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Back to work: Rishi Sunak sets out plans to sack ‘sick note culture’

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has outlined plans to strip GPs of their power to sign people off work, much to health charities dismay.  

Should he be re-elected in the next general election, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has vowed to end what he calls ‘sick note culture’, after discovering that almost 11 million fit notes were issued last year by GPs.

Referencing figures, which came from NHS data, Sunak said: ‘Most worryingly of all the biggest proportional increase in economic inactivity due to long term sickness came from young people. Those in the primes of their life just starting out on work and family, instead parked on welfare.

‘There is nothing compassionate about leaving a generation of young people to sit alone in the dark before a flickering screen watching as their dreams slip further from reach every passing day.’

To address this, this morning Sunak delivered a speech in which he said: ‘We don’t just need to change the sick note, we need to change the sick note culture so the default becomes what work you can do – not what you can’t.

‘Building on the pilots we’ve already started we’re going to design a new system where people have easy and rapid access to specialised work and health support to help them back to work from the very first Fit Note conversation.

‘We’re also going to test shifting the responsibility for assessment from GPs and giving it to specialist work and health professionals who have the dedicated time to provide an objective assessment of someone’s ability to work and the tailored support they need to do so.’

However, various mental health experts have remarked that this is far from the correct approach. Despite Rishi Sunak claiming that this method will help ease pressures on medical staff, NHS bosses have warned ‘overwhelmed’ services have been unable to cope with a big cost-Covid increase in people needing help.

Dr Sarah Hughes, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, said: ‘We are deeply disappointed that the Prime Minister’s speech today continues a trend in recent rhetoric which conjures up the image of a ‘mental health culture’ that has ‘gone too far’.

‘This is harmful, inaccurate and contrary to the reality for people up and down the country. The truth is that mental health services are at breaking point following years of under investment with many people getting increasingly unwell while they wait to receive support.’

woman standing near person in wheelchair near green grass field

‘To imply that it is easy both to be signed-off work and then to access benefits is deeply damaging,’ Sarah said. ‘It is insulting to the 1.9 million people on a waiting list to get mental health support, and to the GPs whose expert judgement is being called into question.’

Echoing a similar tone, Richard Kramer, chief executive of Sense, a charity for people with disabilities, remarked the announcement as an attack on disabled people.

‘The government’s ongoing onslaught on disabled people is hard to watch, with the prime minister today taking aim at people who are long-term sick in a cruel speech demonising people with ‘sick notes’, Richard said. ‘This rhetoric is unbelievably damaging and unhelpful, presenting disabled people as ‘shirkers’ who don’t want to work. But this isn’t the case – while employment isn’t right for everyone, many disabled people do want to work.’

Against the backdrop of Rishi Sunak introducing new measures to help people back to work, this was first flagged by chancellor Jeremy Hunt when he delivered his autumn statement – a new service called WorkWell is due to be launched this year in 15 areas across the country. The platform is designed to help people struggling with their mental health and musculoskeletal conditions slowly return to work.

Although, Alison McGovern, the acting shadow work and pensions secretary for Labour has claimed that it is time to see the back of the Conservatives as after 14 years, ‘five Tory prime ministers, seven Tory chancellors…the result is a record number of people locked out of work because they are sick – at terrible cost to them, to business and to the taxpayer paying billions more in spiralling benefit bills.’

Images: Shutterstock and Josh Appel

More on this topic:

A for effort: government introduces national drive to improve school attendance

Villains exposed: Are the government to blame for the mishandling of Long Covid?

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