Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer says the government made "the right decision" to tighten restrictions in parts of northern England
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) July 31, 2020
Two weeks ago, I updated you from this podium on the progress we had made as a country against coronavirus.
And in many ways that progress continues.
The number of patients admitted to hospitals is still falling, and now stands at just over 100 each day.
In April there were more than 3,000 coronavirus patients in mechanical ventilation beds, but now the latest figure is 87.
The number of deaths continues to fall. That is obviously encouraging.
But I have also consistently warned that this virus could come back and that we would not hesitate to take swift and decisive action as required.
I am afraid that in parts of Asia and Latin America the virus is now gathering pace. And our European friends are also struggling to keep the virus under control.
As we see these rises around the world, we cannot fool ourselves that we are exempt. We must be willing to react to the first signs of trouble.
Today, the weekly survey by the Office for National Statistics reports that the prevalence of the virus in the community in England is likely to be rising for the first time since May.
Around 1 in 1,500 now have the virus, compared to 1 in 1,800 on 15 July and 1 in 2,000 on 2 July. The ONS also estimate there are now 4,900 new infections every day, up from around 3,000 per day on 14 July and 2,000 per day at the end of June.
We can’t afford to ignore this evidence.
It’s vital to stress that we are in a far better position to keep the virus under control now than we were at the start of the pandemic – because we know so much more about the virus and have so many more tools at our disposal to deal with it.
Our testing capacity has increased 100-fold.
We have a contact tracing system up and running which has led to over 184,000 people isolating who may otherwise have spread the virus and is capable of tracing thousands of contacts every day.
We have secured supplies of billions of items of PPE to withstand new demands on hospitals and care homes.
And of course we have new treatments, like dexamethasone and remdesivir, to shorten recovery times and reduce mortality rates.
But as I say, we cannot be complacent. I cannot – I won’t stand by and allow the virus to cause more pain and heartache in this country.
Last night the Health Secretary announced new restrictions on household contact in the North West – specifically Greater Manchester, and parts of East Lancashire and West Yorkshire.
These are targeted measures on social contact between households, which the data tells us is driving the current increase in cases. Businesses and workplaces should continue as before in those areas.
I know how it is hard to have restrictions like this imposed on seeing your family and your friends. But we have to act rapidly in order to protect those we love.
And we know this sort of intervention works – measures taken in Leicester and Luton have suppressed the virus, allowing us to relax measures.
Even as we act locally, it is also my responsibility to look again at the measures we have in place nationally in light of the data we are seeing about incidence.
At every point I have said our plan to reopen society and the economy is conditional – that it relies on continued progress against the virus, and that we would not hesitate to put on the brakes if required.
With those numbers creeping up, our assessment is that we should now squeeze that brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control.
On Saturday 1 August, you’ll remember, we had hoped to reopen in England a number of higher risk settings that had remained closed. Today, I am afraid we are postponing these changes for at least a fortnight.
That means that, until 15 August at the earliest:
I know that the steps we are taking will be a heavy blow to many people – to everyone whose wedding plans have been disrupted, or who now cannot celebrate Eid in the way they would wish, I am really, really sorry about that. But we simply cannot take the risk.
We will of course study the data carefully and move forward with our intention to open up as soon as we possibly can.
Two weeks ago, I also said that from tomorrow the government would give employers more discretion over how employees can work safely – whether by continuing to work from home or attending a Covid Secure workplace. We know that employers have gone to huge lengths to make workplaces safe, so that guidance remains unchanged.
We also said we would pause shielding nationally from 1 August – based on clinical advice, that national pause will proceed as planned, and our medical experts will be explaining more about that decision later and about shielding later today.
Most people in this country are following the rules and doing their bit to control the virus. But we must keep our discipline, we must be focused and we cannot be complacent.
I have asked the Home Secretary to work with the police and others to ensure the rules which are already in place are properly enforced.
That means local authorities acting to close down premises and cancel events which are not following Covid Secure guidance.
And it means a greater police presence to ensure face coverings are being worn where this is required by law.
