Britain’s Obesity Problem Won’t be Solved Through a Nanny State App | Kieran Burt

Britain has an obesity problem. That is indisputable. Indeed, Britain has become known as the ‘The Fat Man of Europe’, with 63% of adults being classed as overweight or obese. This number is frightening enough, as being obese puts people at increased risk of diseases like diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. COVID-19 is only another disease that can be added to that list. The World Obesity Federation found that 2.2 million of the 2.5 million deaths of COVID-19 occurred in countries with high levels of obesity. Britain has the third death rate of COVID-19 and has the fourth highest obesity rate. Our own Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had a near fatal experience with COVID-19, and put it down to his own obesity. So, something should be done. Lockdown too has made the obesity crisis worse, with 41% of adults gaining weight since March 2020.

One of the government’s proposals is to use a tracking app on people. It has launched a pilot scheme to incentivise families to switch to healthier foods by linking them to points, which would then be able to be exchanged for rewards. Families would have to report their shopping habits to the government, as well as their exercise habits. Some officials want to go further, and link ‘compliance’ with NHS checks to financial rewards. 

For a so called libertarian and fan of small government, this move is highly interventionist. It expands the reach the government has into people’s lives, by allowing them to take data on people’s exercise and shopping habits. This is data the government never need to know off people, as what people buy is private to them. So is the amount of exercise people do. Furthermore, how can the app know if a person is buying for just themselves or for a family? Just because people buy something doesn’t mean they are the ones that eat it.  

This move is likely instead about control. Specific words like compliance show this. If (when?) the next lockdown is implemented the government can track that citizens are buying only the most essential items and only exercising as much as they tell people. This unfortunately is not out of the realm of possibility, as the act that allows for government to institute lockdowns is still in place. More evidence for this comes from the fact the government got this idea from Singapore, a dictatorship. Johnson should not be taking surveillance ideas from dictatorships and labelling them as health initiatives. 

Whilst supporting more exercise and healthier eating is something we can all do, reporting that to the state is completely unnecessary. It also stigmatises people for buying a lot of food in the shops, despite not knowing who the food is actually for. Tying this scheme to a rewards based system takes the carrot on a stick metaphor too literally. It also makes a mockery of a person’s ability to make their own, informed choice. From a psychological perspective, rewards don’t change underlying behaviour, and are only temporary fixes. This means as soon as a person stops using this scheme, they’re likely to revert back to their original behaviour. Instead of creating temporary extrinsic motivation, permanent intrinsic motivation should be created.

The government should be searching for more effective measures. Earlier in the year, an NHS backed review found that health apps are actually bad for people’s health. This is because the majority of them fail to meet basic health standards and fail to keep people’s data safe. Coming off the back of this, the government should not be asking the public to put their faith in its health app. Especially coming off the troubles with test and trace and the current ‘pingdemic’. So, there is no evidence to suggest this will even work, but will cost six million pounds, at a time where the national debt is skyrocketing. 

Unfortunately, this is not the only health policy the state has introduced that is illiberal and unnecessarily increases the state. The government announced that by the end of September, mandatory vaccination passports will be required. These passports will cause disruption to people’s lives, and will demonise those who, for whatever reason, are not vaccinated. They are discriminatory and will severely impact business. Several nightclubs have already said they will challenge the government in court over their legitimacy. 

After a period of unprecedented state intervention into people’s private lives and business in the name of health, the government should not fall back on such interventionist policies to attempt to solve the obesity crisis. These measures have not worked in the past, and they will not suddenly work now. This measure only increases state surveillance and serves to shame and patronise the British people.

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