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

Measures taken to combat the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19 disease have changed almost every aspect of society both here in the UK and around the world. The immigration system is no exception. This post gathers together various updates on changes to immigration law and practice caused by coronavirus.

For now, in contrast with our normal practice, we’ll be keeping this post continually up to date rather than covering new coronavirus developments as separate blog posts that may become rapidly out of date. Use the page contents to navigate. Material that has been added or updated from one version of this post to the next is labelled NEW or UPDATED.

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.

For lawyers overwhelmed by the number of new guidance documents, Lucy Reed’s take over on Pink Tape may provide some light relief.

Visa extensions and other concessions

General policy (UPDATED 30 July)

The situation is particularly pressing for people who are in the UK on an expiring visa and unable to leave because of travel restrictions. The government had been extending people’s visas through a simplified online application process, but that concession is now coming to an end.

The first version of the coronavirus concession unilaterally conferred leave to remain until 31 March to Chinese citizens whose UK visas expired between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020. 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 guidance 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. But that is pretty much the end of it. Government guidance now says:

If you’re in the UK and your leave expired between 24 January 2020 and 31 July 2020

If you had a visa that expired between 24 January 2020 and 31 July 2020 you were able to request an extension if you were not able to return home because of travel restrictions or self-isolation related to coronavirus (COVID-19).

Now travel restrictions are lifting globally you will no longer be able to extend your visa automatically on this basis and you are expected to take all reasonable steps to leave the UK where it is possible to do so or apply to regularise your stay in the UK.

There will however be a “grace period”: people whose visas were extended by the coronavirus concession up until 31 July have until 31 August to leave. It also appears that people whose visas expire in the month of August can stay on until the 31st if necessary:

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 says that it doesn’t need to be notified if someone needs to stay on during the grace period.

It is still possible to request an extension to this grace period beyond 31 August in individual cases. The Home Office calls this “exceptional indemnity”:

The indemnity does not grant you leave but will act as a short-term protection against any adverse action or consequences after your leave has expired.

People requesting exceptional indemnity will need to contact the coronavirus helpline (details below) to explain why they can’t leave by 31 August. 

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”. Again, this switching concession appears to cover anyone whose leave to remain in the UK expires before 31 August.

As things stand, therefore, it is back to business as usual from 1 September.

NHS workers

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.

A letter to the Home Affairs Committee on the same date confirmed that the extensions are available to anyone on the list of professions covered who is subject to immigration control, “not just sponsored migrant workers on a Tier 2 (General) or Tier 5 visa”.

The full list of eligible professions appears in a gov.uk guidance page:

  • 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

The guidance page was updated on 8 June to add some details about family members. It clarifies that family members of NHS workers who already have indefinite leave to remain cannot avail of this scheme. There is also a section saying that people who have already applied for an extension can withdraw it and get a refund, relying on the free one-year extension instead, although not if they’ve got as far as submitting their fingerprints and photo.

Family members of NHS workers who die from COVID-19 can get indefinite leave to remain for free. On 20 May, the Home Secretary said that this was being extended to cover “NHS support staff & 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 early June there was no published concession for people in this situation. There is now a new section of the guidance on Changes to the minimum income and adequate maintenance requirement. It says:

If you have experienced a loss of income due to coronavirus, we will consider employment income for the period immediately before the loss of income due to coronavirus, provided the requirement was met for at least 6 months up to March 2020.

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 31 July 2020 will generally be disregarded, along with the impact on employment income from the same period for future applications.

This text first appeared on 8 June, disappeared from the guidance again on the morning of 9 June, and reappeared later that day. The original version included the sentence “If you have experienced a loss of income due to Coronavirus you will not be disadvantaged”. That has been removed from the amended version posted back up on 9 June.

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 Tier 4 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”.
  • Extending a Tier 4 visa: can be done in line with the general policy described above. “Students who need to repeat a year, retake a module, or resit an exam are exempt from demonstrating academic progression as would normally be the case for those applying in the UK”.
  • Police registration: suspended until social distancing measures are lifted.
  • Working hours: 20-hour a week restriction lifted for doctors, nurses, paramedics and those whose sponsor has suspended all study.
  • Volunteering: permitted for NHS Volunteer Responders.
  • Social distancing: applies to overseas students just like everybody else.
  • Time limits: “discretion may be applied” if someone applies for an extension that would take them over the normal maximum period allowed on a Tier 4 (General) visa.
  • Right to rent checks: can be done remotely.
  • 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: into Tier 4 from short-term routes “will be allowed on an exceptional basis” until at least 31 July 2020.
  • Permitted study: “Short-term students who have been given an exceptional extension of leave in this category as a result of Covid-19 will be permitted to study on a further course other than that which they originally entered the UK to undertake”.
  • Extending short-term study leave: not catered for, would need to be an application for leave outside the Rules.

