This year’s Budget is further evidence of politicians’ unwillingness to address an ‘inactivity time bomb’ that in time will undermine our economy, explains Dr Daniel Fitzpatrick.
Lower unemployment and improved growth forecasts made this year’s Budget a much happier one for George Osborne. He was helped by the surprising news that most people in the UK seem relatively content, despite falling real incomes and rising living costs. The Office for National Statistics has reported that 77% were satisfied with their lives in 2012/13 – up from 75.9% in 2011/12.
But the full impact of austerity is not just material. Complex and intersecting public health and social problems are on their way. That same ONS report found that a growing proportion of people are concerned about their health and fitness. Some 58.6% of adults aged 16 and over were somewhat, mostly or completely satisfied with their general health in 2011/12, down from 65.6% in 2010/11 and 68.3% in 2009/10.
The Sport and Recreation Alliance argue we face an ‘inactivity time bomb’ unless drastic action is taken. The impact of physical (in)activity on public health is clear: the four Chief Medical Officers for the UK estimate there is a 30% reduction in risk for all-cause mortality when the most active are compared with the least active.
The economic consequences of inactivity are equally stark: chronic conditions – such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety, dementia and type 2 diabetes – cost the NHS £10,000 every 10 seconds. The increasingly sedentary lifestyle of the population must be arrested if costs to the Treasury are not to spiral further out of control.
Andy Reed, Chair of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, is right to say: “Human inactivity costs the economy literally billions of pounds per year which is simply unsustainable … tackle the cost of inactivity and you could drastically cut the government deficit.”
Yet the issue of physical activity is without any meaningful policy focus – let alone a joined-up approach across government – despite the economic, social and public health benefits on offer. No department or agency has a statutory responsibility for physical activity.
The Shadow Secretary of Health, the Rt. Hon Andy Burnham, argues it is an “orphan policy in Whitehall: seen as someone else’s responsibility or a distraction from core business”. Sport England made limited gains in increasing participation in organised sport. There is now an urgent need to expand the policy focus beyond ‘recognised sports’ to physical activity more generally.
The 2014 Budget remained largely silent on sport and physical activity. Limited and modest legislative changes around tax relief on gift aid to community sport clubs and charities were focused on established sports. There were no investments or incentives on offer to promote physical activity to the general population.
Part of the problem is cultural. Ministers and officials see elite sport as the priority. Grassroots sport is way down the priorities and physical activity receives even less consideration. Where there are policies, they invariably do more harm than good. An example is education secretary Michael Gove’s promotion of ‘extra physical activity such as running round a school playing field’ as a suitable sanction for disruptive pupils.
This ‘traditional’ approach to physical activity sees conventional team sports cricket, rugby and football as intrinsically ‘better’ than minority sports and other physical activities. The integration of these ‘character-building sports’ into the ‘fabric’ of state schools is central to Gove’s plan to ‘tear down the Berlin Wall between the state and independent schools’.
As Paul Weller sang: “All that rugby puts hairs on your chest,
What chance have you got against a tie and a crest.”
There are two crucial problems with Gove’s policy on school sport. First, there is little evidence that sport per se ‘improves a young person’s character’. Second, the political reality of sports funding in the ‘age of austerity’ diverges sharply from the rhetoric.
A panel of four speakers challenged the conventional wisdom on sports policy at Manchester Policy Week in November. John Amaechi OBE highlighted a paradox: why do we expect magical outcomes from sport when the inputs are so weak? John argued it is ludicrous to believe organised sport – as distinct from physical activity – has an intrinsic quality that can solve some of society’s ‘wicked problems’. Yet, John argues, this is the premise upon which sports policy is based: “that the aroma of a football rolling across turf at Wembley will turn fat children thin … indolent children active”.
For John Amaechi, sport is the “Lehman Bros. of social initiatives: it promises massive returns for little investment, as long as you give it little oversight.”
Michael Gove’s promotion of traditional team sports shows that his view of sport is filtered through the ideological prism of his independent school educational experience. There is an element of groupthink here, given that other government ministers are, as Gove has pointed out, ‘ridiculously’ Etonians almost to a man. Their formative experiences were shaped by an admiration for the strong characters of the cricket and rugby teams. They dismiss other and newer physical activities as irrelevant. Yet there is no reason to assume that Zumba should be less positively transformative than rugby union.
Without addressing these cultural biases endemic within Westminster and Whitehall, any ‘green shoots’ of economic recovery will be undermined by a weak foundation of an ageing and increasingly immobile and unhealthy population. This will pose unsustainable stress on the NHS and the welfare state.
The health and resilience of people, not of the economy, is the real ‘wicked problem’ that must be tackled.