The UK workforce is being negatively impacted by a significant increase in long-term sickness

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The UK runs the risk of having a smaller workforce due to chronic illness. A recent report issues a caution.

Working-age adults who are not employed or actively seeking work have increased significantly, according to pension and health consultants Lane, Clark and Peacock (LCP).

Since Covid's release, the number has increased by 516,000, and early retirement does not seem to be the cause.

According to LCP, the overall number of long-term sick people has increased by 353,000.

According to verified data from the Labour Force survey, it means that there are now almost 2.5 million adults of working age who are chronically ill.

The report is released at a time when there is growing discussion about the causes of the rise in so-called economic inactivity, which now affects 80.9 million people.

Ministers worry that it might impede economic expansion. The review of strategies to combat inactivity has been launched by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who may make a statement in the Budget on March 15.

Bar chart showing change in number of economically inactive people from December 2019 to October 2022
Students, caregivers, and short-term sick people are additional categories of economically inactive people that are not listed.

A "great retirement" has been described by some policy experts as one where more people leave the workforce earlier, some because they have sufficient pensions and do not feel the need to continue working. Policy options have been considered to entice people over 50 to return to the workforce.

The LCP report, however, takes a different tack, claiming that pressure on the NHS may be partially to blame for the rise in long-term illness. Treatment for mental health issues and delays in non-urgent operations are potential causes. Others who might otherwise have better managed a chronic condition may now be in worse health.

"The pandemic made clear the links between health and economic prosperity, yet policy does not yet invest in health, to keep living in better health for longer," said Dr. Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, one of the report's authors. The disruption of patient care brought on by NHS pressures is likely to have an effect on people's capacity to work both now and in the future. ".

Former pensions minister and co-author Sir Steve Webb continued, "There is a real risk that the government will be "barking up the wrong tree" when it comes to the rise in economic inactivity. Recent trends are likely to be only partially reversed by policy solutions that aim to reduce early retirement or encourage the retired to leave retirement. The focus of policymaking should instead be on figuring out why long-term illness flows have increased. ".

The report delves deeper into the data from the Labour Force survey regarding those of working age's lack of economic activity.

We asked respondents if they were still interested in finding work even if they weren't actively looking. Long-term sick people responded positively by a significant margin. Only a very small percentage of people who identified as retired expressed interest in getting back into the workforce.

Some experts will change their positions as the discussion progresses.

Last year, the think tank Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) conducted its own investigation. "The new research from LCP makes a convincing case that rising rates of poor health are a pressing issue for UK society and economy," said its associate director Jonathan Cribb.

"However, our research from the summer of 2022 revealed that since the start of the pandemic, there have also been significant increases in the number of people who have retired straight from their jobs, with relatively little growth in the number of people in their 50s and 60s quitting their jobs and entering health-related inactivity. ".

A review of workforce participation is being conducted by the Department for Work and Pensions.

According to a government spokesperson, "We are taking into account a variety of factors to address inactivity, and additional information on this will be provided in due course. ".

Officials also point out that a recovery plan is in place to cut down on England's NHS backlog.

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