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Health and wellbeing are in retreat, stalling the UK’s economy says former Bank of England economist

By Frances Marcellin    14 Nov 2022

Declining health is impacting the UK’s economic growth / Shutterstock/Agenturfotografin

The declining health of Britons is stalling the nation’s economic growth. This is the key message from Andy Haldane, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and former chief economist at the Bank of England, who spoke at The Health Foundation thinktank’s annual Real challenge lecture.

“We’re in a situation for the first time, probably since the Industrial Revolution, where health and wellbeing are in retreat,” said Haldane. Having been an accelerator of wellbeing for the last 200 years, health is now serving as a brake in the rise of growth and wellbeing of our citizens.”

Haldane said that although the workforce was already shrinking before the pandemic, a further reduction in the British workforce, as a result of COVID-19, is also a critical factor.

According to The Health Foundation, economic activity in the UK has decreased by 700,000 people since before the pandemic. Around 300,000 50-69-year-olds are most at risk of never returning to work and out of 3.5m active 50-69-year-olds in Q2 of 2022, 1.6m self-reported ill health as their main reason for not working.

“It should come as no surprise that we, therefore, see macroeconomic headwinds such as a record number of unfilled vacancies,” said Haldane. “We haven’t got enough people.”

Haldane also pointed to the government’s lack of investment in healthcare. “When considering spending on healthcare systems, at least by G7 comparisons, the UK sits towards the bottom of the pack,” he said.

In 2019, the UK spent £177bn on healthcare (£2,647 per person), which was less than the G7 average (£3,523). In comparison, France’s healthcare spending was £3,308 per head and Germany’s £4,131 per head.

UK Government expenditure on healthcare, including spending by the NHS, local authorities and other public bodies financing healthcare, increased to £213.4bn in 2020, equating to £3,181 per person.

The UK has seen its employment rate fall over the last two and a half years while other major economies have seen employment rise. It is currently at 75.5 per cent having dropped from 76.1 per cent in 2019.

Outside Latin America, only the UK, Iceland, Switzerland, Latvia and the US have seen employment fall since 2019, with most other EU countries increasing by an average of 2 per cent since the pandemic began.

Haldane did not comment on the impact of Brexit.

Liz Terry, editor of HCM, said: “We’ve been arguing for sometime that the health and fitness and physical activity sectors in the UK should enjoy cross-portfolio support from both the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as well as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. This statement from Andy Haldane – one of the world’s top economists – shows why this is so vital.

“Having a fit and healthy workforce is critical to driving economic success and if UK government acknowledged this and really got behind the physical activity sector, it would make a huge difference to the economic output of the nation,” said Terry.

“As we await the budget this week, we call on the government to recognise the bigger picture when it comes to the vital role played by the health and fitness and physical activity sector in delivering health and vitality to the nation and give the sector the financial support it needs to thrive.”

A report by the Commission on the Future of Employment Support found that if current trends continue, then by the first quarter of 2023 the UK will be the only developed economy with an employment rate lower than before the pandemic.

About 600,000 have dropped out of the workforce, including 200,000 who have been out of work for five years or more due to ill health.

Around 30,000 people with long-COVID are unable to work and around 50,000 have retired early since 2020, while the number who have never worked grew by 250,000 to include students and people with ill health or disabilities.

The situation is exacerbated by the baby boomer generation taking retirement and decreases in the rate of migration, with 500,000 fewer non-UK-born workers than there would have been had the UK continued to follow pre-2016 trends.