Covid-19 Halts UK Migration but Not Brexit

The sudden closure of businesses and travel routes during the Covid-19 crisis has had profound consequences for migration to and from the UK, and for migrants living, working, and studying in the country.

Passenger arrivals by air into the UK in April 2020 were 99% lower than the previous year. This almost complete end of international passenger arrivals into the country generated serious challenges for industries that have become dependent on seasonal migrant workers from the EU—notably agriculture, which has sourced most of its seasonal labor from the EU over the last decade, with the industry forced to launch a ‘pick for Britain’ campaign to attempt to meet labor demand.

Elsewhere in the economy the situation was also starkly different, with rocketing claims for unemployment benefits and a collapse in job vacancies. The hospitality industry—a sector often staffed by low-waged EU migrant workers—was almost completely shut down for months, with huge impacts on both employers and staff. Mothballed businesses and unemployment have also highlighted for the precarious position of the nearly 1.4 million non-EU migrants with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ conditions attached to their visas who will be at risk of serious financial problems if they become unemployed.

Meanwhile, falling public concerns about immigration reduced further during the crisis. Support for migrant key workers—particularly those in the National Health Service (NHS)—generated concessions to reduce risks of impoverishment or removal for family dependents of non-EU NHS workers who die from Covid-19.

But softening attitudes did not slow down the Brexit process. In May, the government pushed through the new Immigration Bill, paving the way for a new ‘points-based’ immigration system. The new restrictions would prevent many people becoming key workers in the UK in future. Around half of the EU citizens currently in key worker positions in the UK would not meet the new salary and skills thresholds required to move to the UK from 2021.

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