WORLD NEWS

First Brexit, Now This: How UK’s COVID-19 Response Has Hit Eastern European Workers

Community leaders fear impact of coronavirus and Brexit will make Britain a less attractive prospect for skilled workers.
A man holds a Polish and an European flag during a demonstration outside parliament, on May 7, 2020 in Warsaw.
A man holds a Polish and an European flag during a demonstration outside parliament, on May 7, 2020 in Warsaw.

The UK’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic was “too little, too late”, experts from the eastern European community have warned, and could make the country a less attractive prospect for skilled workers.

The twin economic impacts of lockdown and Brexit have plunged future plans into uncertainty across the whole of society, but particularly among those from eastern Europe who want to build their lives in the UK.

“There was an element of disappointment in the British response,” Barbara Drozdowicz, chief executive of the East European Resource Centre, told HuffPost UK. 

“The restrictions were introduced too late, they were too light-touch. In Poland people were under quarantine much earlier – from the week commencing March 16 – and I think if you had the option to return, many people would have done so. 

“Police [in eastern Europe] were more concerned about fining people, getting them off the streets when they were not supposed to be out.

“But it is complicated, and it depends on how different people experienced the lockdown.  I know some people who are older and not economically active returned to their homeland to weather the pandemic, but not necessarily because they had extra trust in the state to provide better support.

“Where families are strewn across Europe, people wanted to be with their nearest and dearest.”

Arrivals at London Stansted Airport.
Arrivals at London Stansted Airport.

Drozdowicz’s organisation, based in Hammersmith, west London, offers advice and support to migrants from central and eastern Europe.

When restrictions are lifted and life begins to return to normal, she said she expects to deal with casework relating to discrimination against lower-paid migrant workers. 

She added: “We have already heard about cases where people who are not key workers have been forced to work – things like cleaning, non-essential construction projects and house renovations.”

Drozdowicz said while economic support measures offered by the UK government are largely better than those in Poland, many Polish people “felt better about the prospect of surviving knowing the government is really strict, when compared to the lax approach applied by the UK”. 

But she added that those who had decided to return to their home countries were worried about the prospect of returning to Britain.

“One of the main fears now is what they will be coming back to, what state things will be in.  There’s an impact on continuation of residency for immigration purposes for a lot of people, who may end up being out of the UK for more than six months purely because of government lockdown guidance.

“In terms of the future, it’s difficult to say if the UK will still be an attractive prospect to people.  Obviously you have the double whammy of Brexit, but the economic impact of Covid is going to be a Europe-wide issue, not a national one. 

“Its impact will be even bigger in Europe, because the government there has fewer assets to draw on.”

Bartlomiej Kowalczyk, director of Polish Business Link, which helps entrepreneurs set up in the UK, said there is “massive fear” among his membership base.

“A lot of our members take goods from Poland, and the capacity of producers in Poland is getting squeezed because of the current situation,” he told HuffPost.

“We’re in a good position here, as the UK government is helping business.  When it comes to small businesses and self-employed people, the Polish government help is not that generous. 

“But the question is how the markets will be affected.  If unemployment is as high as 10%, once things are open again, will new people want to come to the UK?  Before this pandemic hit, the Polish economy was booming, compared with previous years.

“So the advice we are giving to our members at the moment is everyone’s advice – businesses need to look now at how they can create opportunities, focusing on transformation and logistics, as the way we work will have changed.”

A Home Office spokesperson said the government had extended its visa scheme for those unable to return to the UK due to Covid-19.

“The extension...will apply to anyone whose leave expired after the 24 January and who cannot leave the country because of travel restrictions or self-isolation,” guidance states.

“This will last until 31 May, but will be kept under regular review in case further extensions are needed.”