Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, immigration was a hot topic. The incumbent government appeared determined to reduce the number of immigrants coming into the UK. However, could this pandemic make immigration a hot topic for an entirely different reason? In other words, could it trigger a rethink of the government’s proposed ‘points-based immigration system’ and prompt a shift in the public’s attitude towards immigration?
Over the past few years, the desire to reduce immigration to Britain has slowly emerged from beneath the surface. One of the first prominent examples of this was Gordon Brown’s use of the slogan ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ in 2009. This might have been a protest against the EU’s core principle of freedom of movement. Since then, the desire to reduce immigration seems to have moved further up the government’s agenda. This began with David Cameron’s pledge to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ followed by the creation of the ‘hostile environment’ policy by Theresa May in 2012. This policy was designed to drive illegal immigrants out of Britain by making services like banking and housing unaccommodating for them. It came back to bite her successor Amber Rudd, who was forced to deny allegations that the government had set ‘deportation targets’ during the Windrush scandal. Most recently, Boris Johnson’s government has pledged to create a ‘points-based immigration system’ which would prevent ‘low-skilled’ migrant workers coming to Britain.
However, coronavirus appears to have highlighted the vital role that migrants play within Britain, particularly in the NHS. The poem ‘you clap for me now’ by Darren James Brown illustrates this in a particularly poignant way through its reference to migrants ‘propping up the NHS’. Government data suggest that this claim is true. The House of Commons Library states that 13.1% of all NHS staff are from overseas. Migrants also play a crucial role in the care sector, which is currently under immense strain. According to the ‘Workforce Intelligence’ website 115,000 EU workers are currently employed in the adult social care sector, equating to around 8% of its entire workforce. Meanwhile, non-EU workers make up 134,000 of Britain’s carers. Under the points-based system, these people risk being classified as ‘low-skilled workers’ and consequently barred from working in the UK. However, this global pandemic may have demonstrated to government and the public alike that these jobs are not ‘low skilled’ after all. At the very least, it may have helped to show that these jobs are no less important because they are ‘low skilled’. These are points which undoubtedly reverberate greatly with the Prime Minister given that he acknowledges the enormous debt he owes the NHS for saving his life following his own battle against the virus.
Farming is another area in which the importance of migrant workers has been demonstrated through the coronavirus pandemic. Again, as ‘you clap for me now’ suggests, migrants are often the people who are ‘bringing food from your soil’, ensuring that Britain maintains sufficient food supplies. Figures from the British Growers Association (BGA) strongly support this claim. These reveal that there were 75,000 non-UK workers in the horticulture sector in 2016. Furthermore, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has revealed that 99% of all ‘seasonal labour’, such as fruit-picking and vegetable harvesting, is carried out by EU workers. Following the imposition of travel restrictions as a result of the pandemic, it was hoped that British people would step up to fill the gaps caused by the absence of foreign workers. Yet, this hope did not materialise and the British government was forced to fly in Romanian nationals to assist with fruit-picking as a result. Traditionally conservative papers including ‘The Daily Mail’ heralded their arrival with the flattering headline: ‘Romanians to the Rescue’. Coronavirus has shown just how reliant Britain is on migrants to stop crops from rotting in the fields and to ensure that people have food on their table.
Ultimately, the coronavirus outbreak has demonstrated that migrants play a critical role in the overall functioning of this country. Their contribution is particularly vital in both the NHS and the farming industry though they play a key part in many other areas. The public appear to have recognised the importance of migrants to Britain’s economy and this may result in calls for the government to overhaul current plans to alter the UK’s immigration system.