The coronavirus pandemic is changing the UK immigration debate, with tensions between requirements for stricter controls and greater recognition of key workers, many of whom are migrants. How will the crisis affect public attitudes to immigration?
Brexit reshaped the debate around immigration and led to proposals to introduce an Australian-style skills-based immigration system. The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to change the immigration debate again.
On the one hand, the politics of Covid-19 may lead to a rise in nationalism, stricter border controls and an increase in protectionism. On the other hand, workers such as nurses, care workers and agricultural workers – many of whom are migrants – are at the forefront of the pandemic response, and have been lauded as heroes. Once described as working in low-skilled or unskilled positions, they have now been promoted to the status of ‘key workers’.
What can the large body of economic and other research on UK public opinion about immigration tell us about how Covid-19 will affect public attitudes?
What does evidence from research tell us?
- Since the Covid-19 outbreak, immigration has fallen off the radar as a political issue. In recent polling, only around 5% of the public see immigration as one of the most important issues facing the UK. Instead, the public is now focused almost entirely on the pandemic, the economy and the NHS (Ipsos MORI, 2020a).
- Concerns about immigration had already nose-dived long before Covid-19. At the time of the Brexit referendum, more than 40% of the British public saw immigration as one of the most important issues facing the UK, but this fell to around 10% immediately prior to the pandemic (Ipsos MORI, 2020a).
- The large body of economic and other research on UK public attitudes shows that the attitudes of the British public have been softening for decades, and polling shows this trend accelerated after the Brexit referendum. While the British population is deeply divided, especially along educational and generational lines (Ford and Lymperopoulou, 2017), as a whole the British public now has a fairly balanced, even slightly positive, view of immigration in terms of the perceived economic and cultural impacts (Blinder and Richards, 2020).
- Despite the softening of attitudes to the impact of immigration, most British people still want to see a reduction in the number of immigrants coming to the UK, although there are signs this measure is also starting to soften (Ipsos MORI, 2020b).
- It is too early to say how Covid-19 will affect these attitudes and preferences, but it could change attitudes towards low-skilled migrant workers, including preferences about which occupations should be treated favourably in a new immigration system. One common research finding is that the UK public prefer some types of migrants to others, especially high-skilled migrants rather than low-skilled or unskilled ones (Ford and Mellon, 2020; Blinder and Markaki, 2018).
- Covid-19 may lead to a higher appreciation of some ‘low-skilled’ migrant workers who are ‘key workers’, especially nurses and care workers (British Future and Policy Institute, 2020; Ballinger, 2020). In many essential sectors, migrants are disproportionately represented: they account for 22% in health and social care, 22% in food and necessary goods, 20% in utilities and communication, 17% in transport, compared with their 14% share of overall population (ONS, 2020).
- New research suggests that more than half of EU migrant key workers would not have qualified for a visa under the current immigration proposals (Reino et al, 2020).
- Even before Covid-19, research on immigration attitudes showed that the apparent opposition to ‘low-skilled’ migrants was more nuanced than previously assumed (Rolfe et al, 2018; Rutter and Carter, 2018). These studies suggested that people understood skill-level different to policy-makers; and that people’s views were driven by how much a migrant is perceived to contribute to the UK, defined not just through working and paying taxes, but also by things such as filling labour market shortages, including in low-skilled sectors.
- The biggest effect of Covid-19 could be that these nuances in public opinion are finally recognised in the public debate, and that we start to debate the attitudes and preferences for specific occupations and roles, rather than the undefined distinction between low- and high-skilled migrant workers. Similarly, the public’s view of ‘contribution’ may also have changed, with more appreciation for specific occupations, such as those in the food supply chain.
How reliable is the evidence?
The majority of existing studies relies on people’s self-reported attitudes, but individuals may understand different things by the term ‘immigrant’ (Blinder, 2013). Generally, people have been found to be highly misinformed about immigration, particularly about the proportion of migrants in the population and about its composition.
In times of intense public debate about migrant workers or low-skilled key workers, such as Brexit and Covid-19, people’s perceptions of ‘immigration’ and ‘low-skilled’ workers can change dramatically, which may drive changes in reported immigration attitudes, and perceptions about how much different workers contribute to the UK.
There is still a large degree of ambiguity in explaining why immigration attitudes develop. This means that researchers struggle to interpret and predict developments in public opinion on immigration, including the potential impacts of Covid-19.
The main research question centres on whether immigration attitudes are driven primarily by economic or cultural factors, or something else (for example, Hainmueller and Hopkins, 2014; Runge, 2019).
What else do we need to know?
Future research needs to track carefully any changes in immigration attitudes caused by Covid-19, and explore the reasons behind any developments. This type of research continues to be vital, as the UK immigration system is about to undergo a once-in-a-generation transformation, with proposals for an Australian-style points-based system.
Future research needs to explore in more depth how British people value different types of migrant workers and occupations beyond the low- and high-skill distinctions, and how distinctions between different workers are communicated and debated in the public domain.
Since the British public continues to be ill informed about immigration, future research should continue to explore how to present factual information about immigration effectively to improve public understanding.
Where can I find out more?
The value of care workers: insight from attitudes towards post-Brexit immigration policy: John Curtice argues that public opinion has always been much more nuanced than is portrayed in the public debate.
Immigration in the age of Covid: Jonathan Portes discusses immigration policy in the age of Covid, including the potential impacts of the changes in the broader policy environment.
The corona crisis had made us value migrants: Rosie Carter argues that the new post-pandemic landscape should lead to a fairer immigration system.
UK public opinion toward immigration: overall attitudes and level of concern: Scott Blinder and Lindsay Richards provide an overview of attitudes towards immigration in the UK, as of January 2020, pre-Covid.
Overview of evidence on UK public attitudes to immigration: An overview by Johnny Runge of the evidence on public attitudes to immigration as of August 2019, pre-Covid.
Who are UK experts on this question?
- Jill Rutter and Sunder Katwala, British Future, whose work includes the National Conversation on Immigration, by Jill Rutter and Rosie Carter, based on 60 visits to towns and cities across the UK.
- Rob Ford, University of Manchester, whose public opinion research includes findings that public preferences to immigration are underpinned by a skills premium and ‘ethnic hierarchy’. In this piece, he shows how immigration attitudes have changed since Brexit.
- Bobby Duffy, Policy Institute at King’s College London and previously Ipsos MORI, whose book The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything includes a great chapter on immigration misperceptions, based on decades of polling. In this piece, he explains some of the most commonplace myths about immigration.
- Christian Dustmann, University College London and Director of The Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM), the leading labour economist working on migration and inequality