Move, Britannia: How Coronavirus Has Changed UK Relocation
You’d think a global lockdown might stop people moving abroad. Think again.
At MoveHub, we help people relocate overseas, so that means we have a pretty good idea about where people tend to be moving. Despite the coronavirus pandemic seemingly bringing everything to a standstill, we’ve seen our numbers skyrocket.
So, we took a look at the data and asked two questions: where are people moving, and why?
What did we do?
We decided to put a magnifying glass on the UK and see where people have been moving to, looking at data from 1st March to 31st August 2020 and comparing it to the same period in 2019. We then cross-referenced this with changes in Google search demand between the same two periods, just to get a bit of context.
As you’ll see, there have been some seriously big increases in moves to over 25 countries, and barely any decreases to speak of. We also found that the largest increase in moves happened amongst 18-24 year olds, which has its own implications.
To paint a bigger picture, we also looked at which countries have seen the largest increases in moves to the UK, which threw up some pretty interesting results (more on that later).
Use the buttons below to jump to the key changes and read our analysis of outbound moves.
The biggest changes in outbound moves
|Destination||Moves in 2019||Moves in 2020||% Change|
UK to everywhere
Overall moves from the UK to anywhere in the world increased by a hefty 32%, from 5,115 to 6,754. While the number of Brits moving to brand new countries basically dropped off a cliff (and understandably so), the number of foreign nationals returning to their home countries absolutely surged – hence the big overall increase.
And this made a lot of sense. Britain’s foreign born population is an impressive chunk of the total, numbering around 9.3 million in 2018, i.e. about 14%. When the pandemic properly hit the world back in March, many people living in foreign countries needed to return home to their extended families, and almost every nation began huge repatriation operations.
There’s a real sense of correlation here – most of the big increases on our list match up with some of the largest foreign-born populations in the UK.
Looking at the age demographics of more than 90,000 sessions on our website between 1st March and 31st August 2019 and the same period in 2020, we found young people (18-24 year olds) to be most responsible for this huge increase in appetite for moving. While sessions from every age group grew by some margin, nothing compared to the 137% increase in online sessions from 18-24 year olds.
On top of this, we also saw a 468.8% increase in moves from 18-24 year olds. In contrast, we saw sessions from 35-44 year olds rise by just 34%, and moves from 35-44 year olds drop by almost 50%.
Why such a strong presence from younger people?
Well, given most of the moves we’ve facilitated this year have been foreign nationals returning home, it isn’t surprising to see such high numbers amongst young adults. The Migrant Observatory at Oxford University states that between 2004 and 2015, the percentage of people arriving in the UK from overseas who are under 25 has fluctuated between 45% and 54%.
What does this mean?
In short, the key implication of young, working age, foreign born people leaving the UK is a reduction in the UK’s labour force. According to the Migrant Observatory, foreign born people make up 17% of the country’s employed population, so their contribution is very significant.
As ONS data shows, emigration from the UK has stayed fairly stable in the past 8 years. It hovered around the 350,000 (people per year) mark up until 2017, where it has stayed at around 400,000. Even in the face of the UK’s Brexit decision, net migration has appeared relatively unperturbed, but COVID-19 might be bringing about a significant change.
Of course, one wave of exits might be something the UK can handle, but if the coronavirus continues into spring or even summer 2021 and foreign people continue to return home, it could easily become a severe problem. MoveHub is just one moving company amongst many others; our data is an indicator of a much bigger picture.
Given the UK is currently in recession and its unemployment rate is rising, there are clearly worse occasions for a reduction in the labour force. However, once the UK economy turns a corner and begins to grow again, a depleted international workforce will take time to rebuild.
The biggest changes in inbound moves
|Origin||Moves in 2019||Moves in 2020||% Change|
|United Arab Emirates||63||101||60.30%|
Similar to the data for outbound moves, we’ve also seen some very big increases in moves to the UK. Unlike most of its European neighbours (and indeed most other countries around the world), the UK has decided to keep its borders open throughout the pandemic, particularly because of the large number of British nationals coming home. Unsurprisingly, the Home Affairs committee now regrets this decision,
So, unlike the majority of outbound UK moves being returning foreign nationals, these inbound UK moves could be pretty much anyone. We saw a strikingly large increase in moves from Pakistan (nearly 252%), with Ireland and Hong Kong both making it into the 100 club.
