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Rishi Sunak’s Anti “Sick Note Culture” Plan is an Attack on the Disabled

Rishi Sunak's Anti "Sick Note Culture" Plan is an Attack on the Disabled

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says Britain is suffering from “sick note culture”. In a speech on welfare reform, he warned that there is a risk of “over-medicalising” normal worries by diagnosing them as mental health conditions. His statement follows on from a similar statements last month from the Work and Pensions Secretary, Mel Stride, that “mental health culture” meant people are “mistaking the ups and downs of life” as a mental health issues. This is a clear attack on the sick and disabled and the latest attempt to shift government failings onto those suffering the most.

Sunak stated that this review of our welfare system is off the back off 11 million fit notes being issued last year, 94% of which were signed off as unfit for work. 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.”

Here are the facts: The government have significantly stripped back funding for mental health services in recent years. According to mental health charity Mind,
there are 1.9 million people on a waiting list for mental health treatment in England. They should be able to access the NHS treatment but the service is so overwhelmed that it’s currently not available to them.

Sunak said: “Something has gone wrong since the pandemic to increase the number of economically inactive people who now have long-term illness, especially those with mental health conditions.” It’s almost like the PM is surprised that a pandemic and a crippling economy (which has led to a cost-of-living crisis) is having a severe impact on the health of the nation.

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Sunak’s statement sparked an outcry from charities, who said this move would leave disabled people struggling further. Mind said services for mental health conditions were “at breaking point”. Dr Sarah Hughes, Chief Executive of the charity said in a statement: “We are deeply disappointed that the Prime Minister’s speech 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 underinvestment, with many people getting increasingly unwell while they wait to receive support.”

She also touched on the PM’s implications about how ‘easy’ it was to get a sick note. Dr Hughes said: “To imply that it is easy both to be signed off work and then to access benefits is deeply damaging. It is insulting to the 1.9 million people on a waiting list to get mental health support, and to the GPs whose expert judgment is being called into question.”

The BBC interviewed Carole, who is a Personal Independence Payments (PIP) claimant. These payments help with extra living costs if you have either a long-term physical or mental health condition or disability. She lives with her assistance dog and has mental and physical health conditions that effect her daily life. Carole works from home but relies on PIPs. “I have times when I can’t get out of bed and I have times where to anybody on the street I’d look perfectly well,” Carole said.

She also explained that the assessments for these payments are already difficult, and the PM’s new suggestions will only make it harder. “It’s so traumatic and so stressful and the constant reassessment just exasperates people’s symptoms — especially if they’ve got mental health issues. If you’re depressed or anxious and you’re living on edge all the time it’s awful.”

“The truth is that mental health services are at breaking point following years of underinvestment, with many people getting increasingly unwell while they wait to receive support.”

Within the speech, Sunak claimed that would never “dismiss or downplay the illnesses people have,” but in the same breath it felt like he continued to gaslight those who do. It’s interesting that within this speech, the Prime Minister failed to mention that a vital scheme that helps disabled people into work has been quietly scrapped. The Guardian reported that the £100m Work and Health Programme will end in the autumn “just as the PM wants to cut benefits for 420,000 sick and disabled people in an attempt to force them into work”.

This was primarily a volunteer-led scheme where firms worked with people with disabilities, to help them get into the world of work and target mainstream jobs. This is another big blow to the very people Sunak has claimed he had “a moral mission” to help get into work.

There are deeper problems that persist here. It’s clear from the figures showing just how many people are waiting for mental health support that people are sicker than they were before — and the reasons why are also more complex than before. The dramatic rise in mental ill health is just a reflection of a steep increase in psychological problems that have been predicted by experts off the back of Covid-19 and cost-of-living crises. This is why it’s so important for our government to wake up to the fact that the NHS is a vital tool and to continue funding and supporting our health-care system. Instead of blaming and scapegoating those who are sick, let’s get to the root cause of the issue.

Aaliyah Harry (she/her) is the associate editor at PS UK. She writes extensively across lifestyle, culture and beauty. Aaliyah also has a deep passion for telling stories and giving voice to the voiceless. Previously, she has contributed to Refinery29, Grazia UK and The Voice Newspaper.