Priti Patel will on Monday unveil a new “health and care visa”, entitling migrant workers to fast-track cut-price permission to take up job offers and support to move here with their families.
The home secretary had previously said it would be an NHS visa only, sparking protests that care workers – among the heroes of the coronavirus pandemic – would be shut out.
Without special rules, their low pay means they will fall foul of the post-Brexit salary threshold of £25,600 for most workers seeking to enter the UK, from next January.
The King’s Fund think tank had pointed to 122,000 social care job vacancies – at a time when one in six staff are non-British – warning ministers not to let “international recruitment fall off a cliff”.
The Home Office is yet to release details of the policy shift, but The Independent understands “senior care workers” will now qualify for the special visas.
Caroline Nokes, who was among Conservative MPs pushing the government to give ground, said: “This is fabulous news for the care sector which is too often a Cinderella service.
“I look forward to details coming forward which show how easy it will be for employers and employees to use this new route.”
And Stephen Hammond, another former minister, said: “I was pleased we got the NHS exemptions in place last year, but the crisis has shown there would real problems with social care if we didn’t put something similar in place.”
When the proposed new immigration rules were unveiled in February, social care was excluded from a list of shortage occupations with a more lenient wage floor of as low as £20,480.
It is unclear what the threshold will now be for care workers, but – with even senior staff earning under £20,000 – it will almost certainly have to be cut to make the special visa system effective.
Suzie Bailey of The King’s Fund warned even the extra help with visas might not compensate for tougher immigration rules.
“This announcement appears to be welcome recognition that the social care sector, as well as the NHS, is heavily reliant on overseas workers to care for older and vulnerable people in need of support,” she said.
“Whilst fast-tracked and cheaper visas for health and care staff are a positive step, they still represent additional cost and barriers to professionals from European countries who previously could move to UK freely.”
Migrants from anywhere in the world will be required to speak English to “B1” level, enabling someone to open a bank account, or cope with “most situations” at home, work or leisure.
And most are expected to be charged around £1,200 for a work visa, or £900 in a shortage occupation – the same fee paid by non-EU migrants currently.
On Monday, Ms Patel will also confirm that international students will be allowed to stay in the UK for two years after completing their studies, or three years for those with PhDs.
And a new “global talent scheme” will allow highly skilled scientists and researchers to come to the UK without a job offer.
“Britain is open for business and ready to welcome the best and brightest global talent,” the home secretary said.
“Now we have left the EU, we are free to unleash this country’s full potential and implement the changes we need to restore trust in the immigration system and deliver a new fairer, firmer, skills-led system from 1 January 2021.”
Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow home secretary, said: “We will scrutinise the proposals on visas very carefully.
“The government has rushed through immigration legislation with very little detail in the middle of a global pandemic. There are real concerns that this will cause major problems for our NHS and our care sector.”
The new rules come amid renewed pressure on the government to stop stalling on plans to adequately fund social care, by publishing them within a year.
Last July, as he entered Downing Street, Mr Johnson insisted he had a “clear plan to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve”.
But, in January, he admitted there was no ready-to-go rescue package, instead saying action would be taken to tackle the acknowledged crisis “in this parliament” – which will last until 2024.