Any Prime Minister waging a war against obesity, as it was announced yesterday that Boris Johnson plans to do so, must deal with his own relationship with food.
Five years ago, my hopes of getting David Cameron to agree to a sugar tax were almost derailed when the chief medical officer accused him of being fat.
She leaned over the table at a meeting I had organized, as head of the political unit on Downing Street, and waved her finger.
“You’re fat,” she told him, with an authoritarian spirit that made me want to order a double portion of fries.
Boris Johnson battled bulge and girlfriend Carrie Symonds allegedly dieted
He swallows, but succeeds – like Boris now – in making a joke. Months later, he agreed to collect a sugar tax on soft drinks.
At that time, we knew that the average teenager drank a lot of soft drinks a year, more than anywhere else in Europe.
We also knew that one in five children in the UK – especially the poorest – are obese after leaving primary school and that sugar is addictive to nicotine. The tax worked.
Three years after George Osborne’s 2016 budget announcement, sugar in purchased beverages fell 29%.
Many conservatives are worried about “the nanny state.” But these concerns have prevented successive governments from taking action to curb a disease, obesity, which reduces the chances of survival for vulnerable children and causes diseases that we all must pay to treat.
The challenge is now urgent because obesity makes people particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.
Personal trainer Matt Roberts and David Cameron take a morning run
Coronavirus patients under the age of 60 are twice as likely to need intensive care if they are obese and 3.6 times more likely to need it if they are morbidly obese.
Mr. Johnson’s near death experience has given him the zeal of a convert. As a freewheeling cyclist who enjoys the good life and distrusts bureaucracy, he can now convince people who dislike state intervention that this agenda is vital.
There is no quick fix: the Prime Minister will have to use as many levers as possible to improve our national diet and help more of us get exercise.
He has an excellent record on increasing the bicycle supply in London; he must now greatly increase the possibilities for this and other exercises across the country.
Every school should do the Daily Mile, a free and fun activity launched by a Scottish school principal who sees students running or jogging for 15 minutes a day.
General practitioners should prescribe dance, walking and even trampoline lessons.
Exercise is a “miracle cure” for many diseases, according to the Academy of Royal Colleges.
This does not mean running marathons or joining expensive gyms, but building more movement in daily life.
Fitbits and other technologies with daily “counts” can be very motivating – I would like the government to distribute some to vulnerable groups.
The plan also counts. Some programs really work and some people have lost enough weight to stop being type 2 diabetic.
Trials have shown that people are more likely to follow weight loss programs if general practitioners suggest it the right way and if they feel supported.
Johnson should also consider extending the sugar tax to other beverages and foods. With enough warning, taxes can persuade manufacturers to remove food waste without putting them at a disadvantage compared to their competitors.
The Prime Minister must make all of this a true national effort: being part of the NHS rescue as he faces the most serious crisis in its history.
Now his own story can make this message even more powerful.
Camilla Cavendish is the author of Extra Time: Ten Lessons for Living Longer Better and an FT Weekend columnist