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Coronavirus and the UK immigration system
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Coronavirus and the UK immigration system

This is where we keep tabs on changes to UK immigration laws, rules and procedures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve been trying to keep this post continually up to date rather than covering new coronavirus developments as separate blog posts that may become rapidly out of date.

Material that has been added or updated from one version of this post to the next is labelled NEW or UPDATED. Use the page contents to jump quickly to a particular section. 

For a while there, we were updating this page every couple of days, but things are starting to settle down and updates are accordingly less frequent. In between updates, you can keep an eye on the now weighty collections of coronavirus guidance from the Home Office and the Judicial Office.

Free Movement members with a specific question not addressed here may wish to check the forum in case it has been asked and answered there. 

Visa extensions and other concessions

General policy (UPDATED 24 November)

Some people who were in the UK when the pandemic hit were unable to leave before the expiry of their visa because of travel restrictions. The government had been allowing people in this situation to easily extend their visas through a simplified online application process, but that concession has now been replaced with “exceptional assurance”, a promise of extra time to stay that falls short of proper leave to remain.

The first version of the coronavirus concession was introduced on 17 February 2020. It unilaterally conferred leave to remain until 31 March to Chinese citizens whose UK visas expired between 24 January and 30 March. It also allowed non-Chinese, non-EEA nationals in the UK who were normally resident in China to get an extension of leave by emailing in to request one.

The concession was updated to cover all nationalities on 24 March. People in the UK on an expiring visa were able to have it extended to 31 May.

Between 24 March and 6 April, the Home Office wanted applications for an extension under this policy to be submitted by email to the Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre (see below). That set-up was then replaced with an online form

On 22 May the Home Office extended the concession to 31 July and later bolted on a “grace period” allowing people to stay until 31 August. As the main coronavirus guidance page summed up the position:

To allow time to make the necessary arrangements to leave the UK, if you have a visa or leave that was due to expire between the 24 January 2020 and 31 August 2020, you’ll be able to stay within the UK to 31 August 2020.

The Home Office also said that it didn’t need to be notified if someone needed to stay on during the grace period.

What about now that the grace period is over? It is still possible to request additional time to stay in individual cases. The Home Office initially called this “exceptional indemnity” but it is now  “exceptional assurance”. Either way, it is a weaker form of concession than outright visa extensions:

If you are granted ‘exceptional assurance’ it will act as a short-term protection against any adverse action or consequences after your leave has expired. If conditions allowed you to work, study or rent accommodation you may continue to do so during the period of your exceptional assurance. Exceptional assurance does not grant you leave.

Exceptional assurance was initially available only to those with a visa expiring up to 31 October, but has now been extended to 30 November as part of the second England-wide lockdown

People requesting exceptional indemnity/assurance need to fill in an online form to explain why they can’t leave by 30 November. If the form isn’t working, the Home Office advises emailing cihassuranceteam@homeoffice.gov.uk with the subject line “Request for an assurance” instead.

The guidance also allows people to apply for further leave to remain in the UK even “where you would usually need to apply for a visa from your home country” — provided that the application is “urgent”.

NHS workers (UPDATED 24 November)

The Home Office announced on 31 March that around 2,800 doctors, nurses and paramedics with leave due to expire by 1 October would get a free one-year extension. Family members are included and there are no fees involved.

On 29 April, the department announced that it was extending the scheme to cover other frontline workers, including midwives, radiographers, social workers and pharmacists” with visas due to expire before 1 October.

The full list of eligible professions is on gov.uk:

  • biochemist
  • biological scientist
  • dental practitioner
  • health professional
  • medical practitioner
  • medical radiographer
  • midwife
  • nurse
  • occupational therapist
  • ophthalmologist
  • paramedic
  • pharmacist
  • physiotherapist
  • podiatrist
  • psychologist
  • social worker
  • speech and language therapist
  • therapy professional

On 20 November came a further extension: the scheme will now cover visas expiring up until 31 March 2021. However, unlike the first phase in which extensions were “automatic”, those with visas expiring between 1 October 2020 and 31 March 2021 will have to apply to have them extended for free. At time of writing, the second phase of the scheme was not yet open but people will be able to claim back visa fees paid in the meantime. More information here.

