Full Guide: Coronavirus and UK immigration

Updated: Apr 2

Measures taken to combat the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19 disease have changed almost every aspect of society both here in the UK and around the world. The immigration system is no exception. This post gathers together various updates on changes to immigration law and practice caused by coronavirus


Visa extensions and other concessions


General policy


Particularly pressing is the situation for people who are in the UK on an expiring visa and unable to leave because of travel restrictions. Government guidance on this 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. It leaves many questions unanswered but the top line is as follows:

If you’re in the UK and your leave expires between 24 January 2020 and 31 May 2020 Your visa will be extended to 31 May 2020 if you cannot leave the UK because of travel restrictions or self-isolation related to coronavirus (COVID-19).

The guidance continues:

You must contact the Coronavirus Immigration Team (CIT) to update your records if your visa is expiring.

We’ll let you know when your request is received and when your visa has been extended.


This guidance overrides a previous version at the same webpage. The older version unilaterally conferred leave to remain until 31 March to Chinese citizens whose visas had or were due to expire between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020. It also allowed non-Chinese, non-EEA nationals in the UK who are normally resident in China to get an extension of leave on application to the coronavirus hotline, in a similar process to the one now in force for all nationalities.


The Immigration Law Practitioners Association says that “it is immediately apparent that the guidance is not adequate”. ILPA has however been provided with an additional Coronavirus (COVID-19) factsheet: visa holders and short-term residents in the UK. As of 25 March, this was not publicly available but can be downloaded here (pdf).


The fact sheet is not a great advance on the public guidance, but adds 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”.


The legal basis for all this is unclear, to put it mildly.


A note of caution


Please take a cautious approach to the new coronavirus extension policy.

If your client has time to give it a try or their leave has already expired, there’s probably no downside, but if your client’s leave is about to expire it is important to note that providing the details requested by the Home Office does not extend leave under section 3C of the Immigration Act 1971 according to the information we currently have.


If your client’s reasons are not accepted, they will become an overstayer. If there is a way to protect 3C leave, and that will be a potentially complex matter to decide, that may be the best route.

Also note that this route isn’t likely to help people who need to make an application for longer-term leave if they do not already meet the requirements. For example, Tier 4 to Tier 2 where you are waiting for a sponsor licence to be approved may not benefit from this route as there is no Certificate of Sponsorship, so the requirements cannot be met. Proceed with caution.

– Nichola Carter


There does not appear to be any concession for people in the reverse position: those with a 30-day visa giving permission to enter the UK but who are unable to do so before it expires due to travel restrictions.


Switching


The guidance also includes information on switching visas:

If you’re applying to stay in the UK long-term
During these unique circumstances you’ll be able to apply from the UK to switch to a long-term UK visa until 31 May. This includes applications where you would usually need to apply for a visa from your home country.
You’ll need to meet the same visa requirements and pay the UK application fee. This includes those whose leave has already been automatically extended to 31 March 2020.
You can apply online. The terms of your leave will remain the same until your application is decided.

“Long term” here does not mean indefinite leave to remain.


NHS workers (NEW 31 March)


As we’ve established, most people who need their leave extended must contact the coronavirus helpline to ask for the extension. NHS workers and their families, however, are to get a one-year extension automatically.


The Home Office announced on 31 March that around 2,8000 doctors, nurses and paramedics with leave due to expire by 1 October would get a free one-year extension. Family members are included and there are no fees involved.


The department has also “lifted the restriction on the amount of hours student nurses and doctors can work in the NHS”.


Sponsor duties


There is now brief Home Office coronavirus guidance for organisations which sponsor overseas workers or students under Tiers 2, 4 and 5 of the Points Based System. It promises:

We will not take enforcement action against sponsors who continue to sponsor students or employees despite absences due to coronavirus.

Sponsors are not currently required to report any absences from students or employees sponsored under Tier 2, Tier 4, or Tier 5, where those absences have been the result of the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak. 


Sponsors will also not be required to withdraw sponsorship for affected students who have been unable to attend for more than 60 days or for employees who have exceeded four weeks of absence without pay.


Tier 4 student can now do distance learning, although if they quit the course altogether this must be reported as usual.


