Immigration rules relaxed for social care workers amid Brexit and Omicron staffing crisis

24 December 2021, 19:17 | Updated: 4 January 2022, 12:26

The social care sector is suffering a growing staffing crisis, partly due to Brexit and the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19
The social care sector is suffering a growing staffing crisis, partly due to Brexit and the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

The Government is to relax immigration rules on care-worker jobs as the social care sector increasingly struggles to attract and keep staff, partly as a result of Brexit.

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Care workers will be added to the shortage occupation list, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said, after a preliminary review was carried out by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) into the effect of ending freedom of movement after Brexit on the social care sector and its workers.

The MAC recommended that the jobs be made eligible for the health and care visa and placed on the list, which is designed to help migrants get work visas to fill jobs where there are shortages.

This was called for "immediately" to temper "severe and increasing difficulties" the sector is facing with recruitment and retention, the MAC said in mid-December.

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Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the measure would help to "ensure short-term sustainability" as he also urged care workers to get vaccinated.

He said: "I also urge all care staff yet to do so to come forward to get boosted now to protect themselves and those they care for."

Care workers and carers from overseas will be able to move with dependents, including partners and children, and the visa offers a path to settlement in the UK, the DHSC said.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: "The care sector is experiencing unprecedented challenges prompted by the pandemic and the changes we've made to the health and care visa will bolster the workforce and help alleviate some of the pressures currently being experienced."

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The announcement comes after campaigners last year accused the Government of excluding care workers from its new immigration system and ignoring the role they have played during the coronavirus pandemic.

The temporary measures are expected to come into effect early next year and will be in place for a minimum of 12 months.

Care providers are experiencing high vacancy rates and turnover, and pressure on staffing is being exacerbated by the recent spread of Omicron.

Sam Monaghan, chief executive of MHA, the UK's largest charitable care provider, said: "Essential care and support for older people is facing a staffing crisis the likes of which we have never seen before.

"Like other non-profit care providers, MHA is having to close the doors of our care homes and we currently have around 19 per cent of our homes unable to accept new residents.

"As a result, older people are staying in hospital longer than they need to or not getting access to the care they want.

"The changes to immigration rules announced today are a very welcome step forward in addressing the ongoing care staffing crisis.

"However, it will be some months before older people feel the benefit of these much-needed changes.

"For now, we need the Government to urgently address pay for care workers, and we need local authorities to draw up emergency plans in case staffing pressures get worse before they get better."

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Nadra Ahmed, chair of the National Care Association, said the Government's decision was a "significant recognition of the substantial workforce challenges facing colleagues and services across social care".

And Vic Rayner, chief executive of the National Care Forum, said: "This is welcome news at an incredibly challenging moment for social care.

"The workforce is under more pressure than ever before, and this change will mean that hard pressed employers struggling to recruit from the UK labour market will have a glimmer of hope for the New Year.

"It will be imperative that all organisations, large and small, needing these additional valued workers, will be able to utilise the immigration system at speed.

"At present it is complex, and organisations currently using it for wider roles recognise the financial and bureaucratic burdens inherent in the system."

Liberal Democrat health and social care spokeswoman Daisy Cooper said the relaxation of immigration rules was "too little, too late for everyone who has had their visits to a loved one in a care home cancelled this Christmas".

"When Boris Johnson delivered Brexit he pulled the rug from under the care sector's workforce," she said.

"Now, the paltry offer of a one-year visa will likely fail to attract the numbers of care workers we so desperately need."

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Wes Streeting, Labour's shadow health and social care secretary, said: "Sneaking this announcement out on Christmas Eve is an admission of failure from the Conservative Government that they don't pay carers enough to recruit or retain the staff we need, and have failed to tackle this building problem for years.

"Labour will ensure care workers get the pay, terms and conditions they deserve, tackle high vacancy rates, and transform training to improve the quality of care."