Family members of NHS workers who die from COVID-19 can get indefinite leave to remain for free. On 20 May, this was extended to cover “NHS support staff and social care workers” as well. This should be automatic, but those affected can contact UKVINHSTeam@homeoffice.gov.uk

Spouses and minimum income

Another group of people under particular pressure during the crisis is families where one partner is on, or about to apply for, a spouse visa. Loss of earnings as a result of the coronavirus-induced economic crash may mean that the family fall foul of the financial requirements.

Until 8 June there was no published concession for people in this situation. There is now a section of the guidance on Changes to the minimum income and adequate maintenance requirement. It says:

If you’ve experienced a loss of income due to coronavirus up to 1 January 2021, we will consider employment income for the period immediately before the loss of income, provided the minimum income requirement was met for at least 6 months immediately before the date the income was lost.

If your salary has reduced because you’re furloughed, we will take account of your income as though you’re earning 100% of your salary.

If you’re self-employed, a loss of annual income due to coronavirus between 1 March 2020 and 1 January 2021 will usually be disregarded, along with the impact on employment income from the same period for future applications.

This concession initially applied only for loss of income up to 31 August, but was extended to 1 January 2021 on 16 October.

There is a bit more information on page 69 of the Appendix FM 1.7: financial requirement guidance.

Students

The Home Office released a separate guidance document about coronavirus and student visas on 20 April. It covers a number of temporary immigration concessions for those on student and short-term student visas which “will be withdrawn once the situation returns to normal”.

The section of the document aimed at individual students covers:

  • Distance learning: now permitted. This is both for existing students and, since a 16 June update, for new students “provided they intend to transition to face-to-face learning as soon as circumstances allow”. Students who do not intend to travel to the UK and will do the course entirely from abroad “do not require sponsorship”.
  • Extending an existing visa: students who need to complete a course delayed by coronavirus can apply in-country for an extension to complete the course. If looking to extend to start a new course, officials will exercise discretion to overlook the normal requirement that the new course should begin no more than 28 days after the student’s permission expires, so long as the new course starts before 31 December 2020.
  • Police registration: students normally required to do this need to check if their particular police force is facilitating it. If not, they can register “once social distancing measures are lifted”.
  • Working hours: students working for the NHS in various listed professions are exempt from the normal 20 hour a week cap.
  • Time limits: “discretion may be applied” if someone applies for an extension that would take them over the normal maximum period allowed for undergraduate or below degree-level study.
  • Graduate route: still “scheduled to be launched in summer 2021″. Students who begin their course through distance learning can still switch into it so long as they ” enter the UK before 6 April 2021 and complete the final semester of their studies in the UK”.

For short-term students, in-country switching onto a full student visa was “allowed on an exceptional basis” until 1 October, provided the person arrived in the UK before 31 July. That has now been dropped from the latest version of the guidance, published on 5 October.

This guidance also makes some concessions for sponsors, discussed below.

On 27 March, the Home Office published a coronavirus guidance page for organisations that sponsor overseas workers or students under Tiers 2, 4 and 5 of the Points Based System. It promises:

We will not take enforcement action against sponsors who continue to sponsor students or employees despite absences due to coronavirus.

Sponsors are not required to report any absences from students or employees sponsored under Tier 2, Tier 5 or Tier 4 (as was) where those absences have been the result of the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak. 

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Sponsors are also not required to withdraw sponsorship for affected students who have been unable to attend for more than 60 days or for employees who have exceeded four weeks of absence without pay.

As mentioned above, students can now do distance learning, although if they quit the course altogether this must be reported as usual.

Similarly, Tier 2 and 5 sponsors do not need to update the Home Office if workers are now working from home provided that the switch to home working is because of the pandemic.

In an update to the guidance on 3 April, the Home Office added that employers temporarily can cut the pay of sponsored employees to 80% of salary or £2,500 a month (whichever is lower). Although it is not spelled out, the implication is that if the salary drops below the minimum, sponsorship will not have to be withdrawn as it usually would be.

There is also a short section on what happens if a sponsor has issued a certificate of sponsorship (CoS) or confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS) and the person sponsored hasn’t used it to apply for a visa yet. It says, in full:

The employee or student will still be able to apply for a visa.

