The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a slew of changes to the legal system that affects both British citizens and foreign nationals working and living within the United Kingdom.
On 24 March 2020, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a visa extension for anyone unable to return to their home due to travel restrictions and/or self-isolation, and whose leave expired between 24 January 2020 and 31 May 2020. This was subsequently updated to extend all visas expiring up until 31 July 2020 to be extended until this date. Anyone in this situation should contact the UKVI’s newly set up COVID-19 immigration team via this email address CIH@homeoffice.gov.uk to extend their visa. If a visa holder has already had their visa extended to 31 May 2020, that visa will be automatically extended to 31 July 2020 although the visa holder is expected to take all reasonable steps to leave the UK before that date.
The latest Government guidance published on 29 July 2020 announced that visa holders whose leave expired before 31 July 2020 will no longer be able to extend their visa automatically after 31 July 2020 now that travel restrictions are lifting globally. These visa holders are now expected to take all reasonable steps to leave the UK but only where it is possible to do so. Alternatively, visa holders who wish to stay in the UK and are able to switch into another visa category should do so as soon as possible.
The Home Office also temporarily expanded the in-country switching provisions. Visa holders could switch routes while remaining in the UK. For example, a tier 5 (youth mobility) could switch to a tier 2 (general worker). UKVI are continuing to process applications as quickly as possible but applications are likely to take longer than others due to COVID-19 related operational pressures.
For those visa holders who wish to leave the UK, the Government has granted an extra month’s grace period until 31 August 2020 which will allow visa holders time to arrange to leave the UK. This extension is automatic and visa holders do not need to notify the Home Office. If the visa holder is not able to leave the UK by the end of August 2020, the visa holder can request additional time to stay although it is likely this will only be granted in exceptional circumstances.
Visa holders whose leave expires before 31 August 2020 may make a visa application from within the UK if they:
All in person application, testing and support centres were closed during the pandemic, however some UK Visa and Citizenship Application Centres re-opened on 1 June 2020 and Centres abroad are also starting to re-open, enabling individuals to progress with visa applications. English testing Centres are also resuming services and Service and Support Centres have reopened but are currently offering a reduced number of appointments. Applicants should expect delays in getting appointments or support but as long as any application is made before the expiry of their current leave the applicant can remain in the UK while an application is processed.
If an individual’s 30-day visa to travel to the UK for work has expired, or is about to expire, they can request a replacement with extended validity dates at no extra cost. This free extension process will last until the end of 2020.
On 31 March 2020 the Home Secretary announced that various front line health and social care workers (both in the NHS and in independent businesses) including doctors, nurses and paramedics and their families will have their visas automatically extended, for one year if it is due to expire before 1 October 2020, free of charge in an effort to help combat the COVID-19 epidemic. This list was expanded considerably on 1 May 2020.
Anyone who has an outstanding application will be offered a refund. NHS staff can also work at any NHS hospital during the pandemic without notifying the Home Office, providing their sponsor can continue with their sponsor duties such as monitoring and reporting work activity. Further, NHS staff can work as many hours as they wish and in any role, regardless of skill level, during the outbreak.
The idea of the extension is to allow front line staff to focus fully on combating COVID-19 instead of worrying about their visas expiring. The government has also lifted restrictions on the amount of hours student doctors and nurses can work for the NHS in order to get more doctors and nurses on the frontline.
Adding to this, pre-registered overseas nurses who are currently required to sit there first skills test within 3 months and to pass the test within 8 months will now have their deadline extended to the end of the year. This gives nurses more time to pass their exams while spending the immediate term working on the frontline.
Finally, the government has confirmed that family members of frontline workers who die from COVID-19 will be offered indefinite leave to remain.
On 21 May 2020, the government announced that NHS and care workers will be exempt from paying the IHS (a levy on migrant workers to go towards the cost of using the NHS). This will be welcomed particularly as the HIS is to increase to £624 per adult per year from October 2020.
Ordinarily, those with a Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa must employ at least 2 people for 12 consecutive months each as a condition of their visa. This rule has been relaxed where business has been disrupted due to COVID-19 and the 12-month period can now be made up of multiple jobs across different months. While time staff spend on furlough will not count towards the 12 month period, if the Tier 1 visa holder has not been able to meet these requirements by the time their visa expires, they can temporarily extend their stay in order to do so. This concession will apply to Tier 1 Entrepreneur applications made after 31 May 2020, providing that the employment relied on is disrupted due to COVID-19.
