Rishi Sunak is under increasing pressure to provide more help to older workers out of work due to ill health, as official figures show a sharp rise in long-term sick leave in every region of the UK except London.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics point to deep regional divisions and show that economic inactivity due to long-term illness has increased the most among 50-64 year-olds outside the capital since the Covid pandemic.
The level of economic inactivity – when adults of working age are neither employed nor looking for a job – has exploded since the health emergency spread to Britain nearly three years ago, in an exodus of the working population that was fueled by increasing ill health and older workers taking early retirement.
It comes as companies struggle with severe staff shortages, with the sharp fall in labor market participation contributing to Britain’s status as the only country in the developed world with employment still below pre-Covid levels.
Some experts, including Andy Haldane, a former chief economist at the Bank of England, have said under-investment in public services and long waiting times on the NHS could be contributing to the fall in employment.
Labour’s analysis of the ONS figures shows that inactivity among 50-64 year-olds due to ill health has risen most in Yorkshire and the Humber, where the rate has risen by 21% since December 2019.
The number of people over 50 out of the labor market due to long-term illness has increased in every part of the UK except London, with a 20% increase in Wales and a 13% increase in the North West of England and the West Midlands . In the same period, numbers in London fell by 7%.
Figures show that the number of working-age adults leaving the workforce due to long-term ill health has risen to a record high of nearly 2.5 million. Nearly a quarter would like to work if they feel they have the opportunity or support to do so.
The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, used last month’s autumn statement to kick off a review of barriers to employment, due to be completed early this new year. The government has so far focused on the crackdown on benefit recipients, including asking 600,000 people on universal credit to meet with a work coach to help them work more hours or earn more.
Labor said the government needed urgent action to help the over-50s and the long-term sick return to work. The party is committed to improving job centers and employment support services, while also transferring budgets to local areas so that support can be tailored to particular communities.
Jonathan Ashworth, the secretary of shadow work and pensions, said the increase in economic inactivity among the over-50s due to ill health was hurting the living standards of older workers and curbing economic growth.
“It is very concerning that this wave has occurred in virtually every corner of the country,” Ashworth said. “It is scandalous that there are still no proposals from ministers to help inactive people who want to work back into the labor market.
“Labour has a plan to get Britain back to work and help the over-50s and the long-term sick find jobs. We will give local areas more power and flexibility to run job support services, and ensure that job centers are open and accessible to anyone who would benefit from targeted, specialist help as part of our ambition to reverse the biggest drop in employment in the G7 to deal with. ”