SICK days are costing the New Forest taxpayer more than £1m every year, the Daily Echo can reveal.

Staff at New Forest Council take an average of nine days' leave a year - a total of 7,349 taken last year - because of ill health.

A staggering £1.6m was wasted last year paying for the problem and providing cover.

But council leaders say the number of days lost is "not unreasonable".

The news follows reports that the number of sick days taken nationally by Brits has gone up for the first time in five years.

But leader of the council Mel Kendal said the problem was no more serious than in other local authorities.

New Forest taxpayer Iris Winkle, 76, who runs a family business in Bartley, said: "That's an awful lot of money."

She said managers should demand a doctor's note for any period of absence.

Currently staff do not need to produce a note until their ninth sick day per year.

Mrs Winkle said: "Staff should have to produce proof that they're sick to be off work. An awful lot of people do think 'Oh, I don't think I'll bother to go into today' and have a day's holiday but it's not holiday."

Councillor Kendal said: "It doesn't seem like an abnormally big figure to me in relation to the staff payroll of £20m.

"We work within best practice as an employer according to government guidelines. I don't think our sick rates are worse than anyone else's."

Maureen Robinson, leader of the Forest's Liberal Democrat group, said the problem was caused by a lack of staff.

Now civic chiefs are rushing in plans to clamp down on the problem.

A new software package will help team leaders learn how to deal with the situation more effectively. Managers are also instructed to hold "return to work" meetings with staff following any periods of illness.