We're All Much Sicker Than We Were – But It Started Even Before Covid

Long-term illness has seen a growing number of people dropping out of the workforce since 2019.
Long-term sickness has been on the rise in the UK from 2019
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Long-term sickness has been on the rise in the UK from 2019

While the worst of the Covid pandemic is (hopefully) over, UK health looks very different now – and it’s not just because of the virus.

According to new stats from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there’s been a huge increase in additional people dropping out of the workforce due to long-term illness.

There are now 2.5 million people unable to work due to long-term illness as of data between June and August this year – that’s half a million more compared to 2019.

ONS also points out that this started before Covid began to really affect the UK in early 2020.

Between March 2017 and August 2022, the cumulative change in people being economically inactive due to long-term sickness has soared.

By the time of the first lockdown in March 2020, just under 150,000 extra people of working age had removed themselves from the workforce due to long-term sickness compared to three years before.

Now, three more years later, and with health conditions exacerbated by the pandemic, this has soared up to 500,000.

At the start of the first UK lockdown, 25% were out of the market due to long-term illness – now it’s 28%.

An extra 41% of those with long-term sickness described their illness as “other health problems or disabilities” – the category anyone suffering from Long Covid is likely to categorise themselves in, although that won’t account for all of the people who were drawn to this category.

An additional 22% were off work due to mental illness and nervous disorders, and 31% more were off due to problems linked to their back or neck.

Interestingly, the number of those off due to depression, bad nerves or anxiety fell back the same level as recorded in June 2019 by June 2022.

ONS explained that 16 to 34 year olds were the only age group to see an increase in depression, bad nerves or anxiety over the last three years.

Before long-term sickness, looking after family was the most common reason for leaving the workforce.

So what is causing this?

Long Covid is clearly an ongoing factor, but much of this sickness doesn’t necessarily stem directly from catching the virus itself.

The statisticians explained: “It is unlikely that Covid-19 is a main contributor to the increases seen in recent years. This is because the biggest year-on-year increase was seen between 2019 and 2020, which only cover the very early stages of the pandemic.”

The ONS also suggested that record-long NHS waiting times could play a part in worsening health conditions which would have previously been treated more effectively. The median wait time from referral to NHS treatment in England has almost doubled from seven weeks in April 2019, to around 14 weeks in August 2022.

But, ONS explained: “We still don’t fully understand the extent to which NHS resources being redirected to address the pandemic affected waiting times.”

Long-term sickness rates have also been increasing at a worrying rate among younger groups, even though the older population still make up the majority of those inactive.

The largest increase was recorded between those aged 25 and 34 – and it’s still unclear exactly why this has happened.

In the meantime, pressure continues to pile on employers, and for individuals now out of work.