‘We can’t bash people over the head and tell them to go on diets’

NEW CHALLENGE Paul Edmondson-Jones who is leaving Portsmouth City Council as director of public health. Picture: Ian Hargreaves  (122569-1)
NEW CHALLENGE Paul Edmondson-Jones who is leaving Portsmouth City Council as director of public health. Picture: Ian Hargreaves (122569-1)
Shadwell Road, North End. Picture by Google Maps

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We grab a coffee from the kiosk in Guildhall Square and head back to Paul Edmondson-Jones’s eyrie of an office overlooking the heart of Portsmouth.

As we enter the civic offices a very fat woman waddles and wobbles past. She’s pushing a double buggy and pants heavily.

Both children – and they look far too large not to be walking anyway – are swigging from bottles of cola.

Their timing is ironic, for Paul has devoted the past decade attempting to reduce obesity, encourage physical fitness and save children’s teeth. Among many other things.

But the moment is lost on the 58-year-old. It’s his penultimate day as the director of public health for Portsmouth. He’s off to York to do the same job. He has an office to clear and needs to ‘lend a hand’ to wife Amanda who’s packing up the house.

The fat woman and her sugar-addicted offspring are not an uncommon sight on the streets of Portsmouth, nor anywhere else in the UK these days.

But Paul’s enthusiasm for improving the lifestyle and health of the 200,000 or so people of the city is undimmed.

Since he arrived, the life expectancy of both sexes, particularly women, has increased to above the average for England. Ten years ago if you lived in Portsmouth you could expect a shorter life than someone in, say, Gloucester.

He has made spectacular progress in getting people to quit smoking, has driven hard-hitting campaigns to tackle teenage pregnancies, alcohol abuse and violence against women and girls.

And there’s been the small matter of creating a new tranche of NHS dentists.

But Paul is clear where the next target, and that of his successor, lies. And here comes the nod to that panting mum.

‘Persuading people to take up some form of physical activity is the one we have to crack next,’ he says. ‘Yes, people are giving up smoking, but obesity is a massive problem.’ He doesn’t excuse the pun.

‘We can’t bash people over the head and tell them to go on diets. That won’t work. The key is to get them to take regular exercise.

‘We have become a very sedentary population and we can all make the excuse that we’re too busy to exercise.

‘We drive rather than walk, we’re frightened of getting wet in the rain. But getting exercise, especially in a place like Portsmouth, is so easy and doesn’t have to cost anything.

‘You certainly don’t have to join a gym. We’ve got a wonderful seafront on our doorstep, let’s use it – whether it’s walking the dog, playing with your children or taking a 20-minute walk every morning.’

Paul has five-year-old Jack to keep him on his toes plus two adult daughters from his first marriage and another, also in her twenties, he had inherited from his second.

‘I play football and rugby on the common with Jack or we go to the beach to throw stones. It’s all exercise and we are blessed in this city with having so much quality open space to enjoy.’

He says Jack ‘has absolutely no problems’ with his teeth. ‘It’s all right having lots of new NHS dentists in the city, but if you need access to a dentist you already have a problem.

‘The secret is not having that problem in the first place by getting kids to clean their teeth and not have sugary drinks. Jack will drink water or milk. We’ll let him have the occasional sugary drink, but he doesn’t have them all day long.’

Which bring us to the thorny question of the fluoridation of water – putting fluoride in the city’s water supply to prevent tooth decay. It is perhaps his biggest regret of his time in Portsmouth.

‘Yes, I believe we should fluoridate water. It’s controversial but I’ve always been very clear about it. However, the primary care trust had other health priorities and I accept that. You can’t fight every war and win. You have to pick the things you can win.’

He cites Birmingham and Lincolnshire where the authorities have added fluoride to the water. ‘You look at the statistics now and you can see the level of tooth decay in those places coming down. I don’t think even the anti-fluoride brigade would argue with that.

‘What they would say is that it might be fine for children but it pollutes the water for everybody.’

Paul has been a popular figure in the city during his joint reign with the NHS and the city council. He’s amiable, good company and manages to avoid speaking in health service jargon and its acronyms.

But his jovial side evaporates when he talks about domestic violence.

During his tenure, Portsmouth became one of 23 cities in the UK to be awarded White Ribbon status. That means zero tolerance over violence towards women and children.

‘Men having a punch-up down the pub is reprehensible, but they do it. Soldiers do it. And, by and large, it’s not the end of the world. But beating up your wife is.

‘Smoking is an individual choice, so is getting fat and drinking to excess and, largely, it doesn’t affect others, but domestic violence against women and girls does.’

He adds: ‘I put it in the same class as female genital mutilation and forced marriages.

‘Of course, I’d prefer it if men didn’t hit each other either. But that’s not done in the same way as having a dominating character that leaves a woman day after day in fear of what is going to happen in the morning.

‘The police say that domestic violence is now just about their biggest problem in Portsmouth in terms of the time they spend on each case.

‘What makes me so sad is that nationally there will be about 30 instances of violence before a woman makes a complaint or it becomes known. It takes a long time before it comes out. So much of it is hidden and if we want to become a great city this is one thing we really need to stamp out.’

Paul admits he will miss the city but knew it was time for a move. ‘The city will benefit from having a new pair of eyes on this job.

‘I’m immensely proud of everything the public health team has achieved and it’s amazing to think how much the overall well-being of the city has improved.’


Paul Edmondson-Jones took the job of looking after Portsmouth people’s health after spending 23 years in the army.

He served with the Royal Army Medical Corps and his last posting before leaving was at Fort Blockhouse, Gosport.

In the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s he commanded a field ambulance unit for 11 months with the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.

He says: ‘I’ve always missed being part of such a close-knit team. Yes, there is good teamwork in the NHS but in the army it’s a different type of teamwork. There you depend on each other 24 hours a day, not just at work. It really is one big family.’

As a keen sportsman he misses the physical side of army life. ‘Physical activity was a huge part of my daily life. I’d run every day and played football and rugby but never to any high standard.

‘It’s just a great way of bringing people together – a great leveller. You leave your rank on the sidelines.’