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 currently required to report any absences from students or employees sponsored under Tier 2, Tier 4, or Tier 5, 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, Tier 4 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 Tier 2, 4 or 5 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. 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.
  • Distance learning: as above, now permitted, even for new students.
  • Attendance monitoring: no need to report students for missing expected contact points.
  • Basic compliance assessments: students who drop out because of COVID-19 don’t count.
  • Validity of CAS which have already been issued: “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: “higher education providers with a track record of compliance will be able to self-assess students as having a B1 level of English”.
  • Commencing studies: as above, can be done even if the visa application is still pending, subject to certain conditions.
  • Right to work checks: can be done remotely.
  • Child students: duty of care and safeguarding duties continue to apply.

There is coronavirus advice for Tier 2 and Tier 4 sponsors on the Carter Thomas website. Lewis Silkin has some advice for Tier 2 sponsors, as well as a page on the immigration implications of the government’s crisis employment policies.

Biometrics

The Home Office is no longer insisting that applicants provide a fresh set of fingerprints every time they extend leave. The main guidance page now says if previous fingerprints can be reused, 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”.

Special hotline

As mentioned above, the Home Office has set up a coronavirus helpline:

Email: CIH@homeoffice.gov.uk. Your email must be in English.

You will usually get a reply within 5 working days. Do not send follow up emails – they may delay you getting a reply.

You can also call the Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre. If you’ve emailed the help centre already, please do not contact them by phone.

Telephone: 0800 678 1767 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm)

This seems to be intended for queries specifically about the concessions discussed above. The Home Office emphasises that “if your query doesn’t relate to immigration provisions associated with coronavirus (COVID-19) please contact the general immigration helpline”.

Travel to the UK

Compulsory quarantine (UPDATED 29 July) 

International travellers arriving in the UK 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 has since risen to about 80, but places can be taken off the list again suddenly (eg Spain).

There are separate exemption lists for:

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

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.

Note that this does not cover visit visas. To get the free replacement, 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.

Visa centres overseas

All UK visa application centres overseas were closed for some time but some are now re-opening in stages.

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.

On 29 June, the Home Office said that “we have not yet re-introduced Super Priority and Priority visa services, but are keeping the position under constant review as more of our visa application centres reopen”.

Applications from within the UK (UPDATED 30 July)

All visa application centres within the UK closed in late March. They are now reopening.

The list of centres that have reopened as of 27 July is as follows:

Belfast     22 June
Birmingham (Core)     1 June
Birmingham Premium Lounge     1 June
Cardiff Bay (Temporary Core)     22 June
Chelmsford     1 June
Edinburgh     22 June
Exeter     1 June
Glasgow (Core)     22 June
Guildford     1 July 
Hull     20 July
Ipswich     6 July
Leeds     1 June
London – Croydon (Core)     1 June
London – Croydon (Lansdowne Road)     13 July
London – Enfield     20 July
London – Edmonton Green     20 July
London – Premium Lounge     1 June
London – Mark Lane ESP     1 June
London – Victoria     1 June
Maidstone     1 July 
Manchester Fountain Street ESP     1 June
Manchester (Core)     22 June
Newcastle     20 July
Norwich     13 July
Nottingham     1 July
Sheffield     1 June
Southampton     1 June
Sunderland     13 July
Swindon     20 July
Taunton     20 July

Others will follow next month, along with some newly opened centres:

Aberdeen     w/c 3 August
Bath (new centre)     w/c 3 August
Bournemouth     w/c 3 August
Coventry     w/c 10 August
Gloucester     w/c 10 August
Hemel Hempstead (Library)     w/c 3 August
Llandudno     w/c 3 August
London – Stratford     w/c 3 August
Luton (new)     w/c 13 July
Peterborough     w/c 31 August
Reading     w/c 3 August
Wolverhampton     w/c 3 August

Most of the centres on the list above were previously advertised as opening in July.

The non-outsourced Service and Support Centres have also re-opened but are offering a reduced number of appointments.

As mentioned above, some applicants may no longer need to attend an appointment in person if they have given their fingerprints to the Home Office before. There is more information about that change on the Sopra Steria website.

Immigration tribunal hearings

weekly operational update from HM Courts and Tribunals Service advises on the general state of play with the First-tier and Upper Tribunals. Bail hearings have continued over video link, but substantive appeals scheduled after mid-March 2020 were cancelled. Case management hearings have been going on over the past few months to work out whether the appeal could be heard remotely, settled in some way or scheduled for a face-to-face hearing when that became possible again.

For appeals that need a face to face hearing, the tribunals are now starting to reopen 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.

Arrangements in each hearing centre 

We’ve been in touch with all the hearing centres, who have helpfully provided us with an update on their reopening plans as of the first week in July. The idea in most centres is 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 on 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

Other appeals will be 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.

