‘I’d love to go back to work’: UK’s missing workers on their budget expectations

When chancellor Jeremy Hunt urged people over 50 who have dropped out of the workforce since the pandemic to get off the golf course, Julie*, 52, from Hertfordshire, “laughed out loud”.

Julie has been waiting over a year for a knee replacement operation so she can get back into employment. She is one of many unable to work due to long-term illness who will be looking to the chancellor to provide much needed funding to tackle NHS waiting lists in his budget speech on Wednesday.

She was an early-years specialist teacher before leaving her job in August last year due to ill health.

“I have severe osteoarthritis in both knees and ankles. I loved my job, but I physically couldn’t do it any more. My leg can give way at any point, the pain is extreme. I’m currently living off savings, waiting and waiting for surgery.”

After dislocating her knee in November 2021, Julie has had several appointments cancelled, was mistakenly booked in to see a physiotherapist rather than a surgeon on more than one occasion, or was forgotten about entirely by her local hospital.

“It’s total chaos. I naively thought I could take a year off, as I’ve been on the list for a knee replacement since July 2022, and then go back to work in some capacity this September.

“But that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.”

Julie eventually saw a consultant surgeon last month to discuss her operation.

“My surgery is now likely going to be in June or July, at the earliest, followed by three months of recovery and rehab, at least.

“I’ll have run out of savings by then. If Jeremy Hunt could sort me an appointment for surgery, I’d love to go back to work, I would do any job really.”

Julie is one of dozens of people who got in touch with the Guardian to share that they have had to give up work recently because of unresolved health issues.

Many of them said they had been waiting for months or even years for referrals, appointments and surgeries due to lengthy NHS waiting lists, and were financially in dire straits now after long periods of involuntary economic inactivity.

There were 2.5 million people off work due to long-term sickness in the three months to January – up 2.6% quarter-on-quarter and 7.9% year-on-year and the highest since records began in 1993, according to the latest Office for National Statistics figures published on Tuesday.

Last month, a report said the government was “barking up the wrong tree” by trying to get people in retirement back to work to fix chronic staff shortages, warning that long-term sickness and pressure on the NHS are having a bigger impact.

George*, 54, from York, had been working as an engineer for more than 30 years when he developed pain in his back, neck, shoulder, arm and hand during lockdown, due to spending many hours a day working from a desk with an inadequate chair.

“Incorrectly prescribed physiotherapy made the pain worse. I waited months for a referral, then scans and tests, and I was still waiting for contact from a spinal surgeon more than six months later.”

Eventually, George saw no other option but to hand in his notice. “I had to quit so I could get my annual leave paid out, and I’ve been living off that. I’ve been off work for 15 months now, relying on my wife financially. My bank account is empty.”

Various appointments were cancelled, until he was finally seen by a spinal surgeon last week.

“He said ‘this is a problem that can be fixed’. It’s been two years between my first symptoms and this appointment. At a private hospital this probably could have been dealt with inside a week.”

George has had to attend work capability assessments since he left his job.

“I told the DWP that I wasn’t looking for alternative work, that I was waiting for help, so I could return to the work I’d done for decades. It seems there’s no pigeon hole for people like me, other than ‘economically inactive’.

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“I’d like to make a full recovery, and return to my old job and life. There must be many people like me.”

Sue, a business analyst from London, is one of many people who got in touch to say they have had to leave work because of long Covid. She developed breathing issues and chest pain in December 2020, and was ultimately diagnosed with post-Covid heart issues causing various debilitating symptoms.

“I tried to continue working for a year, from home, but I stopped one year ago, it just became impossible,” the 49-year-old said.

While Sue feels well looked after by individual consultants, she, like others, bemoans a lack of coordinated health support, and fears her fragmented healthcare will keep her out of work for some time.

“The long Covid clinic provision has been abysmal. I’ve had no actual help from there with tests or referrals. Services are currently a tick box exercise. I was told over a Zoom meeting to rest and breathe through my nose, which was pointless.”

Sue says she spends her entire PIP allowance on private medical appointments at multiple hospitals she has to arrange herself between the long gaps in NHS appointments she is being offered.

“It would have taken 18 months to see a rheumatologist, so I paid for it myself. I’ve also had to buy a mobility scooter. It’s really annoying what Hunt is saying about people who have stopped work. I used to make £650 a day as a contractor, if I could go back to earning big money, does he think I wouldn’t?”

Zeljana Schönauer, a dual British-Croatian national and special educational needs teacher currently on long-term sick leave from her job in Bracknell, became so exasperated with her inability to get treatment on the NHS that she flew to Croatia in January for medical attention.

“I couldn’t get seen by a specialist to assess ongoing abdominal pain, which left me unable to work. This problem started a year ago. I was prescribed lots of antibiotics, but I developed allergic reactions, the causes for which were not identified during several hospital visits,” Schönauer, 54, said.

“I was referred to an allergy clinic last summer. Finally, this January I managed to have a rushed half hour conversation with a very impatient doctor who sent me to have a blood test. I’m still waiting for the results.”

Schönauer found GP services she used in the UK to be particularly lacking. “There were numerous obstacles, such as getting through to surgery reception at 8am and 2pm, and then having to use a great deal of diplomacy to convince the reception staff that I needed to be seen.

Within a day of arriving in Croatia, Schönauer was able to see a specialist consultant.

“A blood test was carried out two days after that, an MRI scan three days later. I was diagnosed, the doctor said there is a [strong] chance of my colon bursting, and suggested I should have surgery as soon as possible. I’m currently waiting for NHS approval for surgery at a Croatian hospital.

“I feel guilty for not being there with my colleagues in the UK, who do a very difficult job. I’m thinking how lucky I am to be here. After 32 years of working in Great Britain, I came to little Croatia to get well.

“It’s pretty shocking. Something needs to change.”

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