Government food tsar quits over 'weak' No.10's failure to tackle obesity

Henry Dimbleby says "weak" Downing Street has failed to provide the coordination needed to address obesity
Protests last summer over junk food policy delays. Photo: Stephen Chung/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

20 Mar 2023

The government’s food tsar has quit, criticising a “weak” No.10 for failing to “get a grip” on obesity policy.

Henry Dimbleby, who has been lead non-executive board member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for the last five years, said a lack of central coordination meant the government is failing to come up with a solution to the systemic issue.

He picked out disagreements between Defra, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Health and Social Care over bringing forward advertising restrictions as an example of the mishandling of the issue.

“If you take advertising restrictions, what happens is ITV lobbies against them. I had a meeting with them – DCMS lobbies No.10 to say 'this is going to destroy all children's programming', Defra says 'this is going to hurt the food industry' and poor DHSC is left to clear up the mess,” Dimbleby told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.

“You need a strong No.10 in that situation, on these kind of systemic issues, to take a grip and decide ‘okay, we need to solve this, this is a 10-year problem, a 20-year a problem, it requires central coordination to solve’. 

“And that, over the latter days of the Johnson administration, the Truss administration, didn't exist.”

Dimbleby said he had not spoken to the current No.10 about the issue.

He warned that, if the government does not change path, it could lead to between 20 and 25 million people needing medication for problems caused by the food system, including obesity and type-two diabetes.

Announcing his resignation this weekend in The Sunday Times, Dimbleby said the government’s “insane” inaction to tackle obesity was to blame. He said he had quit so he could voice his concerns about the government’s failures. 

“The reason I left was I didn't think it was fair or right on the brilliant Defra civil servants to speak so publicly about that while still being in the organisation,” Dimbleby said.

Government inaction ‘make no sense’

Dimbleby led an independent review of the food system, published in 2021. The government adopted some of its seven recommendations.

However, key reforms have been delayed. A ban on promoting buy-one-get-one-free deals was pushed back  a year to this October and plans to introduce a pre-9pm junk food curfew for TV adverts have been delayed by two years until October 2025.

“Boris Johnson was going to do it – he was going to introduce advertising restrictions, he was going to make BOGOFs on those kinds of foods illegal – and the government has now pulled back,” Dimbleby said.

Dimbleby said the way the current government is dealing with the obesity issue “makes no sense” and warned that in 10 years’ time the government will be dealing with huge problems in the NHS, which will “suck money from the rest of government spending and cause misery from diet-related disease”. 

Type-two diabetes alone is projected in the next decade to cost the NHS 1.5 times what treating all cancers does today, he said.

To illustrate the scale of the problem, Dimbleby pointed to a warning from England’s chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty, at the height of the Covid pandemic, that diabetes is “a serious and growing public health problem”.

“He wasn’t exactly a man with time on his hands,” Dimbleby said. 

The former tsar also warned the government off relying too much on medication to counter food-related illness.

“We have a new wave of appetite-restricting drugs, which I actually think in extreme cases can be very useful, but if government don’t act you’ll have 20 to 25 million people in the population who are medicated for the problems that the food system is causing,” he said.

“There are quite reasonable interventions you can make to create a healthier, more pleasurable, unmedicated society.” 

Dimbleby said government policy is being influenced by a  “misconceived” ideology among “a certain brand of Conservative politician” that thinks state intervention is wrong.

“The role of the government is to intervene to clear up mess, but this modern Conservative ideology just thinks it can leave everything in the system without any intervention at all,” Dimbleby said. 

“We talk to red wall voters, we talk to people all around the country, they’re fed up of their children being marketed junk food, they want intervention but somehow it’s got inside the heads of a certain brand of Conservative politician that this kind of thing is bad, it’s wrong, it’s ideologically not correct. 

“And this is going to cause huge harm to the country if it isn’t reversed.”

No.10 has been approached for comment.

Read the most recent articles written by Tevye Markson - Unprotected departments face cuts of up to 2.9% under Labour's plan – IFS

Share this page