COVID-19 has changed, and will continue to change, migration policy. As we move towards the end of the Brexit transition period and away from the height of the pandemic, the Government should adapt policy to provide stronger social rights for those migrants who have contributed so much to COVID-19 efforts, or else they risk losing them.
The way politics responds to both the COVID-19 pandemic and migration appears to be two sides of the same coin. Both matters transcend borders and are associated with policy responses which call for the tightening of borders. How will the future landscape for new and existing migrants in the UK change?
In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, this landscape will drastically change. Beyond this, there is potential for the UK government to create an appreciative environment for those migrant workers that the UK and countries across the EU have relied on for the past few months.
Is migration an area of concern for the UK public?
Since the pandemic began, immigration has seemingly slipped from Britain’s policy agenda. Whilst it might feel like an era ago, it has only been a few months since Brexit was at the forefront of British politics, which itself was built on a foundation of hostile migration policies. It is important, therefore, to see how migration has shifted in the list of top issues facing Britain.
According to public surveys by Ipsos MORI in February and April 2020, “immigration/immigrants” was no longer a top 10 issue for the UK public. Just 5% mention this as a key issue, the lowest score for “immigration/immigrants” recorded since December 1999. The change in perception towards this issue is particularly stark when compared to views just before the EU referendum in early 2016, when over half (56%) of those surveyed stated that “immigration/immigrants” is a concern (the highest proportion recorded for this issue).
The beating heart of the country
During the pandemic, the efforts of migrants working in essential industries have been singled out. Notably, Boris Johnson publicly thanked two nurses: “Jenny from New Zealand” and “Luis from Portugal”, who were by his side for 48 hours when he was in a critical condition due to COVID-19. It is even more interesting that he stated an unnecessary piece of information when describing someone’s merits: their respective countries of origin. He described their roles in the NHS and referred to them as being part of the “beating heart of this country” and “the best of this country”.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock also paid tribute to NHS workers “from all over the world” who “came to this country to make a difference”. Indeed, according to a report published by Parliament in July 2019, 13.1% of the NHS workforce are not British, or around 153,000 staff. Losing such a sizable proportion of the NHS workforce would undoubtedly cause the NHS to suffer.
This immigrant-positive rhetoric is a far cry from the Conservative government’s previous announcement of the ‘hostile environment’. Many people from migrant backgrounds may be curious whether and how this will change in the aftermath of the pandemic. Will they still be welcomed in these sectors or is ‘clap for carers’ only temporary? It is questionable whether this rhetoric will manifest into concrete policy changes after the pandemic.
The aftermath of the pandemic
For the UK Government the topic of migration should become a renewed area of focus, but for different reasons to those prior to the pandemic. The pandemic has revealed the very visible contribution of migrant workers, yet many could face the double blow of being classed as ‘low-skilled’ and earning below the minimum salary requirement to work and settle in the UK. These include supermarket workers, caregivers, people working on farms, and those keeping the country moving by driving buses.
Indeed, there was a notorious call for people to fill a shortage of workers on British farms in April 2020. After a call for British workers failed to attract people to the role, the Government was forced to bring in seasonal workers from Eastern Europe using chartered flights. It seems, contrary to previous anti-immigration rhetoric, that there is a deep-rooted need for migrant workers.
Migration policies must change to provide stronger social rights for migrants. They are COVID-19’s unsung heroes, making the ultimate sacrifice to the pandemic and essential services recently. These policies should shift away from attracting solely skilled workers if the UK wants to keep our essential workers after the crisis. This is particularly crucial towards the end of the Brexit transition period when immigration may return to the agenda. If policies stay stagnant or move along their hostile trajectory, the Government risks losing those they have been relying on, something that may be hard for them to admit.
Preeti Pasricha is co-Head of Agora’s Democracy & Governance Programme.