COVID-19 - What you need to know from a UK Immigration perspective?

1st April 2020 Immigration

The spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus: COVID-19 has changed the way in which the world operates in an unprecedented way. With practically every individual, business and government affected, whether it be for the good or for the tough, the big or the small, COVID-19 has impacted us all. Within this fluid and uncertain times, it has become more important than ever before to keep abreast with Government guidance’s in relation to immigration to ensure correct steps are taken by immigration visa applicants and related parties.

Here is an update on what the Home Office has announced by virtue of Government guidance’s in respect of the position of in-country and out-of-country UK visa applicants, as well as British nationals overseas who need to apply for a passport affected by travel restrictions associated with coronavirus.

Government guidance on UK visa statuses and applications was initially focused on Chinese citizens and residents of China stuck in the UK, as they were most affected at the time that guidance was first published, in mid-February 2020. The guidance was updated on 24 March to cover other nationalities under: "Coronavirus (COVID-19) factsheet: visa holders and short-term residents in the UK". We expect this guidance to be updated again before 31st May 2020.

UK RESIDENTS

UKVCAS Biometric Application Centres:

At present, all UK Visa and Citizenship Application Centres (UKVCAS) and Service and Support Centres (SSCs) as well as the EUSS ID supported scanning locations are temporarily closed in the UK for the next six weeks because of COVID-19. For this reason, applicants cannot book an appointment.

Where an applicant has already made an appointment to attend a UKVCAS service point, or a Service and Support Centre (SSC), the Home Office will be contacting them to tell them what to do next.

The Home Office have made clear that the immigration status of applicants will not be negatively affected as a result of them not being able to attend their appointment.

Priority and Super Priority Service

At present the Home Office have suspended all priority and super priority services for applications made during the next six weeks.

Immigration Visas:

If you’re in the UK and your leave expires between 24 January 2020 and 31 May 2020.

The Home Office has announced that visa’s expiring between the 24th of January and 31st May 2020 will be extended to 31st of May 2020, if you cannot leave the UK because of travel restrictions or self-isolation related to COVID-19.

However, for this extension to be activated, applicants are required to contact the designated Coronavirus Immigration Team (CIT) with details relating to identification and reasons why they are unable to travel as follows:

  • Their full name (include any middle names)
  • Date of birth (dd/mm/yyyy)
  • Nationality
  • Their previous visa reference number
  • Why they can’t go back to their home country, for example if the border has closed

The Home Office will acknowledge receipt of the request and respond when the visa has been extended.

In order to process these applications quickly, the Home Office has not introduced any application form or fee and has designed this to be a quick online process.

The Home Office has stated that “individuals will be advised that UKVI have noted their details; they will not be subject to enforcement action; and this period will not be held against them in future applications”.

It remains imperative however that the reason for which an individual is unable to travel is given to the Home Office to avoid future disputes.

Should you be worried about the possibility of returning to your country of origin please do not hesitate to contact JMW Solicitors to discuss your matter further.

Switching in-country

There has been a lot of talk about in-country switching during these unique times. The Government’s announcements on this front have been brief and unspecific, which has left somewhat vagueness as well as room for potential opportunity.

The guidance is that where individuals would normally be required to return to their country of residence to apply for a visa in a different category, they’ll now be able to apply from the UK to switch as long as it is done before 31st May 2020. Therefore, individuals who cannot leave the UK due to travel restrictions or self-isolation and wish to stay in the UK in the long-term can now make that switching application in-country.

The visa requirements are the same and the application fee is applicable as normal.

This route also applies to those whose leave has already been automatically extended to 31st May 2020 and not just those whose original leave expires on or before 31st May 2020.

A prime example of this situation would be a Tier 4 Migrant, looking to switch over to a Tier 2 General category, who would normally need to return to his/her home country to make that application. That application can now be made in-country, online.

Another point to note is that the terms of the presiding leave remain the same until the application to switch immigration categories has been decided.

