Time to be brave on obesity and child health

he scandal of child ill-health is a long-standing, growing and urgent challenge. It should be matter of shame that a child’s health is so closely linked to poverty and that where and in what circumstances you grow up can dramatically affect your life chances.

Evidence shows the link between deprivation and poor health in childhood, so with child poverty on the rise, the need for action becomes more acute. It is a top priority of mine as shadow health secretary, and over the coming weeks we will be outlining more of our thinking.

While I’m highly critical of government spending plans, which have forced NHS bosses to jettison the 18-week target for treatment waiting times, I do welcome the emphasis put on public health in the service’s recent Five Year Forward View.

To achieve its aims we need to put children’s health and well-being at the heart of our nation’s health strategy. Recent figures from the Royal College of Surgeons show a shocking 24 per cent rise in tooth extractions for under-fours over the decade to 2015-16. More than one in five children are overweight or obese in their first year of school. By the time they leave school the figure rises to more than one in three. A common factor is the sugar in their diet.

That’s why Labour supports action on child’s sugar consumption through the soft drinks industry levy, an important policy in what was otherwise otherwise a disappointing child obesity plan from the government. If Whitehall whispers are to be believed, the plan was watered down by Theresa May in one of her first acts as prime minister.

A 2016 study found that the levy could save up to 144,000 adults and children from obesity every year, prevent 19,000 cases of type 2 diabetes and protect 270,000 people from tooth decay. This could save the NHS £15 million a year, campaigners say.

I recognise concerns that the cost will be passed on to consumers, and that low income households will be worst hit, but if managed correctly the move should enocurage manufacturers to cut sugar levels in their products. Some already have, but the government must not give in to the vested interests determined to block reform.

Having changed public attitudes to smoking indoor, largely through the last Labour government’s ban, we need to be equally radical and forward-thinking on obesity.

Labour will support tougher measures to promote healthier eating not least because obesity and all the associated health dangers still hit the poorest hardest.

Three in five of the most deprived boys aged five to eleven are predicted to be overweight or obese by 2020, compared to about one in six of boys in the most affluent group, according to the Obesity Health Alliance. Overall, a third of the most deprived children are predicted to be overweight or obese by 2020 compared to just under a fifth of the most affluent.

For the Labour Party, it is a priority to take action to change these shameful statistics. The NHS Forward View is a chance to look at progressive public health changes beyond the sugar levy and chart a course as a healthier nation in the decades to come. For the health of Britain’s children over the years to come, it is a chance Theresa May should not pass up.