Shortage Occupation List review a temporary solution to labour shortage

shortage occupation list
© iStock/FabioBalbi

A review of the Shortage Occupation List of in-demand professions in the UK has proposed a number of additions in the health and care sectors.

This May, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) put forward some much-needed recommendations for amendments to the UK’s Shortage Occupation List (SOL). This comes after mounting pressure from health and care professionals, which has highlighted severe staff shortages within both industries.

If the MAC’s recommendations are taken forward, this will be a step in the right direction for the healthcare sector: with all roles under the ‘medical practitioner’ and ‘nurse’ category being fully expanded.

What do these changes mean?

If an occupation is on the Shortage Occupation List, this means that overseas individuals from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) are no longer subject to certain visa restrictions. They still have to apply for a work visa, but there are certain allowances they are given – something which is meant to encourage overseas professionals to migrate to the UK and fill roles which we are unable to fill with domestic (UK and the EEA) talent alone.

One of these allowances is that they are no longer subject to the minimum salary requirement of £30,000 (€33,414) per annum, which is needed for the Tier 2 Work Visa application. Instead, jobs on the Shortage Occupation List are listed with a more appropriate minimum salary, based on the role’s average salary in the UK job market.

In healthcare in particular, many jobs fall under the Tier 2 Work Visa threshold, meaning that migrant workers cannot apply for them. To put this into perspective, the median salary for a registered UK nurse is £23,000, which falls well below the minimum salary threshold for Tier 2, also known as a Skilled Work Visa. Equally, the average salary for care worker roles is £16,623. If the MAC’s recommendations are implemented, these roles will be added to the Shortage Occupation List, meaning that professionals from countries outside the UK and EEA will be eligible to fill them.

Another benefit for those applying for ‘in shortage’ professions is that they pay smaller visa fees than ‘non shortage’ applications. For example, the usual five-year Tier 2 Work Visa (the most common form of work visa) fee for a single applicant is £610; and a further £610 for each dependent (child or partner). By contrast, if a job is listed on the SOL, single overseas applicants pay £464, and a further £464 per dependent.

The new inclusion of all roles under the ‘medical practitioner’, ‘health worker’ and ‘nurse’ categories is a step in the right direction; as it allows professionals from overseas to apply more easily and enables the NHS – and UK healthcare industry as whole – to resolve staff shortages and stretched resources.

Is this enough?

For now, the MAC’s recommendations should help to resolve workforce gaps within the sector.  However, in its report, the MAC states that the Shortage Occupation List may become redundant in a post-Brexit Britain, where free movement laws are no longer implemented.

Currently, any individual from the EEA is able to work in the UK in any role for an unlimited period under free movement regulations.  After free movement ends – as it is set to in the event of a ‘no-deal’ or ‘hard-deal’ Brexit – health and social care workforces are set to experience huge labour shortages.

According to Skills for Care, 104,000 of the care sector’s workforce comes from the EU. If EU care professionals are subject to the same visa laws as non-EEA migrants – which most Brexit plans propose – they will need to pay out for visa application and extension fees for themselves and their spouses or partners and dependents.

Even in light of the reduced visa fees for ‘shortage professionals’ on the Shortage Occupation List, this is likely to turn most European care workers off and stop them from choosing the UK as their professional base – particularly when taking into account the fact that the average wage for an adult care worker is much lower than the national living wage.

The future for the healthcare industry

The UK’s public service budget has been slashed by almost 40% in the last decade, and the Institute For Fiscal Studies (IFS) suggests that, in order to account for the deficit caused by Brexit – which currently stands at £20 to £40 billion – the government will cut it by a further £48 million by 2030.

The care sector in particular has a history of being underfunded. Austerity measures have hit it harder than most UK industries, and it is staff members and patients who feel this the most. Some locals have had their social care budgets cut by two thirds, resulting in stretched resources, patients and staff.

With this in mind, there is very little incentive for EU nationals to help fill the care sector’s labour shortage – which currently stands at 90,000 according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Once free movement has ended, and visa fees and restrictions are imposed, it is difficult to see how and why European healthcare professionals would choose to take on roles in the UK. A clear strategy must be implemented to tackle this and ensure that the healthcare industry can stay afloat after Brexit.

Luna Williams

Political Correspondent

Immigration Advice Service

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