We stayed indoors to “protect the NHS”, but it’s no secret that our UK health system has been in dire need of protecting long before COVID hit back in 2020. Under strain and understaffed for many years, no one could have prepared for the tornado that was Coronavirus, Brexit and their effects on our ever-struggling NHS.
What are the Government doing?
Back in August 2020, as a response to the pandemic and the effect of severe staff shortages, the Government introduced the Health and Care Visa, which was later expanded to cover the social care sector.
This visa permitted UK employers to sponsor individuals to take up employment in roles that meet specific skill levels and salary requirements, as part of the Skilled Worker immigration route.
Under strict immigration rules, this route has been limited to roles at a skill level of RQF Level 3 or above, meaning workers could not be sponsored in more junior roles. Nurses or Senior Care Workers could be sponsored, yet – although crucial to our health sector – Care Workers and other lower skill level roles were not perceived to be at an ‘adequate’ skill level, despite the fact they represent some of the major labour force gaps.
Just before the Christmas period, the Government declared they would now relax their immigration rules to accept the role of a Care Worker as a sufficient skill level.
This significant change is to be implemented early this year and will be reviewed after 12 months, with the possibility of an extension. This visa boost means care workers can take advantage of the Skilled Worker visa scheme and be sponsored by an employer. The care sector is experiencing exceptional challenges and the Government hopes this scheme will help fill in staff shortages by making it easier to employ needed junior care staff from abroad to help relieve some of these pressures.
Additionally, jobs under the ‘care worker’ heading will now be added to the Shortage Occupation list. This means that overseas nationals sponsored to fill these roles will need to be paid a minimum of £20,400 per year (or £10.10 an hour), rather than the higher standard figure of £25,600.
The Government has lacked clear confirmation if applicants under this route are limited to a 12-month period or whether, in addition, applicants will only be granted a 12-month visa. It is implied that applicants would have an opportunity to remain in the UK long-term, however we await clear confirmation.
This detail is a critical missing piece of the puzzle, because trying to interest applicants for short-term roles may be challenging. Care providers are likely to struggle to persuade overseas care staff to give up their jobs and relocate to the UK, only to be removed 12 months later.
What are the next steps for employers?
Because this scheme is temporary and somewhat uncertain, care sector employers who want to take advantage of the scheme must act now to take advantage of it.
The first critical step will be to obtain a sponsor licence. This licence will allow employers to sponsor potentially an unlimited number of eligible employees and will be active for 4 years.
The cost of a sponsor licence is £536 for small companies and charities and £1,476 for all other organisations.
Applications are usually processed in eight weeks, with an option to pay for a £500 priority slot. The priority slot should be assessed within two weeks, however, unfortunately these are heavily over-subscribed.
An application for a sponsor licence must meet the certain criteria of this visa route and must prove that they are a legally operating UK organisation with a genuine need for a sponsor licence. Additionally, they must recognise their obligations and responsibilities as a sponsor and make sure they have systems and processes in place to effectively deliver these.
The visa process itself will also take time, but the government has confirmed that workers sponsorable under a health and Care visa will be processed quicker than standard Skilled Worker applications.
Given the very temporary nature of the scheme, plus the costs and time involved, this scheme clearly isn’t a perfect solution and has many areas to be improved. Nevertheless, with these limitations, the scheme is undoubtedly a huge prospect for employers in the care sector who are under-staffed, and ultimately, have no better options.
Jemima Johnstone, head of corporate immigration at Gherson Solicitors
Cover photo: Jemima Johnstone