The government has also temporarily adjusted right to work checks to make them easier for employers to carry out. As of 30 March 2020, checks can be carried out over video call. Applicants and existing workers can send scanned documents, or a photo of the documents for checks using a mobile App or via email. Once they are back in the workplace, a full right to work check must be carried out in the worker’s presence and recorded as normal.
The Home Office has confirmed that is it waiving a number of requirements on sponsors in light of COVID-19. The full guidance can be found here.
Sponsors will not be required to report homeworking to the Home Office, although other changes in working arrangements will still require notification as normal.
The Home Office has confirmed that it will not take enforcement action against sponsors who continue to employ sponsored employees who are absent from work without pay for more than 4 weeks due to the coronavirus.
Given the delays in visa applications, the Home Office is also allowing sponsored employees to start employment before their visa is issued provided that they are in the UK and have a certificate of sponsorship from their intended sponsor, they applied for a visa before their current visa expired and the role they are employed in is the same as the one on their certificate of sponsorship. The sponsor’s reporting obligations however begin from the date they assigned the certificate of sponsorship to the sponsored worker, and while they will not be able to report via the sponsor management system in the usual way, sponsors must keep a record of any reportable activity. Any changes that may impact the consideration of the sponsored employee’s visa must be updated on the certificate of sponsorship as normal. If the application is rejected or refused, employment must immediately end.
If sponsors are unable to pay sponsored employees’ salaries due to shortage of trading, sponsors can reduce pay by up to 80% or £2,500 per month, whichever is lower. This reduction must be part of a company-wide policy to avoid redundancies and all workers must be treated the same. Any reduction must also be temporary, with employee’s pay returning to normal once the policy ends. This allows sponsors to access the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for sponsored employees.
The Home Office has now updated its guidance for sponsors to confirm sponsored employees can have their pay reduced in this way, even if this means their pay falls below the prescribed minimum salary threshold, provided appropriate records are kept.
These changes should also be reported to the Home Office.
An alternative to furloughing/reducing salaries is requesting that sponsored employees take annual and/or unpaid leave. In normal circumstances, sponsored employees can take up to 4 weeks unpaid leave in each calendar year, according to their normal working pattern. For example, if a sponsored employee works 3 days per week, they can take up to a total 12 unpaid days leave per year.
Following updated guidance by the Home Office, sponsored employees are allowed to take more than 4 weeks unpaid leave if due to coronavirus. Specific examples include illness, isolation or travel restrictions. It may also include absences due to childcare responsibilities. These absences do not need to be reported but clear records should be kept.
Further concessions were made on 3 June 2020 in light of Covid-19. Currently the Home Office will accept scanned copies of supporting documents for example where a business applies to become a licensed sponsor, but the Home Office can still request original or certified copies and applications will be refused if the evidence or documents is not provided or the business does not contact the Home Office to agree an extension to the deadline to provide the information. Home Office audits have also been suspended while the country-wide restrictions are in place. This may impact how long an application to become a sponsor will take if the Home Office deems it necessary to carry out a pre-licence visit before granting the licence. The Government announced on 29 July 2020 that these arrangements will continue until 30 September 2020 when they will be reviewed.
Please note that sponsors should take care not to treat their sponsored employees more or less favourably because of their visa status in response to these temporary alterations to the guidance.
It is also important to keep up-to-date on developments. If you are considering applying for or making any changes to your sponsor licence and/or sponsored employees’ working arrangements, we recommend that you first seek legal advice.
Global Talent applicants whose endorsement has expired because they have been unable to travel to the UK may still be eligible for a visa. Temporary concessions have been implemented for Global Talent applicants who are undertaking COVID-19-related research.
Upon arriving in the UK, travellers must complete a Public Health Passenger Locator form. Failure to provide the requested details can lead to entry being barred if the entrant is not British or a UK resident. The traveller may also face a £100 fine. The traveller will be provided with government-arranged accommodation at their own cost, If they have not arranged accommodation.
Entrants must use personal transport where possible to travel to their accommodation and unless an exemption or travel corridor applies, they must remain in self-isolation for 14 days. They can only leave their accommodation:
Visitors are prohibited unless they are required for essential support.
A fine of up to £1,000 may also be imposed in England and Wales if self-quarantine is breached.
This will be relevant to employers who have employees returning to the UK in the coming weeks.