COVID-19 makes it difficult, if not impossible to operate a normal immigration system. Travel restrictions make entering or leaving the UK a complex process, implementing ordinary work or income requirements for visas can undermine public health messages, and to make matters worse, the Home Office itself has been heavily impacted by the government-imposed lockdown, as their staffing levels have suffered and their workload is constantly changing. It is therefore not surprising that numerous changes aimed at ensuring that the UK’s immigration and visa systems continues to function properly have been announced in the past few months. Last week, a cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on the Home Office response to the impact of COVID-19 on the immigration and visa systems.
In the report, the Committee welcomes the government decision to scrap the immigration health surcharge for all NHS and social care workers, calling it “a recognition of the contribution made by the front-line workers fighting COVID-19.” However, it is said not to go far enough. Committee Chair Yvette Cooper MP said: “It is very welcome that the Government has agreed to waive the Immigration Health Surcharge and extend the bereavement scheme for NHS and social care workers. However, most care workers and low-paid NHS support staff are still excluded from receiving the free one-year visa extension granted to clinical staff, and as a result could be facing costs of hundreds or thousands of pounds this summer.
The Committee therefore recommends to open free visa extensions to the same range of employees as they have done for the immigration health surcharge waiver. It also recommends simplifying (and lowering the price tag) of paths to British citizenship and permanent residency to those health and social care workers who risked their lives during the pandemic.
“Excluding the care workers who hold dying residents' hands, the cleaners who scrub the door handles and floors of the COVID-19 wards, or the porters who take patients to intensive care is just wrong. The Government must ensure that all measures of support for NHS and care workers apply to all frontline staff equally, irrespective of grade or job title.”
The Committee also evaluated visa extensions for non-NHS staff. When announcing the Home Office policy change which allowed all visas due to expire before 31 July 2020 to be extended, the Home Secretary said that “nobody will be punished for circumstances outside of their control”. To make good on that promise, the Committee recommends that the Home Office implement automatic, blanket visa extensions instead of making individuals apply for them via email, to ensure that individuals do not overstay their visa unintentionally.
Highlighting a concern which lawyers and immigration experts flagged up immediately after the visa extensions were made public, the report reiterates there is currently no legal basis for any of these extensions. Individuals relying on government policy announcements (which can be changed at any given time and lack legal foundation) need legal reassurance that their extension is lawful and valid and that they can continue to live and work in the UK. The Committee therefore recommends that the Home Office implements a statutory instrument (a form of secondary legislation) to clarify the legal basis of both the extension of leave for all individuals who are unable to leave the country before the expiry of their current visa, and for the automatic extension of leave offered to NHS staff.
Analysing the financial impact of the coronavirus on the visa system as a whole, the report acknowledges the disruption and economic impact of COVID-19, recognising that many individuals have lost their jobs or seen their income significantly reduced through no fault of their own. It is within this context that the Committee recommends adapting visa requirements such as the Minimum Income requirement to take loss of income due to COVID-19 into account when evaluating applications. In order to ensure public health and safety for all, the Government is also urged to lift the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) conditions, which caused turmoil a few weeks ago when it seemed like the PM was not aware of the policy’s existence. The Committee Chair said the government “needs to make sure that these exceptional Covid-19 circumstances aren't pushing families into desperate hardship because of the NRPF rules which prevent them getting the urgent support they need.”
Last but not least, the Home Affairs Committee evaluated the impact of the coronavirus on the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), calling upon the Home Office to step up their efforts to identify vulnerable persons who may not have applied to the EUSS yet.
The report shows that COVID-19 has exacerbated the underlying problems of the EUSS. One of those problems is the lack of information on how the Home Office will approach late applications (applications made after the deadline of 30 June 2021.) The Home Affairs Committee recommendations include a clarification of what support will be provided to assist vulnerable individuals in applying, especially for children in care, given that there is a low application rate for that particular group of people. At the minimum, it is said local authorities should increase their work to identify EU children in care who have not yet applied to the scheme, but ideally, more comprehensive measures should be implemented. The Committee therefore recommends that the Home Office grant automatic Settled Status to all children in care and care leavers, without requiring them to explicitly apply.
