Ending freedom of movement after Brexit could result in 115,000 fewer adult social care workers by 2026, according to an analysis of official figures.
The thinktank Global Future said the sector had become increasingly reliant upon low-skilled EU workers who were expected to face restrictions after Britain leaves the European Union.
The findings are likely to increase concerns that the sector which provides care for elderly and disabled people is close to breaking point.
The analysis follows the government’s decision in June to abandon plans to announce a new workforce strategy for the health and social care sector.
There are at present 1.3 million care workers, but 2 million will be needed by 2035 to cope with the rising number of elderly people.
According to the analysis using Office for National Statistics data, 220,000 social care staff in England, 17% of the total, are foreign nationals.
Since 2012, the number of care workers from outside the EU has fallen as a result of strict controls on low-skilled workers from the rest of the world, but those from inside the bloc has risen, leaving the total number of foreign nationals working in the sector roughly constant.
If the UK applies similar immigration restrictions on European workers to those applied to those from outside the block, Global Future’s analysis projects the will be 115,000 fewer care staff in England by 2026 than if free movement continues.
The ONS projects that by 2026 there will be 1.5 million more people aged 75 or over. Without free movement the UK would need to fill 380,000 additional social care jobs just to keep up with the needs of an ageing population, the thinktank said.
Peter Starkings, the director of Global Future, said: “Ending free movement after Brexit would cause a social care workforce crisis. Social care is already overstretched, and cutting the number of care staff by 100,000 would have a direct impact on the quality of life of elderly and disabled people.
“Low-skilled workers from the EU are an easy target for politicians, but we rely on them to do vital jobs supporting our elderly and disabled loved ones in care homes and in the community. Without them our social care system would quite simply be unable to function.
“New health and social care secretary Matt Hancock must make it a priority to protect the adult social care sector – and our elderly and disabled citizens who need care – by fighting and winning a battle within government to allow European workers to continue to work as carers.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said ministers were confident of reaching a deal with the EU that benefitted the healthcare and social care workforce.
“We want to promote adult social care as a career of choice and ensure the system is able to meet the demands of our growing ageing population. That’s why we are launching a recruitment campaign this autumn to raise the image and profile of the sector,” said a spokeswoman.