The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had a major impact on people’s lives and the UK economy, with significant disruption to worldwide travel.
Restrictions to travel, alongside various social and economic factors, have influenced people’s plans and decisions to travel or migrate to and from the UK.
There have been sizeable changes to international mobility (or in other words people travelling or moving between the UK and other countries) since the first UK lockdown on 23 March 2020, when UK travel restrictions were enforced1 because of the pandemic. In turn, this will have had an impact on international migration to and from the UK.
We have drawn on a range of data to shine a light on what has happened because of the pandemic, with the data covering up to the end of September 2020. This includes statistics from the Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions to provide insights on immigration, which cover short- and long-term migration to the UK for work and study but not those emigrating. To provide a broader picture on the recent changes, we have also considered data on international mobility, which gives context to recent migration patterns, but are not direct measures of international migration.
Alongside this article, today (26 November 2020) we have also published an update on progress in transforming our international migration statistics including information on the current suspension of the International Passenger Survey (IPS), development of new admin-based migration estimates (ABMEs) and plans for future publications.
- Restrictions were also put in place in other countries across the world, which will also have impacted travel to and from the UK prior to these dates.
1. Overall, there have been significant changes in international migration and mobility since the coronavirus pandemic
The different data sources presented in this article bring together the best available evidence on international migration and mobility since March 2020, using a range of administrative and survey data sources. These cover different topics, including overall travel to and from the UK (including temporarily or for short- or long-term periods), but also what we know about immigration for work or study.
The data sources provide different measures, definitions and coverage. Therefore users should be cautious in making direct comparisons between the sources. However, when viewed together they provide a broader overview of changes in international migration and mobility since the coronavirus pandemic.
Overall, since the start of coronavirus pandemic we have seen substantial decreases in passengers travelling internationally. While the data sources are not directly comparable, there was a broadly consistent pattern seen in passenger data from the Home Office, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Department for Transport (DfT).
Likewise, there was a fall in the number of visa applications issued for work and study to non-EU nationals, shown in Home Office immigration statistics, as visa applications centres closed by the end of March 2020 (although these have since reopened) and restrictions were put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
During the same period, there was also a decline in work-related activity.
Estimates from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) show the number of non-British nationals and non-UK-born, who are UK residents and in employment decreased in the last year. There has also been a significant reduction in the number of National Insurance numbers (NINos) allocated, which are needed to work in the UK, with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) allocation process disrupted as a result of the pandemic.
Overall, we have seen a big impact on recent international mobility, which in turn, will have impacted on migration to and from the UK. The coronavirus pandemic has also presented challenges in data collection and therefore the sources we can use to understand migration in more depth during this period, including the suspension of the International Passenger Survey (IPS) - our previous main source for international migration statistics – but also to operational processes behind other available administrative data related to immigration. However, when bringing together the best available data, it is clear that mobility and migration have changed significantly since March due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
2. There was widespread decline in international travel to and from the UK because of worldwide travel restrictions
Percentage change compared with a year ago in monthly air passenger volume between airports in the UK and airports in regions of the world, by direction, January to September, 2020
- Country regions are where the foreign airport is located and are based on the country of residence groupings used in International Passenger Statistics.
- For more information on these data and analysis please see Section 9: Data sources.
- Volume of air passenger travel and further disaggregation by UK country is available within the data download file.
The insights in this section refer to air travel patterns by all types of passengers, including international migrants. However, they are not measures of international migration and do not provide the same coverage or definitions as the official statistics on international migration.
Using data from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), we can see that the volume of air passengers arriving and leaving the UK was significantly lower in March 2020 compared with March 2019.
There were further reductions for Quarter 2 (April to June) 2020, compared with the same months in 2019, with falls of more than 95% for UK travel to and from most world regions.
On 9 November 2020, we published estimates of overseas travel and tourism for April to June 2020 based on administrative sources and modelling, including CAA data. This found similar trends for Quarter 2, with reduced travel for both UK residents visiting abroad and overseas residents visiting the UK.
From July 2020 travel restrictions began to ease, including the introduction of international travel corridors, although these were continually adjusted and travel disruption continued. Between July and September 2020 we saw some uplift in arrivals and departures between the UK and some areas of the world, such as EU8 countries. However, the volume of air travel was still significantly lower than the time period before restrictions were applied in the UK.
