No 10 plans weight loss drive to ready UK for expected Covid-19 second wave

Peter Walker Political correspondent
Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

The government is poised to launch an emergency drive to slim down the nation and reduce the incidence of conditions such as type 2 diabetes before an expected second wave of coronavirus, the Guardian has learned.

Downing Street is planning what has been billed as a “war against obesity” after Boris Johnson needed intensive care treatment for Covid-19, which the prime minister reportedly blamed on his weight.

As well as longer-term proposals to reduce the incidence of obesity, government officials are having urgent discussions about how to persuade people to lose weight in the next few months, before an anticipated resurgence in coronavirus cases in the autumn.

The UK has experienced the highest death rate from coronavirus in Europe, and one potential factor may be high rates of obesity and associated lifestyle-linked conditions such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, which are strongly associated with worse Covid-19 outcomes.

In England, 64% of adults are classed as overweight or obese and 29% as obese as measured by BMI, among the highest levels in Europe.

One official involved in the emergency planning said the government was alarmed at the possible death toll from a second wave. A programme is expected imminently, possibly within 10 days, based on encouraging people to reduce their calorific intake and lose weight rapidly.

“There’s two paces to this,” the official said. “The first needs to be nutrition-focused, getting people’s BMIs down over the next three or four months, using what works. And then we can start thinking in the longer term. But for now it’s about getting people as ready for the next wave as we can.”

The programme is expected to involve existing NHS resources and dietary plans, as well as external organisation such as Weight Watchers. It could also involve dedicated apps, and other resources aimed at broader demographics.

The official said that while slimming organisations often had a good record, “what they tend not to be very good at is engaging the people who need it most, and that’s ethnic minority communities and men.”

Downing Street has been vague so far as to the specifics of how any obesity-targeting programme would work, although one idea under consideration is stopping supermarkets from placing chocolate and sweets as impulse purchases at the end of aisles.

The longer-term effort on obesity is expected to focus more widely and helping people to be more active. Experts stress that while cutting calories can bring rapid weight reduction, for this to last it must almost always be combined with a more physically active lifestyle.

“What we do know is those who are successful in sustaining weight loss increase their physical activity in addition to consuming a balanced, healthful diet,” said Dr Robert Ross, from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, one of the world’s leading researchers on excess weight.

Ross and other academics have warned against an overfocus on BMI as a measure of health, noting that research showing other measures such as waist size can be a more useful gauge.

Ross said government health programmes should focus not just on weight but also on the health gains that come from active living and healthy diets, irrespective of BMI. “There’s very few things that you can do in life that are associated with more benefits across a wide range of outcomes than doing those two things. So even if the bathroom scale isn’t cooperating the way you would like, give yourself a hug.”

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