The Growing Economic Impact of Ill Health in the UK

A surge in long-term illness is causing significant economic challenges for the UK, with over 2.8 million people now inactive due to ill health. The pandemic and longer NHS waiting lists have exacerbated this issue, leading to a smaller workforce, a tight labor market, and a stagnant economy.

The UK’s economy is facing a major setback as the number of individuals unable to work due to long-term illness continues to rise. Last week’s economic data revealed that over 2.8 million people in the country are now inactive due to ill health, marking an increase of more than 200,000 in the past year and 700,000 since the start of the pandemic in 2020. This growing trend is impacting various sectors, from politics to businesses struggling to fill vacancies. While there are several theories behind this worsening situation, including long Covid, NHS treatment delays, poor workplace practices, stress, and the impact of austerity, the economic consequences are undeniable. The UK’s workforce is now 700,000 smaller than its pre-pandemic level, resulting in a tight labor market and a stagnant economy.

The Economic Headache for Policymakers and Businesses

The economic impact of ill health is a significant concern for policymakers and businesses alike. The Office for National Statistics highlighted the extent of the problem, with the UK experiencing a higher percentage of people inactive due to ill health compared to Germany, France, and Italy. This trend has been further amplified by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and longer NHS waiting lists. The British Chambers of Commerce has expressed growing concerns about the economic impact of inactivity, which is affecting growth, inflation, and wages due to skills shortages. The current and future governments must prioritize reversing this trend to revive the economy and create more opportunities for individuals.

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Gender Disparities and the Impact of Austerity

The issue of long-term illness and inactivity due to ill health is not limited to the pandemic. The Women’s Budget Group (WBG) has highlighted that there are 200,000 more women than men inactive due to ill health, a trend that predates the current crisis. The WBG argues that this disparity is not solely due to Covid-19 but also reflects the impact of austerity measures and the disproportionate effect on women, particularly those in low-paid jobs. The government must address the root causes of this issue rather than merely treating the symptoms.

The Urgent Need for Intervention

Experts and think tanks emphasize the urgent need for intervention to tackle the growing number of individuals inactive due to long-term sickness. The Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) underscore the detrimental effect this trend has on the economy, public finances, and the NHS. The IPPR’s study reveals that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of individuals leaving work, highlighting the need for preventive measures. The government should implement proactive policies to address preventable health conditions like heart disease, as they have a direct impact on both human lives and economic prosperity.


The UK’s economy is grappling with the escalating issue of long-term illness and inactivity due to ill health. The growing number of individuals unable to work is causing a smaller workforce, a tight labor market, and a stagnant economy. The government must take immediate action to prevent illness and tailor back-to-work programs for those on sick leave, ensuring they can reenter the labor market with appropriate support. Occupational health, flexible working arrangements, and investment in staff well-being are vital for both employers and policymakers to address the barriers faced by individuals with health problems. The government’s health policy must be closely integrated with its economic policy to effectively tackle this pressing issue.

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