A new IPPR report, published to mark the launch of a new Commission on Health and Prosperity, warns that the UK’s deep health inequalities and ineffective policies mean people are living shorter lives, with more years spent in poor health, and face greater barriers to staying in and getting on at work.

New analysis from IPPR, a left-wing think tank, shows that there are now more than a million workers missing from the workforce compared to the pre-pandemic trend and about 400,000 of these are no longer working because of health factors, such as long Covid, disruption to health care and declining mental health. Unresolved, this will drag down economic activity this year by an estimated £8 billion, the researchers warn.

The report shows that the relationship between health and the economy goes much further than just keeping workers away from their jobs, it is also a decisive factor in the UK’s terminally low productivity, low growth, and vast regional inequalities.

The report reaffirms the conclusions of previous reports, stressing that people living in the most economically deprived parts of the country are also likely to have poor health. Deprived areas- including Blackpool, Knowsley and Barking & Dagenham – can on average also expect to fall into poor health in just their late 50s, five years earlier than the national average and 12 years sooner than people living in the healthiest area in the country, Wokingham. This is largely down to factors like low quality housing, bad jobs, low wages and chronic stress, the report argues.

Local level analysis also reveals that someone living in North East Lincolnshire can expect to fall into bad health eight years earlier than the UK average, while the output of their work is also valued at £8 less an hour than the average. The report argues this is a vicious cycle – factors like lack of job opportunity and poverty can harm people’s health; in turn, poor health can undermine people’s work and a place’s productivity.

If rates of child poverty and unemployment in the unhealthiest local authorities (e.g. Blackpool, Kingston upon Hull, Stoke) met rates in the healthiest local authorities (e.g. Windsor & Maidenhead, Wokingham, Richmond upon Thames, we would see 430,000 less children in poverty and 420,000 more adults in work.

The IPPR is calling for a new post-pandemic approach to the nation’s health to ensure people can enjoy living healthy lives longer and to heal the nation’s fractured and anaemic economy. The think tank is launching a new cross-party Health and Prosperity Commission to explore how good health can be the foundation for a fair and prosperous economy.

The researchers argue that for too long politicians have treated spending on health as a cost to be contained, rather than as a keystone of a thriving, prosperous economy.

The report argues that if health standards in all local authorities were brought up to be at least in line with the healthiest 10 per cent of places, we would see gross value added per hour worked increase by 1.5 per cent – or 46 pence per hour worked, by each worker, on average. Given the UK’s stagnant productivity growth, this would be a major increase. The most significant productivity gains would be seen in places like Blackpool (3.9 per cent boost to GVA/hour worked), Kingston upon Hull (3.8 per cent) and Inverclyde (3.7 per cent).

In the 1960s, Japan was the least healthy G7 nation, but is now the healthiest. If the UK met the health outcomes of Japan, people would stay in good health for four additional years on average. As a result, the UK’s overall productivity could be boosted by 1.2 per cent.

The IPPR Health and Prosperity Commission, chaired by leading surgeon Lord Ara Darzi and former chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies, will now work for two years to study the interconnections between health and the economy and to set out a blueprint to harness the full potential of better health for all. Other members of the cross-party commission include Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and former chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Sir Oliver Letwin, along with senior figures from health, business, economics, and trade unions (full list of commissioners in notes).

Chris Thomas, head of the new Commission, said: “As the government moves to a ‘living with Covid’ strategy, politicians must not forget how intrinsically linked our health is to our economic fortunes. Policymakers can take immediate steps to make it easier for people dealing with long-Covid and other health complications back to work, but they must also take decisive action to improve our health overall and tackle our nation’s burning health and economic inequalities. An unthinking return to the status quo would be a grotesque injustice to all who have lost their lives and livelihoods. We must build back better.”

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester and member of the Commission, said: “Good health is at the heart of a just society. One of the fundamental beliefs of the British public is that everyone should have access to good health, irrespective of their means and location. But currently we see grave inequalities in health and opportunity across the country. Good health must be built into all the places people live across the whole country and communities must be supported to take greater control of their health and wellbeing. By doing this health can be the foundation of a just and equal economy.”