Long-term sickness steals health from individuals, and wealth from the economy. Shocking statistics released last week revealed that every single constituency in Britain saw a rise in sickness benefits claims in 2023 – and according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the overall number of people inactive due to long-term sickness has topped 2.8 million for the first time. 

At the Tony Blair Institute, we have been working on a comprehensive plan for the future of Britain, looking at how we can reform public services and generate economic growth, using technology as an enabler. It is clear that any plan for Britain must include moving from treating preventable diseases to preventing disease in the first place.

As a former GP, having worked in South London for many years, I have seen the terrible impact of long-term sickness on both individuals and their families. People listed as economically inactive due to ill health aren’t statistics. They are parents unable to play with their children, young people unable to start their working lives and older people unable to complete them. People want good health, and they want good jobs – but long-term sickness robs them of that opportunity.

There are serious consequences of this trend for the nation’s finances too. Within the next four years, it’s expected that health-related unemployment and disability benefits will hit almost £80bn a year – the result of 104.9 million working days lost due to these conditions. This costs the NHS too. Almost 40 per cent of the NHS budget in 2023 was spent on treating preventable illnesses, and the long-term trend continues to rise.  

It’s vital that we stop this trend in its tracks. In December last year, the Tony Blair Institute proposed a new service – “Protect Britain” – to bring a new generation of vaccines, therapeutics and screening to those at-risk of otherwise preventable diseases. Backed by Sir John Bell (President of the Ellis Institute and former Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University), this service would meet people where they are – online, at home and in the high street.  

This proposed new programme would transform the nation’s health through work in three areas: prevention, early detection, and bringing innovative new treatments quickly to those who will benefit. 

In the first instance, Protect Britain would take a more strategic approach to the prevention of ill health. We may not know it but throughout our lives we gradually accumulate risk factors that manifest as long-term conditions in later life. It is much easier to address risk factors like obesity, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol early on than it is to treat heart attacks, cancer, strokes and dementia much later. Obesity is insidious, associated with two of the biggest drivers of ill health-related sickness in the population: musculoskeletal problems and mental ill health. The number of people in the UK living with a musculoskeletal condition is estimated to be around 20 million with 1.08 million hospital admissions, and one in seven GP consultations associated with them. Meanwhile, ONS data shows that depression, “bad nerves” or anxiety were the most reported health conditions for those out of work due to long-term sickness, with more than 1.35 million people reporting it as a health condition in 2023.

The second strand of Protect Britain would be early diagnosis. By taking a more personalised and targeted approach to screening, we could dramatically improve survival for conditions like cancer which the UK is woefully behind our US and European counterparts in tackling. New diagnostic tests and screening opportunities are being developed and trialed all the time. For example, the NHS-Galleri trial is looking into using an early-detection blood test that can identify over 50 cancer types while an individual is still asymptomatic. Although the test is not yet available outside clinical-trial settings in the UK, early results in the United States look promising. If approved, the Galleri test could be used to proactively identify cancer at its earliest possible stages.

And this brings us to the third strand of Protect Britain – innovation. The UK is world-leading in the research and development of new diagnostics and treatments but global laggards in their adoption and use. Protect Britain would make available new, proven innovations at speed and direct research into priority conditions and diseases. By acting now and launching a preventative platform, the UK will be at the forefront of artificial intelligence (AI) advances and be able to bring them into the system faster, accelerating tech-adoption processes. Given the speed at which technology is developing, it’s important that we have a system that can quickly absorb innovations and direct research and development efforts where they are needed. 

The vaccine roll-out showed just how possible it is to reach out to people – and just how receptive people are to protecting their health. The UK must take action now. We cannot afford to get sicker and poorer. Protect Britain is the route to a healthier, happier and more prosperous nation.  

Charlotte Refsum is Director of Health Policy at the Tony Blair Institute

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