Focus: Lost chance to make us all healthier

Happiness comes in many forms. Watching back-to-back episodes of The Sopranos, for instance, or enjoying a chicken tikka masala with a beer. But it can also be about a walk by the river or a game of five-a-side football.

This week’s White Paper on public health is already beginning to feel like an enormously wasted opportunity to make our lives happier. People who eat healthily and are active for some part of their day are clearly likely to feel better about themselves and the world, because they are less likely to experience illness, whether depression, joint strain or heart disease.

They are also less likely to be discriminated against in the workplace, and their own children are likely to follow their example.

Wanting people to lead healthy lives is a liberating, not a fascist, tendency – although often the response of the food and drinks industry suggests it is about nosy officials prying into people’s private lives. No one can force a family to eat their vegetables or go for a jog every morning, but we now live in an ‘obesifying’ environment, one which makes it easier to take the car than to walk, which has escalators to take the strain and a snack bar on every corner.

It is time for the government to acknowledge this and promote the interests of the whole nation, by giving us a proper network of cycling routes and free swimming lessons for every child, measures which bind communities, rather than separate them.

Over the past year, we have seen ministers caught in the glare of this publicity over smoking, obesity, binge drinking and sexual health. Terrified of offend ing their industry backers, terrified of seeming weak, terrified of offending one of their colleagues in another department, they have prevaricated so much that they have lost the advantages they started off with.

Having reduced the waiting lists in the NHS and improved the casualty departments, Labour should have seized the moment a year ago to launch a new blueprint for a healthier country. Indeed, Tony Blair was already asking ministers to think radically about how to encourage activity which could be linked to our bid for the 2012 Olympics.

Instead we have seen endless hand-wringing and doubt and, though this week’s White Paper will go some way to righting the wrongs, it will not be bold enough to make real inroads into the enormous health problems we face.

Above all, their failure to bring in a more complete ban on smoking is the worst possible result, because it is the one measure which would help everyone across the country, young and old, bringing immediate relief from respiratory diseases and heart failure.

It would have been Blair’s greatest health legacy, with an even bigger impact than the radical National Health Service reforms. It is a terrible failure by his government to have run scared from such bold action.

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