Revealed: hidden personal cost of UK sickness

The UK’s poor record on health is taking a huge toll on people’s personal finances and job prospects, says a new report.

long-term sickness uk


The onset of illness costs people up to £2,200 of their annual earnings, according to an IPPR study of the most recent seven years of panel data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study.

The data span five years before the pandemic broke out, and the first two since it began in early 2020.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, co-chair of the IPPR Commission on Health and Prosperity and former chief medical officer for England, said, “We now know that the UK does worse on health than most other comparable countries – and that this has a tremendous human and economic cost. We also know exactly what policies and innovations could transform health, so it is mystifying why UK politicians, across all parties, have failed to take decisive action.

“We need a radical increase in our national ambition – equivalent to the Victorian efforts to transform sanitation and clear slums. Why shouldn’t Britain be the healthiest country in the world?”

Researchers found that someone with a new physical illness experienced on average a fall of around £1,800 in their annual earnings, before the pandemic.

In the same period, those with a new mental illness faced an average fall in annual earnings of around £2,200.

Since 2020, someone with a new chronic physical illness experienced on average a £1,400 annual earnings fall, while the onset of a mental illness has meant an average annual earnings fall of around £1,700.

Lord Ara Darzi, leading surgeon, former health minister, Paul Hamlyn Chair of Surgery at Imperial College London and co-chair of IPPR’s Commission on Health and Prosperity, said, “The UK is suffering from more sickness while real incomes are falling. Policymakers risk being pennywise but pound foolish by focusing too much on the costs of tackling chronic health problems and too little on the economic, social and individual benefits of greater investment in the nation’s health. There is much more that could be done with new, early interventions to pre-empt disease before it damages lives.”

The study of the cost of poor health on employment and earnings is among the most ambitious ever undertaken.

The report also found that people with lower incomes are likely to be worse affected by becoming ill. Following the onset of a chronic illness, around one in six of those already in the lowest income quartile left employment during the pandemic, compared to around one in 20 of those in the highest quartile.

This unequal impact is compounded by the fact that people on low incomes are more likely to experience sickness, and less likely to get the best possible care.

It found that the impact of lost income is also unequal by gender, region and ethnicity in the UK.

Much sickness in the UK is preventable – through better housing, better jobs, action on public health challenges like obesity, or access to the best treatments and social care. Yet UK governments have systematically failed to pull the right levers over the last three decades, the report says.

The IPPR Commission on Health and Prosperity has challenged the government to do better on raising overall national health, and as a result to reap the wide economic benefits.

It calls for a new Health and Prosperity Act, modelled on the 2008 Climate Change Act.

 This would hardwire two ambitious new missions in law: To make the UK the healthiest country in the world within 30 years and to increase healthy life expectancy to beyond the state retirement age across every region.

Taken together, the report says, these could serve as a health equivalent of ‘net zero’.

As it stands, the UK has both a lower healthy life expectancy and a lower rate of improvement in healthy life expectancy than other high-income countries.

Carsten Jung, senior economist at IPPR, said, “The idea behind an NHS free at the point of delivery was to stop the cost of illness ruining people’s lives. But our analysis shows that the cost of sickness is still huge. It’s unfair that sickness is so pervasive and so costly, particularly for those who are lower paid. That’s why we’re calling for government to make health a central mission for government over the next 30 years.”

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