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End of the pandemic? Loosening of some Covid restictions in the UK

After almost two years, the British government decided to loosen most of the restrictions introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is no longer obligatory to wear face masks, show covid certificates, or to work remotely. Even compulsory isolation in the event of a coronavirus infection is expected to be removed at the end of March. Great Britain, despite the persistent high number of infections, decided to take this step because the omicron variant turned out not to affect the efficiency of the British health service so much.

From February 11, fully vaccinated people will be allowed to enter the UK without showing a negative test for Covid-19. Traveling between Poland and Great Britain in the era of the coronavirus is still not easy however, and it is Brexit that contributes to this fact. Poland, almost simultaneously with the announcement of the loosening of entry restrictions by the British, decided to tighten the regulations for people arriving from Great Britain. They must show a negative result of a PCR or antigen test, regardless of whether they are fully vaccinated or not. Interestingly, the test is not required for those arriving from neighboring Ireland. The main reason is that Ireland is part of the European Union, while Great Britain is counted among the countries outside the EU and the Schengen zone. Polish migrants who want to visit their relatives are still oblidged to get tested and in case of being Covid positive, they are not allowed to go, which means that travels between Poland and the UK are still an uncertain venture.

The pandemic overlapped with Brexit and our research showed that it was difficult to separate the two issues when asking about uncertainty. Often rapidly changing Covid regulations, inability to predict how the situation will look like when we were trying to get back home, fear to get infected, months of separation with families in Poland – all that seemed for most of the time to be more important than trade agreements and the necessity to show the passport at border control. End of the pandemic may start to reveal true impact of Brexit. When people will start to travel more frequently and without fear, they will realise how the new political situation truly impacts them now.

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Brexit. Long term effects.

One of the interviewees said few weeks ago that the true impact of Brexit is yet to come. And indeed in September 2021 serious supplies shortages are painfully experienced by the Brits making queues for petrol, empty shelves in supermarkets (which are compared by older Poles to the situation of late communism in the People Republic of Poland). It concerns not only petrol, especially diesel, at gas stations or food in supermarkets or garbage collection in a number of towns, blood tests, some drugs in pharmacies. Jonathan Freedland recently wrote in The Guardian (24 Sept 2021), that these different crises have a common denominator – Brexit. Politicians do not say it loudly and sometimes try to cover it with the pandemic, but the true and main reason of these problems lays in the long-term consequences of Brexit, recently mainly in the dramatic shortage of truck drivers. The situation there is complex but has also roots in Brexit as the drivers were usually immigrants, many of whom came from the Central-Eastern Europe. Some of them left after the referendum, fewer new came because of the Brexit regulations and those who did not leave changed their work strategy – as they don’t expect any problems with employment, they resigned from permanent positions and went to agencies to work on an hourly rate.

Also the Polish migrants point out numerous problems they are experiencing now which were non-existent before: the quality of goods went down, especially meat. One of interviewees said she started to use a local butcher as the meat in supermarkets became uneatable; another interviewee, who has just came back to Poland after 16 years told how much trouble he had with transporting his belongings – the postage companies became slow and unreliable and the customs he would have to pay would be a fortune. Finally he decided to rent a truck and drove all the way to Warsaw with his books and furniture; sending packages to Poland suddenly became unprofitable so many people started to order goods outside the UK giving the Polish address. The packages are then picked up by their relatives in Poland and then migrants take the products when they visit their families – all this only to avoid customs and high postage costs; Although it may not still be very visible in the diagrams, but interviewees observe an outflow of their kin from the UK, so very often their Polish hairdresser is no longer there which causes the necessity to change life routine and habits; Prices went up, some of the basic products cost 25 % than they used to before Brexit – this is caused mainly by customs and constant problems with the supply chains.

Not only the Poles ceased to choose Britain as an attractive goal of permanent migration, but they stopped coming here for seasonal jobs. It simply became too complicated and less rewarding comparing to many EU destinations. Also the sole consciousness that Britain is no longer European Union makes it rather unlikely that young Poles would even consider choosing the UK as a holiday work destination. They would go to Norway, the Netherlands or, increasingly often, remain in Poland.

