How much of the rise in ‘economic inactivity’ is due to long Covid?

25 November 2022
What was claimed

Economic inactivity is up by half a million since the spring of 2019 largely because of long Covid.

Our verdict

Economic inactivity because of long-term sickness has risen by about half a million in that time. But some of that rise predates the pandemic and data from the Office for National Statistics and independent analysis suggests much of it is due to factors other than long Covid.

Economic inactivity—the number of people neither in work nor looking for work—is up by half a million, largely because of long Covid.

Last week, a BBC news bulletin reported that the number of people who are economically inactive (neither working nor looking for work) had risen by half a million, “largely because of long Covid”.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) do show that economic inactivity because of long-term sickness among working-age people rose by about half a million in the UK between the spring of 2019 and the summer of 2022. (The headline rate of total economic inactivity among working-age people is up by about 400,000 in the same period.)

However, while long Covid has had a significant impact on many people’s ability to work, and is likely to have played some part in this rise in economic inactivity, much of the increase appears to be due to other factors, and the ONS itself has said there are reasons why long Covid may not be a main contributor.

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What does the ONS data show?

The ONS figures on economic activity, which are based on the Labour Force Survey, don’t specifically break down the number of people who have stopped work due to long Covid.

However, the survey did ask people to describe the long-term sickness they were experiencing with one of a number of categories.

People experience long Covid in different ways, so we don’t know for certain which category those suffering from it choose. But the ONS says: “It is likely that ‘other’ would be a common choice because it includes similar conditions to long Covid”. The ‘other’ category did see the largest rise since spring 2019. However, the ONS says: “It is unlikely that Covid-19 is a main contributor to the increases seen in recent years [in the ‘other’ category]. This is because the biggest year-on-year increase was seen between 2019 and 2020, which only covers the very early stages of the pandemic.”

Much of the rise may be due to other factors

As the chart above suggests, much of the rise in economic inactivity was due to long-term sickness in categories that the ONS considered less likely to be associated with long Covid—for example, problems or disabilities connected with the back or neck, and mental illness. Commenting on the latest economic activity figures, the Health Foundation said the rise reflected a “longer-term, pre-pandemic trend of deteriorating health”, and added: “While long Covid and waiting lists for health care are not the main contributors, they are likely to be exacerbating this trend.” A report from the Health Foundation published last month previously identified a number of different potential causes, including growing NHS waiting lists and demographic shifts as well as long Covid. But it concluded that overall the available evidence suggests “long Covid is playing a relatively minor role in the increase in inactivity”.

The Health Foundation’s analysis was quoted in a separate BBC article published on 23 November, which also considered a range of possible factors behind the rise.

Many suffering from long Covid go on sick leave

Although we’ve not seen a definitive estimate of how many people have become economically inactive because of long Covid, it has clearly done very significant harm to many people’s lives, including their ability to work.

In a report on the subject published in July, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said: “By examining how outcomes have changed since before the pandemic for long Covid sufferers and similar individuals without the condition, we estimate that one in ten people who develop long Covid stop working, with sufferers generally going on sick leave (rather than losing their jobs altogether). As a result, hours worked on average reduce by about 2½ hours per week and earnings by £65 per month (6%), or £1,100 per person who drops out of work.

“Our estimates suggest that while the prevalence and severity of Covid remain at current levels, the aggregate impact is equivalent to 110,000 workers being off sick.”

In summary, long Covid has caused many people to do less work and earn less money, and some have stopped working as a result. However it remains uncertain whether long Covid is “largely” behind the rise in the number of people who are economically inactive because of long-term sickness, and some independent analysis suggests that it is not.

Full Fact has contacted the BBC for comment and will update this fact check if we receive a response.

Full disclosure: The Health Foundation has funded Full Fact's health fact checking since January 2023. We disclose all funding we receive over £5,000 and you can see these figures here. (The page is updated annually.) Full Fact has full editorial independence in determining topics to review for fact checking and the conclusions of our analysis.

Image courtesy of Towfiqu barbhuiya 

Correction 10 August 2023

We updated the 'Full disclosure' information to clarify when funding from the Health Foundation began.

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