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Vanessa Ganguin for The London Economic

The Government is out of step with the public over who unskilled workers are

20 May 2020

The Immigration Bill easily passed its second reading by 351 votes to 252 this week – a majority of 99.

It is set to replace free movement with EEA states with a revised points-based system for workers coming to the UK. Yet with public attitudes to who is “unskilled” changing, many insist it is a slap in the face for key workers who have risked their lives during the coronavirus pandemic.

Home Secretary Priti Patel told MPs that the Immigration Bill will be “firmer, fairer and simpler” and “lay the foundation for a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy.”

But her Labour counterpart Nick Thomas-Symonds was quick to point out the hypocrisy of Government ministers who were “out clapping… the NHS and care sector on Thursday night and then send a message tonight that they’re no longer welcome.” He added “it’s not fair and it’s not in the national interest.”

Even senior Conservative MPs have pointed out that many of the current key workers putting themselves and their families at risk to keep people alive in hospitals and care homes during the Coronavirus pandemic are classed as lower skilled workers, exacerbating skills shortages and adding to the crisis in the nursing home sector.

People who have played key roles during the Covid-19 pandemic will not meet the skills and salary threshold to be sponsored by care homes and hospitals.

Conservative former immigration minister Caroline Nokes joined MPs across party loyalties expressing concerns over the short time frame until the end of this year when the new immigration system kicks in, potentially depriving sectors ensuring the nation’s health of the experienced staff they need.

“I commend the Home Secretary for her commitment to extend visas for doctors and nurses, but what of care workers?” asked Caroline Nokes. “Are they to be the Cinderella service, forgotten once again? And what of ancillary staff in our hospitals? We cannot open hospitals if we cannot clean the loos.

“This is a crucial bill, but I do need more than two words from the immigration minister about how it can be delivered in a ‘Big Bang’ fashion in just seven months’ time when history tells us this is not the best way.”

It’s not just about “cleaning loos” as the former Immigration Minister suggested.

Carers are on the frontline in care homes where 40 per cent of the UK’s Covid deaths have occurred. Care homes, which despite the Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s insistence he had put a “protective ring” around them, were forced to take Covid positive people from hospital, people who had not been tested, and then left to deal with a complex new, barely understood disease. Carers, who have the skills to manage protecting their clients from contagion, their medication, PEG feeding tubes, catheters, hoists and all the adaptations to keep them safe and happy whatever their level of mobility.

And yet the care assistants, care workers, carers, home care assistants, home carers and nursing homes support workers currently on the frontline of protecting Britain’s most vulnerable from the strange, new pandemic, for which there may not be a cure for a very long time, are all classed as “lower-skilled” by the Home Office. They often earn less than the £26,500 threshold leaving them likely to be ineligible for sponsorship or even intra-company transfers if they have come to work in the UK from abroad.

“These measures are part of our plan for an Australian-style points-based immigration system that allows us to control numbers while remaining open to vital professions,” insisted the Home Secretary.

So who are the skilled workers in the “vital professions” Priti Patel referred to?

Call centre supervisors, careers consultants, market research analysts, marketing execs, insolvency administrators, interior designers, loss adjusters, DJ’s, or indeed Immigration officers are all classed skilled workers in the new points-based system.

While I count these professions among my best friends – and my best clients as an immigration lawyer – and I would not for a minute suggest we could do without them and their unique skills, the key workers this country is currently relying on have been cruelly let down by the Home Office’s definitions that will inform the points-based system.

As the planet of Golgafrincham faces extinction in the comedy sci-fi classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ark ships evacuate its citizens. Hapless hitchhikers Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect end up teleported onto Ark Ship B. While the other escape ships are filled with the planet’s inhabitants who did useful work, Ship B is filled with all the middlemen of the doomed planet – account execs, hairdressers, TV producers, insurance salesmen, PR execs, management consultants and – not forgetting – telephone sanitisers.

I would not even in jest suggest that these professions do not contribute to society in their own important ways, and in an interesting footnote in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is revealed that the entire remaining population of the planet subsequently died from a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone. – An interesting moral for our times about the crucial roles different workers play in our society.

And just how dangerous it can be to create a skills shortage. Even in telephone sanitisers.