Please contact JMW’s immigration team for further enquiries and assistance on this.

If you’re outside the UK

UK visa application centres abroad

Many UK Visa Application Centres (VACs) are closed or offering limited services, as stated by the Home Office. For advice on visa services in a particular country, applicants are required to contact:

Although some countries have closed or limited services, some applications can still be processed, such as urgent humanitarian applications, EU family member applications and emergency travel documents, however there is likely to be some delay in the processing of these applications.

Government guidance’s and VAC’s operational statuses are changing almost daily and instantaneously around the globe, and therefore online updates are not always concise with time.

JMW’s specialist immigration team are able to continue assisting you by contacting the relevant centres on your behalf and finding the nearest one to you offering services, as well the submission of your application and documents online in readiness for biometric appointments as soon as the restrictions are lifted.

Priority and super priority services for entry clearance applications.

Each country is running its visa application centres in accordance to the safety measures required in that area from time to time.

While some countries appear to be offering the priority and super priority services, other countries have completely suspended all services. It would there be best practice to check the operational status of the visa application centre at the time of purchasing the service.

We at JMW are able to provide specific advice on whether it would be worthwhile purchasing this service in relation to time-frames and travel restrictions.

Applying from a country different to your nationality

Applicant are able to make an entry clearance application to the UK from a country outside of their home country as long as they have permission to reside there.

Applicant’s outside of the UK who have been granted a visa to enter the UK but cannot enter within the visa’s validity period.

Presently, the Home Office has not announced any special arrangements to deal with this issue. However, questions on this issue have been placed before government by constituents and we would expect measures to be introduced to deal with this problem in the context of Covid-19 in due course.

Please check with us or consult the gov.uk website for more information on this.

English Testing Centres

Temporary closures of English Testing Centres are another reason causing delays and restrictions to applicants who are required to pass an English Language test as part of their UK visa application.

Applicant’s are advised to visit the International English Language Testing System (IELTS)’s website or contact their test centre for more information.

British nationals abroad who need to apply for a passport

Where the VAC is closed in a country outside of the UK, applicants are presently unable to apply for a British passport. However if there is an emergency for which reason they are urgently required to travel to the UK, they can apply for an emergency travel document.

UK Borders in light of COVID-19

Britons and UK visa holders stuck abroad as well as those residing in the UK needing to travel out for urgent reasons are facing tremendous issues with their travel.

While the UK borders are not closed, many countries have stopped flights to the UK, whilst the UK has also stopped outbound flights similarly. The EU has banned all non-EU travellers from entering the UK, and thus international travellers are likely to struggle entering the UK, or even finding a flight to do so.

However, emergency travel documents can still be obtained by those who are required to travel to the UK on an emergency basis but do not have a valid passport and are unable to obtain one due to COVID-19 related reasons. Given the unique times facing us today, such applications will likely need to meet a very high threshold of exceptionality.

JMW’s immigration specialist team is able to assist you in obtaining an emergency travel document if you feel your circumstances are of such exceptionality.

Getting your documents

Applicants who have paid for courier return, their passport will be returned by the Home Office if courier routes remain open.

If the applicant’s passport is currently held in a VAC and the applicant would like it to be returned by courier, they are required to contact either TLS contact or VFS global directly if they haven’t already paid for courier return.

BUSINESS IMMIGRATION

Sponsor Duties under Tier 2, 4 and 5 and reporting of absences via SMS relating to COVID-19.

The Governments guidance on this is as limited as it is on other aspects of immigration. What has been said however is useful to the extent that “Sponsors do not need to report student or employee absences related to coronavirus which they have authorised.” The Home Office confirms that this includes absences related to illness, the need to self-isolate or inability to travel due to restrictions.

The Home Office have further confirmed that they will not take enforcement action against sponsors who continue to sponsor employees despite absences due to coronavirus.

However, what we would advise is that employers should keep a record of any absences that they do authorise, along with any evidence that the absence was COVID-19 related.