We will also extend the requirement to wear a face covering to other indoor settings where you are likely to come into contact with people you do not normally meet, such as museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship.
We now recommend face coverings are worn in these settings, and this will become enforceable in law from 8 August.
At this stage, we are not changing the rules on social contact nationally. I don’t want to tell people to spend less time with their friends. But unless people follow the rules and behave safely, we may need to go further.
Two weeks ago, I said we would hope for the best but plan for the worst.
And of course we continue to hope for the best. The way to get there and to achieve that optimum outcome is if we all follow the rules, wash our hands, cover our faces, keep our distance – and get a test if we have symptoms, so that NHS Test and Trace can keep the virus under control.
This is how we will avoid a return to full national lockdown.
We’ve made huge progress together.
I know we are going succeed and I know we are going to beat this – if each and every one of us plays our part.”
Last night I had to announce local action to tackle a spread in #coronavirus.
We take this step with a heavy heart, but it is so important that people follow the social distancing rules so that we can control the virus & save lives.https://t.co/uAWxc09o7q pic.twitter.com/UtGoCEVTuo
— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) July 31, 2020
Kanwal Gill is founder and Chairman, and Patrick O’Conner a Director, of the Conservative Diversity Project.
This week, the Government announced the membership of its Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED). This was an important step in the process of shining a light on inequality in the UK.
The Commission will focus on areas including poverty, education, employment, health, and the criminal justice system.
It is timely that the Government is seeking to shed a light on ethnic disparities in our country. The expert membership for the CRED means they will make evidence-based recommendations to change lives for the better, and will be crucial in informing and improving the national conversation on race.
As Conservatives, notions of aspiration, opportunity and freedom are often discussed in the political arena. These are values which we inherently believe in. We as a Party understand that your success in life should not be defined by who you love, the colour of your skin, your gender, or whether you have a disability or not.
Yet, for too many people in this country, this is not their reality. When Theresa May first stood on the steps of Downing Street in July 2016 as Prime Minister, she recognised this. The burning injustices she acknowledged remain today. We have seen it in the disproportionate impact that COVID has had on BAME communities.
One of the ways in which we ensure that the challenges facing ethnic minorities and diverse communities in this country is through the formation of a politics that is truly accessible for all.
The Conservative Party has already done much to do this. The only two female Prime Ministers which this country has had have been Conservatives. Three members of the current Cabinet are from ethnic minority backgrounds, holding two of the great offices of state. We have had the first British Asian to hold the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer.
These are undoubtedly indicative of the progress we have seen in regards to diversity and inclusion – but we can do so much more. Only six percent of Conservative MPs are BAME, and less than one per cent have a visible disability. Moreover, the House of Commons contains just 65 MPs from non-White ethnic backgrounds. This is the highest number in its history, but if the House truly reflected the ethnic make-up of the population, there would be around 90.
We as a party should be championing diversity. We should be encouraging more diverse initiatives. We must constantly be asking ourselves: who is not in the room? The emphasis and value that is now placed on diversity and inclusion did not come quickly or easily. It is now our responsibility to ensure that these values are practised and upheld.
Labour have for too long believed that they have a monopoly on compassion and diversity. It’s time we tackled this head on. To say with confidence that this Conservative Party has, and will continue to, stand up for our diverse communities, to champion their voices, and welcome them.
Our Party is at its best when it is a broad church, not only on the political spectrum but when we have voices from all walks of life. As a party we should reach out and embrace the rich tapestry which is the diversity within our society. To champion the diverse voices around us, learn from their experiences and grow together.
It will signal to people of different genders, from the LGBTQ community, BAME communities, or the disabled that this party is here for them, that it welcomes them, and will champion them.
The challenges we have faced as a country and a global community over the course of the last twenty years has done much to change the face of our politics. The next twenty will undoubtedly change our society. Our party should be at the vanguard of these changes; embracing further diverse representation and tackling the issues which face our communities in this country, and abroad.
