The government’s under the sort of pressure that turns carbon into diamond. Now adding to the intensity of coronavirus and Cummings are renewed demands from health campaigners for a tax on junk food.
Last week, sister organisations Action on Sugar and Action on Salt offered an “evidence-based plan for the prime minister to provide support for those living with obesity, while improving health for all in the long term”.
Coming in the wake of the government’s review to analyse how factors such as obesity can affect Covid-19’s impact on health, the recommendations included the adoption of “fiscal measures to promote healthy food (with income ringfenced to subsidise treatments)”.
“With data showing that 78% of coronavirus infections and 62% of hospital deaths occur in overweight or obese individuals, the government has a moral duty to intervene,” said Action on Sugar chairman Graham MacGregor.
This was backed up by the Plant Based Health Professionals pressure group, which published an open letter signed by almost 200 doctors and nurses. It urged “NHS leaders and the government to pass bold post-Covid-19 legislation to allow for rapid, nationwide changes to the obesogenic and unsustainable food environment in which we currently live”.
At the top of the letter’s list of recommendations was “further taxation and cessation of subsidies for junk food/fast foods/soft drinks producers as well as industrial animal farming”.
The concept of a junk food tax is neither unusual nor new. But the latest calls for it are extremely relevant given both the extraordinary health crisis in which the world finds itself, and the war on obesity Boris Johnson has vowed to launch following his life-threatening brush with the virus.
The pandemic first led to consideration of health-centric measures – such as a 9pm watershed for junk food TV ads – being put on hold. It seems appropriate, then, that it’s now the source of the latest pressure on Downing Street.
However, the odds of ministers introducing a levy on high fat, sugar & salt products are very long indeed. Food and drink businesses are in the fight of the lives – their enemy being economic destruction. No wonder McDonald’s will reopen 924 branches across the UK this week (albeit as drive-throughs): the industry desperately needs a massive injection of cash.
And that’s a quandary for Johnson and his cohort. Covid-19 has underlined the dangers of obesity. But it’s also necessitated the revival of major fast food outlets.
Those same outlets will be go-to locations soon for many hard-up families as the inevitable recession hits and they seek out food they can afford.
Under the weight of austerity, and not to mention Brexit, the beleaguered government will almost certainly not add a meaningful fight against flab to its load. The food and drink industry itself, then, will have do the heavy lifting. And the strongest will be those that invest in healthier products and forge new sectors of wellbeing.
He joined the magazine in January 2016 as food & drink editor, having been at financial & legal publisher LexisNexis for eight years.
Follow Daniel on Twitter: @danielmcselwood