Fire services in England had to help police and ambulance crews move people living with obesity once every four hours in what health organisations called a failure by government to fight the condition.
Figures published by the Home Office show firefighters were called 2,319 times to help police or ambulance services with “bariatric assistance” – coming to the aid of people who are otherwise unable to leave their homes due to serious obesity. This marks an 11% rise on the previous year and a 58% increase on 2020.
Separate data appears to show the increasing complexity of bariatric rescues, with more personnel and equipment required for such procedures last year. The data shows that one in eight incidents required more than four vehicles in attendance in the past two years, compared with just 8% of this type of callout in 2019-20 and 6% in 2018-19.
The rise in cases has been linked to increasing levels of obesity, which is heavily concentrated in the poorest areas of the country and is increasingly common among children.
In 2021, 26% of adults in England were obese, according to a 2021 health survey, up from 15% in 1993.
The figures show large rises in obesity among some younger age cohorts: close to a quarter (24%) of those aged between 25 and 34 were obese in 2021, up from 19% a decade earlier and 11% in the first year the survey was conducted in 1993. In the 35 to 44 age group, 27% were obese in 2022, up from 23% in 2011 and 16% in 1993.
Separate Home Office figures for the 2021-22 financial year show that Cumbria fire and rescue service was particularly affected, with 13 bariatric rescues for every 100,000 people living there. Cumbria was followed by Surrey (10.1 per 100,000 residents), Kent (9.8) and Leicestershire (9.5).
Katharine Jenner, the director of the Obesity Health Alliance, a group of more than 50 health organisations, said: “It is the government, not those living with excess weight, that is forcing public services, like fire and rescue, to pay for its years of failure to prevent diet-related ill health.
“Obesity is a chronic, relapsing condition with many causes. It is essential that we tackle the root causes, such as the flood of unhealthy food and drink that is constantly marketed and promoted to us. These figures cover a period during which the UK government had a strategy that could have helped prevent the continued rise in obesity yet failed to enact it.
“Now we are seeing a deeply concerning rise in obesity rates in people at younger and younger ages with devastating consequences for physical and mental health.
“Government must step in and make sure the healthy choice is the easy choice for everyone.”
Fire services have been taking on a greater number of additional responsibilities over the last decade. More than half of non-false alarm incidents (51%) attended by fire services last year were for special services (193,000, compared with 183,000 fires). In 2011, special services made up 37% of non-false alarm incidents.
The chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, Mark Hardingham, said: “The fire and rescue service has a primary role responding to fires but we are also a rescue service. Rescues come in many forms and firefighters are increasingly working with blue light partners in police and ambulance to provide support where that benefits people who need our help.
“Firefighters are extremely professional, capable and well equipped – the range of ‘rescue’ incidents they attend is significant including supporting ambulance colleagues with medical incidents, moving patients and providing emergency access to premises to help those unwell and inside, alongside responding to road traffic collisions, flooding and water rescues, animal rescues, terrorist incidents and other similar emergencies.”