‘Sickness explosion’ in the UK costing billions per year – report

The UK is being gripped by a ‘population health emergency’, experts have warned (PA)
The UK is being gripped by a ‘population health emergency’, experts have warned (PA)

The UK is being gripped by a “sickness explosion” which is costing the economy £15 billion a year, experts have warned.

The nation has “among the worst population health in Europe” due to high levels of obesity, excessive drinking and large health inequalities, according to a new report by health experts and peers.

Poor health in the population, a rising number of elderly people and “ballooning demand” for care are leading to a “health emergency”, experts said.

As a result there is a high level of “premature often avoidable ill health” which is damaging the economy and the NHS, they said.

The new report, titled A Covenant for Health, states that millions are becoming prematurely ill which is forcing many to drop out of work.

It has been estimated that this cost the economy £15 billion in 2022/23 due to higher welfare costs and lower tax revenues.

The authors wrote: “It is urgent to act – the UK has among the worst population health in Europe, the highest levels of obesity, the worst excess drinking levels, very large health inequalities, and very many people become ill much earlier than they should.

“Our high level of premature, often avoidable ill health, damages lives, our society, localities and our economy. Without resolute action it will get worse.”

The new report, penned by former Labour minister Lord Filkin, former health minister Lord Bethall, public health experts and academics from the King’s Fund think tank, calls for an “emergency programme for better health”.

Lord Filkin, chairman of the Covenant for Health Commission, said: “We have a population health emergency – poor population health, more older people, ballooning demand, and costs on the NHS are leading to a sickness explosion. There will be 16 million people living with obesity by 2030 and 500,000 will die from smoking and poor air quality over the next five years.

“The NHS alone cannot solve this. Far too many of us get avoidable illnesses which harm our lives and cause us to drop out of work. Estimates from last week’s OBR indicate that in 2023-24 welfare spending due to health inactivity, increases in ill-health among those in work and tax loss as a result of rising health-related inactivity and in-work ill-health will cost the Government more than £15 billion.

“We need to keep well to be happy, to contribute and to sustain our economy and our NHS. Yet Government, business, society, ourselves, we have all done far too little to prevent ill health.

“Yet a great deal can be done rapidly and for low cost to help us live healthier longer lives, as our report A Covenant for Health sets out. We call for bold action across society and by all political parties to develop an Emergency Programme for Better Health to help our society be healthier and so help make for happier lives and to treat fewer illnesses.”

Former health minister Lord Bethell added: “Our leaders should recognise the public do support measures to tackle smoking, obesity, heart disease and other chronic illnesses and address junk food, and dirty air, to support healthy communities and to engage people in their own health.”

Richard Murray, chief executive of The King’s Fund, added: “The health of the nation is in bad shape.

“Whether looking at life expectancy, levels of chronic ill-health, inequalities, mental health or the drivers of poor health like obesity, England’s recent record is poor and often compares badly to our neighbours.

“Apart from the obvious fact that no-one wants to be ill or to die prematurely, this state of affairs weighs heavily on the economy and the Exchequer, whether in terms of higher treatment costs, increased welfare payments or the loss of potential staff to ill-health at a time when many parts of the economy are facing deep workforce shortages.

“Tackling this problem is not just a job for the NHS – we cannot treat our way out of a public health crisis.

“Improving the nation’s health will require urgent cross-Government action that encompasses better quality housing, policies to ensure the air we breathe is clean, and the use of tax and regulation to encourage healthy behaviours.

“And beyond national Government, local councils, the NHS, business, and charities all have power to improve the health of their employees, citizens and beneficiaries.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Our ambition is for people to live longer, independent lives in good health, and we are committed to improving healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 and reducing the gap between areas where it is highest and lowest by 2030.

“We have introduced calorie labelling, restricted the placement of less healthy food in shops, provided the largest ever single increase in drug and alcohol treatment and recovery funding in England, and will help a million smokers across England quit by giving them a free vaping starter kit.

“Our Major Conditions Strategy will set out our plan to tackle the six major conditions most prevalent, from prevention to treatment, and will consider a range of factors including work, education and transport which are all critical to good physical and mental health.”