Similarly, Tier 2 and 5 sponsors do not need update the Home Office if workers are now working from home provided that the switch to home working is because of the pandemic.

There is coronavirus advice for Tier 2 and Tier 4 sponsors on the Carter Thomas website. Lewis Silkin has some advice for Tier 2 sponsors, as well as a page on the immigration implications of the government’s crisis employment policies.


UK visa application centres


Within the UK 


All visa application centres within the UK are closed as of 27 March.

Sopra Steria, which runs the network of Visa and Citizenship Application Centres on behalf of the Home Office, has the following message on its website:

The UKVCAS service is currently suspended The worldwide response to COVID-19 continues to affect the UK’s Visa and Immigration Service. As a result, the UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services (UKVCAS), led by Sopra Steria on behalf of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), has suspended all services to help protect the health and wellbeing of our customers and staff. This will remain under review with UKVI as the situation evolves.

Those with appointments will have them automatically rescheduled or get a refund.

Service and Support Centres are also closed.


Anyone with an expiring visa is referred to the visa extension guidance outlined above. To reiterate: someone stuck in the UK on an expiring visa should contact the coronavirus helpline to get an extension.


Outside the UK


A second Home Office factsheet of 24 March, Coronavirus (COVID-19) factsheet: visa customers outside of the UK, can be downloaded here (pdf). It notes that “many of the UK’s Visa Application Centres (VACs) are currently closed and we anticipate more closing”.


Those with appointments at a closed visa centre should be contacted. Those awaiting a decision and who want their passport back should contact the company which runs the visa centre in question, which will either be TLScontact or VFS Global. But “if applicants are concerned about their passport, they can contact the Coronavirus Immigration Team


VFS Global has a dedicated coronavirus page listing the ones which have closed. As of 27 March 2020, it reports that:

UK has stopped accepting visa applications in Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bermuda, Bhutan, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Cambodia, Canada, Cayman Islands, Chile, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Fiji, Guatemala, Guyana, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Jamaica, Japan, Kuwait, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mexico, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Oman, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, St Lucia, Suriname, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad & Tobago, UAE, Uruguay, USA, Venezuela and Vietnam.

In addition, it says that “UK has stopped accepting Priority Visa applications in Japan, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, South Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Brunei”.


A Frequently Asked Questions page has answers from VFS on things like “how do I get my passport back?” and “do I get a refund if my visa is already issued but I can’t travel?”.


Other visa centres overseas are run by TLScontact. It does not appear to have a centralised list of closures, but applicants can check the situation in their country through the TLScontact website.


Immigration tribunal hearings


As of 1pm on 26 March, there is a general ban on leaving the house without reasonable excuse. The coronavirus lockdown regulations (for England) do include an exemption “to fulfil a legal obligation, including attending court or satisfying bail conditions, or to participate in legal proceedings”. But the nation’s courts and tribunals are rapidly organising video and phone hearings so that lawyers and appellants need no longer turn up in person.


Some tribunal hearing centres will remain open during the pandemic, but only for “hearings that cannot be heard by video or telephone and which cannot be delayed”. Most tribunal action for the foreseeable future will be conducted remotely.


Remote hearings: overview


The Senior President of Tribunals issued an emergency practice direction on 19 March. It covers all chambers of the Upper and First-tier Tribunals (i.e. including immigration).

The practice direction says that:

Where it is reasonably practicable and in accordance with the overriding objective to hear the case remotely (that is in any way that is not face-to-face, but which complies with the definition of ‘hearing’ in the relevant Chamber’s procedure rules), it should be heard remotely.

Judges will make allowances for the pandemic when considering applications for extensions of time and postponement of hearings.


The practice direction also allows for:


  • Decisions to be made on the papers without a hearing where possible

  • Chamber Presidents to “triage” cases

  • Hearings to go ahead in a party’s absence, so long as this can be done in accordance with the overriding objective to deal with cases fairly and justly


Asylum


Interviews


The Home Office has decided to “pause face to face substantive asylum interviews for now”, according to correspondence from the Asylum Operations team. All interviews scheduled from 19 March onward are cancelled.


