To confront what he perceives as the UK’s pervasive “sick note culture,” Chancellor Rishi Sunak has proposed controversial reforms that include stripping GPs of their authority to sign people off work.

Sunak’s initiative, outlined in a recent speech, aims to address what he sees as an unsustainable reliance on benefits and sick pay, which he claims have morphed into a “lifestyle choice” for some individuals, exacerbating the country’s welfare expenditure.

The prime minister’s proposal, which would require legislative changes, has sparked polarised reactions from various quarters.

While Sunak and his supporters argue that the measures are necessary to curb what they perceive as abuse of the welfare system, disability charities have vehemently opposed the plan, labelling it as “a full-on assault on disabled people.”

Scope, a prominent disability charity, accused the government of prioritising cost-cutting over genuine support for disabled individuals.

Sick notes will become harder to get

Under Sunak’s proposal, if the Conservative party secures victory in the upcoming general election, obtaining a sick note would become more arduous for certain patients. Moreover, those who remain unemployed after a year of support from a work coach could face the removal of their benefits altogether.

Sunak contends that such measures are essential to reverse the trend of increasing unemployment, particularly among younger individuals, which he described as “worrying.”

The chancellor’s plan extends beyond altering the sick note issuance process; it also involves a fundamental shift in how disability benefits are administered. Sunak emphasised the need for “objective assessment” by specialised professionals, arguing that the current system is plagued by “subjective and unverifiable claims.” However, critics have questioned the feasibility and fairness of such changes, expressing concerns about the potential exclusion of genuine cases in need of support.

Damaging and discriminatory

Disability charities have condemned Sunak’s proposals as damaging and discriminatory, accusing the government of perpetuating negative stereotypes about disabled individuals. They argue that systemic barriers, rather than individual choices, are the primary obstacles preventing many disabled people from accessing employment opportunities.

Amidst the heated debate, healthcare professionals have also weighed in on the issue. The British Medical Association (BMA) criticised the government’s approach, highlighting systemic issues within the healthcare system that hinder patients’ access to necessary treatment and support.

The proposed reforms have reignited political tensions, with opposition leaders lambasting the government for its handling of the NHS and broader healthcare issues. Labour leader Keir Starmer dismissed Sunak’s announcement as a recycled policy, emphasising the urgent need for concrete action to address NHS shortcomings and waiting list pressures.

As the discourse surrounding sick note culture intensifies, Sunak’s proposals are set to face further scrutiny, with stakeholders from across the political spectrum and civil society clamouring for a fair and effective solution to the complex challenges of welfare and disability support in the UK.

Kate Palmer, Employment Services Director at Peninsula says, “All businesses are impacted by any sickness absence, whether it be for one day, one month, or longer. This call for evidence, announced by the government, is seeking views on potential reform to the fit note process. The aim is to assess how effective fit notes are in supporting work and health conversations. It also asks for feedback on whether any improvements could be made to better support people to start, stay, and succeed in work. Views on the current system and its effectiveness are invited from a range of stakeholders, including employers, healthcare professionals, as well as patients, carers, and those who access fit notes. From employers, one area it specifically seeks opinions on is how useful any advice provided in fit notes has been to them. The call for evidence will be open until 8 July, then a consultation will be launched seeking views on specific policy proposals. It is very much in the early stages, so no recommendations have been made just yet. But, if more can be done in the future to help employees stay in work, then it will be a positive for employers.”





Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.