This briefing was updated on 25 March 2020.
Several countries across the world have now implemented travel restrictions in a bid to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak. Airlines are grounding most of their fleets and cancelling routes, with a growing number of countries now on 'lock-down' globally to combat the virus. These measures will have immigration implications for UK employers and non-EEA employees in the UK, including in relation to visa expiry dates, visa applications, right to work checks for new starters as well as sponsor compliance.
The Home Office UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) have issued some guidance: Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice for UK visa applicants and temporary UK residents which addresses some of these issues.
As the situation continues to develop, we have been working with clients to navigate the immigration issues and concerns, including the following:
- Visa applications from outside the UK: Visa applications are now being impacted by measures to combat the virus such as mandatory quarantines for new arrivals, travel bans and closure or restricted services at some visa application centres. These have had a knock on effect on UK visa applications, with many employers now having to delay work start dates and review relocation as well as shipping arrangements for affected new hires
- Visa expiry dates: For non-EEA employees currently in the UK on visas expiring between 24 January and 30 May 2020, the UKVI have confirmed that these visas will be extended to 31 May 2020 where the individual cannot leave the UK due to travel restrictions. To obtain the extension, affected employees must contact the UKVI Coronavirus Immigration Team (CIT) to provide their details (full name, date of birth, nationality, visa reference number and confirmation of the COVID-19 impact preventing their departure (e.g. border closures) so that their visas can be extended on UKVI records
- Visa applications in the UK: The UKVI will exceptionally permit long term UK visa applications to be submitted in the UK where applicants would normally need to return to their home countries to apply and are prevented from doing so due to travel restrictions. They will need to meet the relevant visa requirements and pay the UK application fee. Such applications can exceptionally be submitted in the UK until 31 May 2020
- Right to work checks for new starters: Employers must normally check original documents in the presence of the individual but this is proving challenging with most offices closed and many employees working from home. In the absence of Home Office guidance, employers are taking a pragmatic approach. It is possible to undertake checks via video link and in some cases documents can be verified online (e.g. biometric residence permits). However, for British and EU employees (who have not been granted status under the EU settlement scheme) unfortunately, original documents would need to be checked to satisfy the statutory defence to employing an illegal worker, leaving employers to decide whether to take a view or delay start dates until checks can be completed
- Sponsor compliance: Employers are required to report changes of circumstances, unauthorised absences and keep records of authorised sickness absence, including sponsored employees who self-isolate. Helpfully, the UKVI have now confirmed that sponsor employers will not be required to report a change of circumstances in relation to sponsored employees now required to work remotely. There are also restrictions on sponsored employees taking unpaid leave and salary reductions which could affect their visa, and should be borne in mind in any cost-saving measures implemented by employer sponsors.
There are still quite a few gaps in the current guidance from the UKVI on these issues which we have highlighted to them and we will continue to monitor developments.
Please do get in touch with your usual contact if you would like to discuss.