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U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson urges Britons to slim down to beat COVID-19

The government also announced a series of fat-fighting measures, marking a reversal for Johnson, who has railed against "sin taxes" on fast food.
Boris Johnson jogs near his Oxfordshire home in 2018.
Boris Johnson jogs near his Oxfordshire home in 2018.Ben Cawthra / Sipa USA via AP file

LONDON — Want to beat COVID-19? Then lose weight.

That's the message from Boris Johnson, Britain's boisterous prime minister, who has used his own brush with the coronavirus to urge Britons to shed a few pounds to reduce their risk of catching it.

Johnson released a video Monday saying that he had lost 14 pounds since he was admitted to an intensive care unit at a London hospital in April.

"I've always wanted to lose weight for ages and ages, and like, I think, many people I struggle with my weight, it goes up and down, but since I recovered from coronavirus I've been steadily rebuilding my fitness," he said.

"But when I went into ICU, when I was really ill, I was very, I was way overweight. I'm only about 5 foot 10 you know, on the outside and, you know, I was too fat."

Also on Monday the British government announced a series of fat-fighting measures, including a ban on TV commercials for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9 p.m. The policies marked a reversal for Johnson, a libertarian Conservative who only a year ago was railing against "sin taxes" on fast food as an example of the "nanny state."

In 2006 Johnson offered his support to a group of mothers who made headlines for pushing fast food through the railings of a school where unhealthy snacks were banned. “I say let people eat what they like. Why shouldn’t they push pies through railings?” he said at the time.

Weight is a long-running concern in the U.K., where 27.8 percent of people are obese, according to World Health Organization figures from 2018. Only Turkey, with 32.1 percent, and Malta, with 28.9 percent, rated higher in that study.

Various scientific studies and national health bodies have linked obesity to a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19. In the U.K. almost 8 percent of critically ill COVID-19 patients in intensive care units were morbidly obese, compared to 2.9 percent of the general population, according to U.K. government statistics.

Johnson said he lost weight through a daily morning run with his dog, Dilyn. And aside from reducing the risk from COVID-19, there is another reason he is encouraging people to get active: Obesity is costing the National Health Service billions of pounds.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock wrote in a op-ed piece in The Telegraph on Monday that if every overweight Briton lost just 5 pounds, it would save the NHS 100 million pounds ($128 million) over the next five years.

Johnson's own time in hospital came to symbolize how COVID-19 overwhelmed the U.K. in April and May. Its 45,000 deaths to date is the third highest in the world, and Johnson's government's response has been heavily criticized by public health experts and opposition politicians.

Johnson admitted his team had underestimated just how viral the coronavirus is, in a BBC interview on Friday. "We didn't understand it [the virus] in the way that we would have liked in the first few weeks and months," he said.