Our party has always stood up in the face of adversity, and led our country to new beginnings. As we re-emerge from COVID, and recalibrate our country for the future, let diversity and inclusion be the new frontier of progress. If we can do this, we can realise the vision of a country which works for everyone, built on the values of compassionate conservatism, with freedom and opportunity for all.
There is a clear appetite for change. The question now is how we foster greater diversity and inclusion in our party, and how can we translate this into greater representation at both local, and national levels? It will require a bottom-up approach, and the Conservative Diversity Project has been founded with this in mind.
The CDP will seek to understand the issues which are affecting our diverse members. By sharing the experiences and knowledge of diverse candidates who have stood before, we aim to break the barriers to such candidates standing for election. This is our attempt at building politics that is truly accessible for all.
“Lockdown restrictions were tightened last night for four million people across large parts of northern England after a rise in the number of coronavirus cases. The government announced that people from different households would be barred from meeting indoors in Greater Manchester, east Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire. The move comes after a rise in cases in northern England, which ministers believe has been caused by people failing to observe social-distancing rules. The restrictions apply to all indoor gatherings, including pubs and restaurants, with immediate effect. However there was confusion about whether people could still meet indoors within their support bubbles.” – The Times
“Ruth Davidson is poised to take centre stage for the Scottish Conservatives again after Jackson Carlaw was forced out as party leader. Less than six months since he took charge Mr Carlaw, 61, said in a statement that he had reached the “simple if painful conclusion” that he was not the best person to guide the Tories through the coronavirus crisis and into the Holyrood election next May. It is understood that he was pressured to quit by senior figures in the Scottish party who are backing Douglas Ross, 37, the former Scotland Office minister, to be his replacement. Mr Ross left the government in May over Dominic Cummings’s 260-mile drive to Durham during the lockdown.” – The Times
“Scotland’s First Minister repeatedly claimed earlier this month that the prevalence of the virus was “five times” higher in England, and opponents said she had deployed the figure “to suggest her policy was working better than elsewhere in the UK”. She also used the statistic to justify her controversial refusal to rule out imposing quarantine on visitors crossing the border into Scotland and taking a different approach to Boris Johnson on air bridges. But in an intervention described by her critics as “damning”, Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation, said that the “uncaveated” comparison should never have been made as it was not backed up by sound data.” – Daily Telegraph
“Matt Hancock has hailed a new era of “Zoom medicine” in which patients consult their doctor by video-link or phone rather than face to face. The health secretary said there must be “a compelling reason” to see a doctor in person as he called for the NHS to learn lessons from the pandemic. In a speech to the Royal College of Physicians yesterday Mr Hancock said the health service must keep some of the operational changes that were introduced to cope with the pandemic. There must be a drive for “bureaucracy-busting” in the NHS, he said. Ministers believe that remote consultations will lead to a better service for those who need face-to-face care by freeing up doctors’ time.” – The Times
“Boris Johnson is understood to be furious after he was blocked from giving peerages to some of the Conservative Party’s financial backers, and is threatening to reform the House of Lords in retaliation. The Prime Minister is said to be “very frustrated, angry and upset” after a Lords watchdog refused to sign off peerages for some of his business supporters this summer. Instead, the list – which has been ready to publish for a number of days – will largely consist of political backers, with a second list of financial supporters, including businessmen Johnny Leavesley and Peter Cruddas, due to be published in the autumn. The House of Lords Appointments Commission is said to have raised objections after the Lords Speaker, Lord Fowler, expressed concerns about the size of the Second Chamber, which is set to surge above 800 after the appointments.” – Daily Telegraph
“Boris Johnson hailed the highest increase in police officer numbers in almost two decades after figures revealed more than 4,000 have already been recruited this year. Police forces have signed up almost a quarter of the 20,000 the PM promised to deliver in his flagship election pledge. Some 4,336 officers were hired in the first eight months of the Government’s recruitment drive from a whopping 89,950 applications to join the police. It takes the overall headcount of officers in England and Wales to 133,131, according to Home Office figures released yesterday.” – The Sun
