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N


ow fast forward to this summer when, not surprisingly, the Issues Index was dominated


by the Covid-19 pandemic. But the surprise lay in the issues that followed: the economy, Brexit, race relations, healthcare, poverty, education, unemployment, the environment and crime, with immigration – so often atop the list in previous years – not even mentioned in the top ten. The fact is that, with the end


of the Brexit transition period looming, the UK’s decades-old prejudice towards legal immigration has all but disappeared. As Bobby Duffy, Professor of Public Policy and Director at the Policy Institute


at King’s College London, told the Financial Times recently: “We’ve gone from being among the more negative countries in Europe when it comes to immigration, to among the most positive.” Not surprisingly, the Covid-19


outbreak has done much to boost support for immigration in recent months, with media coverage highlighting the extent to which the healthcare and social care systems rely on the skills and dedication of workers originally from abroad. More than that, the coverage has often


focused on other areas –


from driving trucks to picking farm produce – where foreign workers play such vital roles. In a poll this summer conducted


by the Open Democracy think- thank, 72% of ‘leave’ voters – the ones most likely to be sceptical about the benefits of immigration – supported offering automatic British citizenship to National Health Service doctors and nurses. More surprisingly, perhaps, more than half also backed automatic citizenship for care workers, and about 40% also felt it should be offered to delivery drivers, supermarket staff and agricultural workers. But Sunder Katwala, the


Director of British Future, a think- tank promoting equality education, insists that the idea the public has suddenly realised the benefits of immigration because of the pandemic is “misplaced”. “Attitudes have become more


positive, but that has happened over four years, not four months,” he says. “What is happening is that politicians are now catching up with the public. We’ve heard a change of tone on so-called ‘low-skilled’ immigration. There have been policy U-turns on NHS surcharges and leave to remain for the families of health and care staff. “Overall, attitudes have


remained broadly stable over the last quarter and people care about immigration much less. Even before Covid-19, it had fallen out of the top five issues for voters – now it doesn’t even make the top ten.” Indeed, research published


earlier this year by Patrick English, an associate lecturer in data analysis at the University of Exeter, used 40 years of data from sources such as the British Social Attitudes survey, the European Social Survey and the World Values Study to argue that the Brexit referendum came “slap bang” in the middle of a rapid decline in anti-immigrant sentiment, which actually began from a hostility peak in 2010. While he accepts there has been


a substantial softening in attitudes towards immigration since the time of the EU referendum, he says the data show that


there had been a


much larger and more dramatic change in public opinion taking place since well before the 2016 vote. Dr English believes this change


in attitude was the result of what he calls the “thermostatic relationship” that Britons adopt towards the nation’s political environment, which basically shows the more the public is pushed in one direction,


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