The government’s new health agency will do more harm than good with its interventionist policies

·3-min read
‘Sugar taxes would make the poor poorer, price them out of pleasure and have no impact whatsoever on the obesity crisis’  (Getty Images)
‘Sugar taxes would make the poor poorer, price them out of pleasure and have no impact whatsoever on the obesity crisis’ (Getty Images)

Public Health England has been axed. After eight long years, the trusted agency responsible for keeping us safe and healthy has been put to bed for good.

If you value personal freedoms and believe individuals should be allowed to make their own lifestyle choices, this is good news. Public Health England was nanny state central. It spent its entire lifespan pushing all manner of awful, ineffectual and actively harmful policies to police the way we live our lives.

Had it survived a little longer, Public Health England could have done most damage around the so-called obesity crisis. It continually lobbied for a plethora of pet policies designed to restrict our choices in the supermarket and online, and make our weekly shopping bills more expensive, without making us any healthier.

Sugar taxes, for example, would make the poor poorer, price them out of pleasure and have no impact whatsoever on the obesity crisis. A “junk food” advertising ban that would outlaw pictures of honey and yoghurt, hamstring entire industries and remove a grand total of 1.7 calories from kids’ diets per day (roughly half a Smartie), according to the government’s own analysis of the policy. But the fight for the right to be fat without the state aggressively intervening is not over yet.

Public Health England’s functions are to be split between two brand new agencies. Dr Jenny Harries, the former deputy chief medical officer, will lead the UK Health Security Agency (HSA). The HSA will take over the important jobs of preparing for future pandemics and responding to biochemical attacks.

But the second new body, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID), is already a cause for great concern. It has been given a sweeping remit to “tackle top risk factors for poor health” in order to address “health disparities across the nation”.

In other words, we are going to get more of the same. The OHID will continue PHE’s legacy of advocating horrendous state intervention in people’s everyday lives in the name of public health.

The OHID is already complaining that “40 per cent of healthcare provision in the UK is being used to manage preventable conditions”, the implication being that if you’re fat, you have less of a right to use the NHS than everyone else. As an overweight person, I find it deeply insulting to be told that my weight is an undue burden on the NHS, which I pay into just like everyone else.

And perhaps worst of all, the OHID looks set to use the veneer of “tackling inequality” to push its agenda.

Let’s be clear: making poor people less fat does nothing to tackle inequality. And even if it did, these kinds of interventionist policies would not be the way to go – they do not make anyone healthier, but they do make our lives more difficult. They won’t stop with obesity.

The global nannies at the World Health Organisation (WHO) are pushing policies that could cost lives, like cracking down on reduced-risk nicotine products, which help people quit smoking. Its purist worldview even teaches that women of childbearing age shouldn’t consume any alcohol. Anything to make people’s lives miserable, starved of even the slightest indulgence, in fear of a far-off health risk.

The OHID is signed up to the WHO playbook. It looks set to recommend its policies to the government. Myopic public health lobbyists – formerly of PHE and now of the OHID and the WHO – are pushing tired, 20th century solutions in a doomed attempt to confront 21st century problems.

Taxes and bans that try to centralise the nation’s everyday lifestyle choices in Whitehall can never work. The OHID will have to learn that.

Jason Reed is a political and public health commentator and the UK Lead at Young Voices

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