It is clear that the health and social care sectors in the United Kingdom have long been suffering from systematic neglect, and this has predictably resulted in dramatic workforce shortages. These shortages have been exacerbated by the current coronavirus crisis, and will be further compounded by the stricter immigration rules coming into force in January 2021. The Home Office is reportedly considering an unexpected solution to this; replacing staff with tech and artificial intelligence.

To paraphrase Aneurin Bevan, the mark of a civilised society is how it treats its sick and vulnerable. As a result, whenever technology is broached in healthcare, people are sceptical – particularly if it means removing that all-important human touch.

Such fears are certainly justified. Technology and AI itself has become fraught with issues: there is a wealth of evidence that points to prove algorithms can become susceptible to absorbing the unconscious human biases of its designers, particularly around gender and race. Even the Home Office has been found using discriminatory algorithms that scan and evaluate visa applications while a similar algorithm utilised in hospitals in the US was found to be systematically discriminating against black people as the software was more likely to refer white patients to care programmes.

Such prejudices clearly present AI as unfit in healthcare. Indeed, technology is by no means a quick fix to staff shortages and should never be used at the expense of human interaction, especially in areas that are as emotionally intensive as care.

However, this does not mean that the introduction of AI into the UK care sector is necessarily a slippery slope to a techno-dystopia. Robotics have already made vital changes in the healthcare sector; surgical robots, breast cancer scanners and algorithms that can detect even the early stages of Alzheimer’s have proved revolutionary. The coronavirus crisis itself has reinforced just how much we rely on technology as we are able to keep in touch with our loved ones and work from home.

Yet in a more dramatic example of the potential help AI could deliver in the UK, robots have been utilised to disinfect the streets of China amid the coronavirus pandemic – and one hospital at the centre of the outbreak in Wuhan outnumbered its doctor workforce with robotic aides to slow the spread of infection.

Evidently, if used correctly, AI and automation could improve care and ease the burden on staff in the UK. The Institute for Public Policy Research  even calculated that 30% of work done by adult social care staff could be automated, saving the sector £6 billion. It is important to stress, though, that this initiative cannot be used as a cost cutting exercise – if money is saved by automation, it should be put back into the care sector to improve both the wellbeing of those receiving care, and also the working conditions of the carers themselves.

There is much that care robots cannot do, but they can provide some level of companionship, and can serve as assistance with medication prep while smart speakers can remind or alert patients. AI can realistically monitor vulnerable patients safety 24/7 while allowing them to maintain their privacy and sense of independence.

There are examples of tech being used in social care around the world that demonstrate the positive effect that it can have; in Japan specifically, they have implemented the use of a robot called Robear that helps carry patients from their bed to their wheelchairs, a bionic suit called HAL that assists with motor tasks, and Paro a baby harp seal bot that is a therapeutic companion which has been shown to alleviate anxiety and depression in dementia sufferers. Another, a humanoid called Pepper, has been introduced as an entertainer, cleaner and corridor monitor to great success.

It is vital, though, that if automation and AI is to be introduced on a wide scale into the care sector, it must work in harmony with human caregivers. It could transform the care sector for the better if used properly, however the current government does not view it in this way; and the focus on automation is ushered in to coincide with the immigration rules that will prohibit migrant carers from entry. Rolling out ‘care robots’ across the nation on such a huge scale in the next 9 months is mere blue sky thinking; replacing the fresh-and-blood and hard graft of staff with robots is therefore far-fetched at best, but disastrous to a sector that is suffering under a 110,000 staff shortage at worst. Besides, robots still disappointingly lack the empathy required for the job and simply cannot give the personal, compassionate touch that is so important; they can only ease the burden on carers, and cannot step in their shoes alone.

While in the long term it is possible that automation in the care sector could help ease the burden on staff, and plug gaps as an when it is needed, the best course of action that is currently attainable in order to solve the care crisis is for the government to reconsider just who it classifies as ‘low skilled’ in relation to immigration – as some Conservative MPs have already made overtures towards.

In order to remedy the failing care sector, the government should invest both in home grown talent and relax restrictions on carers from overseas seeking to work in the country. A renovation of the care sector is needed; higher wages, more reasonable hours, more secure contracts, and the introduction of a ‘care worker visa’ is what is so desperately needed, and if this is implemented in conjunction with support from AI and automation we could see the growing and vibrant care sector for which this country is crying out.

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Jack Yates

Jack Yates is a features writer for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of UK and Ireland immigration lawyers with a focus on the general work visa.

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