'Don't let GPs sign long-term sick notes': Ministers told independent panel should rule if ill are not fit for work

Family doctors should be stripped of the power to sign patients off on long-term sick leave, a major report will  recommend next week.

Instead, ministers should set up an independent national panel to assess whether people are fit to work.

The Independent Review into  Sickness Absence was commissioned by the Government in February amid mounting concern about the soaring cost to the economy and taxpayer of long-term sickness.

Under pressure: GPs are too often pressurised into writing sick notes for their patients, according to some MPs (Posed by models)

Experts believe the change could force at least 60,000 malingerers a year back to work – slashing the sickness benefit bill and easing the burden on business.

Ministers have long been concerned that GPs face undue pressure from patients to sign them off even when the medical evidence is questionable. The report is expected to say that GPs are poorly placed to assess whether a patient is well enough to meet the demands of their job.

It will also warn that family doctors have no incentive to refuse to sign sick notes for patients who ask for them.

The report was jointly written by Dame Carol Black, NHS director for health and work, and David Frost, former head of the British Chambers of Commerce. Last night Dame Carol said the reforms would help people get back to work more quickly.

She said: ‘I think people are labelled as sick, they receive sick notes and then they believe often they can’t easily get back to work.

‘And quite frankly I don’t think we have provided the right support to get them back to work.’

About 300,000 people a year are signed off as long-term sick. The report suggests that at least a fifth of these should not be signed off or could go back to work sooner.

Costly: Around 300,000 people a year are signed off as long-term sick in the UK, costing the economy millions of pounds (Posed by model)

The review, which will be published by welfare minister Lord Freud next week, will argue that an independent panel of medics would be able to deal with cases more quickly and be better placed to assess fitness for work.

But critics are likely to claim the move is a way of forcing sick people back to work. It is also likely to alarm some Liberal Democrat MPs who believe the Government’s welfare reforms are moving too quickly.

A similar independent scheme for assessing people on Employment and Support Allowance – the new name for Incapacity Benefit – has provoked a storm of protest from disability groups. They claim it is simply a device for saving money at the expense of the sick and disabled.

The CBI estimated this year that sickness costs employers £17billion a year, while the Department for Work and Pensions puts the total cost to the taxpayer of work-related sickness at £60billion a year.

The review is also expected to recommend extra help to get people on long-term sick back into work and new assessments to determine whether people might be able to take up work in a different, less demanding field.

And employers could be offered tax breaks to encourage them to pay for therapy and other ‘interventions’ designed to get people back into jobs.

 

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