Some initial screening interviews are also being cancelled, according to Right to Remain, although the Law Centre NI reports that they are continuing in Northern Ireland.


Further submissions


As of 18 March, asylum seekers who wish to put in further submissions with a view to have their case considered as a fresh claim no longer need to turn up in person. The following email is from the Assistant Director of Further Submissions and Further Leave Casework at UK Visa and Immigration:

With effect from Wednesday 18th March, until further notice the Home Office has temporarily suspended the requirement for Further Submissions to be lodged in person in Liverpool. The Home Office is also cancelling all existing appointments. Applicants wishing to lodge a Further Submission in support of a fresh claim for asylum will be able to submit this via e-mail to a dedicated in-box or through the pre-existing postal route. The in-box for Further Submissions to be e-mailed to is : CSUEC@homeoffice.gov.uk.

Asylum support and accommodation


Asylum seekers and refugees will not be asked to leave government accommodation until the end of June 2020, the government has announced.


Junior Home Office minister Chris Philp wrote to the British Red Cross on 27 March:

… I have taken the decision that, for the next three months, we will not be requiring people to leave our accommodation because their asylum claim or appeal has been finally decided (as would normally be the case). This decision will be reviewed ahead of the end of June 2020. The practical outcome is that those who would ordinarily have their support stopped because their asylum claim or appeal has been rejected, will remain accommodated. All those who would ordinarily be required to make their own support arrangements because they have been granted refugee status and can therefore access mainstream services, including local authority housing assistance, will similarly be able to remain in their current accommodation.

The Red Cross adds that “people’s financial support will also continue during this time”.

There is more information on this subject in an Asylum Support Appeals Project briefing on Covid-19 and asylum support (pdf).


Travel documents


The Home Office team that deals with refugee travel document applications says that coronavirus restrictions are slowing down its work, and has set up a process for urgent applications:

If any customer is in a particularly difficult situation and needs their application to be considered as a matter of priority, we would ask that this request, along with scanned recent, acceptable evidence of the circumstances and confirmation that the customer is able to travel i.e. confirmation from the airline or ferry company, is sent to traveldocumentenquiries@homeoffice.gov.uk. Following this, if it is agreed that the case meets the criteria for being expedited and an application has not yet been submitted online, then the customer will need to complete an online application.  If an application has already been submitted then the customer should not apply again as this is likely to cause confusion and may delay their application.

This should be done “only in the most urgent of cases”.


Enforcement


Immigration detention


The Home Office has already released around 350 people from immigration detention. But a senior official told the Home Affairs committee of MPs on 18 March:

there is no plan to have a wholesale systematic release from our immigration removal centres.

An urgent legal challenge by the charity Detention Action aimed at securing the release of all immigration detainees was rejected by the High Court on 25 March. But the charity says that the Home Office has made various commitments to safeguard the wellbeing of detainees:


the Home Office has made various commitments to safeguard the wellbeing of detainees:


  • Enhanced screening, identification and monitoring of those at risk or showing symptoms of Covid-19, particularly for this with underlying health conditions.

  • Ensuring that persons at increased risk from Covid-19, and persons who are symptomatic, are provided with facilities to self-isolate in single-occupancy rooms and are provided with individualised care plans

  • A review of cleaning practices within detention centres to ensure compliance with Public Health England guidance

  • Provision of anti-bacterial cleaning materials to detainees, upon request

  • The introduction of social spacing measures in communal areas

  • The production of specific guidance to explain in clear terms how to reduce the risk of an outbreak of Covid-19


The Home Office says that “the vast majority of detainees still in immigration removal centres are foreign national offenders”.


With many countries closing their borders and flights unavailable, immigration judges may be receptive to the argument that removal is no longer imminent and grant bail accordingly.


As of 26 March, visits to immigration removal centres were no longer possible.


Bail reporting suspended


The Home Office website now says:

Following Public Health England’s advice on coronavirus (COVID-19), the Home Office has decided that reporting as a condition of immigration bail should be temporarily deferred while it reviews how frequently people should report. You will receive an SMS text message soon with details of your next reporting date.

This follows widespread reports of those on bail receiving texts about the suspension of reporting requirements. Those can now be taken as officially confirmed.