This is reinforced by the fact, that they feel less welcome there. Most of the Polish interviewees observed the shift that the referendum made with the Brits. Many Poles were complaining that the pro-Brexit campaign broke the famous British political correctness and (sometimes artificial) kindness. As people saw that majority of the voting population have had similar thoughts regarding the migrants as they have, it has become more in place to openly declare intolerance or hostility. Occasionally migrants experienced this discrimination on their own skin. Although this wave of hostility has mostly gone away after the campaign, some of the interviewees still observe a changed approach comparing to the one from before 2016.

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Brexit, the British (English?) nationalism and the immigrants from the V4

I was personally surprised that in the majority of the interviews I made with Polish migrants about Brexit, there appear mentions about nationalistic behaviors of the British people. Even if the interviewees have not experienced them themselves, they were told about them by friends or know it third hand. Referendum campaign revealed much of these layers of nationalism in the British society in which attitude towards immigration and immigrants played a key role. We saw banners saying “Taking our country back” or “Britain for the British”. These sentiments were reinforced by statements of pro-Brexit politicians, like Nigel Farage, who twitted on 26 May 2016 “Mass immigration is still hopelessly out of control and set to get worse if we remain in the EU”. The atmosphere around the campaign caused or contributed to some dreadful events, like the fatal attack by a group of teenagers on a Polish migrant in Harlow, on August 2016, just two months after the referendum. This event provoked a lot of discussion in the Polish mediasphere both in the UK and in Poland, although it was not clear whether the murder had purely xenophobic substrate.

For some Poles this wave of nationalism and the feeling of being unwanted was one of the elements to take into consideration in their life strategies. According to my interviewees for some this could also be another factor in making decision to leave the UK. Ita Głowacka analyzed the internet forum mojawyspa.co.uk (Głowacka 2018: 84-100) and showed emotional reactions from 223 individual posts. 143 of them related to some manifestations of discrimination experienced by them in the UK. Some also were calls to revenge and self-defense. One of the key conclusions of the article was that the Poles in the UK felt increasingly alienated and endangered after the referendum in 2016. On the other hand the negative feelings towards the British also rose within themselves.  

It is worth to quote, what an interviewee from Edinburgh said, that here nothing like this happened and I only heard rumors about what was going on in England. The Scots like Polish people. Similar opinion was shared by an interviewee from London, but he said that these acts of discrimination happened in the province, not in London. London is very multicultural. Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz writes on LSE blog (https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2019/08/06/long-read-its-the-english-stupid/) that Brexit is an expression of English, not British nationalism and that it mainly concerned provinces. This of course goes along the outcomes of the referendum, where the majority of voters voting to leave were from small towns and villages of England, while Scotland and London recorded highest percentages of ‘remain’ supporters.

English nationalism, according to professor Mike Savage rose from two factors: economical and the one referring to identity. According to a survey held in 2008 a vast majority of British people do not have racist or nationalistic attitudes, with only 1.5% declaring that having a non-British neighbor would be very bad to them and over 25% would feel happy to have such neighbors. However, most of the society have an ambivalent or undecided approach and thus can be manipulated by the slogans and xenophobic discourse. During the Brexit referendum parts of political elites pushed this uncertain part of the society towards more nationalistic arguments and interpretations which was noticed by most of the Polish immigrants.

