is precisely because the virus was highly infectious that made one person catching it everybody else’s business. Catching SARS-CoV-2 was not a purely self-regarding act. This is what made it a genuine public health problem, unlike obesity which is a private health problem rebadged as a public health problem to trick people into thinking that government coercion is justified when it isn’t.

The second reason why people went along with lockdowns is that they did not have much choice. They were enforced by roaming police cars and CCTV cameras. There were roadblocks. Neighbourhood snitches peered out of their windows. Drones flew over the Peak District to “shame” ramblers. There was nothing voluntary about them, and it is safe to assume that the “behaviour change” Lansley has in mind to tackle obesity will not be voluntary either. 

The lockdowns of 2020-21 divide opinion and probably always will. A minority still thinks they were not long and hard enough while another minority thinks they should never have been introduced at all. Whatever you think of them, the fact that behavioural scientists were surprised that people outside Downing Street complied with the most heavy-handed and economically destructive public health intervention of the century should not be taken as a green light for politicians to see what else they can get away with.

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