The government’s plan to stop overseas care workers bringing dependants to the UK is a ‘cruel sanction’ that will add to ‘dire workforce shortages’, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has warned.
The home secretary, James Cleverly, has announced a range of measures to ‘slash migration levels’, including the tightening of the Health and Care visa.
As well as preventing overseas care workers from bringing their dependants to the UK, the proposed changes will mean care providers in England will only be able to sponsor migrant workers if they are undertaking activities regulated by the Care Quality Commission.
Professor Nicola Ranger, RCN chief nurse, reacted angrily to the government announcement, commenting that ‘ministers appear comfortable with tearing apart families to score political points’.
She added: ‘This cruel sanction will deter care workers from coming to the UK, adding to dire workforce shortages in social care and ultimately piling even more pressure on an overburdened NHS.’
In addition to Home and Care visa changes, from next spring the government will end the 20% going rate salary discount for shortage occupations and replace the shortage occupation list with a new immigration salary list, which will retain a general threshold discount.
Meanwhile, the earning threshold for overseas workers will rise by nearly 50% from £26,200 to £38,700. However, those coming to the UK via a Health and Care visa will be exempt from the increase to the salary threshold.
Following the announcement of the proposals in the House of Commons on Monday, the home secretary was asked by Damian Green MP if stopping people from bringing dependants to the UK would lead to fewer people coming altogether, thus damaging the care sector.
In response, Mr Cleverly said: ‘Whilst perhaps an individual with a family might be dissuaded because of the restrictions we have on family members, it is almost certainly the case that someone else that does not have those family commitments will be willing to put themselves forward.’
Professor Ranger commented: ‘The home secretary admitted in his own announcement in the Commons that health workers with families will be put off joining our short-staffed health and care services.
‘Anything that limits or deters nursing staff from coming to the UK – including any changes to the shortage occupations list – will only add to the dire workforce crisis in the health and care sector.’
Professor Ranger also noted that the new salary threshold is higher than an average nurse’s wage. ‘If they change nursing’s place on the exemption list, this will hit hard on the NHS,’ she said.
NHS Providers also expressed fears that the proposals would deter overseas health and care staff from filling gaps in the UK workforce.
‘With over 120,000 staff shortages in the NHS and over 150,000 in social care, measures that deter people from joining these professions are deeply concerning,’ said Miriam Deakin, the organisation’s director of policy and strategy.
She added: ’The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan is clear that international recruitment will continue to play a key role in the NHS’s future, alongside domestic training.
‘We therefore need the health and care sectors to remain attractive not only to domestic workers but also to those educated internationally.’
According to the government, Skilled Worker and Health and Care worker visas account for 63% of work grants, and the proportion of work-related visas being granted to dependants rose to 43% in the year ending September 2023.
The home secretary said: ‘I am taking decisive action to halt the drastic rise in our work visa routes and crack down on those who seek to take advantage of our hospitality.’
Unison echoed the RCN in describing the measures as ‘cruel’, and warned they could ’spell total disaster for the NHS and social care’.
Christina McAnea, the union’s general secretary, said: ‘Migrant workers were encouraged to come here because both sectors are critically short of staff. Hospitals and care homes simply couldn’t function without them.
‘There’s also a global shortage of healthcare staff. Migrants will now head to more-welcoming countries, rather than be forced to live without their families.’
Ms McAnea accused the government of ‘playing roulette with essential services just to placate its backbenchers and the far-right’, and warned that the care system would ‘collapse’ without migrant workers.
A recent report by Skills for Care found that the total social care workforce in England grew by just 1% between April 2022 and March 2023, after shrinking for the first time on record during the previous year.
Last week further concern was raised over an increasing number of professionals on the Nursing and Midwifery Council register being recruited from off-limits ‘red list’ countries.
This story first appeared on our sister title, Nursing in Practice.