Coronavirus and UK Immigration

Our team: Kelly Whiter

As of 11 March 2020 there have been over 118,000 confirmed Coronavirus (Covid-19) cases and in excess of 4,000 deaths reported globally [1] . 113 countries and territories are affected with the numbers growing daily. The whole of Italy is now on lockdown, President Trump has announced the suspension of all travel from Europe (excluding the UK) into the US with effect from Friday at midnight and, if media reports are to be believed, it will likely not be too long before other countries, possibly even the UK, follow with similar measures.

As travel restrictions tighten globally, many individuals continue to face uncertainty with expiring visas and the inability to return home which is the focus of this article. On 17 February 2020, the Home Office first released guidance confirming provisions made for individuals affected by travel restrictions associated with coronavirus. The guidance currently only focuses on Chinese nationals and those normally resident in China. With the last update to the guidance having been made on 27 February 2020, we can only hope that further updates will be made soon, as the situation has rapidly developed in the last two weeks, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) Risk Assessment on a global level moving from “high” to “very high” and coronavirus now being confirmed as a pandemic.

What the current guidance covers:

  • Chinese nationals in the UK with a visa expiry date between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020, who have been compliant with the conditions of their visa, will automatically have their leave extended to 31 March 2020.
  • Chinese nationals on long term standard visitor visas of 2,5 and 10 years who have reached the maximum stay of 180 days between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020 will automatically have their leave extended to 31 March 2020.
  • Non-Chinese or non-EEA nationals in the UK who are normally resident in China with a visa expiry date between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020 are required to contact the dedicated coronavirus immigration helpline. Provided the individual is able to demonstrate that they are normally resident in China, they will also receive an extension of their visa to 31 March 2020.
  • Chinese nationals with a visa granted by the Irish authorities or a Crown Dependency with an expiry date between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020 should contact the helpline to discuss their particular circumstances.
  • Individuals will remain subject to the same immigration conditions attached to their visa during the extension period.
  • No new visa or Biometric Residence Permit will be issued.
  • If a status letter or new Biometric Residence Permit is required in order to prove a right to work the individual should contact the helpline.
  • Those individuals who are able to extend their visas from within the UK should continue to do so as normal.
  • Chinese nationals in the UK on a Tier 2 Intra Company Transfer visa, expiring between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020, who wish to switch into the Tier 2 General visa category, are permitted to do so without being required to return to China, provided they meet all of the requirements of the visa, except the requirement to apply from China.
  • UK Visa Application Centres in China are currently closed with no information available regarding when they will re-open.
  • Where passports are currently being held by UK Visa Application Centres, if there is an urgent need to travel, individuals are advised to contact the Chinese authorities or their local consulate as appropriate, depending on nationality, to obtain an emergency travel document.
  • When the UK Visa Application Centres re-open in China, the return of passports will be prioritised.
  • For those who are unable to attend work or school/university for reasons including illness, the requirement to self-quarantine or the inability to travel due to travel restrictions resulting from coronavirus, the Home Office has confirmed that sponsors will not be required to report such absences.
  • Sponsors are not required to withdraw sponsorship when a student is unable to attend for more than 60 days or an employee is absent from work without pay for four weeks or more as a result of the coronavirus outbreak and the Home Office will not take compliance action in those circumstances.

What the guidance doesn’t currently cover

There are a number of situations unaccounted for in the guidance for which I find myself with numerous questions; however I have focused on just a few here.

Firstly, the guidance only relates to Chinese nationals or those normally resident in China. It is clear that the situation has significantly deteriorated globally since the guidance was first issued and there are a number of other countries, and therefore other nationalities impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. Whilst different countries are affected to a greater or lesser extent, there is no consideration given to nationals or residents of other affected countries in the guidance.

Further, other than a cursory reference to the fact that UK Visa Application Centres in China are currently closed and that individuals should contact the Chinese authorities or their local Consulate for an emergency travel document if they need to urgently travel, no mention is made with regard to provisions for those who have applied for UK visas.

Two groups immediately come to mind here. The first would be applicants who submitted their application online before the closures, but who have been unable to enrol their biometrics within the required timeframe. What are the provisions for individuals who find themselves in this position? Will the application be held and the time limit for enrolling biometrics extended in light of the current situation? Or will applicants find themselves having to claim refunds of the application fee and then re-submitting a new application once the centres are re-opened? In itself is not as simple as it might sound.

The second is where an individual’s application has been approved and the visa issued but either they have not received their passport back due to the closures or they have but are unable to leave China. With the initial vignette only valid for a period of 30 days, will there be an automatic extension to this, like in the UK scenario? Or will applicants find themselves having to apply for a new vignette?

What next?

With further travel restrictions being imposed as the situation develops, it will be important for individuals and employers to closely monitor the developments and updates to the guidance to see if the current automatic extension until 31 March 2020 will be extended. It is also hoped that, on review, the current provisions will be extended to other nationalities or residents of other countries severely impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, as well as further clarity given regarding the scenarios not covered in the current guidance.

[1] WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Situation Report 51

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