Blog: Dean BestScepticism over UK coalition health policy is unsurprising

Dean Best | 1 December 2010

The UK coalition government has outlined how it believes to the nation's health can be improved - and the role of industry is both at the heart of the proposals and the focus of criticism of the plans.

Parts of the Healthy Lives, Healthy People White Paper were leaked a fortnight ago but the publication of the policy document has made national headlines here again over the last 24 hours.

A key plank of the proposals is the coalition's plan to work "collaboratively" with the food industry through a "public health responsibility deal".

The so-called "deal" will be put into action through five "networks" between government, business and the voluntary sector that will focus on food, alcohol, physical activity, health at work and what the Paper calls "behaviour change".

Details are sketchy but get past the clunky government-speak and the first possible fruits of that collaboration with industry have emerged.

Next year, for instance, there will be an announcement on another set of guidelines on the reformulation of salt in food.

The White Paper said the "deal" would also develop the Change4Life campaign - the last UK government's push to promote a healthier diet - through something called the "Great Swapathon", which will provide GBP250m (US$390m) in vouchers to make it easier for us to make "healthy lifestyle choices".

In short, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and the coalition wants to "nudge" us to eat a balanced diet, take more exercise and drink less alcohol.

Nudging, less nannying and more "networks" with business will help the UK citizen become healthier, so the theory goes.

Campaigners, however, are sceptical whether the plans will work and critical of the coalition's light touch with industry. When the proposal for the "networks" was leaked two weeks ago, both the Children's Food Campaign and the National Obesity Forum expressed concern about the involvement of industry in formulating policy.

Of course, regulation is anathema to the Conservative Party. To expect the Conservative-led coalition to legislate on public health would be naive.

However, many of the great advances in improving public health in the UK have required state intervention and campaigners believe there is unlikely to be much improvement from mere 'nudging'.

What's more, some of the coalition's other recent policy pronouncements are causing health campaigners concern. Severe cuts to the school sports budget will hardly help UK children lead an active lifestyle (It has emerged today, however, that Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been in Zurich to help England's bid top host the 2018 football World Cup, has told Education Secretary Michael Gove to think again).

Nevertheless, scepticism over the coalition's public health policy is growing - and the focus over the role of industry will continue to mount.


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