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More EU nationals left UK last year than arrived for first time in three decades

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More EU nationals left the UK last year than arrived for the first time in three decades as a net 94,000 departed, piling further pressure on Britain's labour crisis.

Net migration plunged to just 34,000 in 2020, down from 271,000 the previous year, as pandemic travel restrictions curbed movement and new post-Brexit immigration rules came into force, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed. It measures the difference between those coming into and leaving the UK.

The net fall in EU nationals from the UK, compares with 2019 and 2018, when the number rose by 32,000 and 51,000 respectively. The last time the UK experienced net emigration by EU nationals was in 1991, when the bloc was much smaller and 1,000 left the UK.

The ONS data also revealed that the EU-born population is shrinking, slipping 4pc since the 2018 peak to 3.5m in the year ending June 2021. Meanwhile, the number of those born outside the EU residing in the UK grew 6.5pc to 6.1m over the same period.

Jay Lindop, director of the ONS's Centre for International Migration, said: "Although there is no evidence of an exodus from the UK in 2020, global travel restrictions meant the movement of people was limited, with all data sources suggesting migration fell to the lowest level seen for many years.

"These are our best current estimates for international migration over this period. However, they are modeled figures based on experimental research and subject to a high level of uncertainty."

The fall in EU workers comes amid record job vacancies in the UK as sectors, such as hospitality and haulage, struggle to cope with widespread worker shortages. 

The Government has been forced to loosen new post-Brexit immigration rules for some occupations, such as HGV drivers, amid the shortages. 

The points-based system makes it more difficult for businesses to access cheap labour from Europe but represents a liberalisation for applications from outside the EU. Separate Home Office statistics showed skilled worker visa applications rising quickly, particularly in health and social care, reflecting the new rules. 

Since mid-2019, EU nationals have tumbled by almost a tenth to 3.4m as the workforce is hit by the double whammy of the pandemic and stricter immigration rules. However, the ONS said that of the 300,000 EU workers recorded to have left the UK, some will have been deaths or EU nationals becoming UK citizens.

The University of Oxford's Migration Observatory said the drop means the UK has met the "elusive and now abandoned net migration target promised by David Cameron" of reducing net migration to just tens of thousands.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, said: "These 2020 estimates illustrate that the severe disruption of a global pandemic appears to have dramatically reduced people's motivations or ability to move to the UK."

Kathleen Henehan, economist at the Resolution Foundation, said the fall in EU workers will be felt by "lower paid migrant-reliant industries" that tend to hire new immigrants with lower qualification levels.

She added: "It affects food manufacturing, and obviously hospitality as well so it does mean there's an added challenge for them to fill vacancies."

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