Voluntary removals


The Voluntary Returns Service Communications and Engagement Team circulated an update on its operations on 20 March:

…we are currently experiencing difficulties that mean that we cannot currently support assisted returns for people who require a level of assistance upon return from the United Kingdom. We are experiencing infrastructure and other issues that make it difficult to impossible to offer that level of support at this time. We have therefore made a very difficult decision to cease offering assisted returns at this time. We will continue to register an interest from people who wish to return, and to offer other levels of support to help as many people as we possibly can. Where we can arrange flights, get travel documents etc we will continue to do this, and we are very happy to talk to people to see what help we can offer on an individual basis.

The widespread cancellation of flights has obvious ramifications for enforced returns as well, but at time of writing we have no information about whether there will be any general suspension of removals


Hostile environment


Right to work checks (NEW 31 March)


As the labour market collapses under the weight of pandemic restrictions, the Home Office emphasises that employers must still carry out checks on the immigration status of employees to see if they have the legal right to work in the UK.


But those checks can now be carried out remotely. Guidance published on 30 March says that employees can submit a copy of their passport or ID rather than the original, and verify it by showing the employer the original on a video call.


An accompanying press release says that the changes are “effective immediately”.


The process for conducting a right to work check during the pandemic is as follows:


  • Ask the worker to submit a scanned copy or a photo of their original documents via email or using a mobile app

  • Arrange a video call with the worker – ask them to hold up the original documents to the camera and check them against the digital copy of the documents

  • Record the date you made the check and mark it as “adjusted check undertaken on [insert date] due to COVID-19”

  • If the worker has a current Biometric Residence Permit or Biometric Residence Card or status under the EU Settlement Scheme you can use the online right to work checking service while doing a video call – the applicant must give you permission to view their details.


If the above is not possible, use the Home Office Employer Checking Service.


When the emergency is over, employers will have to re-check people hired under the temporary procedure.


Right to rent checks (NEW 31 March)


Much the same procedure applies for landlords checking the immigration status of new tenants:


Ask the tenant to submit a scanned copy or a photo of their original documents via email or using a mobile app.

Arrange a video call with the tenant – ask them to hold up the original documents to the camera and check them against the digital copy of the documents.

Record the date you made the check and mark it as “an adjusted check has been undertaken on [insert date] due to COVID-19”.


Chai Patel of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants says that “this will probably increase further the racial discrimination faced by ethnic minority Brits and migrants under right to rent. Landlords are iffy enough about non-British passports in person, likely to be even more cautious on Skype”. The Home Office says that employers should “take extra care to ensure no-one is discriminated against”.


No charge for NHS coronavirus testing


Regulations have been passed adding “Wuhan novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)” to the list of diseases for which no charge is to be made for NHS treatment, regardless of the patient’s immigration status. This change will have most significance for short term visitors and for migrants without lawful status, who normally have to pay for NHS care. Those lawfully resident are already entitled to use the NHS.


There are separate regulations for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, since healthcare is a devolved matter.


Government guidance makes clear that a coronavirus test that comes back negative is still free under this exemption:

This exemption from charge will apply to the diagnosis of the condition, even if the outcome is a negative result. It will also apply to any treatment provided for a suspected specified condition, up to the point that it is negatively diagnosed.

This guidance covers the NHS in England, but it would be surprising if the position in the other jurisdictions were any different. 


EU Settlement Scheme


The telephone helpline for EU settled status enquiries is closed, but emails to the Settlement Resolution Centre are still being answered.


Documents are no longer being accepted by post, and the Home Office is advising that there will be delays in decision-making.


Citizenship ceremonies (UPDATED 31 March)


Local authorities are, perhaps unsurprisingly, calling off citizenship ceremonies. See for example announcements by Kingston Council and Westminster Council. The Home Office has also stopped issuing naturalisation and registration certificates, at least according to Hackney Council.


As of 31 March, the Home Office website says that would-be citizens now have six months to book their citizenship ceremony instead of the usual three. It adds that “any delays caused by COVID-19 will not affect decisions around your application”.


The process of becoming a British citizen is not legally complete until the person has attended a citizenship ceremony: section 42 of the British Nationality Act 1981.


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