The prime minister was on the public health campaign trail last week, attending two public events in Nottingham to share visions of a fitter, happier nation and the private sector's role in supporting it. Laura Donnelly listened in

The prime minister was on the public health campaign trail last week, attending two public events in Nottingham to share visions of a fitter, happier nation and the private sector's role in supporting it. Laura Donnelly listened in


A lesser man might have struggled.

Asked how he intended to raise Britain out of the 'moral stone age', the prime minister hesitated before cautiously suggesting school team sports and a healthier diet might play a part.

The discussion was part of a question and answer session, ostensibly on public health, which followed a speech by Tony Blair on the same topic.

He was talking to a diverse audience at Nottingham's Albert Hall, which appeared to be made up of the city's business community, voluntary services, some successful dieters and the odd anti-war protester who had slipped through the security net. Oh, and the media.

In the speech, Mr Blair set out the direction of travel for public health - or healthy living as he has branded the 'lifestyle' issues facing individuals today.

It was all about empowerment, not nannying. This he contrasted with what had been required in the past, in particular by reforming Victorian legislators and engineers dealing with major sanitation issues

This much we know. So what was he really saying, and to whom?

For the public, the main message was that this government expects individuals to take more responsibility for their well-being. In that respect, the clips which showed on last week's local TV screens aimed to act as a public information service.

Scope for more co-operation

But the speech - which followed presentations by the chief executive of Boots and the managing director of Slimming World - also appeared to be designed to whet their appetites, making the public more receptive, perhaps even demanding of the kinds of health promotion support that the private sector could offer, should the NHS choose to buy in its services.

Mr Blair's enthusiasm was clear: 'There is a vast untapped potential out there for still greater partnership between public, private and voluntary sectors. There is an industry out there in health and fitness, in improving lifestyle choices whose ideas and experience we could harness.'

He also flagged up the 'huge amounts of community facilities, not least in schools, which are often under-used'.

Finally, there was what looked like a shot across the bows to the food industry. On the face of it, Mr Blair simply restated the government's earlier pledge that it will introduce mandatory restrictions on advertising of junk food to children if the voluntary code is proved ineffective by next year.

But his language warning that this government 'has to act' and 'in a tougher way than ever before' in cases where it was 'necessary' - seemed aimed in this area, and he went on to describe the issue of obesity as 'stark'.

He also recounted the 'personal journey' behind his change in attitude. 'I have undergone my own personal journey of change. A few years ago I would have hesitated long and hard over the smoking ban, and perhaps I did. Now, and particularly where children are concerned, I have come to the conclusion we need to be tougher, more active in setting and enforcing standards.'

After Mr Blair's speech, the panel took questions from the floor. These covered the smoking ban, the role of the voluntary sector, tax breaks for small businesses which provide fruit and yoga, the Middle East (twice) the closure of a local mental health unit, and the high salaries of consultants and GPs.

Stone age leadership

Mr Blair was bright, breezy or earnest as required. Until it got to the final question, from a local imam, who warned: 'Giving up fizzy drinks in schools is all very well... but what about the deeper malaise in humanity?'

The imam urged the government to look at how to build characters, and focus on the spiritual and moral dimension, and won a round of (slightly bemused) applause as he asked: 'Will you lead us out of the moral stone age?'

Mr Blair agreed the question was important. Then there was a pause, before he offered the thought that 'playing team sports at school is character building... people who eat more healthy food have fewer behavioural problems.'

But in the end he conceded we are not just what we eat, called for the churches and public to do their bit, and reminded the audience: 'One thing I've learned in government is we don't have all the answers.'