The start date for the course or employment stated on the CoS or CAS may have changed. We will not automatically refuse such cases.

For example, we may accept a CoS or CAS if they have become invalid because the employee or student was unable to travel as a result of coronavirus. We will consider this on a case by case basis.

An important addition on 14 April allows students to start their studies / employees to start working even if they are still waiting for a visa application to be decided. 

These concessions are reiterated in another Home Office guidance document issued on 20 April, Coronavirus (COVID-19): Tier 4 sponsors, migrants and short-term students. That document also adds some new concessions for sponsors of students. It covers:

  • Educational oversight: can be done remotely; “flexible approach to unavoidable delays in inspection”.
  • Student absences: as above, do not need to be reported if due to Covid-19. Records of such absences must however be kept.
  • Distance learning: as above, now permitted even for new students.
  • Attendance monitoring (now called “academic engagement”): no need to report students for missing expected contact points if it’s because of coronavirus or if they are doing distance learning. If the latter, “where possible sponsors should use expected online contact points” but there will be no repercussions if this isn’t technically possible.
  • Basic compliance assessments: students who drop out because of Covid-19 don’t count.
  • Validity of CAS which have already been issued: a CAS issued between 24 January and 31 July is still valid. The Home Office will “take a pragmatic approach to considering applications to study courses with significantly different start dates to those stated on CAS or expired CAS”.
  • Original documents: Appendix D record-keeping can be digital.
  • English language: sponsors can “self-assess students as having a B1 level of English” if a test centre is unavailable, although the latest version of the guidance stresses that many have now reopened and students should take a test as normal where possible.

Start-up and Innovator visas

The guidance for the Start-up route was updated on 12 October to include a coronavirus concession. It says:

Where an migrant [sic] holds leave in the Start-up route and their business has been detrimentally impacted by COVID-19, they are able to apply for a one-time grant of additional leave of 12 months, beyond the normal maximum 2 year period permitted in the Immigration Rules. 

There is also a newish coronavirus section in the guidance for Start-up and Innovator endorsing bodies. Among other things, it advises those handing out endorsements to have “frank discussions” with would-be applicants, who may wish to think about “whether they are likely to be able to start developing their business in the UK under the current situation”.

Biometrics

For a while, the Home Office stopped insisting that applicants provide a fresh set of fingerprints every time they extend their permission to stay in the UK. This concession is now limited to student visa holders.

If previous fingerprints can be reused, student applicants can send in a photo along with supporting documents. Where applicable, “this will mean you do not have to attend a UKVCAS or an SSC service point appointment to provide biometric information”.

On 3 September the Home Office published guidance on this and other changes to biometrics because of the pandemic.

Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre

As mentioned above, the Home Office has set up a coronavirus helpline. Email CIH@homeoffice.gov.uk or call 0800 678 1767 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm).

Travel to the UK

Compulsory quarantine

International travellers arriving in England on or after 8 June 2020 were told to go into quarantine for two weeks:

To limit the spread of infection, arrivals must self-isolate for 14 days.

The quarantine requirement was dropped for people travelling to England from 59 countries and territories from 10 July, but kept in place for everywhere else. The number of exempt countries rose over the summer but has since fallen again; Cyprus and Lithuania were removed from the exempt list on 1 November.

There are separate exemption lists for:

Journeys from within the Common Travel Area were already exempt, as were a number of specific occupations.

In addition to quarantine rules for in-bound travel, there are general restrictions on movement as part of the second England-wide lockdown beginning on 5 November.  These are set out on the government website and in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020 No. 1200).

Expiring entry clearance

Until close to the end of April, the Home Office did not advertise any concessions for people who have secured entry clearance to the UK but can’t use it before it expires after 30 days. But on 28 April the guidance was changed. It now says:

If your 30 day visa to travel to the UK for work, study or to join family has expired, or is about to expire, you can request a replacement visa with revised validity dates free of charge until the end of this year. This does not apply to other types of visas.

This process will be in place until the end of 2020.

Note the disclaimer: this does not cover visit visas.

