Plummeting in the polls, Sunak targets the sick and disabled

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak -Credit:Getty Images

Rishi Sunak is back at it seeking to alienate vulnerable people in an attempt to recover his staggeringly poor polling ratings.

If his last big gambit was cutting off high speed rail from the North, his latest wheeze appears to focus on cutting off vulnerable and unwell people from the support they need to get by. The Prime Minister, staring down the barrel of a humiliating general election defeat, has decided to take the fight to "sicknote Britain" in a bid to make the lives of millions of struggling people even harder than they already are.

The UK absolutely has a problem with people who are too unwell to work and the PM was correct that a particularly big issue is mental health. Naturally he failed to acknowledge the vast and important reasons behind this and instead looked to alienate those already in trouble - and even the doctors who are helping people deal with their problems.

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In a speech that read as if it had been through a Daily Telegraph comment piece generator, he claimed benefits have become a "lifestyle choice" for some - proving once again that when this government is in trouble, it chooses to turn on the most vulnerable.

As part of his vague but demonising plans - which included threatening to remove vital benefits - he also said the Tories, if they somehow win the next election, would use "specialist health professionals" to issue sick notes in England, instead of highly qualified and knowledgeable GPs.

The fact he could not give any further details about who these so-called professionals would be, or how they would be recruited, cemented this as a policy designed to toss some red meat to the right-wing voting base rather than looking to genuinely solve a very real issue in this country.

While Sunak was quick to point the finger of blame at those seeking help and support for their mental health, there was no mention of the reasons behind these numbers or the enormous problem with the availability of services in this country.

There was no talk of the explosion in food bank use, insecure work and poverty that has occurred under the last 14 years of Conservative rule. There was no mention of the two million people in England that are currently languishing on NHS mental health waiting lists.

The thing is, it is much easier to tell people in need of support they are the problem rather than deal with the root causes of these problems or the lack of support available.

I'm curious at the logic on display here. Does he really think that pushing people who are dealing with mental health conditions into unsuitable work and threatening to remove their benefits if they don't accept it is going to make their condition better or worse?

Ben Harrison, director of the Work Foundation at Lancaster University, put it well when he said: "The focus should be on de-risking returning to work for those with long-term health conditions and, critically, on stemming the flow of people who are leaving work due to sickness."

As Mr Harrison points out, there are nearly seven million people in severely insecure jobs, which can have a negative impact on people's health and mean they 'cycle in and out' or work and remain dependent on benefits to afford to get by. Dealing with this should absolutely be a priority for the next government but there is no suggestion Mr Sunak plans to address it.

One thing that absolutely isn't going to make people with illnesses feel supported back into the workplace is to publicly target them in this way. The Mind charity described the Prime Minister's language as "stigmatising, harmful and inaccurate".

It was this kind of cruel approach that, in 2019, saw Liverpool man Stephen Smith denied benefits and told to find work despite weighing just six stone because of a number of debilitating illnesses.

Stephen's was a story I told and one I will never forget. Eventually the Department of Work and Pensions was shamed into correcting its error and paying him back the benefits he was wrongly denied for several years. Sadly the money came to late for Stephen and was used to pay for his funeral.

The latest announcement from the Conservative government shows they have learned absolutely nothing from cases like Stephen's. Either that or they just don't care.

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