The Committee also calls on the Home Office to clarify the legal position of those with pre-settled status. During the pandemic, people with pre-settled status have questioned whether they are able to access all public funds, specifically whether they can get benefits, or whether those rights are reserved for people with indefinite leave to remain only.
To sum up, just like many experts in the area, the Committee is willing to cut the Home Office some slack in these unprecedented times. It is appreciated that going through the normal routes to introduce new policies is made complicated by circumstances outside of the government’s control. However, it is in times like these that guidance needs to be clear, unambiguous, and publicly available so that practitioners know the law, visa holders feel secure, and the Home Office act legally to address the issues we face.
Whilst waiting to find out if their asylum claim is accepted, asylum seekers are often stuck in the country where they lodged their claim for months. In the UK, they are not allowed to work during this time, yet they have to provide for themselves. To help alleviate their financial burden, the government provides them with “Asylum Support” which includes housing and a small cash allowance for essential products such as clothing, food, and toiletries.
The government guidance on eligibility and access to this support is clear. To qualify for accommodation, an asylum seeker will have to prove that they have nowhere else to stay. For the cash allowance, they will have to prove that they do not have the means to survive. Applicants should fill in form ASF1, which asks about their financial situation and that of their relatives, await a decision, and then receive the support they qualify for.
In practice, however, the decision-making process is slow, leaving applicants in limbo for weeks if not months before getting the support they need. Housing is scarce, and there is often a waiting list for accommodation. The cash allowance is minimal: asylum seekers are expected to make do with just over £5 a day. To make matters worse, they are often forced to spend a significant part of that sum on public transport, as they have to report once a week to the immigration authorities whilst awaiting the outcome of their application. This makes it very hard for asylum seekers and their families to make ends meet.
A number of charities have challenged this allowance in the past, arguing that it is unrealistic to expect anyone to survive on that little money. They argue that asylum support should be more in line with Universal Credit rates, which are more than twice as high as the Asylum Support allowance.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, these charities’ voices were amplified. As prices are rising in general, and all citizens are expected to invest in basic hygiene products such as hand sanitiser, masks and pain killers to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, the economic hardship imposed on asylum seekers has spiralled out of control. That is why on June 8th, the Immigration Minister Chris Philp announced that from June 15th, the stipend or Asylum Support rates would increase - from £37.75 to £39.60 per week, to be precise. Effectively, that amounts to an increase of 26p a day. If that does not sound very ambitious, that’s because it isn’t. If before the pandemic, asylum support rates were already significantly lower than mainstream benefits, the gap has now widened beyond belief, as they are now barely equal to 40% of the allowance people over 25 receive on Universal Credit.
With the prospects of inflation and an economic crisis on the horizon, over 250 organisations, faith groups and community leaders wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel to ask her to urgently reconsider her decision. They called the proposed changes to the Asylum Support Rates “an insult, not an increase”, and instead requested an increase in line with the recent changes to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit, which were increased by approximately £20 per week as part of the coronavirus relief measures. As of yet, there has been no response from the Home Office.
When lockdown measures were introduced in March, the Prime Minister stated that the UK “will look after all the most vulnerable in society” including asylum seekers. On 23 May, he stated that, “we will make sure that nobody in this country, let alone asylum seekers, is ill-treated.”. Ensuring that people seeking safety in the UK are able to meet their essential needs and stay safe, and making up to those promises, however, will take more than a 26p increase in funds.
On 14 May 2020 (1), amendments to the Home Office Nationality Policy Naturalisation guidance was indeed re-published. The Nationality Policy Naturalisation guidance is issued to Home Office caseworkers processing naturalisation applications to help them determine if an applicant meets the legal criteria to be naturalised. The guidance is publicly available so that those applying for naturalisation (and those assisting them to apply), can understand how the various criteria will be assessed and what evidence is required with the application to demonstrate the conditions are met.
