Boris Johnson’s fast-track visas for scientists criticised

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A fast-track visa route to help employers attract the “brightest and best” international scientists has been put forward by Boris Johnson, but the plans have been criticised by top scientists, lawyers and business bodies.

To help make the UK a more attractive place to work for those in science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) fields, the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) plan to work with the scientific community to launch a fast-track immigration route later this year.

Johnson said: “Britain has a proud history of innovation, with home-grown inventions spanning from the humble bicycle to the light bulb.

“But to ensure we continue to lead the way in the advancement of knowledge, we have to not only support the talent that we already have here, but also ensure our immigration system attracts the very best minds from around the world.”

Options being considered include: abolishing the cap on the number of Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visas that can be issued; expanding the pool of research institutes and universities able to endorse candidates; introducing automatic endorsement criteria; giving dependents full access to the labour market; offering an accelerated route to settled status; and removing the requirement to have an employment offer before arrival in the UK.

However, the plan was criticised by Nobel prize-winning physicist Sir Andre Geim, whose discovery of graphene was honoured in Johnson’s announcement yesterday.

‘Scientists are not fools’

“The government may try and reduce the barriers to entry for scientists but they cannot reduce turmoil that would be caused to science in the UK by a no-deal Brexit,” he told The Times. “Scientists are not fools. They know that turmoil is inevitable for many years.”

Chetal Patel, a partner at law firm Bates Wells, was also critical of Johnson’s plan. “Is this latest announcement just a bid to lure the brightest and the best by turning ‘the UK into a supercharged magnet’ (Boris Johnson’s words not mine)? Put simply, yes.

“Do all of these measures show that the UK is open for business? I fear that yesterday’s announcement merely raises more unanswered questions. Ultimately, what’s the new visa process going to look like? How much will the visas cost, given that there has been much negative press recently about the significant cost attached to UK visas in general?

“Whilst this new visa is expected to launch later this year, no set date has been confirmed. It’s yet to be seen whether it will be a rocket-fuelled success or if it will blow up on the launch pad.”

The announcement should be swiftly followed by concrete immigration policies, urged the British Chambers of Commerce’s director general Dr Adam Marshall.

“At a time when business communities are reporting critical recruitment difficulties, access to skills at all levels is still needed by businesses facing shortages in many areas,” he said.

While it was encouraging news for organisations seeking STEM skills, those in other sectors also needed clarity on immigration policies to help them plan for their post-Brexit workforces, said Tijen Ahmet, a business immigration specialist at law firm Shakespeare Martineau.

“Boris Johnson has delivered some good news, but the world of employment is far wider and there are numerous other industries and sectors which are faced with similar problems around talent recruitment and retention.

“If the UK is to truly dodge some of the coming pain caused by tighter immigration controls, the government must continue to take decisive, positive action, and importantly, stick to it.”

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