Minister accused of scapegoating after blaming Covid death toll on

George Freeman, the newly-appointed Science Minister, has been accused of “scapegoating governmental inaction” by blaming the UK’s high Covid death toll on obesity.

The minister made the accusation on BBC’s World at One this afternoon, where he sought to explain the high number of UK fatalities on “heavy” levels of obesity and other chronic diseases.

After being asked if the Government should issue an apology in the wake of a damning report into the country’s handling of the pandemic, he said: “It’s too early for any proper discussion about blame and fault.

“This was a biomedical battle of Britain.”

Host Sarah Montague interjected: “But our death toll is so much higher than so many other countries.”

In response, Mr Freeman said: “Yeah well a lot of that is actually to do with the very very heavy obesity related, cardio-metabolic chronic disease cohort that we have been carrying for years.

“That is a failure of public health in this country over decades.”

But his explanation of the UK’s death toll, which has recorded the eighth highest number of fatalities in the world with over 137,000 deaths, has been rebuked by a leading expert.

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Dr David Strain, the clinical lead for Covid services at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, told the i his claim was “simply not true”.

“At the best this comment is scapegoating for governmental inaction early in the pandemic whilst is highly inflammatory against a population who have underlying metabolic disease,” he said.

“The example to counter this would be Saudi Arabia that has much higher rates of obesity but a co-ordinated central response prevented anything like the death toll we have seen.”

Saudia Arabia has recorded under 10,000 Covid-related deaths since the start of the pandemic and has a significantly higher obesity rate in both the male and female adult population.

Just under a third (32 per cent) of male adults and 44 per cent of female adults are obese in Saudia Arabia, compared to 28 per cent and 30 percent respectively in the UK, according to figures by the Global Obesity Observatory.

Moreover, separate figures show the UK is ranked 33rd in the world for obesity with 27.8 per cent of the adult population being classed as obese, while Saudi Arabia iss ranked 14th with 35.4 per cent.

Dr Simon Clarke, an Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading, also refuted the minister’s claim.

He wrote on Twitter: “Just heard George Freeman on BBC World at One blame obesity and cardiovascular disease for the UK’s Covid-19 experience.

“That’s slippery garbage! Case numbers: UK 8.2M (pop 68M), Germany 4.3M (pop 84M) – it’s because so many people were infected that so many people died.”

What is a healthy BMI?

BMI is calculated by dividing an adult’s weight in kilograms by their height in metres squared.

BMI is split into four classifications: ‘underweight’, ‘healthy weight’, ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’, as defined by the World Health Organization.

If your BMI is:

  • Under 18.5 – you are considered underweight and possibly malnourished
  • 18.5 to 24.9 – you are within a healthy weight range for young and middle-aged adults
  • 25.0 to 29.9 – you are considered overweight
  • Over 30 – you are considered obese.

Obesity has emerged as a strong risk factor for Covid-19, with several studies indicating it is associated with increased risk of severe disease, hospitalisation and death.

This is because obesity has been found to weaken the immune system, thus making the individual susceptible to infectious diseases.

One study, that looked at associated between body-mass index (BMI) and Covid-19 severity in 6-9 million people in England, found that a BMI greater than 23 is associated with increased risks, particularly in patients younger than 40 years old.

The authors stated: “People with excess weight, even without other comorbidities, are at substantially increased risk of admission to hospital and ICU and death due to Covid-19, especially for younger adults and Black people.”

In March this year the World Obesity Federation found Covid-19 death rates are 10 times higher in countries where more than half of the adult population is classified as overweight.

A person is considered overweight if their BMI exceeds 25, while obesity is a BMI of more than 30.

At the time of the study it used the UK’s Covid figures as an example and said: “The UK has the third highest death rate globally (184 deaths per 100 000) and the fourth highest prevalence of overweight at 63.7 per cent.”

Meanwhile developed countries like Japan and Taiwan, which have much lower obesity rates, have much lower Covid death rates.

But obesity isn’t the only risk-factor for Covid, with hypertension, cancer, diabetes and heart diseases also associated with a higher risk of severe illness.

Age is considered the single biggest risk factor for death and severe disease from Covid-19, according to the UK’s government scientists.

Last night a damning report by the cross-party Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, found serious errors and delays led to “many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided” during the pandemic.

Decisions and advice on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic “rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced,” they said.

The study also claimed it was a “serious early error” not to introduce lockdown sooner.

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