A First-tier Tribunal user guide says that between July and October 2020, the tribunal will “seek to ensure that all judges can be trained in the use of CVP [Cloud Video Platform] and begin to conduct substantive hearings” remotely. The user guide was 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

The online process has generated considerable controversy among immigration lawyers, including an ongoing dispute over new rules on legal aid.

For Upper Tribunal arrangements, 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“.

Asylum

Intake and interviews 

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.

Substantive asylum interviews were cancelled from 19 March but are set to resume remotely at the end of June. 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. 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. More details on the Refugee Council website.

Asylum support

On 15 June, asylum support rates increased from £37.75 a week to £39.60 a week. In addition, asylum seekers and refugees were temporarily allowed to stay in government accommodation for longer than usual. Junior Home Office minister Chris 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.

But Inside Housing reports that the review has already taken place and the government has “opted against an extension” of the concession. The “move on” process  is now resuming.

Travel documents

The Home Office team that deals with refugee travel document applications says that coronavirus restrictions are slowing down its work, and has set up a process for urgent applications:

If any customer is in a particularly difficult situation and needs their application to be considered as a matter of priority, we would ask that this request, along with scanned recent, acceptable evidence of the circumstances and confirmation that the customer is able to travel i.e. confirmation from the airline or ferry company, is sent to traveldocumentenquiries@homeoffice.gov.uk.

Following this, if it is agreed that the case meets the criteria for being expedited and an application has not yet been submitted online, then the customer will need to complete an online application.  If an application has already been submitted then the customer should not apply again as this is likely to cause confusion and may delay their application.

This should be done “only in the most urgent of cases”.

Other resources

The Refugee Council and Refugee Action are keeping detailed tabs on coronavirus-induced changes to the asylum system. If you have a question not covered in this section, it may be answered there. If you prefer video, Right to Remain has put its update on YouTube.

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.

As of 26 March, visits to immigration removal centres were no longer possible.

Removals

As with immigration detention, there is no general policy of suspending removals. In late April, the Home Office said that “it is not the case that all removals have stopped” and confirmed that it had recently arranged a removal flight to Poland.

Other removals are taking place via indirect flights. In a judgment of 20 April, the High Court noted that the man in question was scheduled for removal to Nigeria on 25 May, on a flight going via France. The removal directions were set during the pandemic.

The BBC reported on 7 May that around 50 people had been deported during the pandemic.

Assisted returns have been unavailable since around 20 March, according to a note from the Voluntary Returns Service Communications and Engagement Team circulated on that date.

Bail reporting

The Home Office website says that “reporting as a condition of immigration bail is temporarily paused”. This took effect on 17 March, according to the head of Immigration Enforcement. Everyone out on bail should have received a text message around then to let them know.

In the meantime, the Home Office has been staying in touch over the phone or email, with over 65,000 calls placed in total. Officials have now begun a second round of calls. This is according to an update provided to the equalities subgroup of the National Asylum Stakeholder Forum.

The Immigration Enforcement letter from March also says that anyone “worried about missing an appointment” when in-person reporting starts up again “could let us have an up to date telephone number then we will be able to maintain contact with them to update them on any developments”. This can be done by emailing the relevant reporting centre.

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.

Other

Legal aid

The government announced a “support package” for legal aid providers on 3 March, which included a promise to “align legal aid fees for First Tier Tribunal immigration and asylum appeals with HMCTS’ move to an online system for these cases”.

The rest of the support package is outlined in emergency guidance that will remain in force until at least 30 June 2020. 

On cashflow, the guidance says:

We recognise the current situation will have cashflow implications for firms, and as a priority we are processing bills and other payments as rapidly as possible.

We are working with Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and provider representative bodies to investigate what other immediate actions we can take to support firms. 

Time limits for delegated function applications, substantive amendments and appeals against Legal Aid Agency decisions have been suspended. Admin requirements are being reduced: 

Routine contract manager visits to provider offices will not take place at this time and we will not be undertaking new contract audit or peer review work unless there is an excepitonal [sic] need.

Similarly, the Legal Aid Agency says that “we understand the current context may mean you are unable to meet the office and supervisory requirements set out in your contract… we will not take any action in this situation”.

The guidance also says that digital client signatures are just as valid as handwritten signatures  for Legal Aid Agency contract purposes.

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. These may still be unavailable.

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. As Westminster Council puts it, “there is, unfortunately, no legal provision in place to allow you to do this electronically instead”.

Subject Access Requests

The Subject Access Request Unit has told ILPA that it is only processing requests made online, and only providing data held electronically, until further notice. The unit can be contacted at subjectaccessrequest@homeoffice.gov.uk.

OISC

The Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner has postponed all exams out to the end of November 2020.

There is also a Q&A for OISC advisers.

The OISC office itself is closed as of 24 March. All correspondence should be by email rather than post.

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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