There are two methods for getting the free replacement visa. The first is to email the coronavirus helpline (see above) with “your name, nationality, date of birth and your GWF reference number” and put REPLACEMENT 30 DAY VISA as the subject line. “Alternatively, you can arrange to return your passport to your VAC if it has re-opened”.

The replacement visa will be valid for 90 days.

Visa centres overseas (UPDATED 24 November)

All UK visa application centres overseas were closed for some time but as of mid-August most had now reopened.

To check whether the visa application centre for a particular country is open, go to the website of either TLScontact (for Europe, Africa and the Middle East) or VFS Global (for the rest of the world) and select that country from the dropdown menu.

If the visa application centre in your country is still closed because of coronavirus, you can instead make an appointment in any other country that you’re allowed into.

You can also apply for a visit visa from any visa application centre in the world (even if the one in your country is open, it appears). This concession is due to end on 31 March 2021. 

Applications from within the UK

All visa application centres within the UK closed in late March but operator Sopra Steria now says that there are 55 back open. The Home Office updated its guidance on 5 November to stress that they are staying that way despite the second wave: “our in-country immigration services (UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services, Service and Support Centres and English Language Test centres) will remain open”.

The latest English lockdown regulations include an exception to the general ban on leaving home for people to “access critical public services, including… asylum and immigration services and interviews”.

There is a full list (pdf) of visa application centres and their operating status on the Sopra Steria website.

Immigration tribunal hearings

Overview

weekly operational update from HM Courts and Tribunals Service advises on the general state of play with the First-tier and Upper Tribunals. The latest version, published after the announcement of a second English lockdown, stresses that:

As an essential public service, the work of the courts and tribunals continues and there are currently no plans to change scheduled hearings.

The Senior President of Tribunals has similarly said, in a joint statement with the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, that “the work of the courts and tribunals will continue to be exempted from these measures”.

Emergency measures to keep the show on the road, including a shift to remote hearings where possible, have been extended to March 2021. More details below.

For appeals that need a face to face hearing, the tribunals have reopened for a limited number of in-person hearings at each location. Those appearing are reportedly being asked to provide the details of who will be coming in advance and declare that nobody has coronavirus.

A YouTube video recorded at Hatton Cross shows off some of the new safety arrangements for in-person hearings:

Arrangements in each hearing centre 

In early July we got in touch with all the hearing centres, who helpfully provided us with an update on their reopening plans as of the first week in July. The idea in most centres was to open a couple of rooms initially and try to ensure that social distancing is maintained in the building and during the hearing itself. 

Birmingham: reopened for face-to-face hearings on 6 July in two hearing rooms only. The satellite venue at Coventry Magistrates’ Court should be back up and running from 22 July. The team also hope to reopen the Nottingham satellite in August but “a definite date has yet to be finalised”.

Bradford: face-to-face hearings resumed on 6 July in a “reduced number of hearing rooms”; we understand that this number is two, plus two more for remote hearings and a fifth for bail hearings. Arrangements are “subject to ongoing review”.

Belfast: commencement of face-to-face hearings is subject to Laganside Court re-opening. The Northern Ireland Courts Service is currently carrying out a review on when this could feasibly happen.

Glasgow: the IAC is moving to the shiny new Glasgow Tribunals Centre on 27 July and expect to begin face-to-face hearings from 10 August, but only in one court per day initially.

Harmondsworth: still staff only; no plans to reopen at present.

Hatton Cross: aiming to resume face-to-face hearings in August. Four rooms will be available initially “with a view to increase should this be successful”.

Manchester: no reply from the tribunal, but our man on the ground says that face-to-face hearings restart on 13 July. Initially only one room will be in use, but the plan is to move to two and then eventually three.

Newcastle (formerly North Shields): starting up again on 9 July. “A reduced number of hearing rooms are available at this time due to social distancing measures and will be subject to ongoing review”.

Newport: three hearing rooms have been made available for face-to-face hearings; “this will be reviewed on an ongoing basis in line with government guidelines in relation to social distancing”.

Taylor House: already back open with face-to-face hearings scheduled throughout July, but only four hearing rooms will be in use (at most). Consultation rooms have been closed and empty hearing rooms used for consultations instead. There is hand sanitiser everywhere and “touch points” such as door handles are being cleaned regularly. All seating is now two metres apart and parties are being asked to arrive at least 30 minutes before the hearing is listed. More details in the Plan for face to face hearings at Taylor House Hearing Centre (Word doc download).

