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By Faarea Masud
Business reporter, BBC News

The number of people leaving the workforce due to long term sickness is at its highest since the 1990s, a report suggests.

Adults economically inactive due to ill-health rose from 2.1m in July 2019 to a peak of 2.8m in October 2023, said the Resolution Foundation.

It is the “longest sustained rise” since 1994-1998, when records began.

The government said its recent Budget measures are estimated to boost the labour force by 300,000 workers.

The Foundation’s report comes after the ONS said more than a fifth of UK adults were not looking for work.

People at either end of the age spectrum had the highest proportion of those out-of-work due to ongoing illness, the Foundation’s report said.

“Younger and older people together account for nine-tenths of the rise in overall economic inactivity, which could have serious effects both on individual’s living standards and career paths,” said Louise Murphy, senior economist at the Foundation.

The rise in long-term sickness leaves the UK as the only G7 economy not to have returned to its pre-pandemic employment rate, according to the Foundation.

However, it did add that inactivity figures fell slightly to 2.7 million in December 2023.

It said the upward trend in long-term sickness actually started before the pandemic in the summer of 2019, and has lasted for 54 months.

The longest previous period of increasing economic inactivity due to ill-health was for 55 months, between 1994 and 1998, it added.

As well as looking at ONS figures, the Foundation pointed to Department of Work and Pension (DWP) figures showing claims for disability benefits. It said the rise in claims for PIP, the non-means tested benefit for those with health issues, were “most striking”, with claims rising 68% from 2020 to 2024.

In the 16-17 age range, new PIP claims had increased by 138%.

The Foundation said it would lead to “wider strains on the NHS and welfare spending if we fail to improve the nation’s health and reduce economic inactivity”.

It also examined the DWP’s data on medical conditions recorded on Work Capability Assessments and highlighted the fact that many benefit claimants cited mental health problems and musculoskeletal problems.

It said 69% claimed for mental health disorders, and 48% had problems with connective or musculoskeletal pain.

A spokesperson for the DWP said: “Our plan for the economy is working. Inflation [the rate at which prices rise] is down to 3.4%, employment is up, the number of people on payrolls is at a record high, and inactivity is falling.

“We’ve reduced the number of workless households by one million since 2010. Our £2.5 billion Back to Work plan will help break down barriers to work for over a million more people and our recent Budget measures are estimated to boost the labour force by an extra 300,000 workers.”

In order to deal with long-term economic inactivity, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said in November that reforms including stricter fit-to-work tests and jobseeker support would get 200,000 more people into work. Under those plans, the government also wants to scrap the controversial Work Capability Assessment.

“We will reform the work capability assessment to reflect greater flexibility and availability of home working after the pandemic,” Mr Hunt said in November. “And we will spend £1.3bn over the next five years to help nearly 700,000 people with health conditions find jobs.”

The Foundation’s latest report comes after it said in February that people in their early 20s are more likely to be not working due to ill health than those in their early 40s.

Responding to the report, Shazia Ejaz at the Recruitment and Employment Federation (REC), which represents the recruitment industry, said long NHS waiting lists “are a big factor for why not enough people are well enough to work”.

She added: “Better infrastructure around transport, childcare and social care will all help tackle the inactivity challenge the UK faces”.

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13 November 2023
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