Brexit and Covid combine for steep decline in work visas

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There were 122,512 work-related visas granted to foreign nationals so they could work in the UK in the year ending March 2021 (including dependants), 37% lower than in the previous year, new government figures show.

Although the Covid crisis accounts for much of the fall, the figure had been decreasing for several quarters before the pandemic. The steepest decline was in intra-company transfer visas which dropped 72% to 13,700 until 31 March this year.

There were 14,016 grants of the new Skilled Worker – Health and Care workers visa, which accounted for 18% of the skilled work-related visas.

Seasonal workers were the only former Tier 5 route to see an increase, nearly quadrupling from 2,861 to 10,659. Of those granted a seasonal worker visa in the year ending March 2021, 85% were Ukrainian nationals.

Sponsored study visas (Tier 4 and new student routes) fell to 250,683, a 16% decrease compared with the previous year, with Chinese nationals the most common nationality accounting for 35% of the total. This Chinese contingent was a smaller proportion than last year, however, with numbers of students from Nigeria increasing at the most rapid rate, accounting for 7% of all sponsored study visas, up from 3% in the previous year.

The figures show there were 176,910 applications for British citizenship in the year ending March 2021, 7% more than the year ending March 2020.

EU nationals now account for more than a third (36%) of all citizenship applications compared with 12% in 2016. Applications made by non-EU nationals fell by 7% in the year ending March 2021 to 113,038.

Overall, the number of people from around the world detained under UK immigration powers has been decreasing since reaching a peak in 2015, with nearly 13,000 entering detention in the year ending March 2021, the Home Office said.

However, 3,294 EU citizens were prevented from entering the UK including some who were visiting the country for job interviews, it has been reported, even though post-Brexit rules mean they are allowed to visit the country without visas. That compares with 493 EU citizens in the first quarter of last year, when air traffic was far higher.

On being asked about this in parliament yesterday, the immigration minister Kevin Foster said visiting the UK for a job interview without a visa was within the law.

He said: “A person may come to the UK under the visitor route for a job interview,” adding that if successful they then had to leave the UK and obtain the correct entry clearance certification before returning to start the job.

Although the fall in work visas was expected because of the pandemic, there were some surprises in the figures for immigration specialists.

Chetal Patel, partner at Bates Wells, said: “Such a modest increase in visa sponsors suggests that many businesses were unprepared for the Brexit changes to immigration rules, possibly because their attention has been on the pandemic. However, businesses which intend to hire EEA nationals will have to get to grips with sponsorship, and we would expect to see these numbers rise this year as we return to business as usual.”

The impact of Brexit was starting to show in the number of work-related visas being applied for by EEA nationals, Patel said. About 3,600 were granted with 30% under the skilled worker category. “Sponsorship is expensive and could have acted as a deterrent to some employers – creating problems for UK employers in hiring the best European talent.”

She added: “Interestingly, frontier worker and skilled worker route made up 80% of all EEA granted work visas. The frontier worker category was born out of Brexit. It allows EEA nationals who regularly worked in the UK before 11pm on 31 December 2020 but live outside the UK to apply for a document certifying their rights. As this route is particularly attractive for cross border arrangements and flexible working patterns, I expect it will grow in prominence in the next quarter.

“The real story will unfold in the coming months as businesses start to return to some form of business as usual.”

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