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Despite much of the country tucking into Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, Boris Johnson is insisting that it is engaging in a ‘war on obesity’. So ambitious – or naïve – is this government that they aim to have an effect soon enough as to combat the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is tempting to view this as a bold new initiative, but this ignores a simple fact: obesity has been notionally tackled by all governments since Blair, none of which has succeeded in stalling the growth of obesity.

Policies planned by the government in many ways merely represent an extension of Cameron-era interventions based on nudge theory, such as the sugar tax. The new government strategy includes bans on 2-for-1 deals and advertisements before the watershed for junk food, as well as moving unhealthy ‘treats’ away from the till, prescribing diets, and for calories to be displayed on menus. Ultimately, it is unclear the benefits these polices have brought thus far and will bring in the future, especially as junk food will remain ubiquitous, and lives are still becoming ever-more sedentary.

On the ground, youth participation in sports is declining, with minutes spent in PE declining by 20% at Key Stage 3 and 38% at Key Stage 4 between 2013 and 2018. Worryingly, there is a gulf in sports participation between less and more affluent groups, and along lines of ethnicity that closely follows gaps in youth obesity rates. The gap only widens when you look beyond the bare minimum of one hour’s exercise per week, with the demographic differences between those who play three or more hours even starker. With organised sports becoming increasingly important as a source of activity as children play outdoors less and stare at screens more, this is a concerning trend.

So how could a government undertake a proactive approach to youth obesity? Arguably it could look a bit like social prescribing, such as a new mental health initiative being rolled out across the country as an alternative to medicalised solutions. Social prescribers aim to provide information and community-oriented solutions to problems caused by anxiety, loneliness, etc. This could be translated into raising awareness of and interconnectivity between schools and local sports clubs. Currently, youth sports access within the UK is very divided along the lines of class and ethnicity. Not only are disadvantaged groups less likely to play sport but also have less access to certain sports. 

A policy that would seek to redress this imbalance could involve bringing club coaches into PE sessions, showcasing the sports while advertising them to interested pupils. Built into this new intra-community fabric would also be connections between schools and clubs, such that potential players and parents would have access to information on nearby facilities and sports clubs, alongside education and awareness about their benefits. Clubs are extant institutions that can provide egalitarian access to sports facilities that many comprehensives can’t. They are a ready-made alternative that is systematically under-utilised.

This is inspired by the experience of my cricket club which has an outreach programme in local schools, the largest such initiative in the UK. Not only has this led to it having one of the biggest youth sections in the county league, but has also diversified its membership, both socio-economically and ethnically, particularly with children of non-Commonwealth immigrants whose parents were not traditional fans of cricket. This illustrates that active lifestyles are disincentivised by information failures: there are sports out there for every individual, but such doors appear closed, or – even worse – children do not know they exist. 

Beyond the measures that seek to improve participation by simple information and awareness, socio-economic disadvantages also need to be addressed via direct financial support. If we are serious about tackling obesity, then it also requires us to tackle the obvious financial barriers to participation. Indeed, as the prior policies demand schools recognise their shortcomings and instead magnify the benefits of extra-curricular organisations, it follows that these non-public organisations ought to be more inclusive. 

A Sports Participation Voucher that would provide membership for a young person to a club for the duration of a season conditional on one of two requirements is one way to address this. Similarly, to Free School Meals, those whose family incomes fall below a certain point should be entitled to the voucher. In addition, those in urgent need of exercise, such that their obesity is putting their long-term health at risk, should also be entitled. This way those who are most in-need of extra activity yet most likely to not receive will not face the usual barriers.

If the Government is serious about tackling obesity, it must not just disincentivise unhealthy actions, but incentivise healthy lifestyles. What better way for that therefore, than for the government to stop nannying shopping aisles and instead getting more children playing, competing, and, winning.

Callum is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: RoboMichalec]