By Ellie Chapman, Head of Food & Health, ShareAction

We’re facing a health crisis of an unprecedented scale.

Often taken for granted as a constant in our society, the UK’s NHS is being pushed to the brink.

New hospitals are being built across the country, as doctors and nurses are pulled out of retirement to boost the workforce: our modern-day heroes.

And while the focus is on the day-to-day struggle to contain this virus, and ensure daily life can resume without threat, there is also a wider conversation that must be had.


The Covid-19 pandemic and the health of society

The Covid-19 pandemic shows the vital importance of a healthy society.

Every day, journalists, commentators, health and government officials are telling us that those with underlying health conditions – many of them preventable – are more at risk. Their lives have ground to a halt as they isolate in their homes, without even the respite of a shopping trip or daily exercise.

Early data shows that many of these preventable conditions are fuelled by obesity, such as heart-disease and type 2 diabetes. Nearly 73 per cent of patients in intensive care wards are overweight or obese, according to Intensive Care National Audit & Research Centre.

This has both immediate and long-term implications.

Poor diets are one of the largest causes of ill-health globally – and the food options available to us are often determined by our environment.

For too long high-sugar, high-fat and processed foods have been in the spotlight, fuelling an obesity crisis. Unhealthy options are heavily marketed, and supermarket promotions centre around them. Families are often left unable to afford – or even find – healthy alternatives.

Supermarkets have played a huge role in this trend. They dominate food sales and increasingly the production of it too, with some 51% of the grocery market comprised of supermarkets’ own brand products.


Supermarkets: a pillar of society

This crisis shows the vital role supermarkets have in society. They are working tirelessly to keep the nation fed, while at the same time protecting shoppers and supporting the vulnerable and key workers most exposed to the risks of coronavirus.

From dedicated shopping hours, to one-way systems in store and increased deliveries, they have adapted quickly to the new normal.

The positive role they are having can continue. We’re cooking at home more than ever, with restaurants closed and take-aways reduced. This means the roles of supermarkets in providing healthy options is bigger than ever.

To cope with rising demand supermarkets have already streamlined product lines. As they continue to react to the pressure the pandemic has placed on supply chains, it is vital they prioritise keeping our society healthy by making sure nutritious products are available and affordable for all.

And with more people shopping online, they are less likely to fall foul of special offers, impulse buying and end of aisle promotions of sweets, crisps and other unhealthy food options. Supermarkets can help with this by ensuring online shoppers are not seeing unhealthy ads, but are instead nudged to select healthy foods.


Rebuilding a resilient society

The role of supermarkets doesn’t stop with this pandemic.

It is often the poorest in our society – those facing low wages, and precarious working conditions – that are most at risk from rising obesity. These are also the groups that will be hardest hit from the economic fall-out of this pandemic. As we look to rebuild, supermarkets – and those that invest in them – must prioritize health and support everyone to access healthy and affordable food.

In doing so, we will be making a society that is more resilient to public health issues in the future.

We know that when it comes to health, prevention is better than cure. And by reducing the burden of preventable diseases, many of which are fuelled by unhealthy diets, we will not only work to protect our society against future unseen shocks, but our NHS too.


The role of investors

Covid-19 shows the significant systemic threat of public health issues.

We are only beginning to touch the sides of the economic fall-out of this pandemic, and the decisions made now to address the on-going challenges will have impact for years to come.

While first priority must be protection – in slowing the spread of the disease and ensuring companies are shielding their workers from its health and economic impacts – looking past this pandemic there are important lesson for investors.

Public health needs to be taken seriously within Environment, Social and Governance principles. It needs to be incorporated into responsible investment.

Our diets are central to our health – they are good place to start.

Two in every three pounds spent on food in the UK goes to supermarkets. It has never been more important for them to prioritise the health of society, yet we still have little understanding of just how they are doing this.

Investors must continue to work with supermarkets, both through and beyond this crisis to raise the prominence of health, and ensure they work to support healthier diets and societies.