Coronavirus: Ex-minister warns immigration crackdown risks frontline staff shortages

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Former immigration minister Caroline Nokes speaks with Border Force officers and the HM Coastguard in Dover, to discuss migrants' attempts to reach Britain by small boat. (Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)

A former minister has warned rushing through controversial immigration reforms next year risks shortages in roles on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic.

Caroline Nokes, Britain’s immigration minister until last year, sounded the alarm in a virtual Commons debate as MPs voted to end EU free movement rules last night.

The Conservative MP urged the government not to roll out wide-ranging reforms “in a big-bang fashion in just seven months’ time,” as Britain grapples with the pandemic.

The Home Office is a “machine that moves slowly,” she added, recommending a more “phased” approach rather than the planned full launch date of January 2021.

READ MORE: UK jobless claims surged 69% as lockdown began

Planned ‘points-based’ reforms are likely to make it harder to recruit from abroad in sectors, jobs and skillsets not prioritised by the government, and significantly curb inflows of low-paid migrant workers.

Nokes served as immigration minister under former prime minister Theresa May, before losing her job shortly after Boris Johnson took office.

She said many care home owners, freight firms, retailers, food processors and childcare providers would have to navigate Britain’s visa system for the first time to recruit staff. Even if firms manage to successfully recruit and get in the necessary paperwork, Nokes fears application delays.

Nokes asked if they could be confident their sponsorship applications would be processed on time, when it was “very much not business as usual” at the Home Office. She said officials were already struggling with backlogs of EU settled status applications, closed visa application centres and the virus-linked suspension of other continued residence applications.

She also said care workers and hospital support workers risked being “forgotten once again,” as they are not included in a new fast-track NHS visa.

“We cannot open hospitals if we cannot clean the loos,” she told MPs as she questioned the absence of ancillary staff from a new NHS visa scheme. She also warned few Brits were coming forward to work in agricultural jobs, where firms have relied heavily on eastern and central European workers no longer benefiting from free movement.

Nokes welcomed the departure from EU rules that MPs approved in the immigration and social security bill on Monday night (18 May), however. “There is no doubt that we must turn off free movement. We must uphold the outcome of the 2016 referendum.”

The bill moved a step closer to becoming law after being approved by 351 votes to 252 on its second reading in the Commons. The government has pledged to set out further details of its planned reforms later this year.

The Labour party opposed the plans, with shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds accusing ministers of “rank hypocrisy” for clapping for carers while backing such reforms.

READ MORE: UK government presses on with ending free movement

“In the midst of this crisis the government is putting forward an immigration system containing a salary threshold of £25,600 — it sends a signal and tells people that anyone earning less than that is unskilled and unwelcome in our country,” he said.

But Patel outlined the government’s case for reform, saying the end to free movement “delivers on the promise we made to the British people.”

“It gives the government the powers needed to deliver an immigration system that is firm, fair and fit for the future, the points-based system the public voted for, a system that will support our economic recovery by prioritising jobs for people here in the UK while continuing to attract the brightest and the best in terms of global talent,” she said as she opened the debate.