Boris Johnson's bout of Covid-19 puts him on frontline of war against obesity – Aidan Smith

Boris Johnson was a hefty 17-and-a-half stone when he was admitted to hospital with Covid-19, but seems to have got the message about the need for the nation to slim down a bit, writes Aidan Smith

Boris Johnson applauds key workers, including the NHS staff who saved his life, outside 10 Downing Street last week (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson applauds key workers, including the NHS staff who saved his life, outside 10 Downing Street last week (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

He wore it well. Boris Johnson, who weighed 17-and-a-half stone when he was rushed into hospital with coronavirus, didn’t really exude porkiness.

He seemed to be always on the move. Even when he was standing still and speaking unto the nation, he was animated. The arms flew around, the fists bashed lecterns and tables and the hair looked like he had no time to brush it because he was a proper man of action – not like David Cameron with his “shoe chauffeur”, the official car which used to crawl behind Dave’s bicycle and also carried his Prime Ministerial papers and a fresh shirt.

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No, when BoJo took to the streets for exercise, it was in this completely unselfconscious ensemble: down-and-out’s woolly hat, 1980s aerobics-boom headband, smelly tennis shirt, grandad’s cardigan, floral-print swimming trunks, manky trainers. He looked like he’d gone into a charity shop and said: “Dress me in anything you like but the total cost must not exceed £5.” Either that or the gear was not his own because the house from where he’d set off was not his own, and that this was, if you like, the jog of shame.

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Whatever, Johnson appeared serious about fitness because he was unserious about photo-op fitness. And while Cameron continued his photo-op bicycling, Johnson as Mayor of London was cajoling the metropolis into using two wheels by parking Boris’ Bikes on every corner.

But 17-and-a-half stones was what he was and intensive care was where he found himself, obesity being the second biggest Covid-19 risk factor after age. He survived, and in shedding a stone before returning to work, had a Damascene conversion. Previously reluctant to nanny the country, he’s declaring war on fat.

‘Delicious late-night binges’

He’s got to defeat the pandemic first. After that, though, expect an outsized campaign. A fortune splashed on it, exceeding the £2 billion currently spent on cycling (bike brigade: does it seem as much as that?).

The PM leading the way, chuntering but no longer Buntering. Renouncing his weakness for “delicious late-night binges of chorizo and cheese”. Admitting that while sounding like Churchill remains the raison d’etre, striving for Winston’s BMI was not a good idea.

Health is devolved of course but Johnson should be unavoidable on the subject. Britain is the fat man of Europe. More than a quarter of us are obese, which is doubling the likelihood that those with Covid-19 will need to follow Johnson into hospital. He’s not liking international comparisons right now but in South Korea, which has coped best with the pandemic, obesity stands at just six per cent.

I hope he’s serious about a major health drive and that he treats it seriously. Johnson will have to be on top of the subject like a Sumo wrestler would his mismatched opponent. Recently we’ve seen enough of him blustering, then turning hopefully left or right to the scientists for help.

Re Sumos, I can make jokes but he can’t. It might be his default position but before Covid-19 our problem with obesity had reached, well, critical mass. And Boris’ Bumper Book of Teasing will be of no use here. In the spirit of his “girly swots” jibe, he recently looked down the ranks of svelte Cabinet colleagues, the ones like Rishi Sunak who don’t resemble actual cabinets, and said: “It’s okay for you thinnies.” He has to be careful on the subject of fat because no one likes to be told they’re overweight.

Struggling to fit into your work-clothes?

He has to be careful, too, with tone. Shock tactics – the tombstone posters from the fight against Aids, shots of what smoking does to lungs – may not work and, in any case, would be tough on us after the devastation caused by the pandemic.

He needs to remember that in England already and Scotland hopefully soon, he’s dealing with folk popping their heads out of the ground after several weeks stuck indoors when passing the fridge every day – walking beyond it – has been a major challenge. Many are nervous about returning to their jobs; some may struggle to fit into their work-clothes.

Of course, there are girly swots who’ve shown more self-discipline and Johnson needs to tap into the uplifting Covid-19 imagery of the streets – the actual streets, right down the middle of the car-less roads – being well-used for exercise, and especially the kind of people you don’t normally see running or cycling. Indeed at the weekend, I spotted a chap of mature years in thrown-together apparel which rivalled Bojo’s for eccentricity.

He needs to persuade us that jogging isn’t just for pandemics. He needs to persuade employers to be more aware of their workers’ health and not just drive us into the ground to try to make up what coronavirus has cost the country economically.

But he also needs to realise that once normal life is back in full swing, exercise can be difficult to fit into the routine. Happily reunited with my bike these past two months, I’d love to be able to cycle to the office but am committed to driving my two-year-old to his child-minder, my daughters to their school and then dropping the car at my wife’s work for pick-up before I catch a bus to mine.

Johnson’s campaign will also need education. It will need councils to stop selling off sports fields, and therefore government to increase funding so they don’t have to. It will need a careful look at whether the “sugar tax” is a help or simply causes us to make other equally unhealthy food choices. And it needs a slogan, an area in which Johnson’s administration has been found wanting recently.

If he doesn’t want us to stay inert then it will have to be better than “Stay Alert”.

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