Individuals who are applying for a UK visa, and those who already hold one, are naturally concerned about various issues arising from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Here, we consider the guidance issued by the government to date on visa applications, appointments and other aspects of the UK’s immigration and nationality system.
The information on our website is for general guidance only. Please refer to material produced by the government for further detail.
Guidance from the Home Office to date
The Home Office initially released information about its response to the pandemic on 17 February 2020, updated on 27 February. This can be found here.
On 24 March 2020 the Home Office released further guidance.
On 25 March 2020 two factsheets were published (these are dated 24 March):
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) factsheet: visa holders and short-term residents in the UK; and
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) factsheet: visa customers outside of the UK.
On 26 March 2020 the Home Office sent out this email containing further information regarding those who are sponsored.
We have also had discussions with senior Home Office officials and some of the information provided is included in our guidance below.
Compliance with UK immigration law
The Home Office’s current position is that individuals should, where possible, try and comply with the UK’s immigration laws. However, we have been told that anyone who cannot comply due to the pandemic, but is taking a reasonable and pragmatic approach, will not be penalised.
This position is supported by answers provided by Kevin Foster MP, Minster for Future Borders and Immigration, in parliament on Monday 23 March 2020:
“We are very clear that no one will have a negative outcome through the immigration system due to a circumstance that was beyond their control…We are looking at further measures…to ensure that no one is penalised because they followed the advice and did what they could to protect our NHS and save lives.”
Our current guidance for applicants
Short-term stays in the UK
The information released in March confirms that non-EEA nationals who are in the UK and who have overstayed, or will do so, because they cannot leave due to coronavirus will be able to ask the Home Office to extend their leave to remain until 31 May 2020. Anyone whose leave to remain has expired, or expires, between 24 January 2020 and 30 May 2020 and who has been unable to leave the UK ‘because of travel restrictions or self-isolation’ related to coronavirus may be able to benefit from the new policy.
However, leave will not be granted automatically. The first step is that those seeking to benefit from the scheme must contact the Coronavirus Immigration Team (the contact details are provided in the guidance).
They must provide:
- their full name (including any middle names)
- their date of birth (dd/mm/yyyy)
- their nationality
- their previous visa reference number
- an explanation as to why they cannot return to their home country.
The guidance says they will be informed when their request has been received and when further leave to remain has been granted. The factsheet says that the Home Office will update their details and the individual ‘will be advised that UKVI have noted their details; they will not be subject to enforcement action; and this period will not be held against them in future applications.’
It says that ‘All nationals who need evidence of their extension should contact the Coronavirus Immigration Team.’
We are of the view that applying under the scheme may be appropriate for anyone who:
- had leave to remain as a visitor which expired after 24 January 2020;
- who wanted to leave the UK but has been unable to do so due to the coronavirus outbreak; and
- who will leave as soon as they can.
Whether or not applying under this scheme is the best option for anyone else will depend on their specific circumstances.
It may prove useful, for example, for anyone whose leave to remain is due to expire before 30 May 2020 and who had wanted to leave but is unable to do so. We would expect the Home Office to extend their stay on the same conditions for a further short period, and for this to continue until they can leave the UK.
However, the Home Office is still working on the specific details of the scheme. The legislative basis underpinning it is currently unclear. We would therefore advise anyone considering making an application under the scheme to take legal advice to assess if another option may be better for them.
We are members of ILPA which is seeking clarity from the Home Office on a number of points that are unclear, such as:
- the type of leave that is granted under the policy;
- the conditions of stay;
- the circumstances when requests may be denied;
- the route for redress.
The guidance and factsheets also refer to those intending to apply for a longer visa.
Anyone who would ordinarily have had to leave the UK to file an application overseas because they are in a route which does not permit switching can submit their application from inside the UK. This exception is currently in force until 30 May 2020. It would apply, for example, to the situation where the individual has visited their settled partner in the UK but has then been unable to leave to make a spouse visa application from abroad.
The factsheet states that the applicant must apply online and ‘meet the same visa requirements and pay the UK application fee’ and that the ‘terms of their leave will remain the same until their application is decided’.
This raises an immediate question regarding what happens if a key requirement, such as taking an English language test, cannot be met because test centres are closed? In such cases, does the applicant submit information under the short-stay route, or make an application under the long-stay route? Again, the Home Office has been asked to provide confirmation.
At the moment, it looks as though this exception may be available only to those whose leave has expired, or is due to expire, between 24 January 2020 and 31 May 2020. We are seeking clarity on this.
UKVCAS centres for applicants in the UK
The UKVCAS service run by Sopra Steria was suspended in full on 27 March 2020.
Anyone who was scheduled to attend an appointment should receive an email from UKVCAS rescheduling the appointment 6 weeks ahead of their current one (this may need to be revised in future depending on the situation at that time). Due to the volume of appointments that will need to be rescheduled, it may take UKVCAS some time to contact people.
Anyone needing to make a new appointment will need to wait until these become available.
If the online immigration application was submitted when the individual had leave to remain in the UK, they 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.
If the application was made after leave to remain had expired, we would recommend that legal advice is obtained. In such cases, the individual will not have the right to work in the UK.
There is some limited information in the government’s factsheet for visa applicants who are abroad.
Whilst many visa application centres overseas remain open, there are also an increasing number of closures. The websites of VFS Global and TLScontact contain further information on specific locations.
VFS Global has also set out a number of FAQs dealing with a range of practical issues.
Excessive absences due to the coronavirus outbreak
The Home Office has not provided any specific guidance at this stage on how it will treat absences that are due to the coronavirus outbreak and that exceed the requirements for ILR and naturalisation applications. It does however already exercise discretion in relation to excessive absences that are due to exceptional, serious or compelling circumstances.
We expect that it will adopt a reasonable approach in cases where an applicant can demonstrate that excessive absences were due to the coronavirus outbreak. However, there is a possibility in our view that the Home Office may look closely at the reasons for the excessive absences. It could, for example, accept scenarios where a person was physically unable to reduce their absences – due to travel restrictions, illness etc. – but not where a person was able to return to the UK but decided not to do so due to concerns about coronavirus.
As such, we would advise that a cautious approach is taken and evidence is retained.
The following are also currently suspended:
- Citizenship ceremonies
- Life in the UK test centres
- Police registrations
Applicants with appointments can expect them to be rescheduled.
Free Movement are keeping this page up to date on a range of topics including asylum intervews, immigration tribunal hearings, detention, removals etc.
Are things likely to change?
This is an evolving situation. We have been told that the Home Office is working urgently on numerous issues relating to the pandemic. However, it may be some time before they can complete this work.
In the meantime, individuals should take reasonable and pragmatic decisions concerning issues that are directly related to the pandemic and we would recommend that the reason for decisions are noted. Evidence supporting decisions should be obtained and kept.
We will be updating our website as and when any further relevant guidance is issued by the government.
How we can assist
If you are looking for general information, please review the guidance provided by the government which we refer to above. The government has also set up a Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre and you can find the details at the bottom of the page here.
If you are seeking legal advice and assistance regarding a specific immigration matter during this time, please complete our enquiry form below and one of our team will be in contact with you.