Who will look after our sick and elderly after Brexit?

by Luke Lythgoe | 29.10.2018

Social care in the UK is already suffering a staffing crisis. Brexit, as currently conceived by the government, will make matters much worse by disrupting the supply of “low skilled” care workers from other EU countries. It begs the question: who will look after our sick and elderly if we leave the EU?

The most obvious answer is family and friends, and overwhelmingly women. Women face losing up to £315 million a year as they are forced to give up work to look after elderly relatives, according to new analysis by Women for a People’s Vote. The Department of Health has warned of “a decrease in labour market participation levels, especially among women, as greater numbers undertake informal care”. That means thousands of hours’ worth of lost earnings.

The adult social care profession is currently short of 90,000 staff, a vacancy rate of 6.6% – three times higher than the UK labour market average. That figure will stand at 380,000 by 2026 if low-skilled roles can’t be filled from overseas after Brexit, says think tank Global Future.

Last month, a government-commissioned report by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommended ending low-skilled migration from the EU after Brexit, using the blunt benchmark of a £30,000 salary cap. Most social care workers would pass neither skills nor pay criteria. For the moment, the Cabinet has agreed to broadly follow these principles – though this might change as Brexit talks develop. Campaigners are urgently calling for care staff to be re-classified as skilled workers.

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EU nationals currently account for 5.9% of the care workforce, having risen sharply from just 1.2% in 1997. Meanwhile non-EU workers’ share of the workforce has remained stable. In short, EU workers have been plugging the gaps as the care crisis deepens. Cutting off this supply will be sorely felt.

The MAC argues that the problems for social care are much bigger than migration flows. Rising demand of an ageing population and less public spending mean low pay and long hours. These conditions put Brits off from working in the care sector. The MAC recommends a “sustainable funding model, paying competitive wages to UK residents”. It argues that simply employing foreign staff under the same poor conditions is not sustainable, as they are likely to quit quickly too.

But where will the government get the money to pay “competitive wages” if Brexit clobbers the economy? Slower economic growth is forecast in any Brexit scenario, especially if we tear ourselves out of the EU single market. That means less money for the Treasury to spend on all public services.

Brexit looks likely, therefore, to both reject low-skilled EU workers and prevent us from investing in a more long-term solution. Social care is a huge issue that needs tackling now, and Brexit is creating a potentially catastrophic distraction.

Edited by Quentin Peel

3 Responses to “Who will look after our sick and elderly after Brexit?”

  • Well, brace yourselves for a lot more pressure on the system if all of us retirees living in other EU countries have to return to the UK to claim our NHS benefits, rather than, as at present, being entitled to use them where we live.


  • There is a pitiful lack of Brexit impact analysis of the effect of disrupted labour flows from EU countries into the care sector. However, by association, one should also look at the likely decline of pension entitlements due to a new form of Brexit austerity as a result of a declining economy, a probable decline in sterling and an increasing trend to private cost sharing with LA in financing home and residential care, mobility allowances and pension credits.

  • An alarming scenario indeed! It is great that the government have at least made some comment on a proposed source of funding for social care, despite the continued absence of their green paper. For now we continue to wait and see if any proposed policy is implemented. I sincerely doubt that any action will be taken until BREXIT is resolved.