“The Conservative Party is facing serious questions over its handling of allegations against Charlie Elphicke after his conviction yesterday for three sex attacks. The then MP for Dover had the party whip suspended – meaning he was effectively kicked out of the party – in November 2017 following claims of sexual assault, almost a year after he was first reported to his party. But Elphicke controversially had the whip restored in December 2018, ahead of a crucial confidence vote in the then Prime Minister Theresa May, while he was being investigated by police. Mrs May was facing what was expected to be a knife-edge vote tabled by hardline Brexit Conservatives angry at her withdrawal policy. The move to bring him back into the fold during Mrs May’s tenure has been described as ‘appalling’ by Anna Soubry, who was a Tory MP at the time.” – Daily Mail
“No one in their right mind, and certainly no one at the top of their game, would apply for this job given the conditions they would have to operate under. It is the ultimate poisoned chalice – and I say that as someone who’s being quoted as one of the favourites to land it. If you’re of a betting persuasion I’d advise you to save your money. The advantage of being 58 years old is that I have enough self-knowledge to know that I’d both hate it and, perhaps more importantly, be useless at it. So why is No 10 breaking decades of parliamentary lobby tradition and insisting on these briefings being on the record? Simples. It fits into their narrative of going over the heads of political journalists and straight into people’s living rooms.” – Daily Telegraph
“China has warned the UK not to allow “cold war warriors” to “kidnap” cordial relations between Beijing and Britain, firing a new salvo in the ongoing diplomatic row between the two countries. Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador in London, said disagreements over Beijing’s imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong, as well as the UK’s ban on using Huawei in its 5G mobile networks, had “seriously poisoned the atmosphere” in Sino-British relations. “China and the UK should have enough wisdom and capability to manage and deal with these differences, rather than allowing anti-China forces and cold war warriors to kidnap China-UK relations,” he told reporters on Thursday, urging Britain to exercise its independence and avoid being coerced by the US into taking a “hostile” stance against Beijing.” – FT
“The Labour Party is the latest in a number of organisation to have their data breached following a cyber-attack on cloud computing provider Blackbaud. Hackers are believed to have accessed information about thousands of party donors over a period of several years. The Party are understood to have been first informed of the breach on July 16 and will be informing all of those impacted by the attack later this week. Inside sources told ITV News they believe personal and confidential information about donors, including analysis that was run by the party about their personal views, is likely to have been accessed. They also said that all donors, including those who donated less than £7,500 and therefore did not have to declare their donation to the Electoral Commission, are likely to have had their data breached.” – Daily Express
Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.
Last week, I awarded my end of term marks for half the Cabinet. Here are my marks for the second half…
Robert Buckland – Secretary of State for Justice
A calming voice on the media, Buckland comes over as the voice of reason in a world often dominated by unreason. One of the few former Remainers left in government, he has been totally loyal to the Prime Minister and embarked on an important programme of reform in the justice and prison systems.
Liz Truss – Secretary of State for International Trade
A survivor, Truss was tipped to be sacked after the election, but she kept her job…and is now tipped for the sack again. If she negotiates a host of free trade agreements before the end of the year, it would render her unsackable. Japan and New Zealand look to be the first ones, which could be announced in the autumn.
Therese Coffey – Secretary of State for Work & Pensions
A surprise appointment when Amber Rudd resigned, Coffey is a solid performer and simply got on with the job of trying to ensure the benefits system meets the demands of the Covid crisis. She sorted the initial creaks in the Universal Credit system, where people couldn’t access the website or phone lines and neutered it as an issue. Number Ten are said to be unhappy with one or two comments in interviews but she lives to fight another day.
George Eustice – Secretary of State for DEFRA
George Eustice’s great advantage is that he is actually a farmer himself and, in this job, that helps. He chaired quite a few of the Covid press conferences without either putting a foot wrong or saying anything very meaningful. One of the greyer figures in cabinet he needs to up his charisma factor a tad if he is to be able to sell a post Brexit message of optimism for the farming and food sectors.
