FAST FOOD giants have “leveraged the pandemic for commercial gain” despite growing evidence that obesity and diabetes increase the risk of severe or fatal complications from Covid infection, according to a major new report.

Manufacturers of ultra-processed foods along with tobacco companies and alcohol brands “rapidly” adapted their marketing strategies to boost sales during lockdown and create a “health halo” on products known to harm public health, for example through donations of doughnuts or burgers to frontline emergency workers.

HeraldScotland: Camley's Cartoon: Fast food giants 'cash in on pandemic'Camley's Cartoon: Fast food giants 'cash in on pandemic'

Professor Linda Bauld, an expert in public health at Edinburgh University and director of SPECTRUM, the multi-university consortium which led the international study, said this was important because there are clear links between the consumption of junk food, smoking and alcohol, and conditions - such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and some cancers - that put people at greatest risk from Covid.

Prof Bauld said: “One of the reasons why so many countries have been hard hit is not just a lack of public health infrastructure, but the fundamental vulnerability of their populations.

“One of the major reasons for that vulnerability are these non-communicable diseases - and many of these NCDs are directly caused by the products that these companies make.”

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Katie Dain, chief executive of the NCD Alliance, which also collaborated on the report, added: “There is a well-documented history of unhealthy commodity industries infiltrating public health organisations, subverting science, and interfering with and undermining public policies.

“Pre-Covid-19 this is something which has been charted and monitored extensively, and it has been a major barrier to progress on NCDs.”

Researchers gathered 786 examples from more than 90 countries of marketing, lobbying and public relations tactics deployed during the pandemic.

These included a Subway franchise in Canada which offered one free facemask in exchange for purchasing two sub rolls, suggesting that this was a great way to “protect you and your kids”.

In the US, Burger King waived delivery fees to encourage people to “stay home”, while donating 250,000 burgers to American nurses.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s in Missouri was offering a free ‘thank you meal’ to healthcare workers, and encouraging them to share selfies about it on social media.

This was echoed by doughnut giant Krispy Kreme "serving smiles" by offering New Zealand’s frontline workers, US healthcare workers and key workers in the UK free packs of doughnuts when displaying a healthcare worker ID.

Krispy Kreme also made a high profile large donation of doughnuts to UK healthcare workers, triggering a cascade of "gushing" thank you messages and "viral visibility at a time when they were reducing spending on their marketing budget in other ways".

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Coca-Cola expressed its thanks to healthcare workers in Mexico by emblazoning cans and bottles with 'gracias'.

“It’s been really interesting how rapidly brands have adapted their labelling of alcohol, food and beverage products at a time when those exact same industries are resisting evidence-informed nutrition and health labelling of these products," said Lucinda Westerman, policy manager at the NCD Alliance.

The researchers note that the alcohol industry successfully lobbied the UK Government to include off-licences among its list of essential shops which could stay open during lockdown, with alcohol home delivery sales also permitted by some local authorities in Scotland and England.

In Australia, representatives of the alcohol industry lobbied the state government in Western Australia to relax restrictions on take-away alcohol sales "on the basis that these unfairly penalised local business and that alcohol is 'a way of life for many Australians and in moderation it’s good for your health'".

The authors warn that there is also evidence of these commercial industries seizing on the crisis "as an opportunity to shape policies in the longer term", for example by lowering sales taxes on alcohol or relaxing licensing laws.

The report cites the example of the Scotch Whisky Association calling for the Scottish Government "to abandon proposed advertising restrictions and [offering] to engage in 'a sustained dialogue with government on smart taxation' in order to support the post-Covid-19 recovery."

The report, entitled 'Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm', comes as it emerged that the UK Government plans to invest £100 billion on a massive expansion of the country's testing capacity which would enable the entire population to be tested for Covid once a week from early 2021.

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The details were set out in a leaked briefing memo sent to the First Minister and cabinet secretaries in Scotland.

According to the British Medical Journal, which reported that it has seen the document, the government will roll out testing in workplaces, entertainment venues, and football stadiums, and at GP surgeries, pharmacies, and schools in a bid to steer the country closer to normal life until a vaccine becomes available.

It will also introduce digital immunity passports to allow people who test negative to return to workplaces, travel, and participate in other activities.

However, critics expressed concern over the proposals' heavy reliance on the private sector, with GSK earmarked to supply tests, AstraZeneca for lab capacity, and Serco and G4s for logistics and warehousing.

Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics at Birmingham University and leader of the Cochrane Collaboration’s Covid-19 test evaluation activities, warned that mass testing could lead to “substantial economic harm and massive need for further testing.”

In England, social gatherings will be capped at six people from Monday amid a spike in Covid cases.

Nicola Sturgeon said she cannot rule out a similar move in Scotland - where the indoor maximum is eight in non-restricted zones - as she confirmed 159 new cases and 274 people in hospital, up by 30 in 72 hours.

The First Minister said the average number of daily positive cases has trebled in three weeks, from 52 to 155, adding that the country is "currently at a very dangerous point".

She said: "We are carefully reviewing existing guidance and regulation, as well as considering what new steps may be necessary."