The Shortage Occupation List and Brexit

Pia Subramaniam discusses changes made to the Shortage Occupation List and how these are likely to impact individual healthcare professionals, as well as the UK health sector as a whole

Following warnings from the CBI, which suggested that the health sector could fail due to staff shortages, the Migration Agency Committee (MAC) released a recommended update to the UK’s Shortage Occupation List (SOL) in May. The updated SOL presented much-needed recommendations, to include and extend the roles across the health and social care sector.

This comes after health and care professionals suffered severely under staff shortages. While these amendments definitely are a positive step forward, many are still concerned about what will happen to staff after Brexit day.

What are the new changes?
If an occupation within the UK is on the SOL, individuals seeking jobs from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) are no longer subject to some visa restrictions. Employers are able to recruit overseas nurses, paramedics, care-workers, technicians and other health professionals more easily. Overseas professionals still have to apply for a Work Visa, however international applicants will receive a reduced visa fee, less waiting time and a lower minimum salary requirement than the current £30,000p. a for the Tier 2 Work Visa.

In the healthcare sector, many jobs do not qualify under the current minimum salary requirement, as the average salary of a registered UK nurse is £23,000, while the median salary of a role in the care sector is £16,623. These individuals thereby fall well below the minimum salary threshold. If the MAC’s recommendations are implemented, all roles within the ‘medical practitioner’ and ‘nurse’ category will be added to the SOL, making overseas professionals eligible to fill them.

The recommendations by the MAC are meant to encourage overseas professionals to migrate to the UK and fill positions that the UK is unable to fill with domestic talent alone.

The new update of the UK’s SOL is good news for the health sector, as it welcomes international professionals to apply more easily, which greatly helps resolve the issue of staff shortages within the NHS and the UK health sector as a whole.

What happens after Brexit?
There is one question, which still remains unanswered: How will staff shortages be covered after Brexit, when the free movement ends, and EU nationals are no longer encouraged to move to the UK?

For now, the MAC’s recommendations aim to help resolve the workforce gap within the healthcare sector. However, after Brexit Day on 30 October, 2019, the updated SOL may become invalid, as the free movement laws are no longer implemented.

The UK currently employs 62,000 European healthcare professionals, which includes skilled doctors and nurses and any individual from the EEA seeking a job in the UK who are momentarily able to work for an unlimited period under free movement legislations. Regardless of a ‘no-deal’ or ‘hard’ Brexit, free movement will end and healthcare and social care workers are threatened with major workforce shortages, as the same immigration requirements will be implemented for EU nationals.

European workers will need to pay visa application and extension fees for themselves as well as for any additional dependent child or dependent spouse visa. They will also need to be sponsored by a Tier 2 registered employer and meet several other requirements if they want to work in the UK health sector permanently.

If EU care professionals are subject to the same visa requirements as non-EEA migrants, they will have a complicated route in order to apply for roles in the UK, allowing many EU nationals to seek jobs elsewhere and more shortages to arise.

Even in the event of the reduced visa fees for occupations on the SOL, EU health professionals will most likely be put off by the rulings and stop choosing the UK as their professional base - especially when the average wage of a health care worker will be much lower than the national living wage.

The health care sector is known for being underfunded. Austerity measures have had a negative impact on most UK industries, effecting both workers and patients. Some residents have even had their social-care budget capped by two-thirds, leading to stretched resources and staff.

While the updated SOL makes positive progress within the health sector, the MAC’s efforts do not really go far enough. Once free movement ends and visa restrictions are implemented for all migrants, the sector will be severely threatened by an even bigger workforce shortage.

A clear strategy and more powerful recommendations are strongly required in order to tackle and potentially resolve this crisis, to ensure that the health care sector remains protected after Brexit.

Pia Subramaniam writes for the Immigration Advice Service, a team of immigration solicitors and lawyers based in across the UK.

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