Changes to the immigration system post-Brexit look likely to come at a time when the life sciences sector is already facing significant challenges. Pharmacists warn of the increasing number of drugs on the supply shortage list, and so any disruption to supply chains as a result of Brexit is likely to cause even more severe shortages in the UK. With the uncertainty of Brexit and the even more imminent challenge of the EC Directive on Falsified Medicines being implemented in February 2019, the sector is already dealing with significant obstacles on the horizon.

It is against this backdrop that the government recently published its Brexit White Paper on immigration, setting out proposals for a new post-Brexit immigration system that would be phased in from the end of any transitional period. If a Brexit deal goes through, the implementation period is due to run until December 31, 2020, during which time free movement would continue for European nationals and their family members.

If no deal is reached, it appears there will still be a transitional period but EEA citizens will only be able to come to the UK for three months without prior permission. To remain in the UK for longer than three months, they will need to apply for European temporary leave, which will be valid for three years. If they wish to stay for longer,they would need to reapply under the new skills-based future immigration system. Not all European nationals coming to the UK post-Brexit would be able to qualify under the new scheme and therefore, if there is no deal, some European nationals arriving after Brexit will only be able to remain in the UK for a temporary period of around three years.

Given that international mobility/collaboration is a key feature for the sector, changes to the UK immigration system are likely to affect life sciences businesses. Research by recruiter DHR International indicates that applicants for senior pharmaceutical roles applying from outside of the UK have dropped from 40% to 15% since the 2016 referendum.

Businesses in the life sciences sector should be particularly aware of the below proposals in the Brexit White Paper:

No preferential access for EEA citizens

The key message is that the free movement of European nationals to the UK will end. After the end of any transitional period, there will be no preferential access to the UK for EEA citizens. EEA citizens wishing to work in the UK will need immigration permission in the same way as non-EEA citizens.

Employers in the life sciences sector have emphasised the importance of being able to continue to hire EEA employees with little or no red tape. There are concerns that limiting access to EEA nationals would only serve to exacerbate existing skills shortages and restrict the ability of the UK science and technology sector to act as a world leader.

Lower-skilled workers

Once free movement ends, the White Paper proposes a temporary route for people from “low-risk countries” in Europe and beyond to come to the UK to work for up to 12 months. They would be able to work in any role, including low skilled roles, without needing a job offer before coming to the UK. This would be a transitional measure intended to operate until 2025.

This temporary route will only allow individuals to remain in the UK for up to 12 months with no access to public funds and no ability to remain long-term in the UK or bring dependants with them.

It remains to be seen how useful this category will be to employers who may prove reluctant to recruit and train individuals who are only to remain in the UK for up to 12 months.

Focus on highly skilled workforce

It appears likely that, after the transitional period ends, employers wishing to employ EEA nationals to fill skilled roles will need to sponsor them under the Tier 2 sponsorship system.

The majority of roles filled by non-UK nationals in the life sciences sector are highly skilled roles. For those businesses relying heavily on non-EEA migrants, the White Paper did contain some positive news, including:

  • Abolishing the annual Tier 2 (General) cap of 20,700 per year;
  • Expanding the Tier 2 sponsorship route to cover medium-skilled roles as well as highly-skilled roles. This would make an additional 142 occupations potentially eligible for Tier 2 sponsorship, including Health Care Practice Managers, Medical Technicians and Laboratory Technicians. This is subject to the person being paid above the minimum salary threshold and there are concerns that this may be as high as £30,000 p.a.; and
  • Abolishing the ‘Resident Labour Market Test’ – this is the advertising and recruitment process that is often required before an employer is able to sponsor someone under Tier 2 (General).

With employers having to rely on the Tier 2 sponsorship system for future hires from Europe, businesses will need to allocate additional resources to this. For example, the current application fees to sponsor an individual under Tier 2 (for 5 years) are around £5,000 to £8,500 (depending on the size of the sponsor company).

Furthermore, instead of simply arriving at the border with their current passport or ID card, European nationals and their employers will need to factor in additional time to obtain their work visas before coming to the UK.

There is also concern that, if the minimum salary threshold for Tier 2 (General) remains at £30,000, employers will not be able to sponsor individuals for roles which meet the skills threshold but where the salary for that role is less than £30,000 – for example, many healthcare professionals, lab technicians and researchers are unlikely to be paid at this level.

What should employers be doing now?

  • Carry out a full audit on your workforce to ascertain who is affected by Brexit – this includes non-EEA nationals who are in the UK as family members of European nationals;
  • Raise awareness amongst your European workforce to take action to preserve their right to remain in the UK post-Brexit and apply for settled or pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme. Only individuals who hold dual British/European citizenship or Irish nationals are exempt from this requirement. Employers can look at the Employer Toolkit on the Gov.uk website and download information leaflets/posters for their workplace;
  • Diarise to check that all European nationals working for you have made the appropriate application before the deadline;
  • If the business does not already hold a Tier 2 sponsor licence, consider applying for one. This would then enable you to sponsor both EEA and non-EEA nationals in the future. If the business already holds a sponsor licence, take steps now to ensure compliance with sponsor obligations. The Home Office is cracking down on non-compliant sponsors and suspending or revoking licences; and
  • Review your recruitment strategies in the light of this proposed post-Brexit system. If your business relies heavily on a European workforce, consider how you will recruit for the roles you need in the future when free movement ends.

Conclusion

The White Paper states that the new immigration system will be implemented in a phased approach, following a year of ‘extensive engagement’. Businesses should take the opportunity to voice any concerns during this time. Employers that rely heavily upon a European workforce need to prepare as best they can for a new regime that will, inevitably, lead to additional costs and bureaucracy.

All contents of this article were correct as of February 21