Out-Law Guide | 10 Feb 2021 | 11:19 am | 18 min. read
In 2020, the UK Home Office has introduced a variety of relaxations to cater for these challenges. However, at the close of the year many of those concessions came to an end. Individuals are no longer able to extend their visa automatically, and are expected to take all reasonable steps to leave the UK where it is possible to do so or to apply to regularise their stay in the UK.
The Home Office has published guidance on immigration provisions for UK visa applicants and temporary UK residents. It has a coronavirus helpline: 0800 678 1767 or [email protected] Please note that the Home Office will only speak to an employer regarding an individual with that individual's written consent.
As immigration and visa services are an essential service most UK Visa and Citizenship Application Centres (UKVCAS) have reopened for existing customers. You can check online which UKVCAS centres are open and book an appointment if you have not already done so.
UKVCAS Service Points are essential services and will remain open throughout the UK so customers can continue to book and attend appointments to progress their visa applications.
Priority services have now resumed overseas in most locations and in the UK.
Visa holders in the UK are expected to take all reasonable steps to leave the UK where it is possible to do so or apply to regularise their stay in the UK. Visa and Immigration services as these are considered an essential public service and will continue to operate safely under local and national restrictions.
If you intend to leave the UK but have not been able to do so and you have a visa or leave that expires between 1 January 2021 and 28 February 2021 you may request additional time to stay, known as ‘exceptional assurance’. An exceptional assurance request can be submitted by emailing [email protected] with the following details:
In your email you should attach evidence to show why you cannot leave the UK. For example, if you can’t leave the UK because you can’t find a flight before your leave/visa expires, you’ll need to submit a copy of a confirmed flight ticket.
If you’ve previously completed the online form to request exceptional assurance and you’re waiting on the outcome and your flight is imminent, please email the above address with the requested details. Whilst you are waiting a decision on your exceptional assurance request, the Home Office have confirmed that during this time, applicants will not be treated as overstayers or suffer any detriment in any future immigration applications for this consideration period.
During the time in which your request for ‘exceptional assurance’ is pending you will continue on the conditions as per your current or most recently expired visa.
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.
It is important to note that exceptional assurance does not grant applicants leave. It is a means to protect those who are unable to leave the UK due to Covid-19 restrictions and not to facilitate travel, other than to return home.
If you’ve already been given assurance but your circumstances have changed or you’re unable to leave the UK by the assurance date previously given, you must reapply using the process above. You will need to clearly state that you’re making a subsequent application. You’ll be asked to provide new supporting evidence.
If you decide to stay in the UK, you should apply for the necessary leave to remain to regularise your stay. You’ll be able to submit an application form from within the UK, whereas you would usually need to apply for a visa from your home country.
Applicants will need to meet the requirements of the route they are applying for and pay the UK application fee.
The Home Office has confirmed that where an application is pending the terms of an applicant's leave will remain the same until their application is decided. If you are switching into work or study routes you may be able to commence work or study whilst your application is under consideration.
You are also able to apply for leave to remain to regularise your stay if you have been issued with ‘exceptional assurance’. You’ll need to meet the requirements of the route you’re applying for, pay the UK application fee and you must submit your application before the expiry of your ‘exceptional assurance’.
The Home Office have confirmed that if your visa or leave expired between 24 January 2020 and 31 August 2020 there will be no future adverse immigration consequences if you didn’t make an application to regularise your stay during this period. However, if you have not applied to regularise your stay or submitted a request for an exceptional assurance you must make arrangements to leave the UK.
Right to work checks must be kept up to date and employers should verify with the Home Office the status of those with expiring leave who are still employed.
It is not yet known what an individual's legal status will be until a decision is made on an assurance application and, therefore, the impact that may have on their rights - for example, to work - during this period. Applicants should carefully consider if an assurance application is the best course for them, as opposed to seeking to otherwise extend or switch.
NHS frontline workers, and their families, with visas expiring between 1 October 2020 and 31 March 2021 may be eligible for a free extension for one year to enable them to focus on fighting coronavirus. Although the legal basis for this is unclear, it has been confirmed that this extension does not have to be requested - it will be automatically applied. Unlike the previous concession available to frontline workers, which an automatic extension, in order to benefit from this provision front line workers must submit an application. Applications must be made here: Visa extensions for health workers during coronavirus (Covid-19). The main applicant must work for the NHS or an independent healthcare provider in an eligible profession to apply using this route.
