Jeremy Hunt, the recently appointed Health Minister, has an infamous mouth. In 2010, it yakked about football hooliganism causing the Hillsborough tragedy and later had to apologise to the victims’ families. In 2011, it congratulated James Murdoch on the progress of News Corp’s takeover bid for BSkyB. Now it’s off on another rant and the consequences for the nation’s health could be dire.
“I don’t want a fat tax. I like my Coca Cola and crisps,” Mr Hunt told the Times last week- end. As for the abortion limit, he deems twelve weeks to be “the right point for it.” These remarks – the first a flippant quip, the second a personal moral conviction – are not only medically uninformed. They reveal a Health Minister dangerously removed from the population for whose healthcare he is responsible.
Let’s begin with Mr Hunt’s desire to see the abortion limit reduced from 24 weeks. Doc- tors are unanimous about the negative impact this reduction would have on women’s health. Only nine per cent of abortions take place after twelve weeks. These tend to be the most vulner- able or complex cases: young girls who either didn’t realize they were pregnant or were previously too afraid too act, as well as those with scans revealing severe foetal abnormalities. A 12-week limit would greatly reduce the ability of tests to pick up on conditions like Down’s syndrome. The spokeswoman for the Royal Col- lege of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, summarizes the government’s contradiction well: “Politicians talk about putting patients at the centre… How is the woman at the centre of her healthcare with something like this?”
Less noise has been made about the health consequences of Mr Hunt’s anti-fat-tax joke, yet they could be equally adverse. The health secretary’s refusal to consider taxation of sugary and fatty foods is a bad omen for the trajectory of obesity in the UK.
Evidence shows that if you want people to stop doing things that are bad for them, taxation is the answer. A ten per cent increase in tobacco prices, for example, cuts cigarette consumption by about five per cent. Britain is now the fattest country in Europe. A fat tax should not be excluded from the discussion of how to tackle our obesity epidemic.
The most worrying part of Mr Hunt’s comments, however, was how out of touch they proved him to be. The proposed abortion limit reduction demonstrates a lack of understanding of women’s health needs and the reality of women’s lives. Similarly Mr Hunt fails to understand that a tax on junk food is not designed to help muesli-munching politicians like himself, but poorer Britons who opt for unhealthy food because it is cheap. This group is the most at risk from obesity.
As well as his partiality for fizzy drinks and salty snacks, Hunt reveals that he had a “moment of shock” when he became Health Minister. Most of the country did too. He would be wise to remember that next time he opens that mouth.