In spite of what has been implied in certain media reports, the updated guidance does not constitute a change in the legal position for EEA citizens. Rather, it amended the sections relating to “Breaches of immigration law in the qualifying period”(2) and “People who are lawfully resident in the UK”(3) to include references to EEA citizens and their family members(4) who are relying on their grant of settled status (Indefinite Leave to Remain) under the EU settlement scheme (EUSS), to demonstrate that they are settled in the UK(5).
Nationality law requires a person naturalising to have a five-year or three-year lawful qualifying period, working back from the date they apply for naturalisation. The three-year lawful qualifying period is for those who are married to or are in a civil partnership with a British citizen. The five-year lawful qualifying period is for all other applicants. Before the EUSS existed, this lawful qualifying period criteria would normally be satisfied by an EEA citizen by acquiring EU/EEA permanent residency in the UK(6). The EEA citizen could then apply for naturalisation either 12 months after the acquisition of permanent residence or, immediately on obtaining permanent residence if they are married to or in a civil partnership with a British citizen.
The EUSS has changed the situation described above for some EEA citizens who wish to naturalise. This is because rather than applying for EU/EEA permanent residence documents, most EEA citizens with a 5-year residence in the UK now apply directly into the EUSS for settled status(7). However, because the EUSS application does not assess whether the applying EEA citizen was exercising their treaty rights in the UK, being granted settled status is not confirmation that the citizen was resident in the UK lawfully during the qualifying five years relied on.
The grant of settled status only confirms that the EEA citizen has been physically resident in the UK for five years at the point they applied to the EUSS. That is not to say that a citizen granted settled status has not been in the UK lawfully during their five-year qualifying period, only that the EUSS is not designed to assess this particular legal point. In other words, being granted settled status is not reliant on lawful UK residence. As a consequence, when an EEA citizen applies for naturalisation relying on their settled status to demonstrate that they are settled in the UK, the Home Office caseworker cannot tell whether they were lawfully residence in the UK for the period before they were granted EUSS status. Therefore, part of the naturalisation process has to include an assessment as to whether the EEA citizen was lawfully resident (rather than just resident), in the UK for the three or five-year qualifying period that applies to them.
When assessing lawful residence, any period after the citizen was granted settled status (or granted pre-settled status which was then converted into settled status), will be considered lawful because it is leave to remain granted under the 1971 Immigration Act. However, because the EUSS has only been in existence since August 2018 (and open to the whole EEA population since March 2019), any EEA citizen applying for naturalisation at the present time will have to rely on a period of lawful residence that pre-dates their grant of EUSS status. Therefore, what the Home Office caseworker must do according to the new guidance, is assess the period of lawful qualifying residence that pre-dates the grant of EUSS status, through the prism of the exercise of treaty rights. This will be the only way to tell whether the EEA citizen was in the UK lawfully for that period.
Carrying out the assessment in this way means that some EEA citizens who hold settled status will not be able to naturalise as British citizens if their pre-EUSS status was not in accordance with the Free Movement Directive/exercising treaty rights (for example an economically self-sufficient person who did not hold comprehensive sickness insurance). A citizen in this situation will need to wait for either five years or three years from the date that they were first granted EUSS status, in order to meet the lawful qualifying period to naturalise. This is what, as we previously reported, complicates the naturalisation process for EEA nationals.
The guidance does contain a discretion for the caseworker to overlook certain breaches of lawful residence which, which includes a situation where an EEA citizen did not hold comprehensive sickness insurance for example. The wording of the discretion says that the requirement to be lawfully resident will be disapplied where:
"the breach was because the applicant did not meet an additional/implicit condition of stay, rather than illegal entry or overstaying, such as an EEA or Swiss national not having CSI and can provide sufficient evidence to justify discretion being exercised in their favour”(8)
There is no information in the wording of the discretion as to what evidence, or situation will constitute one that justifies discretion being exercised in the applicant’s favour. Therefore, an EEA citizen wishing to naturalise but who may fall foul of the requirement to hold comprehensive sickness insurance, will not know whether or not their application would be successful based on the information provided as to how the discretion should operate. They risk the £1350 naturalisation application fee without any guarantee of a successful outcome(9).
