UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Proposal Sparks Debate on ‘Sick Note Culture’ Reform

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Proposal Sparks Debate on 'Sick Note Culture' Reform
"Credit: Time"

London (Parliament News) – UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak advocates for reforming the “sick note culture,” emphasizing the need to address long-term sickness and reduce reliance on welfare benefits. He proposes changes to support returning to work.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called for an end to the UK’s “sick note culture” in an address on Friday morning. Sunak made the statement when discussing U.K. welfare reform, touching on how many individuals are being signed off work by doctors’ notes known locally as “fit notes.” He also set out strategies to reduce the number of people riding sick leave if the Conservative party is re-elected in the forthcoming general election, which has to take place no later than Jan. 28, 2025. 

According to Time, In a speech at the Centre for Social Justice in London, Sunak stated there’s a “growing number of people who’ve become economically inactive,” mentioning figures that have risen to 850,000 since the pandemic due to long-term sickness. Sunak stated that “fully half” of these individuals say they have depression and anxiety.  He has expressed his plan to reform the welfare scheme as a “moral mission,” adding the welfare state should help people back into work.

“I will never dismiss or downplay the illnesses people have,” Sunak said, before adding that it would be wrong to accept the current “growing trend” of people using sick leave. He counted that he believes “good work” enhances mental and physical health and cautioned against the risk of “over medicalising” everyday hardship.  

What statistics highlight the issue’s urgency?

A record-high number of 2.8 million people are out of work as of February, according to the Office for National Statistics. NHS data revealed that almost 11 million fit notes were published last year in England, with 94% of those signed “not fit for work.”

Sunak also stated that the British taxpayer delivers the safety net of welfare services and that the number of people unable to work is not “economically sustainable.” Sunak expressed the U.K. government spends £69 billion on advantages for people of working age with disabilities and health conditions, a figure he voiced exceeds schooling, transport, and policing budgets. 

How will Sunak incentivize returning to work?

“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,” he said. “I worry very much about benefits becoming a lifestyle choice.”

In his speech, Sunak stated that if the Tories are re-elected, they will be “more ambitious” when assessing people’s potential to perform and ensure employers make appropriate adjustments for employees.

He stated the government will trial a system where “specialist work and health professionals” determine if a person requires a fit note, rather than doctors. His reform agenda will require anyone working less than half the hours of a full-time work week to pursue additional hours of work in return for benefits.

How does Sunak aim to tackle fraud?

Sunak also stated that anyone failing to comply with conditions drafted by a work coach, or accepting an available job, will lose their assertion and have their welfare benefits “removed entirely.”  He added that the administration will crack down on fraud in the welfare system, and bring a “more objective and rigorous approach” to Personal Independence Payments for those with mental ill health. 

Beth Malcolm

Beth Malcolm is Scottish based Journalist at Heriot-Watt University studying French and British Sign Language. She is originally from the north west of England but is living in Edinburgh to complete her studies.