End of Free Movement: The Latest Battle For The Social Care Sector

By Jordan Glackin, partner and healthcare expert, and Tijen Ahmet, legal director and business immigration specialist at law firm, Shakespeare Martineau (www.shma.co.uk)

Recruitment and retention have always been a challenge for the social care sector. Finding the right people with the necessary skills and resilience to thrive in what can be a high-stress environment is an uphill battle, one that will only be exacerbated by the end of free movement. With mounting administration levels and costs, the sector faces an uncertain future.

Workers from the European Economic Area (EEA) have been a lifeline in the past, and now further barriers have been created for those abroad considering a job in social care. However, as well as causing difficulties for applicants, the new immigration scheme has considerably increased the amount of administration for care home operators. Applicants must now be sponsored by their employer in order to gain a work visa, mean- ing care homes will have to apply for and maintain a sponsor licence. These must be maintained and renewed every four years, so operators must ensure that they are compliant with their obligations and duties when recruiting non-British staff to avoid scrutiny from the Home Office,

UKVI sponsor team.

A sponsor licence also comes with a fee. Add this on top of the Government visa fees, which for a single applicant working for a medium to large organisation could cost a minimum of £5,500, and it becomes a substantial investment for employers. There is also the issue of the minimum salary threshold for work visas. With the current general threshold for skilled workers set at £25,600, many roles within the social care sector will fall under this figure and as a result, care homes may have to increase salaries in order to fill the gaps.

These financial considerations raise the question around whether it is worth sponsoring someone from outside the UK, especially when it can- not be guaranteed how long a worker will stay in the role for. To counter this, care homes might have to introduce a minimum employment peri- od to ensure staff don’t simply use the sector as a short-term stepping stone.

Although the Government introduced a specific Health and Care Worker visa to reduce these issues in 2020, it is largely targeted towards those who have an NHS job offer rather than those entering the private sector. The vast majority of care workers will not be eligible for this visa, and care homes will have no choice but to sponsor them, if they cannot source UK labour.

However, the Shortage Occupation List for healthcare may provide much-needed support for the sector as it does currently for social work- ers and nurses. Job roles that are placed on this list mean applicants can trade points against a salary that is up to 20% below the relevant mini- mum salary threshold, enabling skilled workers to be hired without having to increase wages. This list was last updated on 4 March 2021 and is updated annually, so it’s vital that any areas facing extreme recruitment difficulties are flagged to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) which makes recommendations to the Government for roles to be included on the Shortage Occupation List.

Until more is done to make the sector more attractive to UK jobseekers, it is likely that foreign workers will remain an essential part of the workforce. Although the Government has launched a recruitment drive focusing on adult social care, it does not address the core issues that put people off entering the sector, such as low pay and high stress. The introduction of mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations from 11 November 2021 is also unlikely to help.

While the reasoning behind mandatory vaccinations is understand- able, it does risk hindering recruitment and retention even further. Many care homes have already started the consultation process, and some staff are refusing to have the vaccine. Employers in the care sector can rely on a legislative basis for dismissing staff who refuse to have the vaccine, but this leaves them in a tricky situation.

On the other hand, the NHS is not requiring staff to be vaccinated, prompting an influx of workers from the private sector. As a result, key staff are being lost and replacing them will not be an easy process.

Aside from increased difficulty regarding recruiting and retaining staff, mandatory vaccinations will also lead to further administrative tasks for care home operators. Although contractual changes may not necessarily be needed, robust policies must be created to clearly identify requirements for workers and visiting professionals. More detail is needed on whether NHS staff entering care homes will have to be vaccinated to do so.

Foreign applicants could also be faced with a number of issues because of these vaccination rules. Every country has its own vaccination process, so there will need to be an international vetting system. There is the potential for Home Office-approved clinics to be set up in each country where visa applicants can get a certificate to confirm that they’ve been vaccinated, similarly to the tuberculosis testing process. However, this would be another cost for the employer or the individual.

The social care sector plays an essential role is looking after society’s most vulnerable, but at present, the sector itself is plagued with vulnerability. In order to fill the gaps, care home operators must ensure they understand what the new immigration system requires from them, to avoid further difficulties later down the line.

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