From a practitioner’s perspective, it would be advisable that any applicant in a situation where there is a risk of being refused for not holding comprehensive sickness insurance not to apply for naturalisation (unless they were prepared for the outcome to be unsuccessful). The reason for this stance is that irrespective of the existence of the discretion to overlook the lack of comprehensive sickness insurance, the discretion is so ill-defined as to be meaningless to base legal advice on.
As set out above, there has not been any change to the legal requirements to become a naturalised British citizen, as all applicants for naturalisation irrespective of their nationality must have a five or three-year lawful qualifying period to rely on. However, some of the reporting around this new guidance, including our own, indicates or implies that the Home Office has made it more difficult for EEA citizens wishing to apply for naturalisation. Carrying out these checks in relation to lawful residence by making citizens demonstrate they were exercising treaty rights undoubtably creates an increased evidential burden on EEA citizens apply for naturalisation, particularly for those who have not applied for an EU/EEA permanent residence document in the past. However, the Home Office was always able to request this evidence even before the explicit guidance was published, as the guidance does not create a new legal requirement to be lawfully resident. Instead, it clarifies the way in which case workers should assess lawful residence for EEA citizens applying with settled status. Given that the EUSS opened initially in August 2018 and then to all EEA citizens in March 2019, it is evident that this guidance document could and should have been provided at a much earlier stage. This way EEA citizens would have had clarity on exactly what they are required to evidence when applying to naturalise. The delay in clarifying this need for EEA citizens to evidence that they were lawfully resident in the UK for the period before their EUSS status grant will increase the perception that there has been a change in the law or approach of the Home Office, and that it was only implemented to make life more difficult for EEA citizens wishing to become British after obtaining settled status.
(1) See Home Office document Nationality policy: Naturalisation as a British citizen by discretion Version 5.0
(2) Note that this is different the condition in the Good Character Requirement that requires in the 10 years pre-dating the naturalisation application, the applicant has complied with immigration requirements. The guidance states “Breach of the immigration laws’ for the purpose of the residence requirements refers only to unlawful residence. It does not include contravening immigration law in any other way, but this is considered as part of the good character requirement.” [page 25]
(3) See pages 25 - 31
(4) References to EEA citizen should be read to cover their non-EEA family members
(5) Being a settled resident is a condition which citizens of all nationalities must meet to naturalise and means there must be no time limit on the amount of time they can reside in the UK.
(6) Generally permanent residence is acquired after a five continuous period in the UK where the EEA citizen has been exercising “treaty rights” under the Free Movement Directive or the EU treaties.
(7) Those who qualify for pre-settled status (Limited Leave to Remain) cannot apply for naturalisation as they are not considered settled in the UK, one of the conditions to naturalise.
(8) See Guidance document page 28
(9) £80 would be refunded out of the total fee in the event of an unsuccessful application
On 28 May 2020, China’s legislature approved controversial national security laws to be implemented in Hong Kong. With these new laws, Beijing is trying to discourage and stop the protests against the mainland’s tightening grip on Hong Kong which have been taking place for over a year now.
The new laws have been criticised internationally as anti-democratic. Critics fear that the laws will undermine the city’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework which was created when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Under this system, Hong Kong was returned to the mainland on a number of conditions, including a certain level of autonomy in the region as well as the maintenance of certain defined freedoms that do not exist in mainland China, such as the freedom of expression.
In the ten years leading up to the handover, people from Hong Kong were entitled to apply to register for British National Overseas (BNO) status. Many did, either to retain a connection to the UK, or simply because this was their only way to obtain a passport at that time. For Hong Kong residents, the final deadline to apply for BOC was 1 July 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back to China.