This extension will apply to any relevant individual affected, so not just those on sponsored Tier 2 or 5 visas for example. The update also confirmed that frontline workers can work at any NHS hospital during the coronavirus outbreak if their sponsor can maintain their sponsorship duties, and that sponsors are not required to update the sponsorship management service (SMS) with the individual's new work location. Frontline workers can carry out supplementary work in any role at any skill level during the coronavirus outbreak, and there is no restriction on the number of hours they are able to work.
If you're a health worker and you’ve already paid a fee for a visa extension but you’re eligible for a free extension, you can claim that payment back here: Visa extensions for health workers during coronavirus.
The Home Office has also announced that 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 [email protected] for further information.
On 2 July 2020 the Home Office announced that if a visa applicant has had their fingerprints taken as part of an application previously, the Home Office may reuse the fingerprints already given. Applicants will be emailed with instructions on how to send the Home Office an image of their face and supporting documents. This will be done via an identity verification (IDV) app, which will guide them through how to submit a photograph of themselves and their travel documents. We understand that all documents already uploaded through the online visa application will be attached to the application - these will not need to be uploaded again. Applicants will, however, be able to attach documents if they wish to do so.
This will mean a large number of those applying in the UK before 31 July will not need to attend a UKVCAS or an SSC service point appointment to provide biometric information. If applicants cannot send the information through the instructions given, they will be able to book an appointment.
For those submitting applications from within the UK, most application centres have reopened for existing customers. A list of the centres that are now open can be found online.
In December 2020, the Home Office published Covid-19: guidance for student sponsors, migrants and short-term students.
The guidance contains many welcome concessions which will be withdrawn "once the situation returns to normal". Where a concession applies to a student, a clear record of this must be retained on their file and noted in their Certificate of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) evidence or sponsor notes section.
Many sponsored workers are now working from home. Normally their sponsor would have to report such a change in place of work to the Home Office within 10 working days. The Home Office has confirmed that where such a change is due to the coronavirus pandemic no such report will be required. However, other changes will need reported in the usual way.
As with students, the Home Office's latest guidance confirms that it will not take enforcement action against sponsors who continue to sponsor employees absent due to coronavirus. Such absences do not need to be reported – that could be due to illness, self-isolation or inability to travel due to travel restrictions.
Further, sponsors do not need to withdraw sponsorship if an employee is absent from work without pay for more than four weeks. A clear record and paper trail should be kept in all circumstances.
Having robust absence reporting processes and records is key at the moment. If audited further down the line, sponsors should be able to evidence authorised absences related to coronavirus.
In 2020 the Home Office published some guidance on the application of furlough to sponsored migrants in the UK. Guidance updated in 2021 maintains that employers can temporarily reduce the pay of their sponsored employees in line with government job support schemes. Sponsored workers are eligible for these schemes in the same way as resident workers. The guidance confirms:
Frustratingly this guidance is silent on whether employers should report the changes to salary. Until guidance is published to the contrary we would recommend that employers err on the side of caution and that any changes to salary are reported against the relevant migrant's certificate of sponsorship, as usual, using the sponsor management system. It will be important to confirm the reason for the reduction in the 'free text' section of the report, and to keep a copy of the wording submitted as part of the report for compliance purposes.
Employers should also retain a copy of the company-wide policy that is being implemented to avoid redundancies so that employers are able to justify any salary decreases in a Home Office audit.
Looking ahead, we recommend that the date at which salary reductions are due to come to an end should be diarised so that employers remember to report the increase on within 10 working days of salary being increased.
The Home Office guidance confirms that if you have issued a CoS or CAS and the sponsored employee or student has not yet applied for a visa they will still be able to do so. Where the start date for the employment or course has changed, the Home Office will not automatically refuse such cases. The example provided in the guidance is that the Home Office may accept a CoS which has become invalid because the employee was unable to travel as a result of coronavirus.
Caution should be taken in respect of this update as the Home Office has caveated this guidance stating that "such situations will be considered on a case by case basis".
Employers wishing to use this concession are advised to keep full details of why an application has not been submitted. This could be a paper trail of the discussions that took place as well as evidence of the relevant visa application centre being closed within the timeframe the application was required to be submitted.
