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Memo to David Cameron: I have all the incentives I need to stop being ill. It's called "being ill"

Disease isn’t like a gas meter. It has no notion of economics. It doesn’t switch off because you’ve stopped putting money in.

Another day, another rummage down the back of the benefits sofa to find a spare £12bn. This week: changing Employment Support Allowance to incentivise ill people to get back to work.

One problem: I already have the best incentive to stop being ill and get back to work. It’s called “being ill”.

I would love to go back to work because if I were able to work, I would no longer be sick. Long-term illness nibbles away at your identity from the edges, taking out chunks of the things that make you you: the friends you meet, the shops you wander into, the job you do. I would love to work, if only because it would give me something to use in small talk, a context in which to place myself, the grit around which an imperfect pearl of who I am can begin to re-form.

I would like to have a job. I would like to feel productive. I would like to do more with my day than clutch at cups of tea and switch on the radio because I can’t keep my eyes open for the television. But currently I can’t and I rely on ESA to keep me in teabags.

This proposal makes two fundamental mistakes: that illness and disability are a) passive and b) attractively lucrative.

If you think I do not work for my benefits, you are wrong. Ringing the DWP at eight in the morning to find out why my benefits are a month late, only to hear a recorded message to tell me they are busy and that perhaps I ought to call back between eight and nine in the morning. The constant stream of sick notes I have to ask my doctor for, pick up from the surgery and post to the DWP, because the backlog means that if I wanted to get assessed in a reasonable timeframe, I should have applied for ESA roughly six months before I got ill. The sight of a brown envelope on the doormat makes my heart pause; I fear each one will contain a ransom note of sanctions. My doctor asks me what causes me stress. I can answer in less than three words. I can answer in three letters. Dee. Doubleyew. Pea.

Use of the word “passive” is nonsensical, as though one can be “active” for sickness benefits. Perhaps I could open my home to visitors and charge them to look at me. Come, behold the Incredible Chronically Ill Girl! She’s only 25, but she walks with a stick! See how she struggles to do her own laundry! GASP as her overwhelming fatigue prevents her finding the words to answer your basic question about tea!

Chronic illness often feels like a terribly paid admin job, chasing down missed payments, posting doctors notes, requesting repeat prescriptions, sending in bank statements. The rigamarole around being ill seems to tower, colussus-like, over the actual illness. The welfare state should exist to make life easier for those in need, to offer a helping hand in times of crisis, no matter how long those times last. Welfare isn’t lucrative. It’s enough to get by.

Disease isn’t like a gas meter. It has no notion of economics. It doesn’t switch off because you’ve stopped putting money in. This isn’t some kind of elaborate con I’ve been running, shutting myself away from the world to trick you out of the princely sum of £48 a week. Cutting my benefits won't get me back into work. It will make my life smaller, more stressful. It will make me sicker.

Please do not be taken in by the weaselly misuse of the word incentive. Incentives are nice things, rewards, like cream cakes or that video of Michael Gove falling over. Cutting the money that sick and disabled people receive isn’t an incentive to work, it’s a disincentive and a punishment for being ill. You can paint it orange and call it a carrot as much as you like, but if you’re beating people into the ground with it, it’s still a stick.

This isn’t just a question of economics, of ideological war on the welfare state. This is the insidious, callous notion that sick and disabled people are ultimately not trying hard enough. This says what people with chronic illnesses and disabilities hear all too much from their friends, from their families, from even their doctors: we do not believe that you are ill.

If you think that eventually you can make people so sad and stressed and poor that they will “get over” being ill, that you can starve them out and they’ll end their little displays of sickness, then you are very much mistaken. We have all the incentives we need to get back to work; cutting ESA will only make it harder to do so.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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