“Work on that [strategy] continues,” said the Prime Minister’s official spokesman in response to a question from the Huffington Post UK. “I think it is more likely to be into the autumn than it is this week, but we will set out our approach in due course.”
The strategy, which is being closely monitored across Europe, was initially due to be published back in autumn 2015; it then drifted to December 2015, then January 2016 and then summer 2016.
Tackling obesity is “complicated” has been the government’s standard explanation for the setbacks.
Last month’s vote in favour of leaving the EU certainly hasn’t greased the wheels of new policies – it has triggered political turmoil, a change of leadership in the governing Conservative party and a leadership challenge in the opposition Labour party.
The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt – who referred to obesity as a “national emergency” and promised a “game-changing response” to the issue – did keep his job in the new prime Minister’s Cabinet reshuffle.
However, the Food & Drink Federation has already urged the government topostpone plans for a tax on sugary drinks until after Brexit. A new manifesto published this month reads:
“Government should delay the introduction of measures that will impose extra burdens – like the proposed […] Soft Drinks Levy – on business at a time of such economic fragility. Regulatory stability and predictability is essential.”
The tax was a surprise announcement in the March budget. Campaign group Action on Sugar this week admitted that in the current environment following Brexit the chances of the levy being made into law have been “significantly reduced”.
The tax was reportedly included in a draft of the strategy, leaked earlier this week to The Times newspaper. There was also a target to cut sugar by 20% by 2025. However, there were reportedly no specifics relating to marketing restrictions or targets on fat.
That the government is considering a lighter touch approach has angered campaigners. Action on Sugar called the proposals “pathetic”. “This will bankrupt the NHS unless something radical is done,” said the group’s chairman, Professor Graham MacGregor.
National Health Service chief executive Simon Stevens also urged the government to act swiftly. “We urgently need an activist child obesity strategy, with comprehensive action on food reformulation, promotions and advertising,” he wrote in a piece for the Daily Telegraph this week.
The signs are that the initial drafts won’t match those expectations, however, with Stevens’ letter pre-dating aleaked draft of the strategy. On the other hand, the heavy criticism of the plans could have forced the government into a rethink, forcing the strategy to be delayed.
Action on Sugar said the strategy is a “major opportunity” for the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, as well as for the food industry post Brexit.
Figures released this month by the Local Government Association show that councils spend over £120 million per year tackling obesity. The cost to the UK economy of obesity and overweight conditions could also increase from £8 billion now to £12 billion by 2030, it said.