Home Office recent passenger arrivals
Today (26 November 2020) the Home Office has published an update to its statistics relating to passenger arrivals to the UK since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began. This includes analysis of data on passenger arrivals derived from live operational systems for the period January to October 2020 using Advance Passenger Information (API), and Border and Immigration Transaction Data (BITD).
Home Office data confirms initial patterns seen in the CAA data and continues to show the impact of the the coronavirus pandemic on the volume of people coming to the UK up to 31 October 2020.
There were around 1.7 million passenger arrivals to the UK by air routes in the month of October 2020 (from API data). This was higher than the average for April to June 2020, following the start of the first UK lockdown, when there were fewer than 200,000 air arrivals per month. However, the number remains substantially lower than levels seen before the coronavirus pandemic in the UK and is around one-fifth (82% lower) of the figure for October 2019, when there were 9.8 million arrivals.
Passengers arriving by air accounted for 87% of all passenger arrivals to the UK in March 2020, however this proportion reduced to 38% in May 2020. Since then, air passenger arrivals have increased, and in October 2020, accounted for 80% of all arrivals (BITD data).
International travel continues to be disrupted as the coronavirus pandemic persists. The national restrictions in England from 5 November to 2 December 2020, mean people can only travel abroad for work, education or other legally permitted reasons. Therefore, we expect to see further changes in the patterns of international travel for this period and potentially beyond.
3. There has also been a decrease in UK arrivals and departures via short international ferry routes
Percentage change compared to a year ago in passengers travelling by short international ferry routes, by direction, UK, January to September, 2020
Source: Office for National Statistics analysis of Department for Transport Sea Passenger Statistics
Monthly figures for 2020 are provisional until DfT’s publication of the annual bulletin.
For more information on these data and analysis please see Section 9: Data sources.
Download this chart 3. There has also been a decrease in UK arrivals and departures via short international ferry routesImage .csv .xls
While air travel is the most common route for international travel to or from the UK, people also arrive and depart via other routes including ferry, Eurotunnel and Eurostar. According to monthly figures produced by the Department for Transport (DfT), the effect of travel restrictions on short international ferry routes to Ireland and other European countries began to be seen in March 2020. Further impacts were then seen between April and September, with the largest decrease in April 2020, when total traffic dropped by 85% compared with the previous year.
4. There was a fall in work and study visas granted for non-EU nationals since the coronavirus pandemic
Entry clearance visas issued for work and study, UK, year ending September 2011 to year ending September 2020
- Work visa data includes visas issued for entry clearance work (Tier 1, 2, 5 non-Points Based System (PBS) work), for main applicants only. Study visa data includes visas issued for sponsored study (Tier 4) and non-PBS study.
- The following visa types were excluded: short term study; transit; visitors; student visitors and working holidaymakers.
- YE equals year ending.
- Numbers have been rounded to the nearest 100.
- For more information on these data and analysis please see Section 9: Data sources.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the UK immigration system, primarily driven by:
- restrictions on migrant movements to and from the UK
- operational contraints due to lockdown restrictions
- changes in migratory behaviour in response to the pandemic.
To look at changes in overall patterns of non-EU immigration, we have considered the number of work and study visas granted, from the Home Office immigration statistics.
Between April and June 2020, during the first UK lockdown, the overall number of visa applications and grants fell significantly. Visa applications centres were closed by the end of March (although have since reopened), and restrictions were put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic, both of which affected caseworkers' ability to conclude an application during this period.
The numbers of long-term work and study visas issued between April and June of 2020 fell by 85% and 99%, respectively, compared with April to June of 2019.
As visa application centres gradually reopened from June 2020, we saw an uplift in applications being issued between July and September 2020. However, this was still lower than the same period last year (29% decrease in work and 41% decrease in study visas granted).
In the year ending September 2020, there were 93,000 and 161,000 work and study visas granted, respectively. For study, this was a decrease of around 100,000 visas issued compared with the previous year (ending September 2019). For work visas, this was a decrease of around 41,000.