However, despite the opportunity for anybody of any nationality to move to the UK in the past six months, it seems pretty clear that most of these moves are returning British nationals. It is no coincidence that all but one of the countries in our table also feature in the list of the 25 largest British expat communities around the world.
The remaining country is Hong Kong, whose citizens were offered UK citizenship in the middle of 2020. In fact, a whole year before this offer (when the country’s recent political unrest began), there was an 800% jump in UK BNO passports issued to Hong Kong residents.
UK to North America
Search demand: +17%
Moves from the UK to the USA increased by nearly 8%, from 792 to 854, while search demand rose by an even bigger margin. Given the state of affairs in the US over the past six months, it beggars belief that moves to America would actually increase, but as we’ve said, for many people it was simply a case of having to return home.
According to UN estimates, there are around 212,000 American-born people living in the UK, so there was certainly enough appetite for US-bound repatriation when COVID-19 arrived. Considering the US border restrictions (a ban on foreign nationals since the middle of March), it’s not been much of a possibility for Brits to relocate to the States. What’s more, the ban is still in place, and most types of US visa are not being issued until at least 31st December 2020.
The jump in moves appears to have been an entirely American affair.
Search demand: +14%
Moves from the UK to Canada climbed almost 25%, from 354 to 442, with search demand heading in a similar direction. The UN estimates that there are over 86,000 Canadian-born people living in the UK, which explains why we saw moves to Canada increase once the pandemic hit.
Canada has taken a particularly strict approach to border closures. While many countries around the world began to relax their border restrictions in the middle of summer, the Great White North has played it much more cautiously. Most foreign nationals have been barred entry to Canada since March, and it was only in June that foreigners were allowed to start visiting immediate family.
On 8th October, Canada loosened things a little, permitting the entry of international students, extended family (visiting on compassionate grounds), and non-citizens who are in an exclusive dating relationship with a Canadian citizen. However, Trudeau says that the Canada-US border is closed indefinitely until America sorts itself out.
A deserted street in Toronto, Canada, during a COVID-19 lockdown
UK to South America
Search demand: -20.7%
Moves from the UK to Brazil increased by an almighty 132% between 2019 and 2020, from 57 to 132. Although search demand for ‘moving to Brazil’ in the UK fell by 20.7%, clearly the drop in casual searchers was not reflective of how many people were actually moving back home.
According to ONS data, 87,000 Brazilian-born people live in the UK, which explains the jump in moves. Across May, June and July, Brazil imposed a ban on all foreigners entering the country, permitting only Brazilian citizens and permanent residents to return.
However, Brazil reopened its borders to foreigners at the end of July, so UK citizens have technically been free to move down there for the past few months. Although five million coronavirus cases doesn’t make Brazil the most appealing destination at present.
UK to Europe
Search demand: +16%
Moves from the UK to Portugal grew by nearly 84%, from 122 to 224. According to the Migrant Observatory at the University of Oxford, Portuguese people are the sixth largest group of non-UK nationals in the UK, making up 3.7% of the country’s foreign population. Despite the obvious drop in British people moving to Portugal over the past six months, the surge in Portuguese people returning home was large enough to cause an overall increase in UK-Portugal relocation.
Portugal was one of the first countries to declare a state of emergency in response to coronavirus (just seven days after the WHO declared it a pandemic), and also one of the first countries to go into full lockdown. It was this speediness and firmness that enabled it to get the virus under relative control, and so Portugal reopened its borders to certain foreigners in August (EU and UK nationals, plus Canadians, Americans, and a few others).
In the middle of that month, Portugal was recording around 200 new cases per day, while its neighbour Spain was recording closer to 6,000.
Search demand: +1.1%
Moves from the UK to Ireland rose by almost 50%, from 182 to 271. Of course, there are plenty of Irish people in the UK, meaning there were plenty of people who wanted (or needed) to return home. According to the Migrant Observatory, Irish people are the 4th largest group of non-nationals in the UK, making up 5.4% of the UK’s foreign population.
However, unlike most countries around the world, Ireland has refused to close its borders throughout the pandemic. Despite implementing Europe’s longest pub lockdown, it hasn’t been quite so strict with immigration.
There has been a 14-day quarantine in place for anybody arriving in Ireland, but very few restrictions actually preventing someone from entering the country. So, this 50% increase in moves may well have been Brits as well as Irish people.
With 381.58 coronavirus deaths per million people, Ireland is the 20th worst performing country in the world – but it’s doing better than the 10th-placed UK, with 655.09 coronavirus deaths per million people.
