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UK protection market faces up to a ‘new abnormal’

By Alastair Black | November 3, 2022

The UK – and protection insurers – have survived the health impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, but there is still plenty to think about over the coming months.
Insurance Consulting and Technology
Insurer Solutions

The term ‘the new normal’ has been used a lot to describe the UK life insurance market post-2020, but is that quite right? Other challenges that have arisen in conjunction with the aftermath of the pandemic make the situation more of a ‘new abnormal’.

So, what constitutes that ‘new abnormal’ for UK life insurers, and for protection insurers in particular?

When thinking about the main market influences and trends in the protection market, it can be helpful to place them into four categories:

  • 'Post-COVID'
  • Inflation and the cost of living
  • Consumer Duty legislation
  • Customer insight and analytics

Let’s consider each in turn.


The reason for the inverted commas is simple. While the most severe phase for society may have passed (we hope), COVID-19 is still very much with us as an industry.

Looking back over the past two and a half years, we can reflect on how the actual mortality and morbidity impacts on insured lives have been much lower than first feared (for instance, this study by the Continuous Mortality Investigation on income protection experience). We can also take pride from how the insurance industry as a whole has demonstrated its adaptability and resilience in the face of remote working and distribution and the need for new ways of supporting clients.

But there is no getting away from the fact that COVID-19 is still having, and will continue to have, a material impact on the UK protection market.

Firstly, while it may become less front-of-mind in a generally vaccinated population, there are still risks from higher mortality and morbidity. The impacts of Long COVID also have to be taken into account. Emerging research shows that around 10% of people who were hospitalised with COVID-19 still have lingering symptoms a year later, including severe breathlessness and heart issues.

Continuing COVID-19 cases, along with Long COVID, contribute to a poor outlook for the National Health Service (NHS). It’s predicted that the NHS backlog will continue to grow until 2024, and then only gradually decrease, with all that it means for pressures on capacity and waiting times. If people are waiting 12 months, rather than six, for operations, that has obvious implications for long-term health and mortality. And even longer-than-usual waits for ambulances and Accident and Emergency wards have been translating into noticeably higher mortality.

Recently, we’ve done research to assess the impact of delays in cancer referrals and treatments, particularly following an urgent general practioner’s (GP) referral. This showed such delays could cause some 10,000 or more cancer deaths – a significant consideration for pricing and reserving.

How do we see this affecting the protection market? While most insurers have lifted COVID-related underwriting restrictions and haven’t altered mortality assumptions up to now, some winds of change are blowing. We are working with some companies to evaluate if changes to assumptions may be appropriate against a broader backdrop of insurers and reinsurers having less appetite for mortality and morbidity risk.

Inflation and cost of living

COVID-19 has, of course, also been a factor, alongside others, in driving up inflation and interest rates from the historically low levels that have endured for nearly two decades.

As you will all know, protection sales are frequently driven by the mortgage market and it looks likely that the housing market will slow – given, for example, that some lenders have withdrawn certain mortgage products for new customers as a result of market volatility. There is also likely to be significant pressure on lapses due to the rising costs leading to an up to 50% reduction in disposable income available to certain groups.

Yet protection products are designed precisely to support customers through times of financial and health vulnerability, so how can the market respond?

First and foremost, we believe it’s with flexibility in how products are structured to address tightening household budgets. This would include making products more modular, and building in flexibility by design, to allow for changes in circumstances, and limits lapses. This can also build on previously underused (by customers) elements such as premium holidays and underwriting-free sum assured amendments. Moreover, since intermediaries will often have an important role to play, insurers will need to find new ways to support them in order to limit lapses and churn.

And, by the way, such a need for flexibility also applies to the group life market because of the squeeze on many company budgets.

Consumer duty

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) published its Consumer Duty Policy Statement at the end of July with a central tenet that “a firm must act to deliver good outcomes for retail customers”.

This shouldn’t be a leap for responsible insurers, but it will entail providing evidence of compliance, including a programme of review of policies and products, that may present some difficulties.

High among these will be gathering appropriate data on client outcomes. Life insurers will need to work out the metrics to use and the means of producing and monitoring those metrics. Another area that will receive increased attention is distributor actions and the transparency of distribution charges and loadings. This could have a material impact on some channels.

These issues aside, a more positive perspective is that protection product providers should see consumer duty as a win-win opportunity. One way to go about this will be to embed customer outcomes in proposition development, with structured customer-focussed processes.

This should hopefully result in renewed focus on innovation, of the kind that brought us diabetes and safer tobacco insurance products not so long ago. This will continue the recent growth ofvalue-add services, such as the virtual GP services that proved popular during the pandemic. It will, however, be necessary to maintain a keen eye on which services actually deliver better customer value and outcomes.

All of which points to the importance of understanding your customer and weaving that into everything you do – which provides a neat segue into my final UK protection market trend category.

Customer insight and analytics

A greater focus on the customer, whether it be enforced or a central business strategy, will be hard to achieve without good analytics.

Some protection insurers have been moving in this direction for a while now, and it is gathering more momentum. We’ve seen first hand the success achieved from insurers who can obtain more value from good analytics on their data, with value improvements seen for new business and the in-force.

Much of the data and analytics focus to date has been on improving the sophistication and agility of pricing. Some insurers can now predict the impacts of price changes, and we are actively supporting many to develop more advanced customer behaviour and elasticity models, as well as more rapid repricing. Their capabilities mean they can change prices in under a day – something that is also enabling more targeted pricing in the Group market.

The next step, we are expecting, is that forward-looking companies will find ways to use other sources of data to create a virtuous cycle of increased customer engagement, starting with customer insight, leading to better product tailoring, and back to more engaged – and potentially more loyal – customers.

Take stock to survive and thrive

Companies around the UK protection market will, I’m sure, be seeing and experiencing variations of these market influences and drivers within their businesses. Whether you choose to define these as the new ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ is perhaps a fruitless distinction. What is clear, though, is the clear need – and opportunity - for companies to seriously take stock of their ability to be profitable and grow in the short- and longer-term in light of an exceptional combination of current market factors.


Director, Insurance Consulting and Technology

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