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COVID-19 shows us who the UK’s essential workers are after all
8 April 2020
As the Home Office announces that NHS doctors, nurses and paramedics with UK work visas due to expire before 1 October will have them automatically extended for a year, there are important questions to come on who else should be considered for an extension as the economy recalibrates in the months ahead.
Last month in Parliament, Home Secretary Priti Patel acknowledged the outstanding work of everyone contributing to dealing with the coronavirus and caring for those afflicted by it. She went on to acknowledge the definition of essential workers might need to be reviewed as the situation develops.
The Government has recognised the dedication of supermarket cashiers, lorry drivers, transport maintenance engineers, food delivery drivers, cleaners, carers, bus drivers alongside the essential workers within the NHS and other public services. The coronavirus response reminds us of the value of these front-line workers and — that when considering the UK’s recovery and the workforce needed to power it — we might need to rethink who sits on that critical key worker list.
The coronavirus crisis has made certain roles very visible, demonstrating that they are necessary to society and the economy at large. A quick look at ONS data shows us that on average 50% of jobs in the food chain (excluding hospitality) are held by foreign, mostly EEA (40%), workers. Same goes for logistics and wholesale where the non-UK workforce is 39% or cleaning where it is at 35% on average. Immigrants literally help to keep this country running – from stocking shelves every morning to cleaning hospitals and treating patients.
Business will play an important role in supporting people who want to retrain into new roles, guiding homegrown talent into sectors with vacancies, including via the apprenticeship levy. However, it is important to recognise that there were already many unfilled vacancies across these now-seen-as-vital sectors.
Most jobs in these sectors don’t qualify under the currently proposed immigration system as they are either considered “too low-skilled” or don’t carry a salary high enough to comply with the £25k salary threshold, or in many cases fail both those categories. But as queues form outside supermarkets and their staff start to be recognised as going above and beyond to keep the rest of us safe, it’s time to reappraise quite what we mean by high value.
These are the workers we need now; that we will need in the future if our economy is to recover and grow in the years ahead; and many will need to come from overseas. It is time our policy makers recognise that things are changing and that this will need to be looked at again.
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