Exclusive: Most support UK citizenship for migrant frontline workers

Most people in Great Britain think migrants working as healthcare and care workers, supermarket, farm and delivery workers should be offered citizenship.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
25 April 2020
Is this a road to citizenship?
Peter Byrne/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

A majority of people in Great Britain support granting citizenship to immigrants working as frontline staff during the coronavirus epidemic. Polling commissioned by the charity Hope Not Hate and shared exclusively with openDemocracy shows how the crisis has radically changed the public mood towards migrants in the UK.

According to the poll, which the polling company Focaldata conducted for Hope Not Hate and the campaign group Best for Britain, three-quarters (77%) of respondents agreed that EU nationals working as doctors and nurses during the coronavirus crisis should be offered automatic British citizenship. Sixty-two per cent also backed automatic citizenship to care workers, and half felt that citizenship should be extended to supermarket and agricultural workers (50%), and delivery drivers (47%).

Support for offering passports to frontline workers crossed the Brexit divide. Among Leave voters, 72% supported offering automatic British citizenship to NHS doctors and nurses, 53% supported citizenship for care workers and 40% for supermarket and agricultural workers, while 38% agreed delivery drivers should also get automatic citizenship.

Such a policy would contrast with the points-based system the government plans to roll out at the start of next year, under which many of these workers won’t qualify. MPs including Green Caroline Lucas, Labour’s Clive Lewis and the SNP’s Tommy Shepherd have welcomed the poll. “It’s time we expressed our gratitude rather than hostility to the people getting us through this crisis,” said Shepherd.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Hope Not Hate’s senior policy officer, Rosie Carter, said: “The results suggest an opportunity to move the immigration debate away from narrow considerations such as economic contribution, and towards a broader appreciation of human value. The government must revisit the flawed logic that underpins the proposed points-based system and that crudely divides and discriminates between people in ‘high’ and ‘low’ skill categories, and look now for a truly fair solution.”

During the pandemic, some far-right groups have attempted to play on anti-immigrant sentiment and Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party leader, has called for a tightening of borders. But the polling represents a significant shift of public opinion in the opposite direction. In 2018, YouGov reported that 63% of British people believed immigration to be too high.

Speaking to openDemocracy about the research, Labour MP Lewis said: “It seems pretty clear the British people are way ahead of the curve compared with the government on this issue. The vast majority of us instinctively understand that when people, irrelevant of nationality, put their lives on the line for all of us, there should be no question of them being offered British citizenship. 

“But it also raises the question of why it takes a devastating pandemic to make this point. Those same people did the same essential jobs before the pandemic broke out. Politicians across the political spectrum should be re-evaluating the whole notion of citizenship and who should be eligible. Why should only the wealthy be entitled to fast-track citizenship when we now realise all workers play a critical role in our nation’s social and economic well being?”

Scottish National Party MP Tommy Shepherd agreed, saying: “This crisis has exposed just how reliant we all are both on people from other countries who choose to make their home here and on manual workers who have long been the Cinderellas of the care system. If they wish it, people from other countries should be offered fast track paths to UK citizenship. It’s time we expressed our gratitude rather than hostility to the people getting us through this crisis.”

Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “This crisis has shown us all who we depend on for food, our health and our care.  We need to show all those who have come to contribute to our country that they are welcome to live in it including by offering citizenship, if that's what they want. It is the least we can do as a society to show our thanks.”

This survey referred to in this article was conducted using an online interview of adults aged 18+ who were sampled from across Great Britain, and weighted to be representative of the GB population. It was administered by Focaldata.

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