In July, Ireland published a ‘Green List’ of countries, i.e. ones that don’t have to quarantine upon arrival. As of 15th October, the Green List is empty.
Search demand: +8.9%
Moves from the UK to Sweden increased by 46.4%, from 125 to 183. Approximately 100,000 Swedes live in the UK, which suggests that a lot of these moves were probably people returning home, but Brits have also been able to move to Sweden since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
Sweden’s approach to coronavirus has been very unconventional, with the nation choosing to avoid strict lockdown and relying almost solely on social distancing guidelines. The only draconian measures were a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, and a ban on nursing home visits. The country also imposed border restrictions on arrivals from outside Europe, which are in place until 31st October 2020.
Sweden’s relatively free approach to coronavirus seemed to many like madness, and the nation’s numbers today don’t read too well. With 581.15 deaths per million people, it is the 15th worst performing country in the world. Naturally, the country is now considering a major shift in its strategy and a move towards local lockdowns.
A deserted Ystad, located on Sweden's south coast
Search demand: +22.5%
Moves from the UK to Spain increased by over 31%, from 375 to 492, with search demand increasing by a similar margin. Once again, the numbers from the Migrant Observatory match up; Spanish-born people are the 10th largest community of non-nationals in the UK, making up almost 3% of the UK’s foreign population.
Spain closed its international borders in March, however it reopened to visitors from the Schengen Zone and the UK on 21st June. Unfortunately, the coronavirus situation has taken a serious turn in the capital city of Madrid, and it looks like Spain might be heading for more border restrictions in the near future.
UK to Asia
Search demand: data unavailable
Moves from the UK to India increased by almost 130%, from 77 to 177. Unfortunately, search demand data for ‘moving to India’ was unavailable.
The Migrant Observatory states that Indian-born people make up a staggering 8.9% of all foreign-born people living in the UK, numbering 832,000. However, when the coronavirus hit India in March, the country decided to close its borders to everyone, including its own citizens flying in from Europe (and Turkey). This left a lot of Europe-based Indians seemingly stranded, even if they wanted to return home.
So why did our UK-India moves increase at all? Well, there was still one way that Indian nationals could get home; the Vande Bharat (‘Hail India’) mission. This is a huge repatriation effort organised by the Indian government, aiming to bring home Indians from all over the world. The first UK phase took place in May, when 2,200 Indian nationals were flown home. By the middle of August, India had repatriated over 1.1 million of its citizens.
In September, India set up a ‘travel bubble’ agreement with multiple countries, including the UK, so Brits have been able to go there for a few months.
The suburb of Bandra West in Mumbai, India
UK to Oceania
Search demand: -9.8%
Moves from the UK to Australia increased by just over 29%, from 477 to 616. Search demand for ‘moving to Australia’ took an almost 10% drop, but evidently the drop in casual Googlers wasn’t representative of what was actually happening. According to ONS estimates, there were 138,000 Australian-born people living in the UK in 2017, meaning there was probably a lot of appetite for repatriation flights over the past six months.
Australia closed its borders to all foreign nationals in March, and these restrictions are likely to be in place “until late next year”. As it states very clearly on the UK Government’s website: ‘entry to Australia is closed, except for Australian citizens and permanent residents or those with an exemption’. Any Brit hoping for a new life Down Under might just have to sit tight.
Search demand: +90.2%
Moves from the UK to New Zealand increased by 47%, from 151 to 222. We also saw search demand for ‘moving to New Zealand’ skyrocket by just over 90%, which is perhaps due to how magnificently New Zealand has handled the coronavirus during the past six months.
Jacinda Ardern’s sensible strategies have made New Zealand the envy of the world, and so it makes sense that a lot of people in the UK have casually looked up whether it’s possible to move there. Of course, they would (almost) all have been disappointed; the New Zealand border is currently closed to everyone except Kiwi citizens and residents.
Mind you, there are a few exceptions, including partners, dependent children and legal guardians of New Zealand citizens and residents, along with essential health workers, Australian citizens who normally live in New Zealand, and maritime crew.
For the time being, Oceania is very much out of bounds.
Much of the international movement since the coronavirus pandemic began has been people going home, as opposed to people starting new lives elsewhere. It isn’t a great time to be experiencing a new country when most countries are currently a bit out of whack – some more than others.
Fingers crossed, next year MoveHub will facilitate thousands more relocations for people moving to and from the UK – but let’s hope it’s because people want to move, not because they have to.