Yarl’s Wood: Arrangements are in place for face-to-face hearings to restart “soon”. Social distancing measures have been put in place in the waiting areas and hearing rooms. “Risk assessments will be conducted regularly and extra cleaning will take place during breaks between hearings”. 

Remote hearings (UPDATED 24 November)

Other appeals are being heard remotely. The Senior President of Tribunals issued an emergency practice direction on 19 March which says:

Where it is reasonably practicable and in accordance with the overriding objective to hear the case remotely (that is in any way that is not face-to-face, but which complies with the definition of ‘hearing’ in the relevant Chamber’s procedure rules), it should be heard remotely.

The practice direction was originally due to expire in September but has since been extended to 18 March 2021. The latest version, taking into account amendments to the original, is here (pdf).

A First-tier Tribunal user guide, last updated on 31 July, goes into more detail on remote hearing arrangements. It says that the plan for August through December 2020 is that “judges will continue to identify cases where a face-to-face hearing is required, and those which can appropriately be conducted remotely”. Appendix 1 to the user guide gives some guidance on how to use technology like BT MeetMe and Cloud Video Platform, as well as the rules for remote hearings (“everyone must treat remote hearings as seriously as if they were in a Tribunal Centre”).

The user guide was first published on 11 June, along with a practice statement (No 2 of 2020) on arrangements during the Covid-19 pandemic, which includes instructions on lodging appeals online. 

There are three annexes to the new practice statement:

  1. Directions on cases lodged using MyHMCTS
  2. Different directions on cases not lodged using MyHMCTS
  3. Directions for appellants with no lawyer

For the Upper Tribunal, the key document Presidential guidance note No 1 of 2020: Arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic. It states that “If a hearing is necessary, the ‘default’ option during the pandemic is, therefore, that the hearing should be conducted remotely“. The document was last updated on 19 November to withdraw sections of the guidance that unlawfully pushed judges towards making decisions on the papers, without a hearing at all.

Asylum

Intake 

Registering an initial asylum claim must still be done in person, but no longer has to be at Lunar House in Croydon. The Home Office announced on 22 April that “the AIU in Croydon will continue to function as normal but will additionally be supported by limited operations in Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool, Leeds, Solihull and Cardiff”.

Asylum seekers in Great Britain can make an appointment to register their asylum claim by calling 0300 123 4193. (In Northern Ireland, they are advised to turn up at Stockman House between 9am and 5pm.) Walking in without first making an appointment is discouraged but possible if the person “has nowhere to live” and needs to get into the asylum system to get accommodation.

The Home Office has published the Preliminary information questionnaire for asylum claims on its website.

However, those making further submissions with a view to have their case considered as a fresh claim have since 18 March been able to lodge them by email (CSUEC@homeoffice.gov.uk) or post instead of turning up in Liverpool in person.

Interviews

Substantive asylum interviews were cancelled from 19 March. They are now resuming remotely in line with Home Office guidance published on 6 August. The document says that “there will be a phased resumption of interviewing which utilises remote interviewing via video conferencing, but we are aiming to resume face to face interviews as soon as we are able to do so”.

In the first phase, asylum applicants will be asked to attend in person but ushered into an interview room where they will talk to the caseworker and interpreter over video link. Legal representatives can come along if the room is “large enough to adhere to social distancing”.  Otherwise, they can join remotely.

The guidance states that

Where it becomes clear… that the claimant is unable to participate fully in the interview process, you must suspend the interview and establish the reason why, seeking advice from a senior case worker or technical specialist as necessary.

A second phase will eventually see face-to-face interviews resume, while the final set of interviews to return to normal will be those involving children. 

Asylum support (UPDATED 24 November)

In June, support payments to destitute asylum seekers increased from £37.75 a week to £39.60 a week. The Home Office has since decided to increase it by a further 3p a week, to the giddy heights of £39.63. Junior Home Office minister Chris Philp says that the Asylum Support Regulations 2000 will be amended to reflect this “in due course”.

