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Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: ministers doing ‘next to nothing’ to tackle obesity

The celebrity chef and Green party supporter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has clashed with the UK health secretary, Victoria Atkins, over what he says is the government’s failure to tackle the obesity crisis.

Fearnley-Whittingstall challenged Atkins during a live discussion on BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, accusing ministers of doing “next to nothing” to tackle obesity in England.

The row comes after Rishi Sunak delayed some of the government’s key anti-obesity policies until October 2025, even as evidence mounts that the pandemic made childhood obesity rates in the UK far worse.

Fearnley-Whittingstall told the health secretary: “Treating obesity is the single biggest cost to the NHS … [There are] a raft of policies, of levers that you could be pulling to address the obesity crisis. You’re not pulling any of them. You’ve done next to nothing to help [the] ailing, struggling, sick citizens of the UK find healthier food.”

Atkins said the government was committed to tackling obesity, but as part of a wider scheme to prevent illness. “I will be, over the coming weeks, setting out a prevention strategy, which of course will include obesity,” she said. “But we make the mistake I think of silo-ing obesity by itself. We know that it can have many, many other conditions, including causing type two diabetes.”

Referring to the government’s plan to phase in a complete ban on smoking, the health secretary added: “The biggest public health intervention we can make – we are making – is creating the first smoke-free generation.”

Fearnley-Whittingstall said afterwards: “I didn’t hear any obesity strategy.”

The former prime minister Boris Johnson launched the government’s obesity strategy in 2020, shortly after he recovered from Covid-19, having blamed his own weight for the fact it nearly killed him. The strategy included banning junk food adverts before 9pm, banning online advertising for sweets and fast food and restricting multi-buy offers on unhealthy food.

Liz Truss launched a review into the proposals during her short period in Downing Street. Her successor, Sunak, has since postponed many of the key ideas, including the advertising bans and limits on special offers, until next year, saying he does not want to hurt shops during the cost of living crisis.

Meanwhile, reports suggest the pandemic has worsened obesity rates among children in particular, with unhealthy eating habits and a lack of exercise having become embedded into young people’s lifestyles.

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A study published in the journal PLOS One this year found obesity rates in England increased by 45% in four- to five-year-olds and by 21% in 10- to11-year-olds during the first year of lockdowns. Nearly one in four 10- to 11-year-olds in England are obese, according to the report.

Tackled specifically on why those policies had been postponed, Atkins said: “We’ve got to reflect the society in which we serve, in which the NHS serves.” She went on to talk about the £3.6bn that the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced in this week’s budget to improve efficiency in the health service.