LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday unveiled his plans to get Britain to slim down to beat the coronavirus — but he hasn’t always been a champion of the junk food crackdown.
Last year, before becoming prime minister, Johnson rubbished Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s plan for a tax on sugary milkshakes as part of “the continuing creep of the nanny state,” designed to “clobber those who can least afford it.” And in 2007, Johnson wrote over 1,000 furious words in a Daily Telegraph column on why putting health warnings on wine bottles would be a “loony” idea of “infantilising elf and safety madness,” urging readers to “fight, fight, fight” against the “insulting, ugly and otiose labels” being proposed by the Labour government.
Thirteen years later, Johnson is prime minister, he’s banning cut-price supermarket deals on unhealthy foods, and the “elf and safety labels” soon to be plastered across his favorite £125 bottle of Tignanello will be his own. Funny how things work out.
As part of his new obesity strategy, triggered by the pandemic, Johnson will also ban junk food adverts on TV before 9 p.m. and consult on whether a complete ban online is also required. Aside from banning shops from offering “buy one, get one free” deals on unhealthy foods, No. 10 will also order them to put healthier products in prominent locations near checkouts. Large pub and restaurant chains will be forced to put calorie counts on menus, and a consultation launched into whether alcoholic drinks should also carry calorie labels. Plus, the U.K.’s National Health Service will be expanded to focus on weight loss, with doctors told to warn patients when they are overweight and prescribe exercise.
It all follows Johnson’s personal brush with death from COVID-19, which he has in part put down to his own heavy build.
Heard it all before?
Very few of these ideas are actually new, and close observers of British politics over recent years will know Whitehall is strewn with the corpses of past obesity strategies proposed by one arm of government and then watered down by another.
Public Health England first drew up a report in 2015 which called for, yep, new restrictions on supermarket promotions and on the advertising of unhealthy foods, as well as a tax on sugar. But then-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was accused of sitting on the report for months … before then-Prime Minister David Cameron dismissed its main ideas without even reading it.
Hunt then suddenly announced in 2016 that childhood obesity was a “national emergency” and started drawing up a tough new national strategy to address the crisis. An early draft of his plan called for, yep, new restrictions on supermarket promotions and on the advertising of unhealthy foods, plus calorie counts on restaurant menus and rules about putting healthier products in prominent locations near checkouts. And, sure enough, they were all taken out of the final strategy by then-PM Theresa May.
Less than three years later, May underwent her own Damascene conversion, rushing out a report just prior to her departure from Downing Street which promised new policies on, yep, junk food promotions and adverts, plus calorie counts on restaurant menus. But her Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who had been working on the policies for months, tried to stop the report from being released at all, for fear of upsetting his soon-to-be new boss — Boris Johnson. And now, a year later, most of it is finally coming to pass, enacted by Hancock and Johnson in tandem.
Note from the Miliverse
For the sake of completeness, we should also note that the decision to ban junk food ads before 9 p.m. can be chalked up as yet another victory for former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s weirdly influential 2015 election manifesto, which the Tories dismissed as “thin to the point of invisibility” when it was launched, but have spent the subsequent years steadily putting into action.
Junk food ads thus take their place alongside (deep breath) the energy price cap (done) … the national infrastructure commission (done) … tougher rules on speaking English in the public sector (done) … more devolution (done) … more free childcare (done) … higher minimum wage (done) … higher taxes on empty homes (done) … the ban on unfair letting fees (done) … the ban on wild animals in circuses (done) … gender pay gap reporting (done) … the ban on legal highs (done) … the levy on payday lenders (done) … protection of tax credits (done, after Tory rebellion) … the end of the badger cull (on its way) … and, yes, the In/Out referendum on Europe (if more powers were ever transferred across).
It’s Ed Miliband’s world, and we’re all just living in it.
This story first appeared in Monday’s London Playbook.