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COVID-19’s Complex Influence on Attitudes Towards Immigration


Originally posted: May 21, 2020

It is broadly appreciated that migrants have played a vital role in the UK’s battle against COVID-19. With the first ten doctors to die from the pandemic all hailing from overseas, it is impossible to doubt the sacrifices they have made. Whilst this has led to tangible softening of attitudes towards immigration, research shows that a gradual softening has been happening since the EU referendum. It is important to assess whether this process will continue, or whether it will be derailed by a Coronavirus-related spike in racism and hostility.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on the way the general population views immigration. However, the shift towards a more embracing attitude has been becoming the favoured approach for a few years. When looking at previous public surveys regarding the ‘most important issue’ in the UK, results have seen a diversion from immigration being the most common answer. Data now demonstrates that the European Union and the NHS are perceived to be the ‘most important’. Emma Harrison, Chief Executive of IMIX, went as far as suggesting that political parties focused on cutting down immigration are ‘out of step with public opinion’.

Whilst many studies indicate a rise in positive opinions on ​immigration​, this rise is not as clear-cut as it appears. The UK holds one of the most dramatic divides in Europe when it comes to opinions on the subject. The attitudes of young, degree-educated individuals often differ with those of the older generation. Attitudes are also strongly influenced by numerous other factors such as social class and migrant heritage. Opinions on this matter are also known to fluctuate. During the recession years, immigration was no longer considered a primary concern, but returned to prominence as the recession ended. It is possible, therefore, that any positive approach to immigration that has been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may not stay consistent in years to come.

Of those wanting stricter rules regarding immigration, an Ipsos MORI study showed that 7/10 people cited pressure on public services as their reason. With the current pandemic bringing to light how many international workers are working for the NHS and as key-workers, these concerns are beginning to change. Our collective fight against COVID-19 has led to many derogatory stereotypes being abandoned, most notably the idea that migrants take from the country and give nothing in return. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has praised ‘Jenny from New Zealand’ and ‘Luis from Portugal’ for being at his aid during his own experience with the virus. Additionally, notable public personalities are calling for change in the way that the UK discusses immigration. Taking this into account, it is likely that migrants of varying skill levels will be commended for the contribution they make to our economy and society.

Recent polls​ indicate that this is already happening. According to fieldwork by HOPE not hate, a majority of the British public believe that EU nationals working as doctors and nurses should be offered automatic ​British citizenship​. Whilst a huge 77% said that healthcare workers should be automatically granted citizenship, a still-impressive 62% supported doing the same for care workers. The agreement wasn’t exclusive to those in healthcare or care work, however. The same polls indicated that 50% of participants believed supermarket and agricultural workers should be given citizenship, and 47% agreed that so should delivery drivers. The study was revelatory in that even amongst those who voted to Leave the EU the majority of participants (72%) believed doctors and nurses should be given automatic British citizenship. Moreover, 53% believed it should be granted to care workers, 40% agreed it should be given to those working in supermarkets and agricultural workers, and 38% agreed it should be granted to delivery drivers.

Whilst this is all positive, it has been offset by the backlash that many immigrants are having to endure as a result of the pandemic. Harrowingly, recent weeks have seen a marked increase in incidents of racism and hate crime, with immigrants- particularly those of Asian appearance- being blamed for spreading the disease. ​One news article​ reports on two men being arrested for spreading stickers with the messages: ‘Open border, virus disorder’ and ‘Pubs closed, borders open’ written on them. Added to this, some overseas nationals have even suffered physical attacks- Jonathan Mok, a Singaporean student was ​beaten up​ and told ‘I don’t want your coronavirus in my country’.

Evidently, the UK has a long way to go before it can be considered prejudice-free. Whilst times are changing, a review of previous circumstances show that views towards immigration fluctuate rapidly. However, the growing trend in positive attitudes towards immigration cannot be overlooked, and the incredible devotion from immigrant workers should aid the continuation of this trajectory.

This legal update was written in collaboration with Eleanor Baldwin from the Immigration Advice Service.

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Catherine Reynolds
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