The shape of things to come on obesity

Since details of a call between the Prime Minister and industry where a warning shot was fired over the issue of obesity, all the talk has been of it being “back on the agenda”.

While that is on one level correct, it lacks nuance. In particular, four points specifically relating to the policy area and three relating to the broader political context are worth businesses who have a stake in this issue being aware of.

#1 – It is less than clear that it ever really went away.

It is true that it became central to Theresa May’s otherwise threadbare domestic programme and that Boris Johnson then de-prioritised it. It is also true that it doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with his brand of liberalism and, even less so, that of his policy chief Munira Mirza.

But, as former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt observed at a Headland event in early March, that had been exactly the reaction of Theresa May on entering Number 10 and, to a degree, that of Cameron before her. It is not instinctively Conservative territory.

The point Hunt made was that as they spent more time in office and saw the evidence – principally the disproportionate impact on people from lower income backgrounds – they were persuaded to act. He predicted the same would happen to the current PM and looks to have been proven right, with COVID hastening the shift.

#2 – Now it is “back”, the same tendency to oversimplify and get over-excited appears to be happening the other way round.

So rumours are circulating that a major intervention in days is in the offing. That feels unlikely. While those around the PM will get that COVID has changed the game, that the PM has issued a direction on it and therefore that needs to be delivered, they are also, I gather, mindful that the lesson from previous iterations of this work is that if you go off half-cocked, it’ll end unsatisfactorily.

#3 – The PM will not have had time to engage properly on the issue yet so he won’t be fully aware of the tensions in the choices he will face.

At this stage, it is easy for him to believe that this can be about more exercise – at some point soon he will have to be confronted by the fact that more significant action involves politically contentious choices that sit uncomfortably with some of his broader beliefs and also that might add cost to consumers and small businesses at a difficult time.

That is absolutely not to say that action won’t happen – simply that there is a lot that still needs to come out in the wash.

#4 – It is not as simple as supporting or opposing the obesity agenda.

As Health Secretary under May, Matt Hancock developed thinking around a ‘third way’ based on the use of technology and data to target measures at the relatively small proportion of the population that was most vulnerable. Given where the PM and Mirza are coming from on this issue and the enthusiasm, it is very plausible that such thinking is now revisited.

#5 – We are now genuinely entering a period that will be very dynamic and fluid in policy making terms.

The scale and seriousness of COVID means that previously intractable issues will be addressed decisively – social care and planning are prime examples. And that will generally increase the threshold and appetite for taking big, bold policy decisions.

#6 – Balancing the point above, the financial impact on businesses and consumers will have a significant weighting in policy making over the remainder of the parliament.

We see that with environmental policy: there is lots of appetite for a “green recovery” but that is predicated on it making economic – as well as environmental – sense.

#7 – COVID has quickly eroded a portion of the political authority the PM derived from the December election result.

So he will have to be more discerning about what battles to pick with the Conservative parliamentary party – and an extreme version of an obesity programme would be such a battle.

Where that leaves us?

While the issue had never fully gone away, it has certainly returned to the fore. The PM’s statement of intent has sparked a bit of excitement. But there will be moderating voices and difficult considerations to be worked through before they get to a firm policy position.

The overall message to businesses who will need to respond to this is: you have time to get yourselves into the right position – but, equally, you’ve no time to lose.