OPINION EXCLUSIVE: Will migration curbs break social care?

Ruth French, director of Stow Healthcare
Ruth French, director of Stow Healthcare

Ruth French, director of Stow Healthcare, assesses whether government moves to curb migration will break social care.

‘Unsustainable and unfair’ – you might think this is social care’s response to the latest government efforts to halt migration into our sector, but actually this is how the government describes migration to the UK.

Since its latest announcement in early February, it is becoming ever clearer that social care remains the ugly sister to the NHS in the eyes of the government. As an election looms, the government is blinded by the idea of reducing migration significantly, fearful of figures it isn’t sure the electorate can stomach, but ignoring the impact this will have on our fragile sector.

With 150,000 vacancies, a vacancy rate of 9.9%i, the state of the care sector workforce remains concerning, but in the 12 months to October 2023, this had actually reduced by 7%, no doubt aided by overseas staff.  NHS vacancy rates fair little better – 8.9% as of June 2023ii.  However, what is clear, is that these two bedfellows are surely destined to drift further and further apart with the government’s latest plans.

How can it be fair that migrants coming to support health and social care should not be allowed to bring dependants, but those coming to work for the NHS should see their families welcomed? 

Speaking to ministers, this division is being justified by the rogue ‘care agencies’ bringing staff over, charging them a fortune and then providing them with no work. The answer must be to focus on those agencies, not to penalise the ethical social care providers in need.

Migration is not the sole answer to resolving the perennial staffing crisis in social care. We know the answer is multi-faceted and complex. We know the answer involves greater professionalism, higher pay, and above all, a government that understands the value of quality social care provision and is prepared to pay for it. However, migration must remain part of the answer. As rates of entry to nursing degrees continue to fall, we simply aren’t producing the nursing graduates we need.  Without internationally educated staff, neither social care nor the NHS can provide what our growing population needs.

Supporting overseas nurses and care staff isn’t cheap. It represents a huge investment for social care providers. However, if we do it right, and help our staff build a life, not just do a job, the loyalty shown to us may be greater than we ever imagine.

Our vacancy rate has dropped from 7.4% to 1.4% in 12 months. Around half of these vacancies have been filled by overseas staff.  Many have brought dependents.  Many of those dependents are also working for us – what a bonus!

So, now is not the time to slam on the brakes.  Social care was just starting to get back on track.  Can the government for once just look beyond the next election and help build a social care sector fit for the future?

Sources: i Skills for Care, The state of the adult social care sector and workforce in England, October 2023; ii NHS Digital, NHS Workforce Statistics, November 2023.

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