Saturday, 19 November 2011

Assume a spherical frictionless population

So, we've got the government sponsoring a review of sick leave, that essentially recommends that we treat people with acute health conditions in the same way that we now deal with chronic and terminal health conditions.

Latentexistence at Where's the Benefit? has more on the particular problems with this proposal, which I won't try to duplicate here. I want to focus on the last sentence of the article for what it says about government overall:

The DWP spokesman said: "The economy loses £15bn in lost economic output each year due to sickness absence and we cannot continue to foot this bill."

Interesting claim... After quite a bit of searching, I can't find a source for this. I have found:

  • Several other unsourced repetitions of the figure, sometimes accompanied by a claim that there are 150 million working days lost annually in the UK due to sickness absence.
  • One claim that £12bn (instead) in economic output is lost, but 200 million working days are lost
  • Claims in the original press release for the review that the total cost of sickness absence (which is not the same as lost output) is £100bn, £60bn of which is paid by the government.

However, it does seem fairly clear that the main assumption for losses and costs is as compared with an economy where no-one was ever ill.

On that measure, we "waste" about £70 million annually on street lighting, compared with an idealised country which flies around the world on jet engines so that the sun never sets on it, or a country populated entirely by people genetically modified to have sonar.

People are people. They get ill. I'm all in favour of reducing the amount that people get ill through advances in medical science, good1 public health initiatives, improved safety measures, more efficient treatments, and so on. But anyone seriously basing their government policy essentially on the assumption that people should never be seriously ill has such a bizarre idea2 of what humans are that they shouldn't be in charge of the country.

And it leads to policies like this where the sickness absence itself, and by extension the person who is ill, gets treated as the problem - when actually it's a symptom of the facts that we don't have sci-fi medical technology now, that we have unsafe and unhealthy working environments (especially for mental health), that we place toxins into the environment far more than we should be, and so on.

That's what's "costing" us the £15bn in "lost output", not people being ill. Not getting that distinction - and so making a policy based on the belief that people shouldn't be ill (which is not unique to our current central government) - means policies like this, which are likely to make the situation worse, not better, and so cost the economy even more overall - and a lot of ill people a great deal personally.


1 i.e. non-dehumanising

2 Admittedly, the ablist idea that "not ill" is normal and "ill" is deviant is so common that finding a member of government who doesn't believe that may take some work - but as with many discriminatory assumptions they just sound silly if you say them explicitly.