Robert Jenrick – Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government
Given the two big scandals he’s faced over the last few months, no-one could accuse the Cabinet’s youngest member of lacking resilience. He’s knuckled down and got on with his job, although his effectiveness within Cabinet has to be questioned given what he’s gone through.
Alistair Jack – Secretary of State for Scotland
Largely anonymous to us south of the border, Jack has also failed to fill the charisma gap in Scottish politics left by Ruth Davidson. So has Jackson Carlaw – who has now resigned. Jack needs to be getting out there to sell a positive pro-union message, but seem to be finding it difficult to do so.
Simon Hart – Secretary of State for Wales
Tiggerish and a total enthusiast for politics, Hart has been busy selling the Conservative message in Wales, in a way his Scottish counterparts find more difficult, possibly because of the way the Scottish media works.
Oliver Dowden – Secretary of State for Digital. Culture, Media & Sport
After an awkward start in the job, Dowden, commonly considered one of the cleverest people in politics, has come into his own in recent weeks. His statement on Huawei in the House was a master lesson in how to deliver a difficult message and answer questions from MPs fluently and convincingly.
Baroness Evans – Leader of the House of Lords
A warm and empathetic character, Natalie Evans is a much unde-rused asset by the government. She doesn’t do enough media, and I say that because she’s good at it and does ‘human’ very well. A popular figure in the Lords she has kept their Lordships onside during some hairy moment.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan – Secretary of State for International Development
Still a Secretary of State despite her department being abolished. Since her appointment at the election, she hasn’t had much of a public profile, but has hopefully brought some renewed rigour to a department that sorely needed it. The question is: Will the Prime Minister deliver on his promise to find a new cabinet job for her when her department is subsumed into the Foreign Office in September?
– – –
And now to the ministers attending Cabinet. By the way, it is a travesty that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Leader of the House aren’t full members of the Cabinet. There was a time when Leader of the House was considered one of the top five jobs in Cabinet.
Steve Barclay – Chief Secretary to the Treasury
If controlling spending was the criteria to judge a Chief Secretary by, Steve Barclay would rate a Z, but as we all know, it’s not his fault. He could have been very hacked off about his apparent demotion from Brexit Secretary, but he’s got on with the job, and used his previous experience of being a Treasury Minister to good effect. He does a good job in media interviews, albeit possibly a little bit too much on message. He’s got a good sense of humour and should use it more.
Jacob Rees-Mogg – Leader of the House of Commons
Seems to have been neutered since his election campaign gaffe. He used to be ubiquitous in the media but has now completely disappeared from view and is only ever seen speaking publicly on the floor of the House of Commons. One of the few characters in the cabinet; for Number Ten, he seems to have become rather too much of a character.
Suella Braverman – Attorney General
Has to try harder than her predecessors to gain the respect of the legal profession. There’s a bit of misogyny here, and has had to contend with the fact that there were better qualified candidates for this hugely important job. She’s made a quiet start, but possibly got involved in party politics a tad too much, given the independent nature of the role.
Mark Spencer – Chief Whip
A popular figure with many on the government benches, he’s come under fire over several controversial decisions, not least to withdraw the whip from Julian Lewis, while allowing the likes of Rob Roberts in Delyn to keep it. The Lewis affair was completely mishandled, although the jury is out on how much it was down to Spencer or how much the key decisions were taken in Number Ten.
Dr Chandra Kanneganti is the Chair of North Staffordshire’s GP Federation, and is a Stoke-on-Trent City Councillor.
It’s been almost six months since we have been dealing with Covid-19 pandemic. With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that we could have handled the health crisis better.
We should have imposed the lockdown much earlier, and made sure we had enough PPE to support and protect our health care workers. We could have communicated better the precautionary measures that should be taken. As we move forward, it is critical that we evaluate our Covid-19 response. However, such assessments should be defined by empathy and humility.
I am a GP of 14 years’ experience. As medical professionals, we were never trained to handle a health crisis of this magnitude. Like military exercises during peacetime, the healthcare professionals never conducted nation-wide pandemic-response exercises during normal times. Much less, many health care professionals never even attended a single workshop on pandemic response during their careers.
