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Obese? Need nanny’s help? Don’t rely on the Tories, baffled by today’s world | Nick Cohen

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Conservatives look like cranks today, not because of personal failings of this or that politician, but because they cannot deal with the crises of the modern world. It’s not that they don’t have answers – rightwing thinkers spit them out faster than a machine gun fires bullets. It’s just that their answers are irrelevant and, even in Tory terms, self-defeating.

All viable responses to global warming, vaccination, the job losses artificial intelligence will bring and failing public health enhance the role of the state. It must provide jobs and benefits to society’s losers, protect their health and drastically reconfigure markets to sustain the planet. Small states that allow sovereign individuals and companies to decide for themselves now feel as antiquated as Margaret Thatcher’s handbag and pearls.

At best, Conservatives will the ends but not the means, as the Johnson government does with the climate crisis and protecting the NHS from the Covid pandemic. At worst, they retreat from modernity into denial and conspiratorial gibberish.

I know of no better example of the inability of the right to face the world in front of its eyes than the collapse in public health, which will become ever more visible as 2022 progresses.

Inflation and tax rises are pushing a great segment of the population into poverty or a place close to it. In ways that would astonish our forebears, poverty will produce obesity. Anyone in the government who has cared to study the crisis knows that the cheapest meals are no longer vegetables and rice, potatoes or bread, the traditional diet of the poor. Now, they are ultra-processed industrial foods, whose manufacturers use the cheapest and least nutritious ingredients and economies of scale to keep the price as low as possible and lashings of fat, sugar or salt to make their gunk palatable. Government knows it, but will do next to nothing about it.

Tim Lang, the author of Feeding Britain, refers me to studies showing the UK had the worst diet in Europe, with half of all food bought processed to the nth degree. The result is hundreds of thousands suffering avoidable deaths or years of painful and cramped lives as they deal with the chronic illnesses fatness brings: cancer, heart disease, strokes, dementia and, indeed, Covid.

The moral argument for preventing needless pain is overwhelming. Even the most hard-hearted Tories, meanwhile, should want to limit the escalating costs of healthcare if only to hold on to their money. The NHS spends £18bn a year treating obesity-related conditions, a figure that can only rise. Dreadful diets mean higher taxes.

They cannot bring themselves to act, just as they cannot bring themselves to tell the UK’s Novak Djokovices that there is a price to pay for refusing to be vaccinated or level with the public on the revolutionary changes to national life a serious attempt to cope with climate change will bring.

The best the Conservatives could manage was to commission Henry Dimbleby to produce a national food strategy. Last summer, it recommended the government intervene to produce a long-term shift in eating habits, that sugar and salt be regarded as modern versions of tobacco and taxed accordingly, and that the government protect food standards in trade agreements.

The report was criticised for treating food poverty as a distinct condition. Our own Jay Rayner, the Robespierre of radical restaurant critics, roared there is no such thing as food poverty, there’s only poverty. The best way to deal with today’s fall in living standards is to listen to Marcus Rashford and restore the cuts to universal credit.

Dimbleby is indeed a classic establishment figure: fathered by David, schooled by Eton. But that is what makes him interesting. He offered Tories the chance to modify rather than overthrow their beliefs. Throughout its history, the Conservative party has survived by making concessions to shifting times the better to ensure that it stayed in control of change. “Tory men, Whig measures”, as Disraeli put it.

Now it cannot adapt or concede. Ministers have sat on the Dimbleby report for months. In cabinet, all the familiar arguments are heard against, in that tellingly upper-class phrase, the “nanny state” interfering with free markets and freedom of choice. Civil servants are muttering that better health labelling on food products is as far as their political masters will go.

Readers may scoff at Conservatives babbling about nannies. But there is a long tradition of leftwingers worrying about the middle classes telling the working classes what to do.

“The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots,” wrote George Orwell in 1936. “When you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’.” In other words, it’s not that worries are not justified. It’s just that they provide no solutions.

History isn’t an exam. No teacher rewards the students who get the questions right. Maybe Conservative politicians can prosper by riding the reaction against the costs of the push towards net zero. Donald Trump has already shown them the way.

But whatever electoral success they continue to enjoy, Conservatives can see the world Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan created collapsing. They fear a prim and constricted future when the state represses enterprise, tells you what to eat, how often you can fly, when to be vaccinated, how you must heat your home and what type of car you can drive, if any. But then, when the current wave of conservatism began in the 1980s, leftwing critics saw how it would lead to a corrupt and divided future. If Thatcher wins, said Neil Kinnock, in 1983, “I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, I warn you not to get old”. His oratory and foresight did the Labour party no good because the left no longer seemed to have credible solutions.

Now it is Conservatives who cannot respond to change. The 21st century baffles them. They don’t know what to do about it. This is why, for all their apparent self-confidence, so many speeches by Conservative politicians and articles by Conservative thinkers sound more than a little unhinged.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



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17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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