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Government food tsar quits blaming ‘insane’ inaction to tackle obesity

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The government’s food tsar has quit in order to freely criticise the Tories’ “insane” inaction against obesity.

Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of the food chain Leon, said ministers were refusing to impose restrictions on the junk food industry due to an obsession with “ultra-free-market ideology”.

He said this was partly to blame for the fact that two-thirds of adults in England were either overweight or obese.

“There is a concern that dealing with these issues could be seen to be ‘nanny state’ and plays badly in the ‘red wall’ constituencies,” he told The Sunday Times.

“That isn’t the case, actually, but there is concern that we need to be celebrating the great British diets of fish and chips and curry and beer and that junk food is somehow patriotic.”

Mr Dimbleby, 53, resigned at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) last week after five years in post.

During his time at the top he was commissioned to conduct an independent review of the food system, which resulted in recommendations to expand free school meals, impose a long-campaigned for salt and sugar tax, and introduce GP prescriptions for fruit and veg.

Many of the proposals were not followed, while plans to ban promoting buy-one-get-one-free deals have been delayed until October due to the cost-of-living crisis.

A ban on pre-9pm junk food adverts was also due to come into force this year but this has been kicked down the road as well.

Mr Dimbleby said he feels he can speak openly about his frustrations now he is no longer working for DEFRA.

“This government is going backwards,” he said.

“After Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation [with Covid-19 in 2020], they were going to restrict advertising of junk food to children. They’re not going to do that. They’re just not tackling it.”

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He warned that not addressing the issue would store up “huge problems” for the NHS, adding: “DEFRA will say, ‘Oh, we can’t do this because it’ll hurt the food businesses’. Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Social Care will be left to clear up the mess that’s caused by this.”

Obesity costs the NHS £6bn a year and this is set to rise to over £9.7bn each year by 2050, according to the government’s own estimates.

Evidence has also shown that the NHS spends around £10bn a year on diabetes – around 10% of its entire budget.

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Mr Dimbleby said the Tories would be wise to follow Winston Churchill’s mantra that a country’s greatest asset is its healthy citizens.

He pointed to comments made by Andy Haldane, the former chief executive of the Bank of England, who said in November that the worsening health of the British people is holding back economic growth for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.

“Yet, somehow, this new version of the Tory party thinks that those aren’t things it should be getting involved in, and it’s just insane. It doesn’t make any sense,” Mr Dimbleby said.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We take tackling obesity seriously and we will continue to work closely with industry to make it easier for people to make healthier choices.”

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