COVID-19 and the Impact on International Mobility and Migration

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In this blog, Professor Anne Green discusses the COVID-19 pandemic and associated travel restrictions which have led to a marked reduction in international travel and immigration to the UK. It has also disrupted the collection of statistics on international travel and immigration. Across various indicators, there has been a reduction in immigration to the UK.

This is part one of a series of blogs looking at Internation Travel, Migration and Immigration. View the second blog

COVID-19 impacts on international travel

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on travel worldwide. Restrictions to travel and other economic and social factors have influenced individuals’ travel and migration plans to and from the UK.

Data from the Civil Aviation Authority showed reductions of more than 95% for UK travel to and from most world regions between April and June 2020 compared with the same months in 2019. This has had an impact on the visitor economy in areas with high levels of international tourists (including destinations like Stratford-upon-Avon in the West Midlands) as well as on international migration for work and study. The diagram below is based on ONS analysis of Civil Aviation Authority data for the period from January to September 2020 shows the percentage change in arrivals and departures compared with the position a year ago in monthly air passenger volume between airports in the UK and airports in other world regions.

Source: ONS analysis of Civil Aviation Authority data

There was an upturn in passenger volumes on short-haul routes in the summer months (travel restrictions were eased selectively from July), but in instances where the upturn in volumes was most marked – notably in the EU8 (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) and EU2 (Bulgaria and Romania)– this upturn had stalled by September. At the highest point volumes were 50% of those a year earlier.

Advance Passenger Information data shows that there were around 1.7 million passenger arrivals to the UK by air routes in the month of October 2020. In April to June, there were fewer than 200,000 air arrivals per month. The 1.7 million passenger arrivals in October 2020 is 82% lower than the 9.8 million arrivals in October 2019. During the second national lockdown in England from 5 November to 2 December, 2020 travel abroad was restricted to work, education and other legally permitted reasons. Border and Immigration Transaction data shows that passengers arriving by air accounted for 87% of all passenger arrivals to the UK in March 2020. In October 2020 the proportion arriving by air was 80%, having fallen to 38% in May 2020.

Office for National Statistics analysis of Department for Transport Sea Passenger Statistics shows a substantial decrease in UK arrivals and departures via short international ferry routes (to Ireland and other European countries). The diagram below shows the monthly trend in such arrivals and departures from January to September 2020. In September 2020 arrivals and departures had declined by around two-thirds in comparison with September 2019.

Source: Office for National Statistics analysis of Department for Transport Sea Passenger Statistics
Work-related international mobility

Another indicator of the reduction in international mobility is the decrease in the number of visa applications issued for work and study to non-EU nationals; (note that free movement for EU nationals continues to apply during the Brexit transition period). In part, this reflects the closure of visa application centres by the end of March 2020 (although they have since reopened) and COVID-19 related restrictions. The chart below shows the trend in Home Office entry clearance visas issued to non-EU nationals for work and study between September 2011 and September 2020.

Source: ONS

The marked decrease in entry clearance visas from March 2020 reflects a mix of restrictions on migrant movements to and from the UK, operational constraints relating to the processing of visas due to lockdown restrictions (with visa centres closing in March 2020 in the first national local lockdown and gradually reopening from June 2020) and changes in migration behaviour during the pandemic. Compared with the period July to September 2019, there was a 29% decrease in work visas and a 41% decrease in study visas granted in July and September 2020.

Source: ONS

Although not directly measuring international migration, there also been a reduction in the number of national insurance numbers (NINos) allocated by the Department for Work and Pensions to foreign nationals. Again, the allocation process was disrupted because of the pandemic between March and June 2020. A NINo is generally required by any adult overseas national looking to work or claim benefits or tax credits in the UK for the first time. NINo registrations include short-term migrants and people who may have been in the country for a while before registering. The chart below shows NINO registrations to foreign nationals – distinguishing between EU nationals and non-EU nationals – from the year ending September 2011 to the year ending September 2020. In the year to September 2020, there was a 51% decrease in registrations to EU nationals and a 24% decrease in non-EU national registrations. EU registrations are very slightly lower than non-EU registrations for the first time in a decade.

Almost half of all UK registrations are in London or the South East. In the year to September 2020, London recorded 167 registrations while for the South East recorded 50,000 registrations. The reliance of London on non-UK labour reflects both its demographic profile and its role in the UK migration system.

In the West Midlands, there were nearly 34,000 registrations. The chart below shows the origin by world region of foreign national NINo registrations in the West Midlands (NUTS 1 region) in the year ending September 2020. The largest shares are accounted for by South Asia (27%), the EU2 (23%) and the EU15 (16%). Birmingham had 10.9 thousand registrations in the year to September 2020 (accounting for around a third of the West Midlands region total). The next highest volumes of registrations in the Midlands were Coventry (5.7 thousand), Sandwell (3 thousand), and Wolverhampton (2.6 thousand).

Source: NINo Registration Data
Impact of COVID-19 on statistics on international mobility and migration

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial impact on statistics on international mobility and migration. These include:

  • The suspension in March 2020 of the International Passenger Survey due to the reduction in air travel and cessation of face-to-face interviews. Previously this was the main source of international migration data for the UK.
  • Suspension of various population registration processes in the first national lockdown, followed by gradual resumption from June 2020.
  • In March 2020 all face-to-face interviewing for the Labour Force Survey (LFS) was suspended and replaced with telephone interviewing. This change from face-to-face to phone for first interviews has changed the non-response bias of the survey, affecting interviews from March 2020 onwards.

The Office for National Statistics is working on a transformation programme for population and migration statistics based on making greater use of administrative statistics, especially the Department for Work and Pensions Registration and Population Interaction Database (RAPID) and Home Office Exit Checks data for measuring international migration. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the transition process.

Plans to migrate

The Office for National Statistics has also introduced new data sources on migration. The Opinions and Lifestyle Survey measuring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people, households and communities in Great Britain asked respondents included questions in the period from late October to mid-November about their plans for the future after recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Around one in four respondents indicated that they planned to make a big change to their life. Of those planning to make a big change to their life, around one in five indicated that they planned to live somewhere else. Of those planning to live somewhere else, around one in six indicated that they planned to move to live outside the UK in the next 12 months (see diagram below).

Source: Opinion and Lifestyle Survey, ONS

The three main reasons that are given for considering moving to live outside the UK by those who were considering such a move were worries about Brexit, worries about the UK and a change in lifestyle (see chart below). These were mentioned by around one in two respondents considering moving to live outside the UK. The next most frequently mentioned reasons were moving for a work opportunity and to reduce the costs of living. Hence there are both economic and social reasons underlying reasons for considering moving, with economic concerns playing an important role.

Source: Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, ONS

All regions and local areas have been impacted by international travel restrictions resulting in reduced international mobility and migration flows as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been disruptions to registration and survey processes which produce the data on which estimates of international migration are based. Looking forward the plan is for a greater reliance on administrative statistics but inevitably there will be a break in statistical series on international mobility and migration. The COVID-19 pandemic may be expected to impact on individuals’ future international mobility behaviour intentions. Concerns about economic recession and Brexit will also influence individuals’ future plans and behaviour.

This blog was written by Anne Green, Professor of Regional Economic Development at City-REDI  / WM REDI, University of Birmingham.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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