GPs will prescribe more than 700,000 people diet plans, apps and wearable activity trackers in a Government anti-obesity drive.
Ministers said they are committed to slimming the country’s waistlines as a major study has revealed a high obesity rate may behind its devastating Covid death toll and need for crippling lockdowns.
Research by the World Obesity Federation found that coronavirus deaths have been 10 times higher in countries where over half of adults are overweight, and they have accounted for a staggering 90 per cent of global deaths.
Thousands of lives could have been saved if the population was slimmer, experts said, and the effects of lockdown would not have been as drastic if people were not as fat and had a lower risk of ending up in hospital.
The World Health Organization warned the finding was a ‘wake-up call’ for the West, where sedentary jobs and processed foods mean being overweight has become the norm for many.
Downing Street said it would pump money into NHS-led schemes to help people of all ages lose weight, particularly targeting children and people living in poorer areas.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: ‘Losing weight is hard, but making small changes can make a big difference.
‘Being overweight increases the risk of becoming ill with Covid. If we all do our bit, we can reduce our own health risks – but also help take pressure off the NHS.’
The WOF report found that significant proportions of Covid deaths happened in fatter countries like the UK and US which, combined, have suffered around 643,000 deaths from the virus – a quarter of the world’s total.
A study by the World Obesity Federation found that the vast majority of Covid-19 deaths have happened in countries where more than half the population is overweight
The report, which compared countries’ obesity rates and Covid death tolls, found that the coronavirus death rate was 10 times higher in countries where 50 per cent or more of the population is overweight.
It saw that 2.2million of the world’s 2.5million deaths so far had happened in countries with these high obesity rates.
‘Increased bodyweight is the second greatest predictor of hospitalisation and a high risk of death for people suffering from Covid-19,’ the report said.
‘Only old age rates as a higher risk factor. The unprecedented economic costs of Covid-19 are largely due to the measures taken to avoid the excess hospitalisation and need for treatment of the disease.
‘Reducing one major risk factor, overweight, would have resulted in far less stress on health services and reduced the need to protect those services from being overwhelmed.’
This WOF report found that the UK had the third highest coronavirus death rate per person – at 182 per 100,000 people, lower only than Slovenia (183) and Belgium (192) – and the fourth highest overweight rate, at 64 per cent.
A total of 123,783 people have died of Covid-19 in the UK, according to the Department of Health.
In the US, at least 518,453 people have been killed by the disease. It had a rate per 100,000 people of 152, the report found, meaning it ranked fifth in the world.
More than two thirds of Americans – 68 per cent – are classified as overweight or obese.
In countries where less than half the population is overweight, the risk of death from Covid is just a tenth of that in countries above this level.
No country where less than 40 per cent of the population is overweight has Covid-19 death rates above 10 per 100,000, the report shows.
The country with the lowest Covid death rate was Vietnam, which has one of the lowest levels of excess weight in its population – while Japan and Singapore were also singled out for their low levels of obesity and deaths from Covid-19.
These countries managed to avoid disaster during the pandemic despite being close to China and having some of the first international coronavirus cases in early 2020.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the report should act as a ‘wake-up call’ for governments, particularly in wealthier countries, to tackle their obesity problems.
Director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: ‘This report must act as a wake-up call to governments globally. The correlation between obesity and mortality rates from Covid-19 is clear and compelling.
‘Investment in public health and coordinated, international action to tackle the root causes of obesity is one of the best ways for countries to build resilience in health systems post-pandemic. We urge all countries to seize this moment.’
UK PM Boris Johnson performed an about-turn on his obesity policies after a near-fatal brush with Covid-19 early in 2020, and has now lost weight himself and says he is committed to helping the public do the same.
His new review will look overseas for inspiration, such as at the national step challenge in Singapore, to which almost a quarter of the public signed up.
The PM said: ‘This funding will give extra support to people across the country who want to lose weight, too.’
But officials said it was too early to say whether the schemes, part of a £100million Government investment, could allow shoppers discounts on healthy foods.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘We want to make it easier for people to lose weight, which is why our funding set out today ensures those across all ages have the right level of support and tools they need to make healthier lifestyle choices.’
Author of the WOF report Dr Tim Lobstein, senior policy adviser to the World Obesity Federation and visiting professor at the University of Sydney, said: ‘We now know that an overweight population is the next pandemic waiting to happen.
‘Look at countries like Japan and South Korea where they have very low levels of Covid-19 deaths as well as very low levels of adult obesity.
A prediction made by SAGE sub-group SPI-M at the start of February suggested daily Covid deaths in England would stay above 200 until the end of March but they are already lower. The yellow line shows SPI-M’s prediction, while the red line represents the actual daily death count, calculated as a seven-day average
‘They have prioritised public health across a range of measures, including population weight, and it has paid off in the pandemic.
‘Governments have been negligent and ignored the economic value of a healthy population at their peril.
‘For the last decade they have failed to tackle obesity, despite setting themselves targets at United Nations meetings.
‘Covid-19 is only the latest infection exacerbated by weight issues, but the warning signs were there. We have seen it in the past with Mers, H1N1 and other respiratory diseases.’
Johanna Ralston, chief executive of the World Obesity Federation, said: ‘The failure to address the root causes of obesity over many decades is clearly responsible for hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.’
Professor Rachel Batterham, the Royal College of Physicians’ lead adviser on obesity, told the Times: ‘The link between high levels of obesity and deaths from Covid-19 in the UK is indisputable, as is the urgent need to address the factors that lead so many to be living with obesity.’