Doctors issue sick notes over phone as worklessness surges

Figures showed that those in their 20s are more likely to claim they are too ill to work than those in their 30s and 40s
Figures showed that those in their 20s are more likely to claim they are too ill to work than those in their 30s and 40s - iStockphoto

Doctors, nurses and pharmacists are allowed to sign people off sick via a video or phone call, despite a surge in the number of out-of-work Britons, it has emerged.

The revelation has prompted senior Tories to say that rules that allow the young to be signed off long-term sick must be tightened to tackle rising worklessness.

It comes after figures showed that those in their 20s are more likely to claim they are too ill to work than those in their 30s and 40s.

The rise has been driven by a post-lockdown rise in diagnosis of mental health conditions among the young, in particular anxiety and depression.

Two former work and pensions secretaries said that those with such issues were being signed off too easily rather than offered help.

Government guidance sets out how GPs, nurses, pharmacists and other medical professionals can issue “fit notes” to determine whether somebody can work.

This can be “either through a face-to-face appointment, video call, telephone consultation or through considering a written report by another healthcare professional”.

The rules mean that people do not have to physically see a doctor before they can be signed off long-term sick from work for up to three months.

‘Young adults not getting help’

Stephen Crabb, a former work and pensions secretary, said the system was “allowing younger people to fall out of the working population far too easily”.

“It seems that in our country the biggest interventions we’re making are to sign people off work and give them drugs,” he said.

“It’s too easy for people to get signed off and to some extent there’s a bit of self-diagnosis going on. These young adults are just not getting the help that they need.

“What they need in many cases is not less contact but more and that should start right at the point where they are being signed off. Making it face-to-face in person is really important.”

‘Depressed are given a sick note’

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, another former work and pensions secretary and one-time Conservative leader, said sign-off from a dedicated mental health expert should be required for long-term illness.

He said: “Mental health scares GPs because they’re not really trained to deal with it. If somebody comes in and says ‘I’m depressed’ they’re going to sign them a sick note.

“GPs should refer them to a mental health practitioner who then decides how bad their situation is and what they need.”

Sir Iain also urged the Treasury to stop “dragging its feet” on linking up the long-term sick with the wider benefits system, including employment support.

“They’ve dawdled on it because of the cost, but they should see it as an investment,” he said. “What’s costing you more money is these people sitting out there without any hope.”

Official statistics show that 94 per cent of all “fit notes” signed off by doctors state that the person concerned is not able to do any work whatsoever.

More than one in 10 people in their 20s and 30s now say that they are disabled because of their mental health, more than any other age group.

Labour accused the Tories of “writing off hundreds of thousands of young people” and has pledged to improve mental health provision.

Liz Kendall, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “A healthy nation is critical to a healthy economy, but the Tories have completely failed on both.

“Labour’s plan will tackle the root causes of inactivity by ending the crisis in mental health care, boosting skills and training, and transforming employment support to help young people into work.”