COVID-19: Immigration Update

Our team: Kelly Whiter, Sophie Spector

Yesterday, 24 March 2020, the Home Office released additional guidance for UK visa applicants and temporary UK residents affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Whilst on first review this was good news for some, there are still many issues which remain unaddressed and queries regarding the implementation of these provisions which will need to be followed up on and with some urgency.

The guidance now applies to all nationalities, a change from the previous guidance, which only applied to Chinese nationals or those resident in China, which is a positive step forward. So what does the guidance provide for? For those in the UK with a visa which has expired or will expire between 24 January 2020 and 31 May 2020, an individual’s leave will be extended to 31 May 2020, if they are unable to leave the UK due to travel restrictions or as a result of self-isolation related to coronavirus (COVID-19)

In order to obtain the extension applicants must contact the Coronavirus Immigration Team and provide the following:

    • full name (include any middle names)
    • date of birth (dd/mm/yyyy)
    • nationality
    • previous visa reference number
    • why you can’t go back to your home country, for example if the border has closed

The team will confirm once the request has been received and the visa extended. This first provision is certainly a welcome one and will no doubt come as a relief to many who would have been concerned about becoming accidental overstayers. However we await confirmation as to whether the government will bring in a new statutory instrument to amend the current rules to allow extensions to be done by way of email or perhaps publish a simple application form for people to complete that would bring it in line with the current rules.

The guidance then goes on to say those wishing to stay in the UK long-term can switch immigration categories in-country, including exceptionally in circumstances where they would normally be required to apply for entry clearance, until 31 May 2020. This provision also applies to those whose leave has already been extended automatically to 31 March 2020. Applications can be submitted online and the terms of leave will remain the same until the application is decided.

However, it is unclear as to how this would work in practice. The guidance requires the applicant to “meet the same visa requirements”. For many application types this would include meeting an English language requirement or obtaining a clean criminal record certificate, which is going to be a challenge, if not impossible at this time, and therefore a potential barrier to application if there is no discretion on visa requirements.

Applications made under this new provision would be treated as discretionary one would presume, unless confirmation is provided to the contrary, and therefore the processing time, as well as potential recourse in the case of refusal, is unclear. Undoubtedly applicants will have to expect lengthy delays in the processing of such applications, not least because there is likely to be a backlog of applications caused by the current situation. It may therefore be a case of proceed with caution and consult an immigration advisor when considering submission of an application on this basis, as there is still much to clarify regarding how this will work in practice.

In addition to the above, there has been some further clarification for Tier 4 students and Tier 2 workers which will apply until 31 May 2020 as follows:

    • It will not be a breach of sponsor duties for a Tier 4 sponsor to offer distance learning to existing Tier 4 students in the UK or those who have returned overseas but wish to continue with their studies.
    • Sponsorship does not need to be withdrawn in these circumstances. If the student however has withdrawn from the course or formally deferred, the usual reporting requirements will still apply.
    • Students who have been recently granted Tier 4 visas but who have been unable to travel to the UK can undertake distance learning without the need to withdraw sponsorship.
    • Tier 2 & 5 sponsors do not need to report a change of circumstances if their migrant workers are now working from home as a direct result of Covid-19.

In summary, whilst the above are welcome clarifications and provisions in a time of great uncertainty, still many questions and issues remain. Among them, guidance is required addressing the position for those currently outside of the UK who are unable to travel to the UK due to travel restrictions and:

    • Hold (or are waiting to receive) 30 day vignettes, which are expiring; or
    • Have expiring or expired visas and are unable or were unable to travel to the UK prior to expiry; or
    • Will fail to meet the residence requirements for settlement due to excess absences related to Coronavirus (COVID-19).

We are continuing to monitor developments and will post further updates as we have them. If you have any queries in relation to the above or would like to discuss any other immigration queries you might have, please do contact our immigration team on the contact details below.

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