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Social care sector continues to drive demand for overseas workers as new data shows public sector roles dominate work visas

29 Feb 2024

New Home Office visa data show the number of visas issued to social care workers, excluding dependants, reached a record 106,000 in 2023. Health and care visas as a whole (also including doctors and nurses) now make up 75% of all long-term ‘Skilled Worker’ visa grants, in a work visa system increasingly dominated by the public sector, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said today. 

The Home Office granted 350,000 ‘Health and Care’ visas in 2023 in total, including dependants, compared to 118,000 skilled visas in other sectors. This means the share of Skilled Worker visas going to health and care roles jumped from 58% in 2022 to 75% in 2023. Jobs outside of health and care included mostly private-sector roles such as chefs, computer programmers and management consultants. Some of the latter are expected to decline after new salary thresholds for private-sector jobs come into force in April.  

Dr Ben Brindle, Researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “Serious shortages of staff in the care sector have been a major factor behind the high demand for care visas. On one hand, the government opened the immigration system to social care workers without addressing the underlying driver of shortages, namely the poor pay and conditions in a largely publicly funded sector. On the other, the social care route has been attractive to many overseas workers despite the poor conditions. It offers a more accessible route to living in the UK than other sectors, where it can be harder to find jobs that qualify for visas.”  

In December 2023, the government announced a package of restrictions on work and family migration. From March, care workers will no longer be able to bring their partners and children with them. The precise impacts are difficult to predict, however.  

Dr Brindle added: “The UK may become less attractive to care workers with family members. However, it’s also possible that employers will simply shift to hiring younger workers without families, or people who are willing to leave their families behind. In agriculture, the UK has been able to recruit tens of thousands of workers onto seasonal agricultural visas with less advantageous visa conditions. At the same time, care workers themselves will become more isolated if they come to the UK alone, and so may become more vulnerable to exploitation.” 

Work visas are currently the largest important contributor to overall UK net migration, followed by international students, according to official figures released last November. Today’s visa data show that student visa grants declined slightly in 2023, from 619,000 in 2022 to 601,000 in 2023. In 2023, 144,000 partners or children of international students received visas. This suggests there was no ‘rush’ of student applicants, ahead of restrictions on family members that were announced in May 2023 but not introduced until January 2024. 

Dr. Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory, said, “When free movement ended, the government said that employers would have to adjust. It turns out what this meant was that other employers would have to adjust. Where workers are directly or indirectly employed by the government, there has been much less enthusiasm to restrict. This has meant the public sector has increasingly dominated the skilled work visa system.” 

In the asylum system, a record number of applications were withdrawn in 2023: a total of 24,000. This was more than four times the number in 2022, when just over 5,200 applications were withdrawn. The largest number of withdrawn applications (42%) were from Albanian citizens, who have a relatively low success rate in the UK asylum system. The increase follows government decisions to withdraw claims on people’s behalf if they do not hear from them, at a time when the government was trying to meet its December 2023 target to clear the backlog of cases submitted before late June 2022. However, data released by the Home Office in January suggests that many of those whose claims were withdrawn in the year ending 30 September 2023 had subsequently re-entered the asylum system.  

Data on small boat arrivals show a 36% decline in small boat arrivals since the 2022 peak. Much of this is a result of a sharp decline in Albanian citizens crossing by small boat. Albanians made up 72% of the 16,000 decline from 2022 to 2023. The reasons for the decline are not known. The government’s cooperation with Albania is likely to be one of several factors.  

Dr Peter William Walsh, Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “Most of the decline in small boat arrival results from the sharp fall in Albanian arrivals. This makes it rather uncertain whether the decline will continue, since the factors that reduced Albanian citizens’ arrivals may not deter people from other countries to the same degree. For example, the top nationality crossing the channel in 2023 was Afghans, most of whom qualify for refugee status.”  

The number of asylum claims decreased by 17% from 80,000 in 2022 to 67,000 main applicants in 2023, despite the larger decrease in small boat crossings. During this period, 86% of the decline was due to Albanian citizens. Excluding Albanians, however, the decline in asylum claims was only 3%. This implies that routes other than small boats are becoming more important in the asylum system.  

The number of asylum applications awaiting a decision decreased from 165,000 in September 2023 to 129,000 in December 2023. The decrease in the backlog is due to the resolution of applications that had been pending for over six months. 

The number of family visas granted increased significantly from 47,100 in 2022 to 81,200 in 2023, which marks a 72% increase. Although the exact reasons behind this increase are unknown, one possible explanation could be that there has been a post-pandemic rebound effect, following a low period of visa grants.  


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