For study immigration, the current data available are limited in showing changes for the current 2020/2021 academic year. Since March 2020, the British Council have surveyed the intentions of prospective overseas students, which has provided insights such as an estimated proportion who may cancel or delay their UK study plans this year.
5. There has also been a decline in the number of National Insurance numbers registered to non-British nationals
National Insurance number (NINo) registrations to foreign nationals by nationality region, UK, from year ending September 2011 to year ending September 2020
- NINo registrations are for all NINo registrations regardless of length of stay or date of arrival, so they will include short-term migrants and people who may have been in the country for a while before registering. 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.
- There was a change to the process of recording NINos during Quarter 2 (Apr to June) 2014 that meant that the volume of NINo registrations recorded was lower in that quarter and then higher in Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2014 than would otherwise be the case. Comparisons of NINo registrations over time between these periods should be viewed with caution.
- YE equals year ending.
- Numbers have been rounded to the nearest 100.
- For more information on these data and analysis please see Section 9: Data sources.
National Insurance number (NINo) registration data from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) can provide another view of work-related immigration.
The NINo allocation process was disrupted as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of NINos allocated.
The processing of NINo applications for employment purposes was suspended in March 2020 to enable the redeployment of resources within DWP. However, NINo applications for employment purposes that had already been received and new applications for benefits purposes were processed to completion.
The process for NINo applicants with a valid work visa, affecting non-EU nationals, was reinstated on 1 June 2020 but the process for those who require an "Evidence of Identity" interview, affecting EU nationals, has not yet restarted.
Between April and June 2020, there was a decrease in NINo registrations of 79% for EU nationals and 63% for non-EU nationals, compared with the same period in 2019. Between July and September 2020, NINo registrations to EU nationals decreased by 99% from the same period in the previous year, while registrations to non-EU nationals decreased by 65%.
It is important to remember that NINo registrations data are for all NINo registrations regardless of length of stay or date of arrival. Previous research on NINo interactions data concluded that NINo registrations will include short-term migrants and people who may have been in the country for a while before registering.
6. The number of non-British nationals and non-UK-born people working in the UK labour market has fallen over the past year
Labour market activity levels for non-British nationals and non-UK-born people, by nationality and country of birth, UK, from Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2010 to Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2020
Estimates (not seasonally adjusted) show the number of EU and non-EU nationals and EU and non-EU born who are UK residents. Employment and unemployment estimates relate to people aged 16 and over, and economic inactivity estimates relate to those aged 16 to 64.
EU2 (Bulgaria and Romania) nationals and born became EU members in 2007; between 2007 and 2013, these countries were subject to transitional controls restricting their access to the UK labour market; these restrictions were lifted on 1 January 2014.
For more information on these data and analysis, including the definitions of labour market activity, please see Section 9: Data sources.
The number of migrants working in the UK is not a measure of how many people migrate to work. Our report into the coherence of migration data sources discusses the differences in what survey sources tell us about migration flows.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) produces estimates of the labour market activity of the resident population in the UK by nationality and country of birth using the Labour Force Survey (LFS). Because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, all face-to-face interviewing for the LFS was suspended and replaced with telephone interviewing.
This change in mode for first interviews has changed the non-response bias of the survey, affecting interviews from March 2020 onwards. Coronavirus and its impact on the Labour Force Survey explains the methods used to adjust the data to account for this.
Caution should be taken when using the LFS to measure migration since changes in population between two points in time show the net effect of all population changes, rather than just migration, and are subject to relatively large levels of uncertainty.
Estimates (not seasonally adjusted) show the number of non-British nationals, who are UK residents and in employment decreased in the last year:
There was an estimated 1.87 million EU nationals working in the UK in July to September 2020, 364,000 fewer than the previous year (16% lower).
For non-EU nationals, there were 1.29 million working in the UK in July to September 2020. This was 65,000 fewer than the previous year (5% lower).
For British nationals, there was an estimated 29.35 million in employment in July to September 2020, which has remained stable over the past year (less than 1% higher).
Labour market activity levels by country of birth also followed a similar recent pattern.
7. Worldwide changes in international migration and mobility patterns
Because the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a worldwide situation, changes in patterns of international migration and mobility are not limited to the UK.