In addition, asylum seekers and refugees were temporarily allowed to stay in government accommodation for longer than usual. Philp wrote to the British Red Cross on 27 March:

… I have taken the decision that, for the next three months, we will not be requiring people to leave our accommodation because their asylum claim or appeal has been finally decided (as would normally be the case). This decision will be reviewed ahead of the end of June 2020.

The Home Office has since confirmed that it intends to resume evictions. Philp said on 29 July that “we are resuming cessations in a careful, phased way”. However, a High Court order of 2 November is in place preventing the eviction of people refused asylum for the time being. Those granted asylum may still be asked to move out of their accommodation.

Enforcement

Immigration detention

The top line, as a senior official told the Home Affairs committee of MPs on 18 March, is that:

there is no plan to have a wholesale systematic release from our immigration removal centres.

An urgent legal challenge by the charity Detention Action aimed at securing the release of all immigration detainees was rejected by the High Court on 25 March. The court recorded various Home Office commitments to “reduce the number of persons in immigration detention”. These measures, plus grants of bail, have had the effect of reducing the number of detainees held under immigration powers, from over 1,500 at the start of January to 700 in late April.

The High Court also accepted that “measures are being put in place to address the specific risks arising for those in closed communities such as detention centres”. Details are available in the judgment (released towards the end of April) and in a Detention Action press release

As of 29 June, there had been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the immigration detention estate, according to the Home Office.

Nonetheless, with many countries closing their borders and flights widely unavailable, judges have been looking favourably on individual bail applications. The Home Office has even tried to lean on judges to stem the flow of bail grants.

Practitioners may wish to stress that removal is not imminent if flights are not available; that re-offending risk is low due to proactive police enforcement of movement restrictions; and the COVID-19 risk to detainees themselves. There is new statutory guidance, Detention considerations: COVID-19, on how coronavirus is factored into the existing Adults at Risk policy.

Visits to immigration removal centres were banned in late March. In mid-July, that policy was adjusted to allow social visits in “exceptional circumstances” or where there are “compelling compassionate reasons”. Legal representatives can drop by “only in exceptional circumstances and if no other means of contact (Skype, phone, email) can be used instead”.

Removals

As with immigration detention, there was no general policy of suspending removals. Data released under the Freedom of Information Act shows that 285 people were removed between 1 April and 30 June 2020.

Bail reporting (UPDATED 24 November)

Reporting as a condition of immigration bail was “paused” between 17 March and 20 July. The Home Office website now says that people should “attend your appointment as usual unless you or someone you live with has any coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms or you are self-isolating”. More on this from Migrants Organise.

Hostile environment

Right to work checks

As the labour market collapses under the weight of pandemic restrictions, the Home Office emphasises that employers must still carry out checks on the immigration status of employees to see if they have the legal right to work in the UK.

But those checks can now be carried out remotely. Guidance published on 30 March says that employees can submit a copy of their passport or ID rather than the original, and verify it by showing the employer the original on a video call.

An accompanying press release says that the changes are “effective immediately”.

The process for conducting a right to work check during the pandemic is as follows:

  • Ask the worker to submit a scanned copy or a photo of their original documents via email or using a mobile app
  • Arrange a video call with the worker – ask them to hold up the original documents to the camera and check them against the digital copy of the documents
  • Record the date you made the check and mark it as “adjusted check undertaken on [insert date] due to COVID-19”
  • If the worker has a current Biometric Residence Permit or Biometric Residence Card or status under the EU Settlement Scheme you can use the online right to work checking service while doing a video call – the applicant must give you permission to view their details.

If the above is not possible, use the Home Office Employer Checking Service.

When the emergency is over, employers will have to re-check people hired under the temporary procedure.

Right to rent checks

Much the same procedure applies for landlords checking the immigration status of new tenants:

Ask the tenant to submit a scanned copy or a photo of their original documents via email or using a mobile app.

Arrange a video call with the tenant – ask them to hold up the original documents to the camera and check them against the digital copy of the documents.

Record the date you made the check and mark it as “an adjusted check has been undertaken on [insert date] due to COVID-19”.

