Britons who have lost jobs during pandemic could be encouraged to take on social care work, says government adviser

But campaigners warn higher unemployment rates among British workers ‘won’t magically fill the gaps’ created by government’s proposed post-Brexit immigration system

Britons who have lost jobs during pandemic could be encouraged to take on social care work says government adviser

British people who have lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic could be encouraged to take on work in the social care sector, the government’s advisory body on migration has suggested.

Professor Brian Bell, chair of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), said he did not believe changes needed to be made to the government’s post-Brexit immigration plans in order to ensure an adequate social care workforce in light of the public health crisis, because Britons could fill in any gaps.

The government’s new points-based immigration system, which is set to come into force from January, requires that anyone coming to the UK on a general work visa must be on a salary of above £25,600.

This means most non-British care workers — who currently account for around one in six adult social care staff in England — will not be eligible to come to the UK, as most jobs in the sector are paid the national minimum wage.

During an evidence session led by the Home Affairs Select Committee, Professor Bell was asked by chair of the committee Yvette Cooper whether, in light of the pandemic and with the UK at risk of a second wave of coronavirus, changes should be made to the system to include a “transitional arrangement for social care”.

Professor Bell replied: “I wouldn’t go that far, but I think we should be monitoring that situation and be prepared quickly to introduce such a scheme if it’s necessary.”

He went on to say: “If unemployment rises substantially in the next few months, there will be a large supply of workers in the UK looking for work. If social care is ever going to succeed in attracting workers that’s a pool of workers they should be able to attract.

“Of course, immigration may not work anyway if people aren’t willing to travel. It’s not clear to me that if you say there’s an immigration route doesn’t mean it’ll get people wanting to come here. There’s a question as to whether immigration is really going to be much of a solution because of restrictions on travel.

“It’s not clear come November and December whether we’ll be looking at an unemployment rate of 5-6 per cent, or 10-15 per cent. If it’s the latter, there is a potential there for social care sector to be quite active in going out there and trying to recruit workers who have never thought of social care before.”

Responding to his comments, Christina McAnea, assistant general secretary of UNISON, said his remarks indicated “little understanding of the significant skills needed to deliver quality care”, adding: “Higher unemployment rates won’t magically fill the gaps.

“This is no time to stop migrant care staff from coming here, especially with a likely second spike looming. Without them, the sector would have collapsed long ago.”

Nuffield Trust researcher Nina Hemmings warned that the government “shouldn’t take any chances” with services as vital as the care sector.

“As Professor Bell says, it will be hard enough predicting the level of unemployment in just a few months, let alone the years and decades over which we need to grow the social care workforce,” she said.

“Until social care sees the reform it needs to ensure the workforce are properly paid, trained and sustainable, then we need to see the flexibility in the new migration rules which could allow vital workers in when we face the level of shortages we see currently.”

Lucinda Allen, policy officer at the Health Foundation, said: “Workforce issues in social care are chronic, with staffing vacancies standing at around 122,000 before the Covid-19 pandemic. Without a sector-specific visa route enabling international recruitment into social care, the government’s current immigration plans risk making these problems worse.”

Minnie Rahman, public affairs and campaigns officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), said it was “very disappointing” that the new chair of the MAC created “this false distinction between British and foreign employees”.

She added: “The reality is that our public sector has been underfunded for decades which has led to a crisis in recruitment and retention, which will best be addressed by levelling up the rights of all workers and welcoming newcomers who want to work here.”

A government spokesperson said: “The MACe has been very clear in its assertion that immigration is not the answer to the challenges in the social care sector.

“As we implement the new immigration system, we want employers to focus on investing in our domestic work force. Additionally, the EU Settlement Scheme means that all EU and EAA citizens, and their family members, currently working in social care can stay in the UK and we are encouraging them to do so.”

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