State-run app will offer rewards for beating obesity – but there’s fat chance of cheating the system

A government app to incentivise healthy living will use QR codes at gyms and parkruns to verify activity and prevent users cheating the system, the man leading the scheme has suggested.

People will also be able to choose their own rewards, which could include practical benefits such as food and fuel vouchers.

The new government-backed rewards programme aims to encourage families to switch to healthier food and take up more exercise under radical plans to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis.

A pilot version will launch at the start of next year in one region and, if successful, will be rolled out across the country.

Around three-fifths (63 per cent) of adults in England are overweight and 28 per cent are considered obese.

Boris Johnson revealed a raft of measures during the summer to tackle obesity

Credit: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Sir Keith Mills, the entrepreneur behind air miles and the Nectar card scheme, was tasked by No 10 to lead the programme. 

It comes after Boris Johnson launched a raft of measures this summer to tackle obesity in Britain, which included ending “buy one, get one free” deals on unhealthy food.

The app will track people’s healthy habits and allow them to “collect currency” that can be redeemed for a range of rewards, including cinema and theme park tickets, Sir Keith said at the UKactive conference on Wednesday.

How does it work?

Speaking exclusively to The Telegraph after his speech, Sir Keith said the biggest challenge for the app was verifying a person’s activity and measuring the impact of the programme.

Sir Keith Mills is leading the new programme

Credit: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

“My experience of running very, very large programmes is that a small percentage, usually less than 10 per cent of people that join, cheat,” he said. 

Details of the software that will be used to track a person’s activity are still being worked on, but are likely to include a QR code check-in system, he added.

“You would turn up [at a park run], you’d show your phone, which would have a QR code on it,” he said.

While it would not track a runner all the way around the 5k, “it will say you’ve turned up to run”, he added.

“And if you join Weight Watchers, you have to take your phone every week and get it scanned so we know you’re going,” Sir Keith said.

“It’s not rocket science, but the object of the exercise isn’t just join the programme and tell us you’ve lost 20lbs and you get rewarded, that’s not the way it’s going to work,” he said.

It could also be possible to validate a participant’s progress during the programme by working with pharmacies to install electronic scales inside stores to scan a person’s QR code and record their weight.

A user’s supermarket shop could also be tracked through the app by linking it to the retailer’s loyalty card scheme, Sir Keith explained.

Supermarkets ‘very willing’ to take part

A person’s supermarket shop could also be tracked through the app by linking it to the retailer’s loyalty card scheme, Sir Keith explained.

Discussions are ongoing with major supermarkets, but early indications showed they were "very willing" to take part, he said. 

Healthy food, including fruit and vegetables, in a person’s shop would earn them points and technology to track how many calories are in your basket could also be used. "If your calories next week are down, you could get rewarded for it,” Sir Keith said.

A company has now been awarded the contract to run the scheme but details of the firm are yet to be disclosed. It is understood a master contractor will oversee the project and outsource some elements to other companies. Sir Keith will stay on to advise the programme.

Rewards will be based on what incentivises people to stick to permanent healthy life choices and these could differ depending on geographic regions and even socio-economic status, Sir Keith said.

Rewards can be ‘effective in changing behaviour’

Asked if rewards such as energy, fuel or food vouchers could be offered through the scheme, he indicated they are a possibility.

The options available will be driven by public choice “providing the rewards are healthy”, he said. 

"The most important thing, and this is crucial, the reason these programs are successful, is they’re run digitally and you get to know what it is people really want,” he said. 

“If you provide things that people want, you can be quite effective in changing their behavior.”

The rewards available have got to be “relevant” to the individual, he said. 

“It’s no good trying to encourage somebody to go to a leisure centre, if they live 20 miles away and they don’t have a car,” he added.

“The object is to try and have a program that is relevant or flexible for whoever you are, wherever you live, wherever you are on the economic scale."

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