The best thing that can be said about the government’s latest anti-obesity scheme is that it's cheap. For now. The new HeadsUp app, which will track people’s diet and exercise regimes and reward them with cinema tickets, clothes vouchers and the like, has a price tag of £3 million. This is peanuts in public health terms. The NHS burns through £3 million every eight minutes. It amounts to 4p for every man, woman and child in the UK.
The bad news is that it is only a pilot scheme. If bribing people with their own money is seen to ‘improve rates of physical activity and inspire healthier eating’, as the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (formerly Public Health England) expects, it will go nationwide and the budget will rocket upwards. Four pence per person is nowhere enough to provide ‘vouchers, merchandise, discounts and gift cards’ for everyone who signs up to put more carrots in their shopping basket and increase their step count. It will barely pay for the admin.
According to the government’s press release, the app will monitor your behaviour, make suggestions and reward you for living a healthier lifestyle:
“From January 2022, a pilot will see users wear wrist-worn devices that can generate personalised health recommendations, such as increasing their step count, eating more fruit and vegetables and decreasing portion size.Users will collect points for these healthy behaviours which will unlock rewards, which could include gym passes, clothes or food vouchers and discounts for shops, cinema or theme park tickets.
The most likely beneficiaries of this are those who eat their greens and enjoy jogging; the kind of people who have for years been wearing ‘wrist-worn devices that can generate personalised health recommendations’, such as FitBits. We will be giving free gym passes to people who already go to the gym.
It will also appeal to people who know how to game the system. The app might be able to track the number of steps you make, but will it really be able to tell if you’ve reduced the amount of food on your plate? It will know how many vegetables you have bought, but it won’t know whether you’ve eaten them or not. Buying some cheap veg once a week may be a small price to pay for a free ticket to Alton Towers.
Before you know it, we will have a paternalistic social credit system that is wide open to low-level fraud and that redistributes wealth up towards the already health-conscious middle classes. The app could easily be adapted to take account of the consumption — or at least purchase — of alcohol, tobacco or anything else the Office for Health Promotion disapproves of, with citizens rewarded or penalised as it sees fit. Penalised? Yes, because paying more tax for a scheme that doesn’t benefit you is not meaningfully different to a fine.
There is a good chance that the HeadsUp app will be another government IT disaster and will never be heard of again after the trial ends next summer, but it should never have been given the green light in the first place. Not only is it Orwellian for the state to track your footsteps and monitor your shopping and eating habits, it will create a two-tier society in which those who follow the often dubious advice from public health authorities will be subsidised by those who do not (or indeed cannot). Ludicrously, Health Secretary Sajid Javid is portraying this scheme as part of the ‘levelling up agenda’.
Ever since Boris Johnson was hospitalised with Covid-19 last year, the government has been obsessed with fat people. Any policy proposed by the nanny state lobby, no matter how daft or illiberal, is now likely to become law. Ideas that the Prime Minister would have laughed at when he was a journalist, such as a ban on cheese advertising, are currently making their way through parliament. The Conservatives seem happy to lose their reputation for being the party of business and free markets for the sake of regulation that is almost certain to fail. By embracing this app, which Johnson would have once described as a panopticon of paternalism, they risk sacrificing what’s left of their reputation of being the party of limited government.