Scotland’s COVID-19 recovery: building a healthy, resilient population

19 August 2020

Last month, we discussed the “building back better” rhetoric that has been so prevalent in discussions surrounding economic recovery from COVID-19. Since then, the UK government has outlined their new Obesity Strategy, describing a series of measures and a health campaign designed to help the nation return to a healthy weight, positioned as a means of building resilience against future virus outbreaks. One measure that will affect Scotland directly is the plan to introduce a 9pm advertising watershed for foods high in fat, sugar and/or salt on TV and online. The Scottish Government has been clear in their desire to build a ‘wellbeing economy’, one that recognises population health and wellbeing as incumbent to building back a robust, resilient economy. In this blog, we discuss our current situation and key recommended actions that we believe will help toward building a healthier, more resilient population in Scotland.

The current situation in Scotland

Currently, the majority of the Scottish adult population are classed as overweight (65%), with 28% classed as having obesity. Prevalence rates are also high in children, with 29% of those aged 2-15 at risk of overweight, and 16% at risk of obesity. Excess weight increases the risk of developing conditions and diseases such as asthma, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and 13 different types of cancer. Driving these rates is Scotland’s poor population diet: we have consistently missed our dietary goals for 17 years. Discretionary foods such as cakes and confectionery are consumed too often, and foods of higher nutritional quality such as fruit and vegetables, fibre and oil-rich fish are not consumed enough. As we live in an unhealthy food environment, where food high in fat, sugar and salt is heavily promoted and advertised, it is difficult for many to afford and/or access fresh, healthy food.

What has evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic shown us?

Research from the UK and across the word consistently shows a link between obesity and increased susceptibility and severity of COVID-19, as well as worse outcomes for those with increasing BMI. People with obesity experience weakened immune systems, inflammation and impaired lung function, alongside the increased risk of having underlying conditions described above. These factors may increase the likelihood of susceptibility to coronavirus, diminish protection normally gained through immunisation and increase the severity of COVID-19 illness. Not only does obesity increase the risk of severe complications during COVID-19, but obesity prevalence may also be exacerbated by the restrictions put in place during lockdown and the resulting social and financial situation: a double-edged sword.

Building resilience for the future: what can we do?

The outbreak of COVID-19 has undoubtedly affected Scottish economy, with many ‘out of home’ businesses, such as cafes and restaurants, having to change their processes, or close. It has also put great strain on our current food system, exposed by supermarket food shortages early in the pandemic: highlighting how important a resilient, sustainable food system is as a whole. Positively, we are now presented with an important opportunity to reprioritise and rebuild a healthy food and social environment, with healthier high streets, less marketing of junk food and to address the inequality that underlies so many health issues in Scotland and the UK, including obesity prevalence. COVID-19 has highlighted the unequivocal importance of driving a focus on improving population diet and weight, in order to build a healthy population in Scotland: one that is more prepared and more resilient to any potential future outbreak.

Obesity Action Scotland proposes three key recommended actions to help achieve this:

  1. Actions to achieve healthy weight should be central to the Scottish Government's recovery plans, ensuring everyone has access to affordable, healthy food
  2. Focus and urgent action is required on obesity prevention measures, including reducing diet-related health inequalities, in order to build a more resilient population
  3. The Scottish Government should seek to introduce the postponed Restricting Food Promotions Bill, widening its range to reflect the extent of action required following the pandemic

 

Read our full briefing on ‘Healthy Weight, Healthy Diet and Resilience’, and find out more about COVID-19 and obesity in our blog and briefing.