Eurostat has brought together statistics from many European countries further highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on air passenger transport in Q2 2020.
Another example of the worldwide impacts was recently highlighted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) who considered the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on immigrants and their children. This includes wider effects on health and labour market outcomes and provides international context to the insights given in this article.
It is important to recognise that people’s decisions to move, whether temporarily or in the short- or long-term, are driven by a range of factors. With a rapidly changing society and the UK’s points-based immigration system coming into effect from 1 January 2021, we expect to see further changes in the patterns of movement of people to and from the UK.
We are continuing to work closely with the Home Office to better understand how the new immigration system will inform our understanding of migration and the opportunities offered by these data.
8. Future developments
As part of our population and migration statistics transformation journey we are making use of all available data sources to provide a richer and deeper understanding of migration. This article has started to look at the changes in international migration and mobility patterns since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Alongside this, today’s (26 November 2020) update to our transformation overview sets out the broader work we are taking forward to transform migration statistics and deliver new admin-based migration estimates (ABMEs) in future. Through this, we are exploring how we can understand and estimate international migration flows since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, including reviewing a wider range of data sources and working with other National Statistical institutes, academics and experts across the Government Statistical Service (GSS). We expect to share further updates on this work and the feasibility of methods in early 2021.
We are also looking at ways we can provide wider analysis and insights on the topic of migration.This includes making use of relevant new survey questions on impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. In Wave 16 of the Business Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Survey (BICS), businesses that had not permanently stopped trading were asked whether the number of workers from within and outside the EU at their business had changed.
Another example is within the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN), where questions added between 28 October and 15 November 2020 have started to provide early indicators on people’s intentions to move to live outside the UK.
We welcome your feedback on our future developments and our research to transform migration statistics via email, at email@example.com.
9. Data sources
Here we have brought together available evidence on international migration and mobility from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Department for Transport (DfT), Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Except for the insights on travel, we have presented the data over a 10-year period to the end of September 2020, to provide perspective on the recent patterns.
The data sources included in this article are not directly comparable. However, taken together, the different sources of data provide a broader overview of changes in international migration and mobility since the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) data
The CAA collects data on passengers carried on international scheduled and charter services between the majority of UK airports and foreign airports. The CAA figures may not reflect a passenger's entire air journey: the point at which a passenger disembarks from a particular service may not represent their ultimate destination.
It excludes passengers on airlines the CAA do not have consent to publish; working crew members; aircraft chartered by government departments; and passengers at Carlisle, Edmiston London Heliport, Lydd and Shoreham. At the time of this analysis, Barra, Belfast City (George Best) and Tiree airports were not yet available for reporting in September 2020 and therefore excluded from the corresponding months in 2019 and 2020 comparisons. For more information, please see the notes and FAQ section of the CAA website.
Department for Transport (DfT) sea passenger statistics
Monthly sea passenger statistics produced by the Department for Transport (DfT) show the number of passengers travelling via short international ferry routes to Ireland and other European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Faroe Isles, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden). It includes passengers travelling for tourism, leisure and business travel, as well as freight drivers accompanying cargo. More information including data on other routes and guidance can be found on the Maritime and Shipping Statistics page by DfT.
Home Office data
Home Office immigration statistics provide the numbers of people who are covered by the UK's immigration control and related processes, based on a range of administrative and other data sources. The Home Office immigration statistics: user guide provides more detail and the Migration research and analysis page brings together a range of statistical and research reports on migration published by the Home Office.
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data
The DWP National Insurance number (NINo) statistics count the volume of NINos registered to adult non-UK nationals. Further information, including detail on data sources, uses and limitations of the series, is provided in the background information and quality report.
ONS labour market estimates
We produce a monthly labour market overview and quarterly, we release labour market activity by nationality and country of birth from the Labour Force Survey (LFS). More information on the methods used to adjust the data from March 2020 to account for the non-response bias, as a result of changing the mode of data collection, can be found in Coronavirus and its impact on the Labour Force Survey.
Definitions of employment, economic inactivity and unemployment are given in the guide to labour market statistics. The International Labour Organization (ILO) definition of employment includes workers furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) or who are self-employed but temporarily not in work and have a reasonable expectation of returning to their jobs after a temporary period of absence.