Chai Patel of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants says that “this will probably increase further the racial discrimination faced by ethnic minority Brits and migrants under right to rent. Landlords are iffy enough about non-British passports in person, likely to be even more cautious on Skype”. The Home Office says that employers should “take extra care to ensure no-one is discriminated against”.

NHS coronavirus testing

Regulations have been passed adding “Wuhan novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)” to the list of diseases for which no charge is to be made for NHS treatment, regardless of the patient’s immigration status. This change will have most significance for short term visitors and for migrants without lawful status, who normally have to pay for NHS care. Those lawfully resident are already entitled to use the NHS.

There are separate regulations for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, since healthcare is a devolved matter.

Government guidance makes clear that a coronavirus test that comes back negative is still free under this exemption:

This exemption from charge will apply to the diagnosis of the condition, even if the outcome is a negative result. It will also apply to any treatment provided for a suspected specified condition, up to the point that it is negatively diagnosed.

This guidance covers the NHS in England, but it would be surprising if the position in the other jurisdictions were any different. 

No recourse to public funds

Migrants whose visa stipulates that they can have “no recourse to public funds” are in a difficult position. Without access to benefits to make up for loss of work, many face destitution.

Government guidance issued on 23 April says that there is some support available to migrants with no recourse to public funds, including:

  • Coronavirus testing and treatment
  • Deliveries of food and medicine if “shielding” as a particularly vulnerable person
  • Statutory sick pay
  • Contributory Employment and Support Allowance
  • The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Coronavirus Self-employment Income Support Scheme

The Home Office also says that it has launched a £1.5 million pilot fund to accommodate victims of domestic violence who have no resource to public funds.

But as the House of Commons Library says, “the Government hasn’t announced a blanket policy to change NRPF restrictions”. Those subject to the no recourse condition must still apply to have it lifted in order to access to the wider welfare system.

From an immigration perspective, that is not an application to be taken lightly:

The High Court found on 7 May that aspects of the no recourse policy are unlawful. As a result, the Home Office updated its policy on applying to have the condition lifted where the person is only “at risk of becoming destitute”, as opposed to already destitute. 

Asked about no recourse to public funds on 27 May, the Prime Minister said that “clearly people who have worked hard for this country, who live and work here should have support of one kind or another… I will find out how many there are in that position and we will see what we can do to help”. It now appears that no help will be forthcoming.

EU Settlement Scheme

The telephone helpline for EU settled status enquiries was closed for some time, and documents were not being accepted by post. But both services are now back up and running, according to a Home Office email bulletin of 22 May:

We are pleased to confirm that Home Office support services and application routes have now all fully reopened in line with public health guidance. This includes the reopening of the postal route for submitting identity documents for applicants who are unable to use the EU Exit: ID Document Check app to verify their identity.

However, for those who prefer to scan their own ID document if unable to use the app, rather than posting it away, scanning service locations remain closed.

Although the number of applications fell sharply, in March and April there are at present no plans to extend the application deadline. The Home Secretary said on 29 April that “we see no reason to extend the deadline when there’s still over a year to apply”.

Citizenship

On 16 April, the Home Office added the following message to around 20 gov.uk nationality application pages:

It is taking longer than usual to process applications because of coronavirus (COVID-19). This will not affect the decision.

The department also says that would-be citizens now have six months to book their citizenship ceremony instead of the usual three. Ceremonies, being a mass indoor gathering, are not likely to be widely available, although they can now take place virtually.

The immigration minister said on 11 August:

It is for each Local Authority to determine when they will be able to resume Citizenship Ceremonies in line with current government advice relating to social distancing and public safety.

A small trial of remote ‘virtual ceremonies’ has recently taken place successfully and further work is now being done to make these more widely available.

The process of becoming a British citizen is not legally complete until the person has attended a citizenship ceremony: section 42 of the British Nationality Act 1981. 

OISC

The Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner postponed all exams from lockdown until September 2020, when they began again online. They will remain online until at least March 2021.

The OISC office itself remains closed. All correspondence should be by email rather than post.

There is a Covid Q&A for OISC advisers.

This article was originally published on 20 February 2020 and is being continually updated with the latest information.

Free Movement

The Free Movement blog was founded in 2007 by Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration law. The blog provides updates and commentary on immigration and asylum law by a variety of authors.

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