Opinion

Paul McNamee: The PM's national health plan is food for thought

If a government is to lead and be bold there must be more to it than how it directly impacts the person in charge

Boris Johnson’s latest epiphany is not a surprise. After getting very ill and then realising that being overweight caused him serious complications, he’s now on an obesity-busting health drive.

We’ve all done it. Something happens leading us to change our own habits – whether its diet-related or giving up smoking or discovering that exercise isn’t all bad – and then we become born-again zealots banging on constantly to friends, family or anybody who just happens into view about how much better we feel and that EVERYBODY should do it. You sleep SOOOO much better, we insist, as our loved ones drift off.

Being leader of a nation means you have a bigger audience to bang on at. And then you can do something about it.

Johnson’s plans are not bad. And they mark a change. Last year, like a paint-by-numbers libertarian, he was busy hammering on about how tax on sugar and salt clobbered the poorest. That always felt like a curious defence, verging on a patronising ‘let them eat cake’ approach. But that was then. Now, he’s all about getting rid of junk food ads before nine on TV, and stopping two-for-one deals on unhealthy food. It’s curious timing, given that we’re into the month of the Eat Out to Help Out initiative from the Chancellor, slashing the cost of restaurant food, including a lot of burger joints and chicken places.

Johnson’s health drive suggests he’ll only take big decisions on things that impact him

Still, combined with the acceleration of cycling plans, the health kick should be applauded. It doesn’t feel like a cynical vote grab as it may actually alienate the let-the-market-dictate-and-have the-government-interfere-less wings of his party.

While the rationale is good – better for us all, we stay healthier, therefore we put less of a burden on the NHS – it’s not an ideal way to get there. It suggests that Boris Johnson will only really take big decisions on things that directly impact him. That, for instance, he’ll deal seriously with environmental concerns if somebody chops down his favourite tree. Or perhaps will only really support Britain’s vital local press industry if the sudoku disappears from his local paper.

We are living in reactive times, of course. Instructions on how to behave and where to go change day by day and we all have to act accordingly. But if a government is to lead and be bold, as Johnson has been in this, there must be more to it than how it directly impacts the person in charge. Because that person will not share the life experience of people across the nation who really need help.

We are encouraging bold thinking and new approaches with our RORA campaign. We can bike over our ideas to Number 10 anytime.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue   

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