UK government may start offering financial rewards for becoming healthier

Denis Campbell Health policy editor
·3-min read

The government is expanding access to weight loss services and may start offering people financial rewards for maintaining a healthy lifestyle as part of the fight against obesity.

The Department of Health and Social Care is giving the NHS and local councils in England £70m to pay for up to 700,000 overweight or obese people to go on weight management courses, such as those provided by Weight Watchers or Slimming World, or work with a personal coach to help them shed unwanted pounds.

In addition, it has asked Sir Keith Mills, the creator of the Nectar and air miles reward schemes, to look into whether financial incentives would motivate people to eat better and exercise more.

He will look at whether initiatives such as the national step challenge in Singapore could work in England. Citizens are offered cash payments if they do a certain amount of physical activity, such as walking and running, and their progress is measured through wearable devices.

Related: New UK obesity plan fails to address underlying problems

Research published in the British Medical Journal last year found that 1.6 million Singaporeans – 26% of the population – had taken part in the government-backed scheme. In return for undertaking certain numbers of steps participants earned “health points” which they could exchange for rewards worth up to US$10.

Downing Street has recently been exploring the use of financial incentives to encourage people to lead healthier, more active lives and privately sought the views of leading health charities, such as the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK. About two-thirds of adult Britons are overweight or obese.

Boris Johnson, who has become determined to undertake meaningful action against Britain’s obesity crisis after his stint in hospital last year with Covid, endorsed the latest government action on bulging waistlines. He has slimmed down from a reported 108kg (17st) at the time he went into St Thomas’ hospital and is eating more healthily and taking regular exercise, aides say.

“Losing weight is hard, but making small changes can make a big difference. Being overweight increases the risk of becoming ill with Covid. If we all do our bit we can reduce our own health risks but also take pressure off the NHS,” the prime minister said.

Katharine Jenner, the campaign director of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, and an academic at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Whilst there are some effective weight management support services which are mainly accessed through the NHS, many are often limited, underfunded and have extensive waiting lists.

“It’s therefore imperative that multi-disciplinary supported weight loss services are adequately funded and signposted and their long-term effectiveness properly researched.”

Meanwhile, the UK could be flooded with cheap junk food as part of post-Brexit trade deals, threatening efforts to tackle obesity, a new report has warned.

Research undertaken by the London School of Economics for the food charity Sustain found that future trade partners may demand that unhealthy products firms in those countries produce are allowed to enter Britain.

Orla Delargy, Sustain’s head of public affairs, said that several nations with which the UK is negotiating trade deals – the US, Canada and Australia – “are home to multinational food corporations and so have a strategic interest in increasing their junk food sales.

“The government has already removed tariffs entirely on cane sugar and has made it easier and cheaper to import junk food like biscuits, pizza, waffles and confectionery.

“If the UK’s trade policy allows our markets to be swamped with cheap, un-nutritious food it could nudge low-income families towards unhealthy choices.”

The Department for International Trade was approached for comment.