This is not surprising, since we have never seen something like this in our country or for that matter, no country has ever anticipated a crisis of this magnitude. Our health care infrastructure was tested and stretched by this once in a generation health crisis. Our people and the health care professional community have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the combat against the deadly pandemic.
Over the past few months, my colleagues and I worked every weekday and many weekends in GP practices, in Covid Hot clinics and extended access clinics. Many of us had at least 40-50 contacts of patients every day as a GP. During the breaks, which were always few, we would ruminate on the experiences narrated by the pandemic infected patients, and we would think of the safety of our loved ones at home.
But there was always extraordinarily little time to pause, and we had to get back to patients to work with clinical precision. In the midst of all this, I had to respond as Chair of British International Doctors Association (BIDA), and have led campaigns to scrap the NHS Immigration Health Surcharge for NHS workforce and for research with actions into disproportionate BAME Covid deaths and infections.
As a Conservative councillor, being there with the residents in my ward provided me with the opportunity of experiencing the remarkable ‘British resilience’ up and close. I had the privilege of working with the local church to start a voluntary group that helped in distributing medicines as well as food and shielding patients. It was heartwarming to see people supporting each other in the communities. A resident in my ward collected food and kept it outside every week for anyone to come and collect it.
I am sure there are many such good Samaritans in all communities. The lockdown also provided us with an opportunity to get potholes fixed in my ward by the council. Keeping up the local business in lockdown was also an important priority. I worked with the local authorities to deliver grants to businesses quickly and offered help to vulnerable people.
While there were PPE problems in some parts of the country, Stoke On Trent and North Staffordshire never faced such issues. This was largely due to innovative solutions created by people working collaboratively to supply PPE to general practices and care homes. Indeed, one of our administrators made visors for doctors working in Covid hot clinics. Further, these clinics to see Covid-suspected patients were opened in record time. We must note with some pride that Stoke had one such clinic, which was first of its kind in the entire country.
It is essential to recognise the achievements in our pandemic response, as it will help us to build a more robust health care infrastructure. Based on my work as a medical professional and as a councillor, let me share with you four important accomplishments.
First, in terms of infrastructure, hospitals have come up with Covid wards in record time with well-trained staff ready to serve. Our health care staff was trained quickly to shield vulnerable people and protect them. Today, there are thousands of intensive care beds, ventilators ready to be used along with Nightingale Hospitals across the country. There was no problem in accessing an intensive care bed and ventilators during the pandemic in our country. Thankfully, we will be spared the experience of Italy, where doctors, unfortunately, had to choose patient’s for ventilation and treat the patients in corridors.
Second, with regards to processes, general practices have been trying to digitalize for ages. Within one week of Covid pandemic, GPs across the country shifted to remote consultations, using various digital tools and continued to be there every day for their patients. Whenever there was a perception that the decision-making process was erring in its policies, there were quick corrective measures. For instance, all doctors’ associations have united in one voice to support BAME NHS Staff who are disproportionately affected. Eight GP colleagues and a Practice Manager in Greater Manchester prepared a risk assessment tool called SAAD tool in memory of a GP colleague who unfortunately died of Covid.
Our democratic political process and the elected, as well as accountable leadership, are important assets that we have. We are one of those few countries in the world that reported Covid deaths with complete openness and transparency.
In fact, the fatality rate may have been over-reported. I have seen a number of reports of deaths, particularly in care homes that were reported as Covid deaths, based on care staff and paramedics observations without any valid medical test results. Our democratic ethos and administrative frameworks do not permit us to push inconvenient numbers under the carpet.
Third, the response of our political leadership has been brilliant throughout the pandemic. Boris Johnson has been in ICU with high flow oxygen and has recovered. The Prime Minister gave us hope and showed considerable fortitude in crisis. Rishi Sunak was fantastic, and all my constituents have nothing but praise for him. Matt Hancock’s knowledge of the issues and his engagement with scientific and medical advisors showed a mature health secretary with a reassuring presence in the hour of crisis.