Absences not relating to COVID-19

There remains an ongoing requirement of sponsorship to maintain a full record of absences of employees for sponsor licencing purposes. This is likely to be more challenging where employees are working from home and would require a level to adjustment by the employers to their current recording procedures. Such an adjustment would be advised by JMW in order to comply with this requirement as closely as possible.

Sponsor duties where sponsored worker is ‘working from home’.

The Home Office has provided guidance confirming that there is no need to update the SMS to confirm that a sponsored worker is home-working during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, other changes to working arrangements should be reported as usual.

Sponsor duties where new employee start-date is delayed.

There is presently no new guidance on the duty of sponsors to report the delay in the start date of a worker via SMS. Our advice would be to continue reporting via the SMS of any delays as usual on the individual migrant record, even where you are unable to specify a new start date due to the COVID-19 crisis. We would expect there to be guidance forthcoming on this issue to provide better clarity to sponsors and employees.

Sponsor duties and restrictions in relation of reduction in contractual hours and salary of sponsored workers.

This is yet another popular area demanding clarity from the Home Office. The only guidance that we have vaguely connected to this is that if a worker takes more than 4 weeks unpaid leave (up to 4 weeks being permitted under normal rules), there is no current requirement to immediately withdraw sponsorship.

In a normal situation, reducing hours and salary that drop below what was advertised before sponsorship and/or what is required as per the relevant Code of Practice could be problematic in respect of the sponsorship validity.

However, the guidance given in respect of excessive length of unpaid leave could be an indication towards the Home Office’s tolerance towards other changes to hours or salary given the current crisis.

We would expect to see clarity on this hot topic in the near future as the Home Office release further guidance notes, but until then it is advised that you maintain contracts as per the legal requirements.

Please contact a member of JMW’s Immigration Team should you wish to discuss this further.

Furlough of sponsored worker’s employment.

This is not an area which the Home Office guidance has specifically addressed, however it is a probable scenario in many cases and therefore we should expect to see some further clarity on this in due course.

In the meantime we can only draw some reasonable expectations following from what has been said in relation to sponsor duties, which is that it seems most likely that a sponsor will not be required to withdraw sponsorship in such circumstances where continuity of employment is present, despite the change in hours and salary. We await further guidance for affirmation on this point.

Tier 2 employment under risk due to COVID-19 crisis.

It is tough times for individuals and businesses alike, and therefore finding an alternative Tier 2 sponsor during the crisis is likely to prove difficult. The ideal scenario would be to speak to the existing sponsor in reference to the information provided on this page, which may ease the situation so that the sponsorship does not need to be withdrawn.

It is still open to applicants to make in-country applications to change an employer, or even switch into a different immigration category. The Home Office guidance has temporarily provided that individuals who would normally be required to return to their country of residence to apply for a visa in a different category, they’ll now be able to apply from the UK to switch as long as it is done before 31st May 2020.

Loss of a sponsored employment during the COVID-19 crisis.

Where a sponsor withdraws their sponsorship, it is their duty to report this to the UKVI through their SMS. In normal circumstances, that notice triggers a Home Office assessment of the file and then the issue of a 60-day curtailment notice follows.

This 60-day notice in effect gives the applicant an opportunity to either submit a fresh application or leave the UK. Given that there are world-wide travel restrictions at present, we would expect that curtailment notices will not be priority for the Home Office in the event that a sponsorship is withdrawn

Rights of UK sponsors of overseas staff to withdraw sponsorships.

Where a business in struggling, it can make the decision to withdraw a sponsorship licence. The Home Office guidance makes clear that “Decisions on whether to withdraw a student from their studies or terminate an employment are for sponsors to make.”

Sponsor compliance visits by the Home Office during the COVID-19 outbreak.

It is highly unlikely that the Home Office would make a compliance visit to a sponsor’s premises during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Government guidance on social distancing would indicate that travel by Home Office workers for the purpose of a compliance visit is discouraged during this time.

