Today is Healthy Living Day down at the Assembly. AMs will be taking part in tai chi lessons and laughter therapy. But will it inspire the rest of us to make a difference to our lifestyles, asks Daniel Davies
HAVING made such a fine mess of the NHS, Labour politicians today launch a cunning plan to improve the health of the nation.
They are going to stop us becoming ill in the first place.
Ingenious. And how do they propose to do this? Caerphilly AM Jeff Cuthbert is leading by example. He has launched an Assembly all-party Healthy Living Group.
Its aim, he says, is to bring together politicians, charities and the food industry to see how we can all get healthy.
An entirely laudable aim. Politicians are supposed to bang heads together.
It all begins today with Healthy Living Day. He has roped AMs, their staff and civil servants into showing us all how to get fit. They will all have to do something healthy, like go for a walk at lunch time or enrol in laughter therapy.
I am yet to track Mr Cuthbert down to ask him what this is, though I am hoping it will mean dispensing with plenary session so Rhodri can show the chamber his stand-up routine. One might have difficulty telling the difference however.
Incidentally, Mr Cuthbert has a strong record on arranging extra-curricular activities for AMs. Other events include inviting Eurovision failure James Fox, one of his constituents, to sing at the Assembly.
Mr Cuthbert is to be applauded for wanting to make Wales a healthier nation. Indeed the nation's lack of health may have contributed to the pressure on the NHS as much as the ineptitude of politicians.
The number of South Wales towns and villages listed among the most unhealthy in the UK is worrying. The unwelcome accolade of Britain's most ill conurbation is currently held by Croeserw, in the picturesque Afan Valley.
The reason why is not surprising. It's the economy, stupid. Much of South Wales is still feeling the legacy of industrial decline. Once the health of communities was blighted because people had dangerous jobs in coal mines and steelworks, now their health is blighted because they have no jobs at all. Croeserw also has the second lowest rate of car ownership in the UK. "Good," you might say. "They can walk themselves to fitness." Not so. Poor people have poor diets.
So who is Croeserw's AM? Interestingly enough, it is recently appointed Health Minister Brian Gibbons. When census data named Croeserw Britain's sickest place in July last year, Dr Gibbons was deputy minister for economic development and transport.
At the time he explained the situation to the Western Mail by saying "upland valley communities" are full of old people.
"If you are young and healthy you are more likely to move out of the area than if you are ill," he said. He also told us to wait for the imminent improvement now that things had "bottomed out".
I'm struggling to see where the improvement will come from if all the young and clever people move out, leaving behind only the sick and elderly. Long-term illnesses are a sure sign of social deprivation. And social deprivation in Wales is followed by illness. The pattern does not look likely to be broken in the near future without radical change, either. Children's charity NCH says its research found one in five families currently cannot afford to feed their children satisfactorily.
Wales is poor - poorer than parts of former Yugoslavia, if EU officials' calculations of GDP are to be believed. Wales is also poorly - its waiting lists are much longer than England's. The evidence is everywhere.
Last year we reported official statistics showing that the rate of birth defects in Wales is three time higher than in England. In every category listed, especially the heart, a child is more likely to have something seriously wrong if they were born in Wales than England.
Unless this is some sort of statistical anomaly, can someone please tell us why it is happening? It is an absolute scandal that deserves, it has been suggested, to be on the front page every day.
So Jeff Cuthbert's desire to get us healthy is not to be sniffed at. But AMs have long known that poor health and poverty are a dangerous combination. Of course Mr Cuthbert's initiative is not the full extent of work being done by the Assembly Government to tackle ill-health in Wales. This week it launched television adverts for a get-fit drive. It's all part of Health Challenge Wales.
Many people will be sceptical as to whether the people of Croeserw, or any part of Wales, will suddenly decide to walk to work instead of driving, because someone told Jeff Cuthbert it might be a good way to highlight his campaign.
Last year I was told by a GP that I would have to wait 18 months to see a consultant. That was an improvement on recent years, he consoled me. I was lucky enough to be able to pay £100 to go private where I got the all clear.
Somehow I doubt "laughter therapy" will bring a smile to the face to the many patients less fortunate than me.