“Britain needs you” was the urgent appeal from the chancellor to workers who have dropped out of the jobs market since COVID – delivered in a keynote speech earlier this year.
But while getting more people back into work is central to Jeremy Hunt’s efforts to tackle the UK’s low productivity and economic stagnation, for many it’s not that simple.
About 2.5 million people are now off work due to long-term sickness – a rise of nearly 20% since before the pandemic.
Yet it’s a trend that began developing long before COVID – and Labour claim the government’s failure to reverse it means hundreds of thousands of people have been effectively “written off”.
Sky News understands the Department for Work and Pensions has been looking at a complete overhaul of the whole system of sickness benefits and assessments – to focus on what people can do – and not what they can’t.
For most of her adult life, Samantha Radford has been too unwell to work. Now 45, she was forced to give up a successful London PR career after falling ill in her mid-20s.
“I had a job I loved, and was good at it,” she says.
“But I started to have more and more symptoms – just getting incredibly tired, starting to ache, starting to have digestive problems, and a lot of issues with sleep as well.
“I kept battling on working… but by the age of 26, I just had to stop. Psychologically it was really tough. It was devastating – it was losing a big part of my identity.
“I got to the point where I was pretty much bedridden for about five years.
“And I still sometimes joke that I lost those five years, and I like to knock that off my age because I was so unwell that just trying to shower would take it out of me for that day.”
It took doctors many years to reach the correct diagnosis – a rare genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which led to serious heart problems.
But now with the right treatment – a combination of medication and physiotherapy – Samantha is doing much better.
For the last eight months she’s been looking for a part-time job, but finding a flexible paid role she can do from home has been tough, especially with the long gap in her employment history.
“I have sent my CV off to quite a few places and never heard back,” she says, arguing there needs to be more awareness from employers about the needs of people returning to work, as well as more government support.
“It’s not made very easy,” says Ms Radford. “There’s always that fear that you go back and then discover you can’t do it.
“And you might have given up your benefits and you’d have to reapply and go through all the assessments again. Being in the benefit system is very stressful.”
For a government promising economic growth, the big rise in long-term sickness is a real problem.
The latest figures show 2,465,000 people were out of work as a result between October and December. That’s 390,000 more than the same period in 2019.
While many are of course too unwell to work, the data collected by the Office for National Statistics show that 32.2% of people economically inactive due to long-term sickness or disability want to find a job.
Tony Wilson, of the Institute of Employment Studies, says the numbers were already going up before COVID due to the ageing population, pressures on the NHS and growing mental ill health.
“The pandemic made it worse but this is a longer running issue and would have got worse anyway with people getting older too,” says Mr Wilson.
“We need to think differently about what we do to support people in and out of work.”
‘Trapped’ out of work
Labour have pledged to overhaul the system so that people won’t lose sickness-related benefits or face a gruelling reassessment if they attempt to return to work but have to drop out again.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, says: “You would have a bridge back to your Universal Credit benefits, so you won’t lose the support that you used to get.
“Because for many people, the journey into work at the moment is too much of a risk. The government’s approach is trapping people out of work, so we’ve got to deal with those barriers.
“Only one in 10 long-term sick or older workers out of work get any help whatsoever from the Job Centre system. That’s crazy.
“We’ve got to reform the way in which we offer employment support, we’ve got to reform our Job Centres, so people get help and support to return to work. And yet we’ve got a million vacancies in the economy.
“The Tory approach is to write people off – that’s an absolute criminal waste of their potential and talents, but it’s bad for our economy as a whole as well.”
Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride has been carrying out a cross-government review into the rise in economic inactivity which will feed into the Budget on 15 March.
The Department for Work and Pensions told Sky News it recognises that helping people to start – or to return – to work is one of the biggest challenges and that it’s looking at plans to improve support for disabled people and people with long-term health conditions.
A long-awaited white paper is also due for publication shortly.
It’s understand the department is looking at overhauling the whole system to focus on what people can do rather than what they can’t, as well as better supporting people to stay in work.
I’m told the full package of policies is not yet finalised, with many different ideas on the table.
Those could include sickness benefits continuing during the transition back to work, scrapping or reforming work capacity assessments, better occupational health services, annual workplace health checks, and pushing GPs to do more in terms of setting out the kinds of activities a patient is capable of, rather than signing so many off sick in the first place.
Employers ‘not doing enough’
Mr Wilson welcomes both parties talking about changing the system so people trying to return to work won’t lose their benefits or need to have them reassessed.
“That’s a great idea, it will cost virtually nothing because the people on those long-term benefits don’t often go back to work – so making those changes can only be a positive, ” he says.
“But we need to do more about what happens when people first leave work.
“The idea that GPs are suddenly experts at return to work planning is fanciful. We’ve been there before and it doesn’t work. We need to focus on how to work better with employers, to build capacity and provide better funding for occupational health services.
“Some of that might require more compulsion on employers in terms of incentives or penalties,” he adds.
“Some employers just aren’t doing enough to keep people healthy and support a rapid return to work when they’re off sick. Other countries have models where people pay higher social insurance if they don’t rehabilitate their workforce, or where they are required to have better back-to-work planning.”
Major changes to the benefits system have historically taken a long time to deliver effectively. But for now, Samantha Radford is continuing to search for jobs which meet her needs – and remains optimistic.
“The moment I can write that letter to the DWP and say ‘I don’t need you guys anymore’ – it’s going to be the biggest celebration of my life. Because it will just mean freedom and independence.”
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