The government is pressing on with releasing guidance for a new points-based immigration system, prompting complaints from business groups that say the coronavirus crisis has made the incoming regime irrelevant.
Firms responded on Thursday to the release of an “introduction for employers” to the system, which is scheduled to replace freedom of movement when the Brexit transition period closes at the end of December.
The new regime, outlined by the government just over a month before Boris Johnson announced a countrywide lockdown, requires prospective migrants to the UK to obtain “points” to qualify for a visa, many of which depend on the applicant being offered a salary of more than £25,600.
Workers classed as low skilled will be largely excluded from entry — excluding many of those who are now classified as key workers in the response to coronavirus, in areas such as retail or social care.
Sophia Wolpers, immigration policy manager at London First, said it was a “shame” that immigration guidelines had been “published based on what is rapidly becoming old thinking”.
“The current crisis has shown just how vitally important workers previously deemed lower skilled are to the UK economy as a whole. The government should revisit its proposals in the days and weeks ahead.”
Other business leaders said the guidance appeared irrelevant at a time when many businesses were struggling to survive. The eight-page guide, quietly released by a government otherwise focused on an unprecedented £350bn rescue package for business, includes basic guidance on how to sponsor new workers and the criteria for a visa.
Firms rolling out emergency measures as large parts of the economy shut down have little time for these considerations, Gerwyn Davies, a policy adviser for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a professional body, said.
“New immigration rules are simply being ignored by the vast majority of employers, and will continue to be,” Mr Davies said.
“While employers are dealing with urgent priorities, including dealing with plummeting demand and furloughing workers, they simply don’t have the capacity to deal with planning for a new immigration system.”
CIPD has warned that low-paid sectors such as hospitality, farming or construction could face significant labour shortages after free movement ends, and called for firms to be given greater support to prepare for new immigration measures when they are introduced.
“This raises the question of whether employers can be ready for the introduction of new immigration systems in 2021,” Mr Davies said.
Trade bodies also cast doubt on whether the points-based system would be rolled out in time. Although government guidance confirmed the January 2021 target, virus-related disruption to Brexit negotiations means the transition deadline could yet be extended.
The CBI, which represents 190,000 business voices in the UK, said smaller businesses could be disproportionately affected in a time of uncertainty.
“Firms’ priorities right now are resilience and helping government protect lives and livelihoods amid the Covid-19 crisis,” the CBI said.
“While this guidance is helpful, many firms, especially smaller companies, will struggle to prepare for the new immigration system while they’re fighting to stay afloat.”
The Home Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.