Conservative MPs have called on Boris Johnson to rethink his harsh new immigration rules, because “the world has changed” with the vital role played by lower-paid migrant staff during the pandemic.
Ahead of the plans reaching the Commons on Monday, former ministers have spoken out about their fears for the NHS and social care, as well as tourism, hospitality and farming – one branding the rules “stupid”.
One Tory MP warned of “very serious consequences” if care homes – where a quarter of Covid-19 deaths have taken place – lose more staff, while a second pointed out that many hospital cleaners and porters are EU migrants.
Caroline Nokes, a former Home Office minister, called for urgent changes, telling The Independent: “If the last six weeks have shown us anything, it is that we are dependent upon workers from all round the globe, but in large numbers the EU, for many essential roles.”
And Stephen Hammond, a former health minister, said: “I believe an exemption for social care workers is one that would be widely welcomed.”
The crackdown drawn up by home secretary Priti Patel – to replace free movement of EU citizens, from next January – will impose a minimum salary threshold of £25,600 for most workers seeking to enter the UK.
There will be no exemptions for so-called low-skilled jobs, other than seasonal workers, and social care has been excluded from a list of shortage occupations with a more lenient wage floor of as low as £20,480.
Around 70 per cent of the 200,000 EU migrants who come to the UK each year are expected to be excluded by the new rules, officials believe – which would mean around 140,000 shut out.
Even before the coronavirus laid bare how care services depend on migrant workers – some of whom have paid the ultimate price – the package was branded “a disaster” by social care leaders, who fear a deepening recruitment crisis.
Ms Nokes said she supported what the Home Office calls a “points-based system”, recognising education level, ability to speak English and shortage occupations, which will apply to migrants from anywhere in the world.
But she warned: “The Home Office will also have to build in flexibilities to make sure we don’t run out of carers, child care workers, farm labourers, road hauliers, retail assistants.
“These may not be regarded as ‘skilled’ workers in cold immigration terms, but do any of us look at those care workers on the front line of the battle against Covid-19 and think of them as ‘unskilled’?”
Steve Double, the MP for St Austell and Newquay, in Cornwall, said: “The proposals came out of what we thought back in December and January, but the world has changed. We are now looking at a very different world.”
On social care, he added: “There are very serious consequences if we get this wrong and there is no one to care for an elderly person in a residential home.”
Sir Roger Gale, the MP for North Thanet, in Kent, said: “Unless and until there is a sea change in our attitude to funding social care, we are not going to attract the people to fill the vacancies.”
He also pointed to the NHS’s dependence on migrants for ancillary staff, adding: “We have got to reflect the reality and, while I understand what Priti is trying to achieve, now is not the moment.”
One former senior minister said the plans now looked “stupid”, adding: “In the light of recent events, these salary thresholds make no sense at all and may be counterproductive, by arbitrarily increasing the salaries of the migrant workers we will still desperately need.”
Sally Warren, director of policy at The King’s Fund, said there were 122,000 social care job vacancies – while one in six staff are non-British – adding: “It is hard to see how staff shortages can be plugged without overseas recruitment.
“As the care sector struggles to cope with the ongoing impact of Covid-19, the government cannot allow international recruitment to fall off a cliff.”
The row came amid anger over Ms Patel’s refusal – revealed by The Independent – to waive the £624 immigration health surcharge for foreign healthcare workers.
The Immigration and Social Security Coordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill will have its second reading on Monday, in a race against time to complete the dramatic shake-up in just seven months – with an extension to the post-Brexit transition period ruled out.
However, the bill itself will simply end free movement, with the battle to come in future months over salary thresholds and shortage occupations which will be settled in secondary legislation.
Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats vowed to vote against the “destructive” ending of free movement in the midst of the pandemic.
“Priti Patel may consider care workers to be ‘low skilled’, but they are on the front lines protecting us and our loved ones every single day,” said Christine Jardine, the party’s home affairs spokesperson.
The new rules will require migrants to speak English to “B1” level, enabling someone to, for example, open a bank account, or cope with “most situations” at home, work or leisure.
The are expected to be charged around £1,200 for a work visa, or £900 in a shortage occupation – the same fee paid by non-EU migrants currently.
Ms Patel has hailed Brexit as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen the security of the UK border”, blaming free movement for letting in illegal immigrants, terrorists, drugs and guns.
“We will attract the brightest and the best from around the globe, boosting the economy and our communities, and unleash this country’s full potential,” she said in February.
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