We are at the forefront of vaccine development with contracts of millions of vaccines in place, which is marked contrast to some of the developed economies which are yet to sign a contract with vaccine producers.
Fourth, there was a robust societal response. The British public has demonstrated remarkable generosity with the wonderful campaign of Sir Tom Moore. His campaign collected £32.79 million. I had the first-hand experience of the British kindness, as I was able to collect 17,000 in a short time through British International Doctors Association (BIDA), and distributed this to number of stranded doctors for their living expenses. Through various symbolic measures, such as clapping, our society has shown immense appreciation to all the key workers for the work that they are doing.
Despite these achievements, we must never forget the fatalities that we registered due to the pandemic. Death is not a statistical data point, and the loss of life of a mother, a father, a child, and a key worker can never be filled. There are concerns that there may be a second wave of coronavirus in the winter. There is no time to rest. We must continue to help each other and support the government. We are in this together – and will come out of this much stronger as a country.
Michelle Lowe contested Coventry South at the General Election last year and is the former Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing & Health at Sevenoaks District Council.
Governments for decades have planned to fight obesity and help the nation lose weight with schemes from the sugar tax to the Prime Ministers new plans to ban junk food advertising before 9pm, calorie counts on restaurant menus and GP’s prescribing Weight Watchers. These measures will probably make a difference, but in my experience as Deputy Leader of Sevenoaks District Council overseeing a health-in-all-policies approach to tackle obesity, this will only scratch the surface.
Most overweight people know the causes are poor diet and lack of exercise. They also know that eating better and exercising more will not only help them lose weight but will make them healthier – yet they do not take the difficult path to shed the extra pounds. To help them the government needs to understand the reasons why people choose unhealthy lifestyles and tackle the causes as well as the symptoms.
Obesity is linked to mental ill-health. People who feel anxious and/or depressed are unlikely to feel motivated to lose weight even if deep down they would like to. Tackling mental ill-health, something that may have been made worse by lockdown, will help to fight obesity. As well as prescribing Weight Watchers it might also be worth prescribing specialist, holistic weight loss schemes that also includes counselling, exercise and practical advice about debt.
You are probably wondering what debt has to do with obesity. In my experience quite a lot. Debt can lead to mental ill-health, which is linked to obesity, but it can also be linked to choices. People running out of electricity may choose not to cook a dinner and risk the kids not eating it – and buy them a filling bag of chips instead. People on lower incomes are less likely to buy fresh fruit and vegetables unless they live near a supermarket as they can’t risk it going rotten before it is eaten – buying crisps is a better bet.
Lifestyle also has a lot to do with obesity. People working fulltime do not always have time to cook healthy meals – it is often easier to throw unhealthy meals together quickly that the whole family will eat. There are some people that don’t know how to make a healthy meal as we have lost a lot of practical skills such as these over the generations. Busy people may not have time or the energy for extra exercise over and above what they do during the day, which means active travel needs to be incorporated into their daily routine. This is where local government comes in.
Local government is great at social prescribing. At its best, it understands its local area and population and can work with other agencies and charities to put together social prescribing programmes that meet local peoples’ needs. Mental health support and debt advice needs to be included in some weight loss programmes, in order to tackle the symptoms as well as the causes, and local councils should understand how this mix will work for their locality.
Councils can encourage people to take on allotments which will help them understand food better. It is a healthy outdoor activity in its own right – that can lead to healthier eating. This can be linked to educating children and their parents through schools and other outlets about how to make fast, healthy, cost-effective meals.
Councils are also the leisure authority and can link leisure centres, local tennis courts and other activities into social prescribing activities. They are also the planning authority and if they plan well can make sure walkways and cycling paths, secure places to lock bikes are included in new developments – and incorporated in existing ones where possible. They can also control the types of food outlets and vans through planning and licensing, and I also believe there is a bigger role for Environmental health in promoting healthier choices on menus when they inspect restaurants.
Taking a holistic approach to obesity and its causes with central government, local government, schools and the NHS working together to identify the causes and solutions in particular localities will yield longer term, sustainable results.