With COVID-19 seemingly affecting all parts of our personal and working lives, it’s no surprise that immigration law is also being impacted. The obvious effect is that with severe limitations on world travel and numerous countries having closed their borders, the movement of people and labour, even within the EU, has been significantly reduced. As and when we transition through the COVID-19 crisis, how long will it take for immigration and foreign business travel to return to the ‘old normal’? And what of Brexit and the settled status scheme? Current government indications are that the scheduled timescales and application process will continue to apply but at what point will the deadlines have to be pushed back or the application process adjusted?
Putting to one side more strategic matters, there have been some important recent, specific changes to immigration policy in response to COVID-19: first, a relaxation of aspects of RTW checks; and secondly, new Home Office guidance on the points based system including specific provisions for medical workers and students. We explain those below.
We shall continue to monitor the situation closely and provide further updates and/or alerts as needed. If you require any specific advice or support on these or other business immigration issues, please contact the author or any member of the Bevan Brittan immigration law team.
Details correct as at 1 April 2020
Right to work checks
Understandably, many clients are concerned about how they can adhere to their right to work obligations when hiring new staff or auditing existing workers. Fortunately, the Home Office has announced (30 March 2020) that the rules will be temporarily relaxed to reflect the medical guidance around social distancing and remote working. The key changes are:
- Checks can now be carried out via video calls (eg, skype or zoom)
- Job applicants and existing workers can send scanned documents or a photo of documents for checks using email or a mobile app, rather than sending originals
- employers can use the employer checking service if a prospective or existing employee cannot provide any of the accepted documents
New Home Office guidance for licensed sponsors in the light of COVID-19
On 24 March, UKVI published guidance to licensed sponsors and affected individuals as a result of COVID-19 and associated travel restrictions. This was further updated on 31 March in respect of certain clinical care workers. Key points include:
- No individual who is in the UK legally, but whose visa is due to, or has already expired, and who cannot leave because of travel restrictions related to COVID-19, will be regarded as an over stayer or suffer any detriment in the future.
- Visas will be extended to 31 May 2020 if an individual cannot leave the UK because of travel restrictions or self-isolation related to COVID-19. Individuals must contact the Home Office’s Coronavirus Immigration Team to explain their situation.
- In addition, doctors, nurses and paramedics will automatically have their visas extended, free of charge, for one year if their visa is due to expire before 1 October 2020.
- All pre-registered overseas nurses who are currently required to sit their first skills test within 3 months of their visa start date and to pass the test within 8 months, will now have this deadline extended to the end of the year as well. This will give overseas nurses more time to pass their exams, whilst they spend the immediate term working on the frontline.
Switching to a long-term UK visa
- During these unique circumstances individuals will be able to apply from the UK to switch to a long-term UK visa until 31 May. This includes applications where they would usually need to apply for a visa from their home country.
- They will need to meet the requirements of the route they are switching into and pay the UK application fee. Applications can be made online.
- Those whose leave expires between 24 January and 31 May 2020, including those whose leave has already been automatically extended to 31 March 2020, are eligible to apply.
- Some Tier 4 students or Tier 2/5 (general and temporary) employees may be prevented from attending their studies or place of employment due to illness, the need to serve a period of quarantine or the inability to travel due to travel restrictions caused by COVID-19. Sponsors do not need to report student or employee absences related to COVID-19 which they have authorised.
- Sponsors do not need to withdraw sponsorship if they consider there are exceptional circumstances when:
- 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
- Decisions on whether to withdraw a student from their studies or terminate an employment are for sponsors to make. The Home Office recognises the current situation is exceptional and will not take any compliance action against students or employees who are unable to attend their studies/work due to COVID-19 or against sponsors which authorise absences and continue to sponsor students or employees despite absences for this reason.
Tier 4 sponsors (Universities and other relevant educational institutions)
- The Home Office acknowledges that many Tier 4 sponsors have switched to distance learning teaching methods due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Sponsors are not normally permitted to offer distance learning courses to Tier 4 students but due to the current exceptional circumstances, the Home Office will not consider it a breach of sponsor duties to offer distance learning to existing Tier 4 students in the UK or those who have chosen to return overseas but wish to continue their current studies.
- Sponsors do not need to withdraw sponsorship in these circumstances. If a student has permanently withdrawn from, or formally deferred, their studies, the usual reporting requirements apply.
- New international students who have been issued a Tier 4 visa but have been unable to travel to the UK are permitted to undertake distance learning and sponsorship does not need to be withdrawn.
- New international students who have not yet applied for a visa but wish to commence a course by distance learning do not need to travel to the UK to do so and therefore do not require sponsorship under Tier 4.
- Sponsors are not required to notify the Home Office where they have moved to distance learning provision.
- These arrangements apply initially until 31 May, by which date they will be reviewed. Further Home Office guidance for sponsors will be issued.
Tier 2 and 5 sponsors (general skilled and temporary workers)
- Many workers sponsored under the Tiers 2 and 5 immigration routes are now working from home rather than their normal workplace due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tiers 2 and 5 sponsors are normally required to notify such changes of circumstances. However, due to the current exceptional situation, the Home Office has indicated that it will not require sponsors to do so if working from home is directly related to the pandemic. Other changes must still be reported as usual.
UKVI support resource
UKVI has set up a dedicated email account for customers with immigration queries related to COVID-19, including questions about urgent, compelling, compassionate cases. Customers can contact: CIH@homeoffice.gov.uk
For further support and advice relating to the impact of COVID-19, please view our COVID-19 Advisory Service page.