Since the EU Settlement Scheme has fully opened on 30 March 2019, there have already been more than 3.5 million applications from EU, other EEA and Swiss citizens, and their family members. Applying to the scheme is mandatory for all EU citizens and other EEA/Swiss nationals who wish to continue living in the UK lawfully after the transition period. EU citizens have until the 30 June 2021 to apply under the Scheme. If they do not apply on time, they will be unlawful residents in the UK.
Just like every other aspect of life, and every other government service, the EU Settlement Scheme has been heavily affected by the coronavirus-induced lockdown. The (temporary) closures of phone advice lines, local scanning centres, and the inability to send in documents have had a severe impact on the reach and success of the EUSS.
When the UK lockdown measures came into force on 23 March 2020, all face-to-face support services for EUSS applicants were shut down. Visa centres and passport scanning locations closed. The postal route for making applications, which those without biometric passports or access to the mobile scanning application have to use in order to apply, temporarily stopped operating.
Additionally, many national embassies and consulates remain closed except for emergencies. This means that EU nationals who need to request or renew their ID documents in order to apply to the Scheme cannot do so. Even when those consulates reopen, there will be a backlog of applications, putting those who do not have a valid form of ID at an increased risk of missing the EUSS application deadline of 30 June 2021.
EEA nationals currently stranded abroad due to lockdown measures around the globe are also increasingly at risk of falling through the cracks. If an EEA national wants to obtain settled status under the EUSS, they will have to prove five years of continuous residence in the UK. Continuous residency means that they do not have more than six months of absences in any 12-month period. The general rule is that the Home Office allows for one longer absence from the UK for an ‘important reason,’ such as illness, but no pandemic-specific guidance has been given. As travel remains disrupted and discouraged across the globe, EEA nationals looking to apply for settled status in the next five years risk breaking their continuous residency and jeopardizing their future immigration status if the Home Office do not operate a flexible approach to absences. Although, the European Union perspective is that absences as a consequence of the pandemic should be disregarded entirely.
This week, Home Office support services and application routes are slowly but surely starting to reopen. In addition to a range of online, telephone and email support for those who have questions or need help applying, the postal route for making applications has now reopened, meaning that those without biometric passports or access to the scanning app can make their applications and send their ID documents to the Home Office. The ID scanning locations, however, remain closed.
Community groups across the UK have tried to make up for the reduced services, and continue to work with vulnerable EU nationals during the lockdown, but there is no denying that webinars and online assistance are less effective than the real thing. As a consequence, new applications to the EUSS halved in April, bringing them to their lowest since the launch of the Scheme. Yet, the Home Office has confirmed that they do not plan on extending the EUSS deadline, making EU citizens increasingly worried they might lose their ability to secure their right to long-term residence in the UK because of the pandemic.