Updated 27.03.2020 at 16:10.
Not long ago, we were faced with political uncertainty with the UK’s departure from the EU. Currently, we are facing a different kind of uncertainty with the coronavirus which knows of no borders and has affected so many people across the globe. We are regularly updating our Coronavirus related articles which can all be found here; this immigration article considers recent Home Office guidance.
HOME OFFICE GUIDANCE
17 February 2020 guidance – for individuals and sponsors
The Home Office first published immigration guidance in response to the Covid-19 outbreak in February, which broadly provided that Chinese nationals in the UK with visas expiring between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020 would be given an automatic extension to 31 March 2020. There were also some concessions provided to Tiers 2, 4 and 5 sponsors.
The February guidance was then updated/ replaced with guidance on the evening of 24 March 2020 and the concessions previously provided were not repeated here. The only acknowledgment to the February guidance is the following reference “those whose leave has already been automatically extended to 31 March 2020”. It is only Chinese nationals who received automatic extensions under the February guidance, and therefore there is a possibility that Chinese nationals may still benefit from the automatic extension. However, there is risk in relying on the February guidance and therefore it is highly recommend that Chinese nationals (like all other nationals) contact the Home Office in line with the March guidance as below, as any automatic extension will simply expire on 31 March 2020.
24 March 2020 guidance – for individuals
Under the new guidance, if you’re in the UK and your visa will expire between 24 January 2020 and 31 May 2020, it is possible to contact the Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre of the Home Office (which can be by email to CIH@homeoffice.gov.uk) to request an extension until 31 May 2020 if you cannot leave the UK. It is not an automatic extension, you must provide details such as:
- Full name
- Date of birth
- Previous visa reference number
- Why you can’t go back to your home country e.g. travel restrictions/ self-isolation due to Covid-19, and you will be advised when your visa has been extended
The Home Office will then “reply to your email within 5 working days”. It is not clear whether the request for an extension will preserve someone’s immigration status to stop them becoming an overstayer, as it would usually be the case with a “normal” visa application. Caution should therefore be taken and a request be submitted sooner rather than later.
Alternatively, if you’re in the UK and your visa will expire between 24 January 2020 and 31 May 2020, it is possible to submit a visa application from within the UK (until 31 May 2020) to a longer term visa – even where such an application should normally be made from outside the UK as long as all the other visa requirements are met. This suggests that it may for instance, be possible to apply for a Tier 2 (General) work visa whilst currently here as a visitor.
For individuals wishing to apply for a visa from outside the UK, the Home Office advises that many of their commercial partners have closed or are operating at a reduced capacity. Passports will be returned if the courier route remains opens and you’ve paid for courier return. If you haven’t paid for courier return and your passport remains with the commercial partner, you can contact them directly. There is also advice that English Testing Centres are affected as well.
British nationals might not be able to apply for a British passport from abroad and if not, they can still apply for an emergency travel document instead for travel back to the UK.
27 March 2020 guidance – for sponsors
The previous March guidance did not reiterate concessions previously provided to sponsors found in the February guidance, however we did see Home Office correspondence yesterday (26 March 2020) which confirmed that those concessions still applied.
Today (27 March 2020), the Home Office has confirmed in new guidance (previously provided under the February guidance, subsequently omitted in the 24 March 2020 guidance) that:
- there is no need to report student or employee absences related to coronavirus which they have authorised
- there is no need to withdraw sponsorship if:
- a student will be unable to attend for more than 60 days
- an employee is absent from work without pay for four weeks or more
- no enforcement action will be taken as a result of the above
In addition, distance learning and working from home are not, due to the current Covid-19 outbreak, activities which need to be reported. This is good news for sponsored migrants and sponsoring organisations as it gives everyone some breathing space in these difficult times. Sponsors will still need to observe all other obligations and should seek advice if in doubt. In any event, sponsors may still wish to contact the Home Office in the usual way and/or to contact the Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre for further clarity.
Individuals already in the UK may need to sit a Secure English Language Test or Life in the UK Test in order to meet the visa requirements. However, this is not likely possible given providers are not able to administer these tests given the current pandemic. We understand that guidance will likely be issued in due course to provide a temporary concession stopping the rejection of visa applications (without evidence in either of these tests) which can therefore help protect an individual from becoming an overstayer and without loss of application fees.
Businesses will be well aware that by conducting compliant right to work checks, they can establish a statutory excuse against a civil penalty of up to £20,000. As many people are self-isolating and having to social distance themselves, employers may not be able to carry out “manual” checks but it may still be possible to conduct “online” checks. We expect that further guidance will be published in due course given the current fluid and uncertain times.
If you have any questions about this article or any of our other areas of specialism, please feel free to get in touch. We are here to help – so let’s talk.