Fast food, Picture: Marco Verch / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY 2.0, links at bottom of article Fast food, Picture: Marco Verch / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY 2.0, links at bottom of article

The Tories are scapegoating ordinary people for obesity to deflect the blame from a system which fails to protect people’s health, argues Caitlin Southern

The government announcement that we all need to lose weight in order to save the NHS from complications associated with the looming resurgence of Covid cases is a cheap and divisive tactic. It ignores the influence of inequality and poverty on the choices that many people are presented with, particularly when they lack the time, money and energy to regularly prepare healthy meals.

 The gig economy means that insecure workers are unable to plan, as they don’t know week to week whether they will have enough money coming in to pay for certain ingredients.  The very real possibility of a short-notice shift also means that anything other than a quick meal might necessitate turning down a shift or not eating at all.

Insecure work and unstable shift patterns mean that the time necessary to cook meals from scratch simply isn’t available for many people, so they have to fall back on pre-prepared food just to keep going rather than satisfying dietary needs.

 The lack of a stable working routine also leaves people drained of energy and turning to simple food at unpredictable hours, which can cause health complications as their bodies struggle to guess when the next meal is coming. Cheap, heavily processed food is easier to pick up and eat, particularly if you have short breaks – or none at all, depending on the relative scruples of your employer.

The feeling of powerlessness that this society often encourages means that sustained individual motivation to exercise is hard to come by as struggling to change ourselves seems futile in the face of advertising that promises quick fixes. Austerity has meant that affordable, structured exercise is no longer available for many people as local government cutbacks have tended to eliminate leisure facilities, leaving those on low incomes with very limited options.

The ‘eat out to help out’ scheme launched by chancellor Rishi Sunak also seems short sighted if the ultimate goal is to beat the obesity crisis facing the UK, but it isn’t aimed at helping poor people.  It’s meant to encourage the more affluent to get back out spending money despite the continuing pandemic.

There is no sensible, worked out plan to help people get access to affordable, healthy food that they have the facilities to prepare, or to subsidise the cost of the gas or electric they need to cook. Rather than pushing people to visit pubs and restaurants to support businesses, the government could be supporting farmers and businesses by subsidising the purchase of fresh food and helping the population to develop more beneficial eating patterns.

Blaming people for making choices that aren’t really choices is one of the Tory government’s tactics to distract from their abject failure to deal with the pandemic.  It is an attempt to pre-emptively deflect criticism of the next surge in cases as the underfunded and under-resourced NHS will struggle to keep pace with the rate of infection and death.

While being obese does make it more likely that people will have underlying health conditions that negatively impact their survival rates, this is a social problem, not an individual one. Obesity is not the result of lifestyle choices made freely but a result of choices made within the constraints of a society geared towards profit above all and must be addressed as such.

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