The UK is currently facing unprecedented shortages of workers. Between June and August 2021, the ONS recorded 1,034,000 job vacancies in the UK – the first time vacancies have risen above 1,000,000 since records began.
Labour shortages are being attributed largely to the exodus of EU workers following the pandemic and the government’s post-Brexit immigration reforms. The end of EU free movement removed UK employers’ unrestricted access to the European labour market, as EU nationals coming here to work must now have either lawful status under the settlement scheme or a valid visa.
The current sponsorship system provides routes for highly skilled migrant workers, but the current labour crisis mostly concerns roles that would not meet the points criteria under the sponsorship system. And following the UK’s exit from the EU, government reform of the immigration rules saw the removal of any ‘low skilled’ work visa routes, meaning only those in skilled roles with a sponsoring employer now qualify to come to the UK for work.
In the points-based immigration system policy paper from February 2020, the government alluded to the potential disruption ahead as the country adapted to the post-Brexit rules, but insisted it would not introduce a general low-skilled or temporary work route, and that employers would just need to adjust.
As consumers and employers, we are now feeling the effects of this policy. A lack of HGV drivers transporting fuel to petrol stations has resulted in ‘panic at the pumps’, empty supermarket shelves are a familiar sight and restaurants have been forced to close temporarily due to low food supplies.
While the government and industries explore long-term strategies to resolve labour shortages through education, training and recruitment of UK workers, the message is clear from employers: a solution is desperately needed now.
Relaxing post-Brexit immigration policy
To address the current supply chain crisis, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and representative bodies from the UK food, hospitality and farming industries, wrote to the government in August pleading for immediate action to be taken.
One recommendation was to introduce a 12-month Covid recovery visa as a short-term response to ‘maintain critical services’ affecting the supply chain while UK workers are recruited and trained. The existing temporary visa for seasonal horticulture workers should also be amended to make the scheme permanent.
Khan also called for devolved powers to fill vacancies in sectors with serious shortages, including logistics, food production and social care, where falling workforce numbers have been placed at greater risk of plummeting due to the imminent mandatory vaccination regulations.
Economic migration as a solution runs contrary to the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy. But with petrol queues getting longer and supplies getting lower, the government has been forced to take action.
It has temporarily relaxed the immigration rules by introducing an emergency visa scheme: 5,000 visas for HGV drivers and 5,500 visas for poultry workers are now being made available for EU and non-EU nationals to come to the UK on a short-term basis.
The food and logistics industries have raised concerns that the scheme does not go far enough, and that the number of visas being allocated (10,500) will do little to ease the labour shortages (said to be 100,000 hauliers), or have the necessary, immediate impact on supply chain issues.
Given shortages of HGV drivers throughout the EU, the UK is also having to compete on pay and working conditions and by all accounts, European countries are offering a better deal for drivers.
While the short visa validity period makes it clear the government wants to stress that this is only a temporary relaxation of its post-Brexit immigration policy – a stop-gap to save Christmas – the brief duration of the visas has also given grounds for concern.
Initially set to last from October until Christmas Eve, there has been criticism from industry that this fails to provide sufficient incentive for foreign workers to go to the expense and hassle of securing accommodation and travel for only three months of work. It was also unclear what the plan was for after 25 December 2021, once the visas had expired.
The government has conceded this point by revising the emergency scheme to allow 300 overseas fuel drivers to come to the UK immediately and remain here to work until March 2022. The other 4,700 visas for foreign food truck drivers are now set to be valid from late October 2021 until the end of February 2022.
While the government has effectively u-turned on its immigration stance – at least temporarily – it remains to be seen if it will have the required impact.
Of further worry is how the Home Office will handle all of these visa applications in such a short timeframe, given it has yet to resume pre-Covid processing service levels.
There is a lot more to be done to guide and support employers through this post-Brexit ‘adjustment’ period and to resolve the current labour crisis. A medium-term solution such as the Covid recovery visa could provide much-needed labour and respite across sectors, as employers adapt and as longer-term strategies to train and recruit UK workers come to fruition.
Anne Morris is an immigration lawyer & MD at DavidsonMorris