The Home Office published guidance for EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) applicants in or outside the UK who have been affected by restrictions associated with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
The general rules of the Scheme are clear – for an applicant to be eligible for status, for them to be able to remain in the UK after the 31st of December 2020, they will need to confirm and prove a period of continuous residence in the UK. Depending on how long that period of residence is, the applicant will be granted either settled or pre-settled status.
To obtain settled status, or indefinite leave to remain, the applicant has to have been continuously residing in the UK for five years. The five years need not be ongoing; applicants who are not currently living in the UK may apply based on their historic residency, as long as they have not been outside the UK for a continuous five-year period immediately after the five-year qualifying period of residence on which their application is based.
If a person has been in the UK for less than five years, they will receive pre-settled status, which they will need to maintain until they reach the five-year continuous residence threshold to qualify for settled status. Continuous residency is calculated on a rolling basis, not based on calendar years, meaning that the applicant must be living in the UK for more than six months out of every twelve-month period.
The general rules state that applicants are permitted one period of absence of more than six months (but which does not exceed 12 months) for an important reason such as study or serious illness without losing their pre-settled status. This period of absence must be explained and proven when the applicant submits their settled status application. If an applicant is absent from the UK for longer than six months (but under 12 months), and it is not for an important reason, the absence will break their continuous residence, and they will not be able to apply for settled status.
Until today, it was unclear how the Home Office would deal with absences due to COVID-19 related reasons. The guidance published today confirms that they do not intend to be very flexible, but unfortunately does not clarify not much more than that, as it is not very detailed.
For applicants who were outside of the UK for a few months during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Home Office essentially applies the general exception rule. The guidance confirms that if an applicant was impacted by coronavirus public health restrictions and could not travel as a consequence, this will count as an exceptional circumstance which may justify absences from the UK of over six, but under 12, months. Examples given include if the applicant contracted coronavirus overseas and could not return to the UK because they were ill or in quarantine, or if imposed travel restrictions led to an increased absence from the UK for longer than planned.
In all cases where the applicant was prevented from travelling due to COVID-19 related reasons, they will have to provide a supporting letter explaining and outlining the various details of their time abroad – when they were ill or quarantining, when their flights were cancelled, and any other important dates. No additional detail is given about the standard or expectations of proof. In any case, an applicant is only allowed a single absence exceeding six months (but not exceeding 12 months) for an important reason in their five-year continuous qualifying period, meaning that if an applicant already had an important reason for which they had to leave the UK for more than six months before the pandemic hit, their counter for number of years with continuous residency will have to be reset to include only the latest period of absence.
An example could be a student who arrived in the UK in 2016, studied abroad from September 2017 until June 2018, for which they planned to use the “important reason” exception, and who in the past 12 moths has spent seven months abroad due to a combination of pre-covid trips, and a five-month lockdown which they spent in their home country. This applicant would not be able to claim an “important reason” both for their period abroad in 2018, and for their prolonged absence in 2020. As a consequence, they would have to “reset” their counter to when they returned to the UK after their year abroad, and will only be eligible to apply for settled status in 2023 instead of 2021, as they would have been under normal circumstances.
Another issue addressed in the guidance is that of people who need certain evidence of their identity and nationality to apply to the EUSS, but are unable to obtain it due to circumstances beyond their control specifically related to coronavirus public health restrictions. Examples given include the closure of embassies or consulates, or the inability to travel to the closest consular services which may mean that it is impossible to obtain the conventional identification documents. In these circumstances, the Home Office may accept alternative pieces of evidence of nationality such as expired passports or ID cards, another official document issued by the authorities of your country of origin or of the UK which confirms your identity and nationality or previous Home Office communication evidencing your nationality. People who apply to the EUSS with alternative means of identification documents must apply on a paper application form, applications which generally take longer to resolve than the electronic ones.
Both for applicants relying on alternative evidence of nationality and for those justifying a prolonged absence from the UK based on COVID-related public health restrictions, the Home Office evaluates claims on a case-by-case basis. There is no provision for leeway or discretion in any circumstance, for example if an applicant is only missing a few days to reach the official six-month threshold, nor is there any detail on how an applicant is meant to prove the reasons for their absence.
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