This briefing was updated on 17 September 2020.
Measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 globally have included international travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine rules. These measures continue to have immigration implications, including in relation to business travel, visa expiry and visa applications, right to work checks for new starters as well as sponsorship compliance
The Home Office, UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) have issued guidance to cover some of the key immigration issues. The coronavirus (COVID-19): advice for UK visa applicants and temporary UK residents was initially published back in March and has since been updated several times.
As the situation continues to develop, we have been working with clients to navigate the immigration issues and concerns, including the following:
- 14-day mandatory self-isolation: Travellers arriving to the UK are now required to complete a contact locator form to provide their contact and travel information. A 14-day self-isolation period will apply unless arriving from a country on the current 'travel corridors list' designated as being lower risk. These COVID-19 border rules will apply to British and foreign travellers unless covered by one of the limited exemptions. Fines may be imposed for refusal to comply.
- Visa applications from outside the UK: UK visa applicants need to attend in-person appointments to provide their biometric details (digital fingerprints and digital facial photographs) at their local Visa Application Centre (VAC) as part of the application process. VACs around the world initially closed due to local lockdown measures meaning appointments and consequently visa applications could not proceed. The VACs have now mostly reopened where local restrictions allow. For updates check with the UKVI's relevant third party: TLS contact for locations in Europe, Africa and parts of the Middle East or VFS global for all other countries including the USA, Australia and Canada. As a temporary concession, it is possible to apply at another VAC if the applicant's local VAC is currently closed. This concession will be reviewed by 30 November 2020.
- 30-day initial travel visa: UK visa applicants who have been unable to travel to the UK before the expiry date of their 30-day initial travel visas are required to apply for free replacement visas to allow for travel once restrictions are lifted. The replacement visas as well as new visa approvals are being issued valid for 90 days (instead of the usual 30 days). This process is expected to be in place until the end of 2020.
- Visa expiry dates:Individuals in the UK with visas which expired between 24 January and 30 July 2020 but who were not able to leave the UK due to COVID-19 were able to apply to have their visas extended until 31 July 2020 by the UKVI. An extra 'grace period' until 31 August 2020 was also available to allow affected individuals time to make the necessary arrangements to leave the UK. Further, a new 'exceptional assurance' arrangement has been introduced to allow individuals to request additional time to stay, by contacting the coronavirus immigration team (CIT) and submitting relevant supporting evidence. However, the exceptional assurance is not a visa and does not extend immigration permission so may not be suitable in all cases.
- 'Switching' rules: Individuals with short term visas in the UK usually need to leave the UK if they wish to apply for a long term visa. These restrictions have exceptionally been relaxed to allow such individuals to apply from the UK (known as switching) if they meet the relevant visa requirements and they can show that the application is 'urgent'. The exception is being kept under review and it is possible that it could be withdrawn or further amended.
- New IDV app: Due to current social distancing measures and the backlog of applications, in-person biometric appointments for applications submitted in the UK are currently very limited. To address this, the UKVI introduced a new process in August to re-use digital fingerprints for certain applicants where they have provided biometric details with a previous visa application. Eligible applicants will be contacted by the UKVI with instructions on how to provide a digital facial image and submit their supporting documents via a new IDV app which is available on smart phones.
- Right to work checks for new starters: Employers normally need to check original right to work documents in the presence of the new starter but this is proving challenging with many employees still working from home. The Home Office has issued the Coronavirus (COVID-19): right to work checks which contains specific guidance to address this. The guidance confirms that during these exceptional times, checks can be carried out over video call using clear scanned copies with the use of the online right to work checking service where possible (i.e. for individuals with biometric residence permits or EU nationals with settled or pre-settled status). A follow-up retrospective check must then be undertaken within 8 weeks of the COVID-19 measures ending and evidence of both checks must be retained.
- Sponsor compliance: Employers are required to report changes of circumstances and unauthorised absences, and also keep records of authorised sickness absence, including sponsored employees who self-isolate. Helpfully, the UKVI have confirmed that employers will not be required to report a change of job location for sponsored employees working from home at this time. The usual 4-week limit on unpaid absences is also being relaxed for absences due to coronavirus.
- Tier 2 workers and furlough: the Home Office have provided guidance which, exceptionally, allows sponsored employees to have their salaries reduced to 80% or £2,500 per month (whichever is lower). Such reductions must be temporary and must be part of a company-wide policy to avoid redundancies in which all workers are treated the same. Employers will still need to report the reduction, specifying the reasons and the anticipated duration to the UKVI in each case.
We will continue to monitor developments and report on relevant updates from the UKVI on these issues.
Please do get in touch with your usual contact if you would like to discuss.