A shortage of drivers to deliver fuel to petrol pumps. A lack of fruit pickers to handle the harvests at farms. Too few butchers in abattoirs meaning healthy pigs face needless slaughter.

Labour shortages in the UK are creating issues across supply chains in a number of sectors right now.

Some put it down to a drop in immigrant workers – blamed in part on the pandemic and Brexit.

Yet Boris Johnson has dismissed this as a serious issue, using his Conservative Party conference speech to pledge to transform the UK into a “high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy”.

So, does Britain need more immigration?

The Great Debate – which you can watch at 9pm on Monday night on Sky News and Sky Showcase – will examine the arguments for and against extra immigration.

But what are the facts around the debate?

Is immigration rising or falling?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) expects that both the pandemic and Brexit have fundamentally changed patterns of migration in and out of the UK – but has yet to publish comprehensive data about what has happened since March 2020.

An estimated 33,000 people came to live in the UK between March and June 2020 – a much smaller number than usual.

More recent Home Office statistics show an increase in the number of work, study and family-related visas granted in the year to June 2021, but a fall in migrants being given asylum.

There were 172,045 work visas issued in the last year, a 19% increase on the previous year – but 7% fewer than the year to June 2019.

Skilled work accounted for more than half of the visas granted and also rose by 19%.

Study visas were given to 281,008 people, up by 10% from the year before.

There were 215,746 visas and permits granted for family reasons – an increase of 40%.

The UK offered protection to 10,725 asylum seekers in the year ending June 2021. That was down 37% from the previous year, which the Home Office said was because of COVID-19’s impact on the ability to process applications.

While news reports have suggested the shortage of lorry drivers has been driven by EU citizens going home after Brexit, the ONS said there is no data to confirm whether this is the case.

More comprehensive net migration data for the UK was last published for the year to March 2020, showing a 40% increase since March 2019.

About 313,000 more people moved to the UK that year than those who left. Over the year, about 715,000 people moved to the UK (immigration) and about 403,000 people left the UK (emigration).

The increase in immigration and net migration was largely due to a rise in students from outside the EU.

EU citizens accounted for less than a fifth (58,000) of the net migration figures, with an estimated 195,000 arriving and 137,000 leaving.

Brexit has resulted in a sharp decline in net migration from the EU, which was 180,000 in the year to March 2016 – but the overall number of people coming into the country has increased since then. 

The number of immigrants coming to the UK was lower (633,000) – while the net migration figure was similar (327,000).

Here is a list of 10 occupations where, according to the REC and industry data, worker shortages are among the most acute:

  • HGV drivers – 100,000+
  • Nurses – 79,123
  • Programmers and software development professionals – 68,929
  • Care workers and home carers – 49,751
  • Primary and nursery education teaching professionals – 30,574
  • Chefs – 29,996
  • Sales and retail assistants – 26,183
  • Cleaners & domestics – 24,148
  • Metal working production and maintenance fitters – 19,748
  • Carpenters and joiners – 6,364

Other roles highlighted with high vacancy rates include veterinary nurses, ambulance drivers and postal workers.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has called for the Shortage Occupation List, which allows companies to recruit skilled workers from the EU and the rest of the world, to be extended to all specialist welders, as well as butchers and bricklayers.

Why don’t British workers fill the vacancies?

Many employers say British workers do not want to take some jobs because of working conditions and low pay, while in other cases the training needed is expensive.

The Road Haulage Association says it costs at least £4,000 to train as a lorry driver and conditions at roadside services in the UK are “far worse” than in mainland Europe.

In the care sector, workers are paid a median hourly rate of just £8.50 per hour, according to Skills for Care. Many care providers say they are unable to raise wages due to low levels of government funding.

Cleaners and retail assistants also face low salaries and insecure employment contracts.

The Royal College of Nursing said applications to nursing degrees have been on the decline for several years due to the removal of government support for tuition fees and living costs.

More than 60,000 people applied to nursing courses this autumn, which is up nearly a third from the previous year – but this is still not enough to make up for the shortfall. 

An average NHS nurse’s pay is estimated at £33,384, with a starting salary of £25,655 – and there have been calls for this to be increased.

Does the economy need immigration to grow?

Most experts agree on the economic benefits of immigration, but disagree on how it should be managed.

Migrants tend to contribute more to public finances than they receive in benefits, according to the Organisation for Economic Development.

The Migration and Advisory Committee investigated this in 2018, concluding that immigration has, on average, a positive impact on productivity – a key factor in economic growth.

he committee said there is some evidence that this impact is larger for higher-skilled migrants than lower-skilled migrants.

European migrants living in the UK contribute about £2,300 more to the public purse each year than the average UK adult, according to an Oxford Economics report produced for the government in 2018.

In comparison, British-born adults contribute £70 less than the average, with the figure dropping to about £800 below average for non-European migrants.

Europeans settling in the UK are projected to contribute £78,000 more to public finances during their lifetime than Britons – while the figure for non-European migrants is £28,000.

The analysis of migrants arriving in 2016 suggested that they will contribute £26.9bn to the UK’s public finances over the entirety of their stay.

The Migration Advisory Committee said there was no evidence that immigration from the EU reduced job opportunities or wages for Britons, on average – but said it is possible that it raises unemployment among young people and those with less education.

The organisation was unable to determine whether immigration played a role in suppressing wage growth for the lower-paid.

The group also found no evidence that migration affects the overall level of crime or reduces the quality of healthcare.

EU migrants make a bigger contribution both in terms of money and work to the NHS than they receive in health services, the committee said.