Where a Hong Kong British Dependant Territory Citizen (BDTC), which is what Hong Kong residents were called under British rule, was left stateless due to the handover because they lost their BDTC status and China did not recognise them as Chinese nationals, they automatically received British Overseas Citizenship (BOC) by operation of law, even if they failed to register by the deadline. This means that although there may be relatively few people who actually hold a BNO passport, many more of them received a BOC or BNO status automatically. As such, as of February 2020, there are only about 350,000 holders of BN(O) passports in Hong Kong, but Home Office estimates of the amount of BNOs actually living in Hong Kong lie closer to 3 million. All of them would be eligible for a BNO passport should they request one.
Neither BOC or BNO status include the right of abode, meaning that holders do not have any automatic right to live and work in the UK. BNO and BOC citizens are not considered British citizens; they must comply with all immigration rules the same way that third-party nationals do. The status does not provide the holders with a “home country,” only to legal and consular protection. In light of the new national security laws passed by Beijing, however, the Home Office announced that the government was going to “explore options to allow BN(O)s to apply for leave to stay in the UK, if eligible, for an extendable period of 12 months.” Foreign secretary Dominic Raab explained that the government plans on granting everyone with BNO or BOC status in Hong Kong 12-month extendable periods of leave, providing a clear “path to citizenship” not only for the 350,000 current BNO passport holders in Hong Kong, but including the more than 2.9 million residents eligible to apply for the passport.
The Prime Minister called the opening of this path to citizenship one of the “biggest changes” to the British visa system, as nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens could be eligible to move to the UK as a consequence of it. He stood by the US, Canada and Australia joint statement that Hong Kong , which “flourished as a bastion of freedom," now needs and deserves protection against an increasingly encroaching Chinese state.
The Prime Minister’s proposal, however, needs to be put into a wider context. Clearly, the government is not solely concerned for the people of Hong Kong. There are other motives for this seemingly radical move. One of them is – unsurprisingly so – financial. If BNO’s apply for a 12-month extendable period of leave, and are then required to extend their status year after year until they reach the usual 10-year threshold of long residency before being able to apply for British citizenship, the cost of those successive applications could be as high as £20,389.40 per person. That is an astronomical potential profit for the Home Office.
Additionally, in light of the new points-based immigration system which the Johnson government is planning to implement in January 2021, a cynic might suggest that the proposal to Hong Kong residents is more of a calculated political move than a human rights initiative. Under the points-based system, it will become much harder for EU citizens, of which the Home Office estimates there are currently about 3.7 million living in the UK, to move and work here. As the PM realises the ramifications of closing the borders to EU workers, his offer to Hong Kong residents could help filling the void that Brexit leaves in the British economy and job market. After all, the people of Hong Kong the PM is appealing to, who were born before 1997, are now in their twenties and older – the prime age to move and work abroad, or who are financially secure and will be able to give the economy a much needed boost.
Maybe the rules could be adapted for Hong Kong nationals to lighten the financial burden, or fast-track applications so that the 10-year threshold does not have to be met. The Foreign Secretary and PM have confirmed that the changes are conditional upon China implementing the newly proposed laws. The details of the plan are still being worked out, and no changes to the Immigration Rules or citizenship legislation have been announced yet. The Chinese government, on their end, have firmly opposed the move by the UK, stating that it is a violation of the 1997 handover agreement that stipulates BNO passport holders do not enjoy UK residency. It remains to be seen how much of an impact the PM’s threat will have on China’s expansionist plans, and to what extent the UK government is willing to press on the issue.
After the death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 at the hands of a white police officer, protests against police brutality and institutional racism erupted in the US and around the world. The US now finds itself in a period of political unrest and upheaval not unlike after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. In the UK, George Floyd’s death resonated with many, mobilising thousands in London, Manchester and Cardiff to march in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, a movement dedicated to ending violence and systemic racism towards black people.
Highlighting the racism and unfairness engrained in the American justice system is important, but it is easy to judge what happens abroad without looking inward. The reality is that Britain is not innocent when it comes to institutional racism or police brutality – far from.
