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Public health ‘sidelined’ in post-Brexit trade talks

New trade commission contains no public health representation.
16 July 2020 , Katie Coyne

The commission advising the government on Brexit trade talks has no public health organisation among its membership, fuelling fears that trade talks will not properly consider health impacts.

The Trade and Agriculture Commission was announced at the end of last week, and has 16 organisations sitting on it – mostly from farming, retail and hospitality. It is chaired by Tim Smith, ex-Tesco technical director and former Food Standards Agency chief executive.

Establishing the commission was supposed to be an answer to the concerns raised by a number of high profile campaigns around food, animal welfare, and environmental standards; that they should not be sacrificed in order to secure trade deals.

But there is no public health body, and only one environmental group, sitting on the commission, even though access to healthy affordable food is a key plank in good public health outcomes.

The new CEO of the Royal Society for Public Health, Christina Marriott, has questioned this decision. She said: “It is an oversight to have omitted public health representation from the Trade and Agriculture Commission. The food we grow and eat plays a significant role in health outcomes, particularly in relation to obesity and its associated consequences.”

Almost a quarter of adults are obese, according to the Nuffield Trust, with more than a quarter overweight. If we do nothing 70% of adults are expected to be obese or overweight by 2034. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reported to be planning a “war on obesity” noting the costs to the NHS and society, and believes that being overweight caused him to suffer more severely after contracting COVID-19. Growing evidence has shown obesity to be a risk factor in COVID-19 complications.

Marriott added: “The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need to build a healthier, more resilient population. We need to ensure that the foundations for this, such as having equal access to healthy, nutritious food, are in place. Public health experts can play their part in improving health beyond the remit of COVID-19, and would be a welcome addition to the commission membership.”

The Faculty of Public Health agreed it was a huge oversight to not have public health represented on the commission.

The commission will provide the government with an advisory report in six months. But trade talks are already currently under way, and it has no powers to ensure any of its recommendations are taken, which has led to criticism. Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, the food and farming alliance, said the British public was being “fobbed off with a temporary, toothless trade commission with no powers”.

Gary McFarlane, CIEH director of Northern Ireland with a special interest in food and Brexit, said: “It is with some considerable disappointment that despite the government’s claim to the contrary we see little evidence of any expertise on environment issues represented in the makeup of this group. And certainly no public health expertise.

"We will await sight of the detailed terms of reference, but our concerns regarding proper consideration of the potential impacts on both the environment and public health in the context of any new trade deals remain.”

EHN Extra approached the Department for International Trade for comment but they declined. However, they did say the commission has ensured that there is a cross-section of representatives across agriculture, consumer, animal health, international development, hospitality, food SMEs and retail.

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