UK immigration policy casts shadow over social care sector, writes Roger Casale

When the UK leaves the EU, its borders will, according to the latest headlines, effectively be closed to low paid workers and those who do not speak English, writes Roger Casale.

The impact on the social care sector and other areas of the economy where overseas workers are in high demand is likely to be devastating.

Nowhere can the catastrophic impact of an unregulated Brexit in a time of a global pandemic be seen more clearly than in the crisis in Britain’s social care sector.

Over 20,000 people have died in the UK’s care homes during the COVID-19 crisis. In the meantime, staff vacancies across the UK have soared to over 120k, more than 10% of the total workforce in the sector, according to the National Care Forum.

The numbers are quite staggering but the UK Government refuses to move.

In a written statement on Monday, Priti Patel MP, UK Home Secretary, confirmed that care workers would be excluded from the government’s new fast track visa arrangements. Care workers will not be entitled to reduced application fees and the additional support available to health workers . Minimum income thresholds present an additional barrier.

Having abandoned its failed net migration targets, the Government’s immigration policy is still driven by an obsession with numbers. Its narrative is shot through with Orwellian “double-speak”. What better term could there be for a new “health and care visa” from which “care workers” are excluded?

As in many other parts of Europe, Britain has an ageing population and a culture which mitigates against looking after elderly relatives within the family. Work in care homes, where entry qualifications and levels of pay are very low, is not seen as attractive by UK workers.

Logically, the ready supply of labour in the form of workers from other European states is and remains an obvious remedy. EU migrant workers typically have higher qualifications than are required and are willing to work for lower wages.

Not only do hundreds of thousands of care workers migrate to Britain to look after the elderly and infirm, they also pay taxes which help finance the health and social care sector. Many return to their country of birth, when they become old to work, posing no burden to the UK for the care they need and had spent their lives giving to others.

One might well ask, as Nicholas Thomas-Symonds, Shadow Home Secretary did on Monday: “What is it the government doesn’t like about social care workers?”

Vic Rayner, CEO, National Care Forum, described the likely impact of the government policy in London as an “unmitigated disaster”. Over 38% of care workers in London are from abroad.

Fair-minded people might agree that it is the role of good government to identify solutions and then take decisions based on consensus. One might be forgiven for thinking that the ambition of this UK government is to create more problems than solutions.

Rather than generating consensus, it appears determined to foment division. Above all, a good government should look to protect the weakest in society. This government has a tendency to treat at risk groups, and therefore the particular challenges facing at risk groups, as if they did not exist at all. That is going to get much worse when the transition period ends.

The settled status scheme for EU citizens in the UK is a good example. The Government lauds the scheme as a great success because 90% of EU citizens have signed up for is. But, this misses the point that tens of thousands of the most at risk EU citizens will find they are in the UK illegally if even 2-3% fail to register before the deadline on 30 June 2021.

What happens then? This looks like another Windrush crisis in the making.

Similarly, how many green field sites in Kent will the government have to tarmac over as “lorry parks” before it realizes that the best trade deal with the EU is the one it’s got. Michael Gove is upset that the “lorry parks” are being referred to as “lorry parks”. Doesn’t he realise that reality can sometimes be as bad as it sounds?

The crisis in UK care homes is a train crash in the making and the government is heading down the tracks at full throttle, with the whistle blowing. When it happens, we may no longer be speaking about statistics, but rather the horror stories of those left without appropriate care.

Tens of thousands of residents may continue to lose their lives prematurely in a second wave of the pandemic. Others will survive but deprived of the comfort, dignity, and psychological support synonymous with high quality care and in some cases even of basic personal hygiene.

That will be the tip of the iceberg. Council will stop referring cases to care homes, leaving those in need of care in their own accommodation, with their needs partly or wholly unmet.

Such may be the consequence of the UK government’s new immigration policy. It is a policy which has everything to do with political gamesmanship and nothing to do with the proper regard of government, namely meeting the real and pressing needs of its people.

The Johnson Government has form on that – and Priti Patel is the stand out example.

By Roger Casale, former Labour MP for Wimbledon and founder and Secretary General of New Europeans. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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