Taking on another employment during the crisis?

Taking on a supplementary job under the Tier 2 general category is permitted as long as it is to work either in shortage occupations or in the same profession and at the same level as the current sponsorship. There is no information yet whether a sponsored worker who is furloughed by their sponsor will be permitted to carry out alternative employment for a different company, therefore such a move by a Tier 2 worker at present could be risky.

Tier 4 students carry limited work permission, particularly during term-time. Although colleges and universities in the UK have closed, the Home Office has not published any guidance in respect of what this means for Tier 4 students and their restrictions towards employment. As such, we cannot assume that the Home Office would regard this period as an out-of-term period allowing full-time work.

Until the Home Office gives guidance to confirm that Tier 4 students may seek full-time employment during this unique period, it would be advisable to comply with work restrictions as set in the last visa.

Employee’s right to work checks.

There is still an obligation over employers to carry out employees right to work checks, however the Home Office has published guidance to temporarily adjust the checks during the COVID-19 crisis.

The guidance provides instructions for conducting a fully compliant check without having to see the employee face-to-face. The use of a video call has been introduced to check identity and scanned documents can now be accepted rather than originals. Anyone with a BRP card or status under the EUSS can also be checked through the Employer Checking Service on the gov.uk website for their RTW.

The guidance makes clear that these measures are temporary and will revert to the usual practice once the pandemic is over. At that point, a retrospective RTW check will need to be conducted in compliance with the normal requirements. We are able to assist or provide advice on RTW checks and compliance, therefore please contact the immigration specialist team at JMW.

Start-up/Innovator visa routes

Endorsement bodies for the Start-up and innovator routes remain operational. The Home Office guidance urges endorsing bodies to continue granting endorsements for those who are applying from inside the UK.

For Applicants outside the UK, the Home Office have suggested that the endorsing bodies need to assess the migrant’s ability to travel to the UK and start developing the business in the current crisis before they grant endorsement. With the present restriction on travel, and the rapidly changing economic and social climate of the UK, it would seem difficult to demonstrate the ability to travel to the UK in the first place, as well as to realistically develop a business.

Conclusion

There is an enormous amount of uncertainty in all aspects of immigration created by the Covid-19 crisis.

What is certain however is that the usual operations of the Home Office are in most part suspended for an uncertain time.

We expect to see a surge in immigration applications as soon as the covid-19 crisis begins to cease, as well as enquiries into the ‘what do we do next’ by those who have other related issues.

We would highly advise that regardless of which immigration category you fall under, you aim to comply with the immigration rules as closely as possible while this crisis continues, but also prepare ahead of time for your next application.

Guidance’s from the Government in relation to immigration will be published from time-to-time and we will continue to update you on them through our ‘COVID-19 and immigration’ thread.

Where your visa (or auto-extended visa) is expiring on or before 31 May 2020, we would urge you to consider making that extension or switching application as soon as possible. Where your visa is expiring before 31 May 2020, we would urge you to consider contacting the Home Office to activate your auto-extension until 31 May 2020.

We at JMW Solicitors are here for you and are readily available to assist you with your queries and legal representations.

We remain determined to carry on giving you the best advice that we can in the context of these unchartered waters.

We are now encouraging our colleagues to work from home wherever possible and, whilst we love welcoming you into our home at JMW, we also think it is best to keep face to face meetings to a minimum. However, if meetings are essential, we will be observing social distancing guidelines.

We want to reassure you that many years of resilience testing and significant investment in technology means that you will continue to experience the same high levels of service from us. And whilst we will miss seeing you in person, when we do we will be more appreciative of each other – as well as being experts at telephone and video conferencing...

In the meantime please feel free to contact our Head of Immigration on Dipesh.shah@JMW.co.uk, or by contacting or General Contact number on 0203 675 7575.

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Dipesh Shah is a Partner located in London in our Immigration department

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