Britain’s economic recovery from the pandemic risks being seriously damaged by thousands of “missing” overseas workers who have left the country and will not return, senior figures from across industry are warning Boris Johnson.
Executives from hospitality, social care, construction and manufacturing all raised concerns that a lack of overseas workers after the pandemic will put a “handbrake on the recovery”. Some warned that the success of some of the government’s own flagship targets, such as an aim to build 300,000 homes a year, was being put at risk.
The warnings come after the issue was raised by the Office for Budget Responsibility this week. It said that the future population may be “substantially smaller” than official estimates suggest as people leave Britain, causing a “scarring impact”.
There is huge uncertainty about the degree to which overseas residents have returned home in the past year and whether the post-Brexit immigration rules will put them off coming back. One estimate has suggested that as many as 1.3 million could leave during the pandemic, though this is regarded as a worst-case scenario.
Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and planning policy at the National Federation of Builders, said there was a “real danger that we’re going to have a major skill shortage”. He said: “We need 300,000 homes [a year], but we’re building 180,000 new ones, or 220,000 if you count conversions, so we are well away from that target.”
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said: “It is a problem and it’s going to be a disproportionate problem in certain parts of the country. And we simply don’t know the scale of it. We lost 660,000 people in hospitality last year, so there is a potential pool of available labour. But as we restart the economy, it’s going to be a race to get people.”
Ben Fletcher, an executive director at Make UK, the manufacturers group, said the availability of overseas workers was set to be “a very, very significant challenge”. He added: “Even with unfettered access to that market, we’ve still had that very significant skill shortage. The fear we’ve got is that as we start to emerge from the pandemic, people who are working here may feel this is no longer an environment where they’re welcomed, or want to stay. There is a worry that they may go home.
“What we’re seeing is a bit of a gap in policy terms. It’s a handbrake on growth. It’s a handbrake on the recovery. And it’s a handbrake on the modernisation of the economy.”
Shortages are already hitting in some areas. Susanne Eves, of Belmont Nurseries in Norfolk, said that daffodils have gone unpicked this season because of a lack of labour. “Our regular agency wasn’t able to supply enough people, so we’ve brought in an additional agency. Some daffodils will be left.”
Ministers are already responding to the concerns. Last week, a series of jobs were added to the shortage…
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