By Amy Stokes, a partner specialising in business immigration and employment law at Forbes Solicitors (www.forbessolicitors.co.uk)
A recently published report provides a stark reminder of the staffing shortages facing health and social care and implies clear and urgent Government action is needed to address workforce planning. If this is the case, immediate recruitment benefits could be achieved by making small changes to temporary Visas.
On 25 July 2022, The Health and Social Care Committee published a report; Workforce: recruitment, training and retention in health and social care. This describes the sector as facing its ‘greatest workforce crisis in their history’. Such a statement comes amidst research showing 490,000 jobs are needed in social care by the early part of the next decade.
A combination of pressures including growing demand for services, the impacts of Covid and existing understaffing is accelerating the workforce crisis. Staff are stretched to the limits, which risks burnout and mental health problems leading to sickness or workers exiting the profession. The report references that one in three care workers left their job in 2020-21. This is driving calls for urgent and decisive workforce planning at Government level, with emphasis placed on the delayed workforce strategy that the Secretary of State had promised in Spring 2022.
Publication of the workforce strategy has been pushed back until Autumn this year, and although this will cover short and long-term projections and plans, one of the most immediate solutions for addressing staffing shortages could be to improve temporary Visas.
Health and Care Worker Visa
In response to significant staffing issues following Brexit and Covid, the Home Office established a set of temporary changes to the immigration rules required for the Health and Care Worker Visa. The changes were made on 15 February 2022 and last for 12 months. They are designed to make it quicker and easier for UK-based organisations to recruit a range of qualified health and care workers from overseas.
The changes have been largely welcomed by care providers. However, there still seems to be opportunity to streamline the Visa process to enhance recruitment.
Small, short-term fixes
One of the biggest drawbacks of Visa schemes is often the time it takes to process applications. An employer must apply for a Sponsor Licence and a candidate also has to go through the application process.
With the right guidance and preparation, employers can expediate this process. Organisations can ensure they and their prospective candidates meet all the necessary eligibility criteria and the correct information is properly submitted to avoid unnecessary delays. Despite this, the Home Office is facing wider Visa application pressures, which means it can take eight weeks to process a Sponsor Licence application.
Applicants can pay £500 for a priority service to speed-up the process, but the availability of this service is not guaranteed. Removing this express option could help simplify the flow and processing of applications and reduce the cost burden for care providers.
Changes to the application process could also be made to English language requirements – often one of the biggest hurdles that employers come up against. Currently, to satisfy eligibility criteria, a qualified worker must reach at least English level B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR).
Language ability on the CEFR is scored on a six-point scale and B1 requirements could, practically, be reduced to A1 for care professionals. Essentially, this lower level is a beginner standard. To put this into context, A1 is the minimum level required by a spouse applying for a UK Visa. Based on our experience of working with care providers on Visa applications, A1 would suffice to fulfil day-to-day duties and interactions with patients and staff. Lowering the language requirements would open-up recruitment to a wider pool of qualified overseas workers.
In addition to these small changes, the temporary Health and Care Worker Visa arrangements could be extended beyond February 2023 for at least 12 more months. Extra time would provide a short-term fix as Government considers and implements its workforce strategy and provide conclusive insight about the impact of the temporary measures. If they have been successful, there’s no reason why they can’t be made permanent in the long-term.