Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.
Thanks to the Daily Mail we know that today is not only 15th May 2021 but Day 418 of Lockdown. On Monday, the government is granting us another small sliver of liberty, but irksome restrictions will continue.
The panicked and disproportionate response by the State to the Covid-19 is the ultimate decades-in-the-making triumph for the health and safety culture which characterises the country’s public sector.
The elderly in months of solitary confinement in care homes, masked school children in playground bubbles, funeral mourners ordered to separate, police officers ruling that a takeaway tea constitutes a picnic…It’s all too reminiscent of a callous and irrational mindset that denies a last consoling cigarette to Death Row inmates about to be executed.
As a captive audience under house arrest for months since March 2020, the British public has been bombarded by Government health warnings. The country’s health honchos have bustled into our homes via our screens. Graphs, charts, statistics, variants, R-rates, two metres, tiers…but not obesity.
Given the relentless nagging over the years by state-backed quango queens on every facet of our health, their comparative silence over the links between weight and the world’s latest coronavirus has been deafening.
This time last year as Covid raged, we kept on hearing about ‘underlying health conditions’ which seemed to be further imperilling younger victims of the virus. These mysterious afflictions were never spelt out. Last month, The Lancet published a paper exploring the link between weight and Covid-19. The study, Associations between Body-Mass Index and Covid-19 Severity in 6.9 million people in England (Min Gao et al) states ‘obesity is a major risk factor for adverse outcomes after infection with SARS-CoV-19’.
In the context of the Covid crisis, the country’s corpulence has usually been the, er, elephant in Number 10’s briefing room. When the virus struck him last year, Boris Johnson acknowledged that it was his sizeable girth which landed him in hospital. Today, still more Falstaff than lean and hungry Cassius, the Prime Minister could be the ideal figurehead to lead the national charge, or waddle, back to health.
An episode of Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge asked whether anyone would trade five years of their lives for the perfect body. This provoked horror among those who are on a permanent trigger to denounce fat-shaming.
Today, we are hearing much less about the plus-size body positivity. Ministers, MPs and health officials might want to duck a difficult subject that affects that majority of voters, but the virus has highlighted the deadly consequences of being overweight.
Long before the Covid-19 arrived, the country had a hefty problem. According to the NHS’s 2020 Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, the majority of the country – 63 per cent – were overweight; 28 per cent of adults were classified as obese, along with one fifth of Year Six children. In 2018/19, there were 11,117 hospital admissions in England ‘with a primary diagnosis of obesity’ and 876,000 admissions where obesity was a factor in diagnosis.
The Government spent £184 million on Covid-related comms last year, according to Campaign, the ad industry’s bible. All this expensive messaging bossing us to follow its guidance to ‘Stay Home’ has actually worsened the nation’s collective weight problem. In turn, this will worsen the impact of Covid and other illnesses for many sufferers. The best way to ‘Protect the NHS’ and to save lives, and improve the quality of life, is for us to get off the couch, into our trainers and out of our front doors. Almost five million are now on NHS waiting lists for treatment. ‘Patient, heal thyself’ is however unlikely to be a State-backed message.
Pre-vaccine, the most vulnerable to the coronavirus were the elderly. Unlike being old and frail, being overweight is a matter of personal responsibility and active choice. Or rather inactive choice, involving too little movement and too much sugar, including alcohol. Many would like to go down a few sizes but are simply not prepared for the joyless slog.
Few are like Adele, who was in the news last year not for another album release or Grammy but for losing seven stone, calling for the sort of iron self-discipline that most of us are too lazy to summon up. And anyone who simply blames poverty for excess poundage has clearly never set foot in the Cobham branch of Waitrose, Surrey’s mothership of middle-class affluence.
Right now, we have the worst of all worlds. The State continues to restrict personal freedom in a bid, it claims, to save life, while at the same time trying to avoid spelling out the risks to life caused by excess weight.
For the past year, we have collectively sacrificed our freedom, mental health, children’s education and livelihoods to protect the vulnerable from the impact of Covid-19. How far the State continues restricting our freedom of movement will be demonstrated all too vividly later in the month as football fans travel, or not, to Porto for the Champions League final. It is surely now time for those who deliberately choose to make themselves vulnerable to illness, including Covid-19, to start reflecting on their choices and their responsibilities to wider society.
Lockdown was, in part, the sacrifice of liberty to gluttony. Fat is no longer just a feminist issue, as Susie Orbach identified back in 1978, but one that all of us must confront. Without sugar coating.