The UK economy faces a £8bn ($10bn) a year hit due to a lack of government plans for long-COVID, a new report warns.
According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) there is "huge economic potential" for taking bolder action to tackle "burning health inequalities that limit lives and livelihoods".
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show an estimated 1.7 million people, or 2.7% of the population, were experiencing self-reported COVID symptoms more than four weeks after being infected.
The IPPR said that this has affected the economy, creating a loss in productivity. Over one million workers are "missing" from Britain's workforce compared to pre-pandemic, with around 400,000 of these no longer in employment due to ill health, IPPR concluded.
IPPR highlighted a disruption to health care, health inequalities across the country and health factors such as long-COVID and a decline in mental health.
The think tank argues that the relationship between health and the economy is a "decisive factor in the UK’s terminally low" productivity, low growth, and regional inequalities.
Researchers said "ineffective" public health policies have left Britain vulnerable to long-term impacts from the pandemic. The government's decision have resulted in a reduction in life spans, with more people spending years in ill health, it said.
As 30-year high inflation puts the biggest squeeze on households amid a cost of living crisis, experts say it is time to put "good health at the heart of society and the economy".
"While the restrictions have eased, the scars of the pandemic still remain deep on the nation’s health and our economy, said dame Sally Davies, former chief medical officer and co-chairwoman of the commission on health and prosperity. "Not only are we facing a severe cost of living crisis, driven in part by a pandemic induced inflation, we’re also experiencing a workforce shortage driven by poor health that’s holding back the economy."
Layla Moran MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, said: "Long COVID will continue to act as a millstone around the neck of our economy until the government acts on our recommendations to recognise the condition as an occupational disease, provide formal guidance to employers and drastically increase funding for research into treatments."
The report highlights that people living in the most economically deprived parts of the country, including Blackpool, Knowsley and Barking & Dagenham, can expect to fall into poor health in their late fifties, five years earlier than the national average and 12 years sooner than those in the healthiest area, Wokingham.
This is largely down to factors like bad jobs, lower wages, low-quality housing, and chronic stress, the report said. If health standards in all local authorities were brought in line with the healthiest 10%, the country would see gross value added per hour worked increase by 1.5%.
The think tank found that workers in Blackpool, who currently have the fewest healthy years of any area in the UK, would see a 3.9% boost to their output.
It called on the government to take "bolder action to tackle burning health inequalities" in the UK.
Chris Thomas, head of the IPPR’s commission on health and prosperity, said: "Policymakers can take immediate steps to make it easier for people dealing with long-COVID and other health complications back to work, but they must also take decisive action to improve our health overall and tackle our nation’s burning health and economic inequalities.
Watch: How does inflation affect interest rates?