fitbit phone exercise

A government scheme to incentivise people to eat healthier diets and do more exercise has been shelved as ministers rethink its viability in the midst of the cost of living crisis, The Grocer can reveal.

The so-called Better Health pilot was announced under then health secretary Matt Hancock, in March 2021, and later lauded by his successor Sajid Javid as an “excellent opportunity” to tackle the obesity crisis.

However, it has emerged the plans have gone the same way as other parts of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s obesity strategy, such as the proposed ban on junk food ads and a ban on multibuy promotions such as bogofs, which have also been delayed amid doubts they will ever materialise.

The programme was being led by the Nectar Card pioneer Sir Keith Mills. It was due to launch its first pilot in Wolverhampton earlier this year, with the government having promised to contribute up to £3m towards rewards.

Under the plan participants would wear Fitbit-style devices that can generate personalised health recommendations, such as increasing their step count, eating more fruit and vegetables, and reducing portion size.

They would then collect points for their healthy behaviours based on the government’s Eatwell Plate, which will unlock rewards that could include gym passes, clothes or supermarket food vouchers and other discounts for shops, cinema, or theme park tickets.

The government said it wanted to draw on best practice from around the world such as the national step challenge in Singapore, which encourages Singaporeans to do more physical activity as part of their daily lives with financial incentives.

Wolverhampton was chosen due to its large population size, with a third of residents classed as being physically inactive and a below average number of adults in the city eating their five-a-day.

The pilot was due to focus on engaging with groups from underserved communities and was seen as a key plan in Javid’s drawing up of a Health Inequalities White Paper, which has also been shelved under the new government.

A report to the government’s health advisors published earlier this month, seen by The Grocer, said: “Due to the recent and ongoing government changes the programme launch has been postponed.” It said work was still underway to try to establish a new launch date but that it was “subject to ministerial approval.”

Incentivising people to make better health choices has been seen to target risk groups. A trial launched with GPs in Oxford by Tesco in 2017 used data from Clubcard to monitor their food choices after medical interventions, but it has not been expanded.

However, some health campaigners have branded the trial a “gimmick”.

One source told The Grocer: “What we really want to see are government policies that will really help tackle the root causes of obesity, such as a ban on junk food ads, further taxation of products high in sugar and measures to help poorer families across the country have access to healthier food.”

Cardiologist and health campaigner Dr Aseem Malhotra previously told The Grocer he was asked to provide advice to Hancock – now a contestant on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! – about how to tackle obesity in the wake of the pandemic.

“I told him it was all about tackling the over-processed foods and unhealthy diets being encouraged by the food industry. But instead what they are doing is turning to one of Boris’s mates and coming up with a massive gimmick, which will do nothing whatsoever to tackle obesity.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: ”It is inaccurate to suggest that the Better Health Incentives pilot has been scrapped. We will outline plans for launching the programme in due course.”