When it comes to UK immigration, the dissonance between how white (Western) immigrants and immigrants of colour from the Global East and South are treated is painstakingly stark. The culmination of these double standards was the 2018 Windrush Scandal, which erupted after Theresa May introduced the hostile environment rules in 2012. Under the hostile environment, those who lack documents evidencing their lawful residence become subject to the hostile environment checks. They are no longer allowed to work, rent or even open a bank account in the UK.
Many people of colour who came to the UK in the 50s, 60s and 70s from Commonwealth countries were granted indefinite leave to remain in 1971 but when the hostile environment kicked in, thousands of them were not able to prove their status, and as a consequence, were wrongly told that they were in Britain illegally. Hundreds were detained, and some of them deported, despite living and working in the UK legally for decades.
Although Windrush victims are now able to apply for compensation under the Windrush Scheme, the number of applications has been remarkably low, and internal reviews confirmed that the government’s hostile environment immigration policies still have devastating impacts on the lives and families of black citizens in the UK. With the new Points-Based Immigration system, set to come into force in January 2021, that impact is set to worsen. Requirements like visa fees (UK fees are among the highest in the world), income thresholds (the minimum salary under the PBS is set at £25,600) and health surcharges (recent controversy on the NHS surcharge led the government to scrap it for migrant NHS staff) have been found to predominately affect those from the East or South, as they are less likely to be able to meet financial requirements. The new points-based system thus builds on existing discriminatory structures instead of breaking them down. That is not a coincidence.
Don’t be mistaken - Windrush was a direct result of an immigration system set up to discriminate against some but not others. It was not just a profound institutional failure or mistake of government. It was not a mistake at all, but rather simply the hostile environment rules put into practice. The points-based system is a continuation of that. It is institutional racism at its peak, rearing its ugly head yet again, here in the UK.
When the then Prime Minister Theresa May (yes, you read that right - the same person who introduced the hostile environment in the first place) apologized for the catastrophe of Windrush in April 2018, she insisted it was not her government’s intent to disproportionately affect people from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds in the operation of her hostile environment policy. That statement shows exactly what the government fails, or refuses, to understand, namely that racism is much bigger than discrimination with intent, that it encompasses more than active and direct discrimination. It is about institutional neglect of certain parts of the population, certain neighbourhoods, and certain ethnic minorities, creating and feeding into more hardship for those groups compared to their white British counterparts. The public health crisis that we are currently dealing with is only the latest of an endless string of examples.
People of colour are 2.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts in the UK. For the black Caribbean and African population, that number goes up to three against one. This is partly because BAME communities are more exposed to the virus, as a third of all working age black Africans and black Carribeans work in key worker roles (that is 50% more than white British people), whilst Indian men are 150% more likely to work in health or social care roles than their white British counterparts. It is also because BAME communities are more economically vulnerable to the current crisis than white ethnic groups, and not enough is done to actively help them bridge that gap.
To make matters worse, people of colour are not only more likely to die of the virus once they get it, but they are also 54% more likely to get fined for violating lockdown rules than the white majority British population. More broadly, in our criminal justice system, Metropolitan Police officers are four times more likely to use force against black people compared with the white population.
It is true that the UK is not a nation of gun ownership like the US. It is true that British police officers do not carry weapons. And it is true that these things play a part in limiting violence and abuse of power. But we cannot trick ourselves into believing we are so much better, and that it could not happen here. The US might be a land of extremes, and the UK a country of covertness, but the foundational institutional challenges we face are the same.
Measures taken to fight the COVID-19 pandemic are causing major societal and governmental upheavals not only in the UK, but everywhere around the globe. Individuals who are applying for a UK visa, and those who already hold one, are naturally concerned about various challenges posed by the pandemic. This post is an attempt at giving you an overview of the most significant ways in which the coronavirus affects immigrants in the UK, up to date as of 1 June 2020. Information changes frequently, so make sure to keep an eye on the government website, but also our twitter page and the freemovement website to stay fully up to date.
If you have any additional questions, feel free to contact us here or book an online legal consultation with us here so that we can help you further.
