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Exodus of foreign workers ‘a threat to UK recovery’

Michael Savage and James Tapper
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Britain’s economic recovery from the pandemic risks being seriously damaged by thousands of “missing” overseas workers who have left the country and will not return, senior figures from across industry are warning Boris Johnson.

Executives from hospitality, social care, construction and manufacturing all raised concerns that a lack of overseas workers after the pandemic will put a “handbrake on the recovery”. Some warned that the success of some of the government’s own flagship targets, such as an aim to build 300,000 homes a year, was being put at risk.

The warnings come after the issue was raised by the Office for Budget Responsibility this week. It said that the future population may be “substantially smaller” than official estimates suggest as people leave Britain, causing a “scarring impact”.

There is huge uncertainty about the degree to which overseas residents have returned home in the past year and whether the post-Brexit immigration rules will put them off coming back. One estimate has suggested that as many as 1.3 million could leave during the pandemic, though this is regarded as a worst-case scenario.

Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and planning policy at the National Federation of Builders, said there was a “real danger that we’re going to have a major skill shortage”. He said: “We need 300,000 homes [a year], but we’re building 180,000 new ones, or 220,000 if you count conversions, so we are well away from that target.”

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said: “It is a problem and it’s going to be a disproportionate problem in certain parts of the country. And we simply don’t know the scale of it. We lost 660,000 people in hospitality last year, so there is a potential pool of available labour. But as we restart the economy, it’s going to be a race to get people.”

graphic

Ben Fletcher, an executive director at Make UK, the manufacturers group, said the availability of overseas workers was set to be “a very, very significant challenge”. He added: “Even with unfettered access to that market, we’ve still had that very significant skill shortage. The fear we’ve got is that as we start to emerge from the pandemic, people who are working here may feel this is no longer an environment where they’re welcomed, or want to stay. There is a worry that they may go home.

“What we’re seeing is a bit of a gap in policy terms. It’s a handbrake on growth. It’s a handbrake on the recovery. And it’s a handbrake on the modernisation of the economy.”

Shortages are already hitting in some areas. Susanne Eves, of Belmont Nurseries in Norfolk, said that daffodils have gone unpicked this season because of a lack of labour. “Our regular agency wasn’t able to supply enough people, so we’ve brought in an additional agency. Some daffodils will be left.”

Ministers are already responding to the concerns. Last week, a series of jobs were added to the shortage occupations list, including some senior care workers, nursing assistants, pharmacists and foreign language teachers. It is easier for workers to obtain a visa to enter the UK with a job offer and a salary of about £20,000 or more. The Office for National Statistics is already working on new estimates of the population in order to counter the problem.

Pharmacists at work behind counter in a shop.
Pharmacists are on the government’s shortage occupations list. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Social care and the NHS are among sectors at risk. Vic Rayner, chief executive of the National Care Forum, the member association for not-for-profit care providers, said: “The announcement from the chancellor in his budget statement to reform the immigration system to help UK businesses attract the ‘brightest and best’ of international talent is an insult to many care providers who have been calling for a more flexible immigration system that addresses challenges facing the social care sector in attracting and retaining talent.”

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Trust leaders are all too aware that some international staff, particularly those whose families live overseas, will choose to leave the UK because of the pandemic and the restrictions that have been put in place because of it. Given the grave workforce gaps facing health and care going into the pandemic, we must do all we can to ensure international staff seeking to work in this country are able to do so without obstacles hindering recruitment.”

The government is telling businesses to concentrate on developing the skills of domestic workers to fill shortages as the economy grows. Kevin Foster, the minister for future borders and immigration, said: “Engaging with training, apprenticeship programmes and schemes to get people back to work, especially when many UK-based workers face an uncertain future, should be the first recourse for employers with vacancies, rather than viewing immigration as the primary solution.

“Our new points-based system allows access to talent and skills across the world, which we know employers and sectors need, but as part of our strategy for the UK labour market, not as an alternative to it.”