Sponsors should note that the Home Office sponsor priority service, which aims to fast track certain administrative applications within five working days for a £200 fee, was temporarily closed last year but has now reopened. It is currently processing up to 60 priority service requests per day.
There was a concession introduced in 2020 allowing migrants to start work if they satisfied certain conditions and had a CoS assigned to them. That concession has now ended for all applicants except those applying for a health and care visa and those who have a CoS assigned prior to 1 January 2021. Sponsors can now only have employees start work before their visa application has been decided if the following conditions are met:
Employers should be mindful that sponsors' reporting responsibilities start from the date of the individual's employment, not from the date that their application is granted. Employers should refer to the right to work check section below to ensure they are complying with current regulations.
If an employee commences work on the basis of an assigned CoS and their visa application is subsequently refused, sponsors must terminate their employment and should keep full written records of their prompt action taken following a refusal for compliance and future audit purposes.
Most UK visa application centres (VACs) overseas have reopened, but local restrictions may apply in some cases. Most English language testing facilities have also resumed their services. Alongside travel restrictions, any persisting closures will naturally delay the ability to bring people from other countries to the UK. The situation in a particular country should be checked on a case by case basis. A practical issue to bear in mind for this group is that if such affected individuals are sponsored, their certificate of sponsorship must be used to apply for a visa within three months or it expires.
We understand the Home Office will review such applications on a case by case basis and exercise discretion.
If your VAC is still closed due to coronavirus restrictions, you can visit a VAC in any country worldwide to submit your application and biometrics, subject to that country's entry requirements. This concession can be used for any type of application.
Similarly, those whose passports are with closed visa application centres may be prevented from travelling until it is returned to them. A practical consideration for employers is that sponsored migrants are generally given a 30-day entry clearance vignette to come to the UK. Such issues and travel restrictions may prevent individuals from being able to travel within that 30-day period. The Home Office has now confirmed that those affected can request a replacement vignette, with revised validity dates, free of charge until the 31 March 2021. The replacement will be valid for 90 days.
This can be requested by emailing [email protected] or arranging the return of the individual's passport to the nearest visa application centre, if open, in line with local processes. Emails should include the individual's name, nationality, date of birth, GWF reference number and "REPLACEMENT 30 DAY VISA" in the subject line. The replacement visa itself can be obtained when visa application centres reopen. This does not apply to visit visas.
These individuals will not be penalised for having been unable to collect their biometric residence permit (BRP) during the Covid-19 period.
British nationals overseas can apply for British passports online. If required to book an appointment, they will need to check if their nearest application centre is open.
Those who need a new passport for urgent travel will have to contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to discuss their options, which may include applying for an emergency travel document.
The Home Office has made temporary changes to the employer process for conducting right to work checks in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
As of 30 March 2020, the following temporary changes apply:
Checks continue to be necessary, and employers must continue to check the prescribed documents listed in the government's right to work checks guidance. It remains an offence to knowingly employ anyone who does not have the right to work in the UK.
The new temporary process for conducting right to work checks is:
If a job applicant or existing worker cannot show their documents then employers must contact the Home Office Employer Checking Service. If the person has a right to work, the Employer Checking Service will send employers a 'Positive Verification Notice'. This provides them with a statutory excuse for six months from the date in the notice.
This guidance was issued on 30 March 2020 and is not stated to be retrospective. Given some employers may have taken a commercial view and followed this approach prior to the guidance being issued, where this was due to the current coronavirus pandemic, we suggest such records note that it was an "adjusted check undertaken due to Covid-19" as referenced above to address any potential future challenges as to the rationale for the format of check undertaken. Follow up checks should be completed as referenced below.
The Home Office has stressed that this is a temporary measure. It will release further guidance in advance of the concessions ending to give employers sufficient time to revert back to the previous right to work check process.
Employers should keep a record of all individuals checked using this new process, as they will be asked to carry out retrospective checks on existing employees who:
Employers should mark the retrospective check: "The individual's contract commenced on [insert date]. The prescribed right to work check was undertaken on [insert date] due to Covid-19".
The retrospective check must be carried out within eight weeks of the Covid-19 temporary measures ending, and both checks should be kept for the employer's records. The employer must end the employment if it finds the employee does not have permission to be in the UK when the retrospective check is completed.
09 Nov 2020