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Despite dealing with the greatest challenge in 100 years, the Coronavirus pandemic, the British government is still determined to break away completely from the European Union at the end of this year, bringing about the end of freedom of movement. Although such a stubborn insistence to try and negotiate a trade deal (which would normally take around seven years in normal times), may seem bordering on ludicrously ambitious, the Conservative government has good reason for pressing ahead. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s “get Brexit done” mantra won him the November election and the majority he needed to press forward with his agenda. Not honoring the promise, he made to completely break from the EU by the end of 2020 will not be forgiven by his supporters, some of whom switched from being lifelong labour supporters on the back of this guarantee.
The end of free movement will have a significant impact on businesses who have had seen their revenue plummet during the Covid-19 lockdown. Even companies able to remain open have struggled with supply and delivery due to the social distancing measures necessary to keep warehouse workers and their families safe.
And the pandemic seems to have slowed down right-leaning Tories determined to end freedom of movement at any cost. To effectively achieve this goal, the end of free movement must become law. The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill 2019-21 (the Bill), which was first tabled in the House of Commons on the 5th March 2020 legislates for this event. But on 21st April 2020, Eurosceptic and leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg pulled the Bill from the House of Commons order paper. He also confirmed it would not be brought back for a second reading on the scheduled date.
The Liberal Democrats welcomed the move, with their home affairs spokesperson, Christine Jardine, stating:
“I’m glad the government has listened to Liberal Democrat concerns and decided not to move the immigration bill today. Now Conservative ministers should use this delay to reconsider their destructive plans to end free movement.
“The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the enormous contributions that workers from all over the world make to our NHS, social care, and other essential services. They are protecting us and putting their lives on the line every single day.
“By ending free movement, the government would make it harder for doctors and nurses to come to work in the NHS and charge them thousands of pounds in fees for the privilege. And it would make it virtually impossible to recruit social care workers from overseas.”
Given that the new Bill was due to come into force on 1st January 2020, its removal from the order paper casts significant doubt as to whether the free movement will end at the start of next year.
Before Britain was placed in lockdown and the death toll from the Coronavirus pandemic reached almost 30,000, Home Secretary, Priti Patel told Ministers in January that regardless of already existing staff shortages, sectors such as construction and care homes would not be exempt from new immigration rules that would come into force after the free movement ended. She told the Cabinet there would be no “carve outs” under the new points-based system which, when free movement ended, apply to EU and non-EU migrants equally.
A source told The Times:
“The immigration rules have become a real spaghetti mess. Even the judges think that’s the case. Priti was arguing that we need a much clearer rules-based system. She doesn’t want a system with carve-outs all over the place.”
But just over four months on, is the push for ending freedom of movement and drastically restricting immigration still as strong amongst the British population? On 29th April 2020, Ms. Patel announced that a plan to automatically extend the visas of NHS workers during the Covid-19 pandemic had been extended. Midwives, social workers, and medical radiographers will all now be eligible for an automatic one-year extension. Furthermore, the Home Secretary left the door open for social care workers to be included in the extension at a later date. It was noticeable that the right-wing British Press reported this positively. And perhaps more importantly, the reader’s comments on the reports were generally of an upbeat nature.
The pandemic has highlighted how heavily Britain relies on EU and non-EU migrant workers to ensure sectors such as health, social care, food technology, and agriculture can manage demands.
Harvesting fruit and vegetables is a particular concern at present. Farmers have traditionally relied on EU migrants, especially from Eastern Europe, to pick the summer crops. However, this year, due to travel restrictions, the agricultural sector has faced a massive shortage of labour.
Although many British workers have been furloughed and a call for a “land army” has gone out, not enough locals have come forward to fill the labour gap. Therefore, in mid-April, the first of several planes carrying Romanian and Bulgarian workers landed at Stansted airport.
A spokesperson for the government stated:
“We know the demand for seasonal agricultural workers will rise in the months ahead, which is why we are working hard with industry to ensure farmers and growers have the support they need ahead of this time.”
The public has also been confronted with the fact that over half (53 percent) of healthcare workers who have given their lives to save Coronavirus patients were not born in the UK. And migrant care workers, mainly from the EU, who weeks ago were lumped in the “unskilled” worker category by the government, thereby barred from entering the UK under post-Brexit immigration rules, are the ones holding the hands of the elderly as they die in droves from this terrible disease.
It seems as though it has taken a global disaster to demonstrate to some the value freedom of movement provides to so many UK industries. Perhaps when the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill 2019-21 is again tabled in the Commons, attitudes will have softened.
The saying, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” has never been truer.
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