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Migrants and the internal divisions of the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is not homogeneous, as was perfectly illustrated by the results of the 2016 Brexit referendum. While at the national level 51.9% of eligible voters voted to leave the European Union, in Scotland 62% of citizens voted to stay in its structures. In no administrative region in Scotland the majority was in favor of Brexit. Similarly, though not as spectacularly (55.8%), the supporters of staying in the EU won in Northern Ireland. The most noticable difference was on the Anglo-Scottish border, where in the Carlisle district 60.1% of votes was to leave, and right next to it, in the Scottish Borders, 58.5% of the population voted to remain in the EU. London voted differently than most of England (in the City of London over 75% of voters were in favor of staying in the EU), In the province it was completely different. The North of England also voted differently than the South.
Interestingly, the results of the Brexit referendum show that identity factors played an important role, which in a country like the United Kingdom where at least four nations live, is especially noticable. If only Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales had voted, the UK would remain in the Union. The most populous England decided to leave for the rest of the country. The need to leave the Union was biggest among the English, whose identity is primarily English, and less British, while those who declare themselves primarily British, and less English, were more likely to chose to remain in the Union.
The internal divisions in the country were overlapped by the attitude towards migrants, which became one of the key topics of the referendum campaign. The slogan “take back control” was very much concerned with the control of immigration. Organizations such as UKIP argued that the mass and uncontrolled influx of immigrants contributed to an increase in unemployment and lower salaries, which was especially popular with small entrepreneurs who, paradoxically, most often used the work of migrants themselves.
The issue of migration is closely related then to internal divisions in Great Britain. While in England the European Union has often been portrayed as “the others”, in Scotland it is dominant to portray the Scots as one of the nations of a united Europe opposed to the English. In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, the issue of Brexit is very closely linked to the conflict between loyalists and those who want unification with the Republic of Ireland. This is clearly visible when analyzing the results of the referendum. The overlapping of the religious division between Protestants and Catholics results in the fact that often Catholic Poles are automatically identified as supporters of the Republicans. Migrants sometimes do not understand the specificity of the sectarian division in the region and the fact that, for example, some bus stops are “assigned” to particular groups. Sometimes it becomes a cause of aggression.
On May 13, 2021, an incident occurred in Kenmure Street in Glasgow where the Home Office tried to evict two illegal immigrants from India. Passers-by reacted with a protest, singing and shouting “Leave them, they are our neighbors!”. The Scottish police did not support the Home Office’s activities, and Nicola Sturgeon in a Twitter post condemned the ways in which the British Home Office operated. The incident sparked a media storm that, with the defense of migrants and asylum seekers as a starting point, moved to defending Scotland’s independence in politics towards migration issues and not only.

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Unresolved issues around Brexit

At the session of the Polish parliamentary commission for liaison with Poles abroad on 24 February 2021, deputy vice head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Paweł Jabłoński informed about latest data on the EU Setllement Scheme. He declared that out of 903 thousand Polish citizens who applied for settled status, 662.800 thousand were approved and 164.220 thousand more obtained pre-settled status. There were also 6,162 new British citizenships granted to Poles between 30 June 2019 and 30 June 2020 (gov.uk). Number of granted citizenships severly fell during the lockdown in spring 2020.

Number of application nearly reaches estimated number of Polish citizens actualy residing in the UK, but as Jabłoński said, that there is however a group of several thousand or mayble more who have not sent the application. Among this group there are some who for various reasons were unable or unwilling to do so. Many of those are people affected by homelesness or without any valid ID document – Polish nor British.

On 15 March 2021there was a Zoom conference organized by the Social Scientists Against the Hostile Environment group (https://acssmigration.wordpress.com/) on “Brexit, citizens’ rights and the hostile environment: Uneven stakes, unheard voices and unresolved issues beyond the headlines”. The speakers were describing the uncommon cases affected by Brexit, including Roma citzens of Central and East European countries who migrated to the UK after 2007, children of non-EU citizens born in a European country who later moved to the UK or people who lack mental capacity.

Among all these groups there are people with Polish citizenship who have not made their application for settled status. Brian Dikoff presented a paper on the EU Settled Status Scheme and EEA citizens living with mental health issues giving several examples of people whom his organization helped. These cases are escaping the system and their legal status could be questioned if they do not manage to apply by 30 June 2021. There are some non-governmental organizations, like the Migrants Organise (https://www.migrantsorganise.org/), which are trying to help these people with making their application on time.