Good news, citizens: our Large Adult prime minister, Boris Johnson, has lost a stone-and-a-bit recently, and has made an entire video – of him walking wistfully in his shirtsleeves through a featureless park while his dog tugs desperately away from him – with the Telegraph to celebrate. “I’ve always wanted to lose weight for ages and ages,” he tells us, with that famous silver tongue of his, “since recovering from coronavirus I’ve been steadily building up my fitness.”
Hard to know how to appropriately react to this sort of news, isn’t it? A big round of applause out the windows feels wrong, somehow, now that we know how empty a gesture it is. A VE Day-style conga is somehow too gauche. Maybe we could get Big Tommy Moore out doing laps of the garden again? Ah, hold on. No that’s actually what they do want.
“The other thing, obviously, is that if you can get your weight down a bit, and protect your health, you’ll also be protecting the NHS,” he continued. Yep, there it is: this isn’t just a feelgood story about Johnson having to buy trousers a size down, it’s a public health crusade that shifts the blame for the NHS being under-resourced over to the people who use it. It seems the current policy of the Conservative government to protect the NHS from the darker reaches of, well, the Conservative government is nothing more than: “Oi, rainbows. If you love the NHS so much, why don’t you stop getting ill and needing it?”
Nobody seems to have told Rishi Sunak about this new “Stay Alert, Control the Biscuits, Protect the NHS” thing though, because he’s spent all weekend searching “what restaurants real people eat??” and making a complicated Eat Out to Help Out – and yes unbelievably we’re still going with that – acrostic tweet.
In the right hands this would be a generation-defining beat poem, but coming as it does from @RishiSunak it reads like a suburban teenager gruffly texting his parents what restaurants he wants to go to for his 17th birthday. No, mum! I’m not going to Frankie & Benny’s! It’s for children!
So we have an unstoppable force and an immovable object, here. On the one hand: “Guys, we really could do with you all kickstarting the economy so the bankers who fund us can still get their bonuses this year.” On the other hand: “Guys, I hope you enjoyed £10 off at Honest Burgers, but did you really need two portions of chips?”
And in the centre of all this – of course! – some muddled public health policy: first, restaurants with more than 250 employees will have to put calorie counts on their menus. However, such schemes fly in the face of US studies that show they have a negligible impact on public health – and they “exacerbate eating disorders of all kinds” according to the eating disorder recovery charity Beat. Second, a ban on pre-watershed junk food adverts will come into effect. Although this will be in, uh, 2022. To “give companies time to make food healthy enough to promote,” according to the Times. McDonald’s, on my first whistle, you have 24 months to figure out something involving an avocado. KFC, on my second whistle, can you do a wholegrain bun?
Johnson’s anti-obesity drive seems counterproductive, but what do I know? Being a prime minister is hard: you have to balance the two opposing forces of “public-blaming health panic” and “keeping the deep pockets of major food corporations happy”. Throughout this pandemic we’ve been locked in a cycle – which by my reckoning is about fortnightly, now – where the British public is either the cause of all the country’s problems, or the only possible solution to them: now, for the first time ever, we are both. Please eat at restaurants and drink at pubs to save the economy! But don’t have that many beers, you imbecile! You’re costing the NHS billions!
I’ve long been intrigued by the strange groupthink this country has where we have a set mental limit for how much each and every profession should earn, and hold a peculiar moral judgment against anyone earning above or below those invisible thresholds: a plumber who is paid too much is greedy, for instance, while a plumber who is paid too little is a fool.
It’s an extension of the British obsession with fairness and unfairness, a sideways-glancing, neighbour-envying thing where everyone with dinner on their plate only has some because they stole it from yours, and it bulges out of us in odd ways: we don’t mind MPs being given inflation-busting pay rises, we don’t mind if strong-minded billionaires loophole their taxes, but we go ballistic when junior doctors ask for fairer pay. The middle class would tear down every statue in this country if they heard about a waitress making £80,000-a-year, for instance.
And I think that goes for weight, too: we are all expected to be a certain size, not too much and not too little, and we are meant to maintain it without struggling or trying. Without saying how much we rely on apps or groups or branded low-fat yoghurts or Joe Wicks’ YouTube workouts; without needing things like body positivity or realistic sizing from high street shops. We are all expected to just be there, taking up the exact right amount of space – and then, and only then, can we justify needing healthcare.
The prime minister admitting he struggles with his weight – though wrapped up in the kind of fawning pro-Johnson propaganda that would make most autocratic states cringe – is a surprisingly naked, rare admission. I’m just not sure following it up with, “eat dinner, lose weight, and if you don’t do both at once you’re a public enemy of the economy and the NHS” is exactly the broader health message we need at the moment.
• Joel Golby is a writer for the Guardian and VICE, and the author of Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant