Britain has 400,000 fewer workers than it did before the pandemic, as long as Covid and other diseases have forced people out of work at an estimated cost of £8billion, a new report says.
Deep inequality and the government’s failure to improve Britain’s health meant Covid caused more economic damage and more deaths than many other countries, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank concluded.
It warned that Covid-19 had exposed fundamental problems and structural weaknesses in the UK’s approach to both its economy and public health.
According to the latest official statistics, an estimated 1.7 million people – 2.7 per cent of the population – had self-reported Covid symptoms more than four weeks after being infected.
The IPPR report found that this had a significant impact on the economy. It is estimated that one million workers are now “missing” from the workforce compared to pre-pandemic trends.
About 400,000 of them are no longer working because of health factors such as long Covid and mental health problems. Researchers estimate this costs the UK £8 billion a year in lost productivity.
The report argued that ineffective public health policies left the UK vulnerable to the long-term effects of the pandemic. Policy choices have meant people are living shorter lives, spending more years in poor health and facing greater barriers to staying at work and getting ahead, the IPPR said.
It argued that the relationship between health and the economy was a key factor behind the UK’s “endlessly low” productivity, low growth and regional disparities.
Poor health causes many people to stop working, especially in poorer areas. For example, official figures show that women in the most disadvantaged communities live only two-thirds as many healthy years as women in the most affluent areas.
Lord Ara Darzi, a senior surgeon, independent peer and co-chair of the newly formed Commission on Health and Wealth, said the country must now choose whether to continue down the path of “poor health, low public investment and weak growth”. should commit to “achieving a rapid improvement in overall health and, in turn, using this health for greater prosperity and security”.
Despite government claims that it is leveling the country, Britain remains very unequal. Analysis at the local level by the IPPR found that someone living in north-east Lincolnshire could expect to fall into poor health eight years earlier than the UK average, whilst also performing their job at £8 less an hour than the average is rated.
The report argues that this is a “vicious circle” – factors such as lack of employment opportunities and poverty can harm people’s health; Poor health, in turn, can undermine people’s jobs and a place’s productivity.
People living in the most economically disadvantaged parts of the country – including Blackpool, Knowsley and Barking & Dagenham – can expect to fall into poor health in their late fifties, five years earlier than the national average and 12 years earlier than people the areas living in the healthiest regions.
This is largely due to factors such as substandard housing, bad jobs, low wages and chronic stress, the report argues.
She estimates that the UK would see a “significant increase in productivity” if health standards across local authorities were adjusted to the healthiest 10 per cent.
Workers in Blackpool – which currently have the fewest healthy years of any area in the UK – would see their production increase by 3.9 per cent, the IPPR found.
Sir Oliver Letwin, former cabinet minister and member of the Commission on Health and Wealth, pointed to huge investments in public health during the Victorian era which led to rapid economic growth.
“It’s time to revive that spirit and usher in a new era of better health, greater health equity and greater prosperity,” he said.
Dame Sally Davies, former chief medical officer and co-chair of the commission, said: “Although restrictions have been eased, the scars of the pandemic still remain deep in the health of the nation and our economy.
“Not only are we facing a severe cost-of-living crisis, caused in part by pandemic-related inflation, we are also experiencing a labor shortage caused by ill health, which is slowing the economy.
“Putting health at the center of our society and economy has never been more important, and our Commission will present a plan to do just that.”