Migration from the EU to the UK went into reverse for the first time since 1991 last year as a net 94,000 EU nationals left the country during the pandemic.
The sharp drop caused overall migration to plummet. The net fall in EU numbers last year was a stark contrast to 2019 and 2018, when there was a gain of 32,000 and 51,000 respectively.
Figures from Britain’s Office for National Statistics showed that total net migration “fell considerably” to just 34,000 from an annual average of around 250,000 across the previous decade.
The drop, which the ONS said was also partly explained by Brexit, helps explain why UK companies are struggling to recruit workers, particularly in sectors such as hospitality and retail that relied heavily on foreign staff before the pandemic struck.
The squeeze is driving up pay and inflation, making it likely the Bank of England will raise interest rates as early as next month.
Alongside Covid-19, the ONS said Brexit was a cause but that it was “difficult to disentangle the effects” between the two. The UK formally left the EU last January.
The decline in net immigration partly reflects restrictions on international travel to fight the spread of the coronavirus. The last time the UK experienced net emigration by EU nationals was 30 years ago, when the bloc was much smaller and 1,000 left the UK.
A separate and more up-to-date ONS population UK release for the year to June 2021 suggested that the trend continued. The number of EU nationals living in the UK was estimated to have fallen by 200,000 to 3.4 million by that point.
The drop in EU migration in the year to December 2020 was driven by fewer Europeans coming to the UK rather than resident EU nationals leaving. An estimated 130,000 more non-EU nationals came to the UK in 2020 than left, but that figure was also sharply lower than recent years.
In 2019, net non-EU immigration was 277,000.
“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,” said Jay Lindop, director of the Centre for International Migration at the ONS.
“These are our best current estimates for international migration over this period,” he said.
“However, they are modeled figures based on experimental research and subject to a high level of uncertainty.”