What does the end of the Brexit transition period really mean for employers in the life sciences industry?

What does the end of the Brexit transition period really mean for employers in the life sciences industry?

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The UK life sciences industry relies heavily upon a European workforce. With the end of the implementation period fast approaching, the immigration implications of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU should be considered urgently by businesses in the sector.

End of the transition period

The Brexit transition period is due to end at 11.00pm on 31 December 2020 and free movement for EU, EEA and Swiss nationals and their family members in the UK will end at the same time. 

New UK immigration rules will then be in force from 1 January 2021, the key change being that European nationals and their family members will be treated in the same way as non-European nationals under UK immigration law. A European passport will no longer provide any particular immigration benefits in the UK.

Safeguarding your current European workforce

In the life sciences industry, where individuals are highly skilled and often in high demand, employers should take a proactive approach to safeguarding their current European workforce.

European nationals (and their family members) already residing in the UK (or those who have entered the UK to live and work here by 11.00pm on 31 December 2020) must apply for either settled or pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme if they wish to remain in the UK. The deadline for making this application is 30 June 2021.

Failure to apply under the EU Settlement Scheme by the deadline means that such individuals are then likely to be in the UK unlawfully. Consequently, it may be a criminal offence for employers to continue to employ European nationals in the UK after 30 June 2021 if they have not applied under the EU Settlement Scheme.

The key point for employers is that virtually all European nationals and their family members must take action to apply under the EU Settlement scheme by 30 June 2021. This includes individuals who have lived in the UK for decades, those who are married to British citizens or who have children in the UK.

The only people who do not need to apply under the scheme are those with Irish or dual British citizenship or those who hold Indefinite Leave to Remain/Enter issued under the UK immigration rules.

Significant costs to recruit European workers next year

Further, a European national who arrives in the UK to live and work for the first time on or after 1 January 2021 will need to qualify under one of the UK immigration routes if they wish to live and work here. In most cases, this is likely to involve sponsorship by their UK employer. Businesses will therefore will need to consider:

  • Whether they need to apply for a sponsor licence in order to employ European nationals next year and going forward
  • The impact on their recruitment budget due to significant immigration costs – i.e. nearly £10,000 to sponsor one employee for five years taking into account application fees and the Immigration Skills and Immigration Health surcharges alone
  • Factoring in visa processing times of several weeks or months to bring in key employees
  • Future recruitment strategies – particularly for those heavily reliant upon European workers

Importantly, there is no provision for low-skilled workers in the new immigration rules as it will only be possible to sponsor European and non-European nationals in roles that are medium or highly skilled.

The majority of roles filled by non-UK nationals in the life sciences industry are likely to meet the highly skilled or medium-skilled threshold for Tier 2 sponsorship. Employers in the sector that are planning to rely on the sponsorship system for future hires from Europe will need to consider the significant costs involved in sponsorship. Employers should start budgeting for these costs early on.

Action points for employers now

  • Audit your current workforce to ascertain who needs to take action to apply under the EU Settlement Scheme
  • Encourage employees (and their families) to apply under the EU Settlement Scheme as soon as possible and ask them to confirm once they have done this
  • Check that everyone who needs to has applied for their pre-settled or settled status by 30 June 2021
  • Consider providing workshops to your European workforce to support them with their applications
  • Consider your recruitment strategies going forward to prepare for the changes ahead and consider the impact of the changes on your recruitment costs
  • If the company does not yet hold a sponsor licence, consider applying for this in good time before 1 January 2021. It is a good idea to take advice before submitting any sponsor licence application
  • For those who already hold a sponsor licence, ensure that all the details are fully up to date and the company is complying with its sponsor obligations to avoid its sponsor licence being removed for non-compliance. You may wish to consider undertaking a mock audit.

From January 2021, the new immigration system will no longer provide European nationals with free access to the UK labour market. Employers in the life sciences industry that rely on European talent in the workforce should consider what action to take now to protect their current workforce and review their recruitment strategies to prepare for the changes ahead.

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