The Guardian view on improving public health: a job for the nanny state | Editorial | Opinion

English libertarians like to believe that their instinctive individualism chimes with something essential in the national soul: the right of the freeborn Englishman not to be bossed about. It was in that sentimental spirit that the Conservative MP, Desmond Swayne, became ostentatiously overwrought in the House of Commons last week, on the subject of face masks.

Mr Swayne condemned the government’s decision to make face coverings compulsory in shops as a “monstrous imposition” on personal freedoms. Happily it turns out that, much as he would like to, the MP for New Forest West does not speak for England. A substantial majority approve of the new mask rules. In fact, the consistent evidence suggests that the appetite is for more, not less, regulation and guidance for collective behaviour in the interests of public health.

A survey last month found that, in light of the Covid‑19 pandemic, close to nine out of 10 people believe that national government has either a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of responsibility for ensuring that people stay healthy. The scrupulous observance of lockdown rules by the vast majority of people was the other side of this coin. As Sir Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, has observed, the diligent following of the rules indicates “a strong sense of social responsibility” at work.

What the prime minister makes of this enthusiasm for the “nanny state” is intriguing. Mr Johnson was a very late convert to the argument for masks, and only after much prevarication. But following his near-death experience with Covid-19 in March, his libertarian instincts, by his own account, are not what they were. Acknowledging the role a weight problem may have played in the seriousness of his illness, Mr Johnson is expected to unveil a “more interventionist” strategy on obesity by the end of the month. As well as measures to promote a healthy diet, a government campaign to encourage higher levels of exercise is being mooted. Joe Wicks, the lockdown hero of home workouts, visited Downing Street last week to discuss plans for the national fitness drive.

From a prime minister who only a year ago described a levy on sugary drinks as a “sin stealth tax”, this is a welcome change of tone and focus. But it would be unwise to expect much substance behind the rhetoric. A ban on supermarket promotions of unhealthy products seems likely. But Mr Johnson apparently remains reluctant to introduce a 9pm watershed for the advertising of junk food, and has reportedly ruled out any additional levies.

He should think again and do far more. A recent Public Health England report found that child obesity continues to rise among disadvantaged people at an alarming rate, while evidence of the role of advertising in encouraging unhealthy eating among the young is overwhelming. A genuine commitment to increasing levels of public exercise and fitness will also require more than high-profile input from Mr Wicks. From 25 July, gyms and public leisure centres will be allowed to reopen with physical distancing restrictions. But the crisis in local government finances is such that many will remain closed. An estimated 2,800 public leisure centres may fold by Christmas, most of them in deprived areas. One in 10 community swimming pools will not be able to open this month.

For obvious reasons, staying healthy is currently at the forefront of most people’s minds. There has rarely been a better time to launch and fund a proactive public health policy to influence diet and promote exercise. The prime minister should seize the moment.

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