The onset of illness can cost people up to £2,200 of their annual earnings, a new study by the Institute for Public Policy Research’s (IPPR) Commission on Health and Prosperity has found.
The report – called Healthy People, Prosperous Lives – analysed the most recent seven years of panel data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, undertaken by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, spanning the five years before the Covid-19 pandemic (to the end of 2019) and the first two years since.
The analysis revealed that chronic physical conditions have driven 700,000 people to leave employment since the onset of the pandemic.
Job loss was found to be the biggest driver of lost earnings, with poor health being a factor for more than half of those who left their jobs before the pandemic.
The report argues that 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.
According to the study, those with a new physical illness experienced an average fall in annual earnings of around £1,800, while those with a new mental illness faced an average drop of around £2,200.
The report also found that people with lower incomes are likely to be worse affected by becoming ill, with one in six of those already in the lowest income quartile leaving employment during the pandemic, compared to around one in 20 of those in the highest quartile.
The unequal impact of lost income by gender, region and ethnicity was highlighted in the study. It found that improvements in people’s health would benefit women’s earnings twice as much as men’s, and that workers from Bangladeshi or Pakistani backgrounds would benefit financially the most from better health.
Levelling up on health gaps would increase regional earnings most in Wales, the West Midlands and the North East, the report found.
In response to the findings, the IPPR Commission on Health and Prosperity has called for a new Health and Prosperity Act, modelled on the 2008 Climate Change Act. The aims of the proposed legislation would be 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.
‘We 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,’ said Professor Dame Sally Davies, co-chair of the IPPR Commission on Health and Prosperity, former chief medical officer for England and master of Trinity College Cambridge.
‘We need a radical increase in our national ambition – equivalent to the Victorian efforts to transform sanitation and clear slums,’ she added.
According to Lord Ara Darzi, former health minister, Paul Hamlyn chair of surgery at Imperial College London and co-chair of IPPR’s Commission on Health and Prosperity, policymakers risk being ‘penny wise 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,’ he said.