Dolly Theis is a policy consultant and researcher, focused on how governments make policy, including what and who is most influential, and the conditions that most likely lead to policy change. Her interests span a number of policy areas including planetary and population health and issues related to social justice.
In March 2021, the Government announced £100 million funding for weight management services to “help those living with obesity to lose weight.” One year later, and the Government has decided to end that funding.
Welcome to what I refer to as the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ of government policymaking. Moments of rapid progress too often followed by decisions that feel like numerous steps backwards or, worse, like government is starting all over again. In 2018, as part of my PhD, I made a Snakes and Ladders poster to depict my case study of government obesity policymaking. I thought it was a visually fun way to show the ups and downs of policymaking.
However, since making it, I have found it scary how many more snake moments there are in government compared to ladder moments.
Good food must be both affordable and easily accessible:
This latest decision by the Government also follows a couple of months where public health campaigners have been battling to save another obesity-related policy from being scrapped (again, one that was only introduced by the Government last year). That policy tackles the bombardment of unhealthy food promotions by price (e.g., Buy-One-Get-One-Free) and by location (e.g., the familiar walls of confectionary by the checkout – a nightmare for most parents to navigate with children).
It strictly targets unhealthy foods such as crisps and confectionary, rather than all food. This is particularly important to note given the cost-of-living crisis in which people, particularly those on the lowest incomes, critically need good food to be both affordable and easily accessible. The Government has considered scrapping the policy largely because some MPs and officials think that unhealthy food promotions save people money.
This is not the case.
Research shows that rather than saving people money, promotions on unhealthy food and drink encourage people to spend 22% more than they intended and to consume more unhealthy food in shorter periods of time, e.g., buying two packets of biscuits or crisps and consuming them both in a week rather than over a longer period of time.
This policy would not be harmful to the cost-of-living. It would, in fact, benefit people financially and help improve people’s health too.
Misinformed and wasteful:
Not only do these short term and often misinformed decisions by government to scrap vital policies designed to help people enjoy a healthier life prevent government from successfully tackling issues such as poor health and the cost of living, but they are also extremely wasteful.
Government funding such as the £100 million for weight management services is only worth it if it is invested long-term and results in meaningful, positive improvements.
Spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money only to scrap that investment means the Government is essentially spending money pointlessly and frivolously. For a Conservative Government full of people who I imagine want to be considered financially responsible, this is an irresponsible way to spend government money.
The Government is wasting time and resource by threatening to repeal promotions legislation passed last year. Such a process is incredibly complex.
It appears to show a concerning lack of understanding by key politicians and policymakers about how complex repealing legislation would be. It also appears to show a concerning lack of embarrassment by the Government at being seen to u-turn on its own decisions so frequently.
Ultimately, these decisions do not appear to be ones motivated by a government wanting to solve problems. They appear to be decisions made by a government motivated by short-term, quick-fix “wins”. However, these decisions are not wins.
In 2014/15, the NHS spent £6.1 billion (yes, billion) on health problems related to obesity and excess weight, which is expected to rise to £9.7 billion per year by 2015, and the cost of obesity to wider society is estimated to be £27 million. The Government’s decision to stop its weight management service funding now does nothing to reduce the crippling amount it spends treating preventable diseases and other consequences of Britain’s poor diet.
In terms of population health and government spending, this decision is irresponsible. It is also politically poor judged and based on a flawed, misinformed rationale. At a time when we face so many problems from the cost-of-living and a suffering economy to poor health and colossal NHS expenditure, we need high-quality, long-term government decision-making more than ever. This decision by the Government is the antithesis of that and it must be called out.