Visitors and short-term stays
The Home Office has stated that “no individual who is in the UK legally and whose visa expired after 24 January 2020, or is due to expire before 31 July 2020, will be regarded as an overstayer or suffer any detriment in the future if they cannot leave the UK because of travel restrictions related to COVID-19
Which measures have been taken to ensure this in practice?
- If you’re in the UK and your leave expires between 24 January 2020 and 31 July 2020, your visa will be extended to 31 July 2020 if you cannot leave the UK because of travel restrictions or self-isolation related to coronavirus (COVID-19). All you have to do is request an extension (which will be granted automatically) by updating your records with the Coronavirus Immigration Team (CIT) and the extension will be granted. You will be expected to return to your home country as soon as it is safe to do so.
- If your visa was previously was previously extended until 31 May 2020, it will automatically be extended further until 31 July. You do not need to do anything further – this additional extension is automatic.
- If you plan on staying in the UK longer-term, and the visa you are currently on expires before 31 July 2020, you can apply to switch to a long-term UK visa that date. This includes applications where you would usually need to apply for a visa from your home country.
You should apply under these temporary concessions if you are currently stuck in the UK and had leave to remain as a visitor, or under any other short-term category of the rules, which expired after 24 January 2020.
Are Visa Application Centres open?
After 10 weeks of lockdown, some UK Visa Application Centres (VACs) are starting to resume services, where local restrictions allow. However, ongoing global restrictions mean some UKVI services will remain closed. Contact your local VAC to find out the latest status:
- TLS contact if you’re in Europe, Africa and parts of the Middle East
- VFS global for all other countries
How do I schedule an appointment at a VAC?
If you had an appointment scheduled before lockdown measures came into force, you should receive an email from UKVCAS rescheduling your appointment. Due to the volume of appointments that will need to be rescheduled, it may take UKVCAS some time to contact you.
Anyone needing to make a new appointment will need to wait until these become available. People with previously scheduled appointments have priority.
What happens if I cannot get an appointment before my leave expires?
If your online immigration application was submitted when you had leave to remain in the UK, you will continue to be lawfully in the UK whilst waiting for a rescheduled or a new appointment. The same conditions of stay will remain in force.
Can I start working if I have not received a decision on my Tier 2 or Tier 5 application due to coronavirus-related delays in application processing?
If you’ve applied for a Tier 2 or 5 working visa and are waiting for a decision on your application, you can start work before your visa application has been decided if:
- you have been assigned a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS)
- you submitted your application before your current visa expired and you show your sponsor evidence of this
- the job you start is the same as the one listed on your CoS
If your application is eventually rejected as invalid or refused your sponsor will stop sponsoring you and you will then have to stop working for them.
What if I am an NHS worker?
Some frontline health workers and their families will get their visas automatically extended because of coronavirus. There are also changes to the conditions of visas for some frontline health workers. These changes will apply to you if you work for the NHS or independent health and care providers as a:
- biological scientist
- dental practitioner
- health professional
- medical practitioner
- medical radiographer
- occupational therapist
- social worker
- speech and language therapist
- therapy professional
Check with your employer if you’re not sure whether you work in an eligible profession.
Can I volunteer or work with the NHS if I do not have a working visa?
There is no longer a limit on the number of hours you can work or volunteer each week if you are a Tier 4 student, Tier 2 worker with an NHS job as a second job, visiting academic researcher, or a holder of a short-term visa which normally holds working/volunteering restrictions
Access to public funds (and the Furlough Scheme)
The “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) rule is imposed on people with limited leave to enter or remain in the UK. It prohibits the person holding limited leave to remain from accessing certain defined public funds, such as Universal Credit or benefits. A person who claims public funds despite such a condition is committing a criminal offence. Such an offence may well carry future immigration effects, as any existing leave can be curtailed, and any future application refused as a consequence. Recently, the High Court has ruled that the government must make it easier for migrants to access the welfare system if they are about to become destitute, declaring part of the no access to public funds unlawful.
