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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 5 March 2021

UK 'flying blind' as it tries to keep track of migrants during Covid-19 pandemic

University of Oxford says data monitoring systems have been disrupted

UK Interior Minister Priti Patel arrives at Downing Street in London. Reuters
UK Interior Minister Priti Patel arrives at Downing Street in London. Reuters

The UK is "flying blind" as it tries to monitor immigration during the coronavirus pandemic, says a report by the University of Oxford.

The institution's Migration Observatory said the UK's data monitoring systems had been seriously disrupted by Covid-19, making the nation ill-prepared in its planning for the effect of immigration on schools and healthcare systems.

Usually the UK compiles its data from face-to-face interviews, which have been suspended because of the pandemic.

The Office for National Statistics was forced to suspend its International Passenger Survey, which is used to examine immigration, emigration and net migration, in March, because of the difficulty collecting data through face-to-face interviews at ports and airports during the pandemic.

It also previously relied on the issuing of National Insurance numbers, which was also suspended for new registrations of EU citizens.

"The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are visible across the whole of society, and migration is no exception," said Madeleine Sumption, the observatory’s director.

"From late March 2020, restrictions on travel, the closure of visa centres, and economic turmoil have had huge impacts on the immigration system.

"Covid-19 has seriously affected migration data. This means that many of the key questions that we are accustomed to being able to answer about the nature and scale of migration to the UK are now more uncertain.

"All this creates significant uncertainty and means that we should be cautious when comparing data from 2019 and 2020. Some of the changes we see will be real but some will be due to new biases in the data caused by the pandemic."

The UK is working on a new immigration system to be introduced later this year.

"This has left us flying blind just as the UK is introducing a new immigration system, and will make it more difficult to understand the impacts of new policies," Ms Sumption told The Daily Telegraph.

The observatory said labour force survey data suggest the migrant population fell by nearly 900,000 in 2020 and that the estimated foreign-born population was 8.3 million, down from 9.2 million in the same quarter a year earlier – a decline of 894,000, or 10 per cent.

But it said this may not be accurate.

"There is enormous uncertainty about these estimates and compelling reasons to believe they are not accurate," Ms Sumption said.

"Estimates of the migrant population are based on pre-pandemic projections of the total UK population that are likely to be too high. During the pandemic, the UK population may have declined, but this is not factored into estimates of the migrant population."

It found the strongest evidence of a decline in the migrant population was in London.

In January, the UK's Interior Minister Priti Patel launched a points-based immigration system, which awards points to people who have a job offer at an appropriate skill level and knowledge of English.

"This government promised to end free movement, to take back control of our borders and to introduce a new points-based immigration system. We have delivered on that promise," Ms Patel said.

"This simple, effective and flexible system will ensure employers can recruit the skilled workers they need, while also encouraging employers to train and invest in the UK’s workforce.

"We are also opening routes for those who have an exceptional talent or show exceptional promise in the fields of engineering, science, tech or culture."

Updated: February 5, 2021 04:26 PM

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