Sunak to demand end to ‘sick note culture’ and shift focus to ‘what people can do’

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Rishi Sunak is to call for an end to the “sick note culture” in a major speech on welfare reform – as he warns against “over-medicalising the everyday challenges and worries of life”.

The prime minister wants to shift the focus to “what people can do with the right support in place, rather than what they can’t do”.

Mr Sunak also wants sick notes to be issued by “specialist work and health professionals” rather the GPs in order to reduce workloads.

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The plans, which the government is now set to consult on, come as part of the government’s aims to cut spending on benefits in a bid to reduce spending and increase employment.

Mr Sunak is set to say: “We should see it as a sign of progress that people can talk openly about mental health conditions in a way that only a few years ago would’ve been unthinkable, and I will never dismiss or downplay the illnesses people have.

“But just as it would be wrong to dismiss this growing trend, so it would be wrong merely to sit back and accept it because it’s too hard; or too controversial; or for fear of causing offence.

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“Doing so, would let down many of the people our welfare system was designed to help.”

He will say there is a “growing body of evidence that good work can actually improve mental and physical health”.

“We need to be more ambitious about helping people back to work and more honest about the risk of over-medicalising the everyday challenges and worries of life,” Mr Sunak will add.

The prime minister will say, “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,” he will add.

It comes after Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, was criticised a month ago for suggesting in an interview that there was “a real risk” that “the normal ups and downs of human life” were being labelled as medical conditions which then held people back from working.

And upon launching the government’s “back to work plan”, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt warned that “anyone choosing to coast on the hard work of taxpayers will lose their benefits”.

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‘If you can work, you should work’

Since 2020, the number of people out of work due to long-term sickness has jumped drastically to a record high of 2.8 million people as of February this year, according to the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics.

A large proportion of those report suffering from depression, bad nerves or anxiety.

The government said NHS data shows almost 11 million fit notes were issued last year – with 94% stating someone was “not fit for work”.

“A large proportion of these are repeat fit notes which are issued without any advice, resulting in a missed opportunity to help people get the appropriate support they may need to remain in work,” Downing Street said.

Fit notes are usually required by employers when someone takes more than seven days off work due to illness.

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Disability equality charity Scope has said it would question whether Mr Sunak’s announcements are being “driven by bringing costs down rather than how we support disabled people”.

James Taylor, director of strategy at the charity, said: “We’ve had decades of disabled people being let down by failing health and work assessments; and a broken welfare system designed to be far more stick than carrot.

“Much of the current record levels of inactivity are because our public services are crumbling, the quality of jobs is poor and the rate of poverty amongst disabled households is growing.”

Read more from Sky News:
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Alison McGovern, Labour’s acting shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “A healthy nation is critical to a healthy economy, but the Tories have completely failed on both.

“We’ve had 14 Tory years, five Tory prime ministers, seven Tory chancellors, and 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 benefits bills.

“Today’s announcement proves that this failed government has run out of ideas, announcing the same minor alternation to fit notes that we’ve heard them try before. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak’s £46bn unfunded tax plan to abolish national insurance risks crashing the economy once again.”

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