What does this mean for the Furlough Scheme? Can I get furloughed if I have limited leave to remain?
The Home Office has confirmed that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme can be used for migrants. They have to meet the same eligibility requirements as other employees.
This is because Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is not defined as ‘public funds’ in the Immigration Rules (Part 6 ‘Interpretation’). Therefore, migrants who are placed on furlough will not be in breach of their conditions of stay. However, it is important that they do not also claim any benefits which are defined as public funds.
New overseas applicants
Most visa application centres overseas are currently closed. The websites of VFS Global and TLScontact contain further information on specific locations.
Can I come to the UK I I obtained my visa before lockdown measures came into force?
Unlike other EU countries, the UK has not closed its borders – although flights and trains are limited – so you can travel to the UK if you already have a visa or you do not need one.
You should be advised that from 8 June 2020, people travelling to the UK (except from Ireland) will need to provide their journey and contact details by filling in an online form before they travel. After arriving in the UK they will need to self-isolate for 14 days. There will be exemptions for diplomats, transport workers and others.
Can I apply for a new visa?
It depends. UK visa application centres in most countries are closed but they are gradually starting to reopen.
You can still submit an online visa application, which is the first step of the visa process. You can also prepare your application so that it is ready to submit as soon as the visa application centres reopen in your area.
What if I am a Tier 4 student and my course is starting before I receive my visa?
You can start your course or studies before your visa application has been decided if:
- your sponsor is a Tier 4 sponsor
- you have been given a confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS)
- you submitted your application before your current visa expired and you show your sponsor evidence of this
- the course you start is the same as the one listed on your CAS
- you have a valid Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) certificate if required
If your application is eventually rejected as invalid or refused you must stop your course or studies.
Before I submit my Home Office application I have to pass an English language test and/or the Life in the UK test but the test centres are closed. What do I do?
Test centres are gradually starting to reopen but it may not be possible to get an appointment before your visa expires.
Even if you cannot get an appointment in time, you should still submit your Home Office application before your visa expires. Do not book your UKVCAS appointment until the English language / Life in the UK test centres have reopened and you have been able to pass the test(s). You may not have met the English language / Life in the UK requirement on the date you applied but if you meet it on the date of your appointment it would be unreasonable for the Home Office to refuse your application in the current circumstances.
Absences from the UK due to COVID-19 and their impact on residency (Indefinite Leave to Remain Applicants, EEA citizens, etc.)
What if you have a long-term UK visa (with a view to get indefinite leave to remain), but you are stuck outside the UK for several months?
If you have a visa which leads to indefinite leave to remain you cannot normally spend more than 180 days outside the UK in any 12-month period during the five-year qualifying period. This rule does not apply to every visa category and the way it works depends on the date when your visa was issued.
The 180-day limit is usually strictly enforced. However, the Home Office considers granting indefinite leave to remain if your absences are over the limit but justified due to serious or compelling reasons. According to the Home Office guidance, serious or compelling reasons will vary but can include serious illness of the applicant or a close relative, a conflict, a natural disaster, for example, volcanic eruption or tsunami.
The Home Office has not confirmed that the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a serious or compelling reason in this context, but it seems logical that it will.
However, note that this is at the Home Office’s discretion and therefore, if you stay abroad for too long, there is no guarantee that the excess absences will be accepted.
What if I have pre-settled status and I need additional years of residence in order to qualify for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme?
For EEA citizens wanting to obtain indefinite leave to remain under the EU Settlement Scheme, the same thing applies as for other applicants wanting to obtain indefinite leave to remain via other routes. Normally, if you want to obtain settled status, you cannot spend more than 180 days outside the UK in any 12-month period during the five-year qualifying period. The Home Office has not confirmed that the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a serious or compelling reason justifying exceptions for this rule in this context, but it seems logical that they will as it will be in accordance with EU law principles.
However, note that this is at the Home Office’s discretion and therefore, if you stay abroad for too long, there is no guarantee that the excess absences will be accepted.