Out-Law Guide | 12 May 2021 | 4:13 pm | 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 remain open 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 by 30 June 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.
A previous concession allowed individuals to switch to another visa category from within the UK rather than having to submit this application from overseas. This concession and all references to it were removed effective 4 March 2021, and we believe this has now been withdrawn. Applicants wishing to apply from within the UK will need to meet the requirements of the visa category they are applying under and be able to switch from within the UK under the current immigration rules.
Applicants are still able to apply for leave to remain to regularise their stay if they have been issued with ‘exceptional assurance’. They will need to meet the requirements of the route they are applying for and pay the UK application fee, and must submit their application before the expiry of their ‘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 April 2021 and 30 September 2021 may be eligible for a free extension for one year to enable them to focus on fighting coronavirus. Unlike the previous concession available to frontline workers, which applied automatically, front line workers must submit an application in order to benefit from this provision. 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. If their visa is due to expire after 30 September 2021, or the main applicant is changing employer, they cannot extend their visa for free.
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.
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 the right to work checking procedures return to normal from 17 May 2021, employers should be mindful that other reporting regimes will follow suit. We recommend that any changes to working arrangements, such as migrants working from home going forward, should be reported using the SMS. Please contact us for guidance on fulfilling these obligations if needed.
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.
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.
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 until 30 June 2021.
During the pandemic, the Home Office has been issuing entry clearance vignettes for a validity period of 90 days instead of the usual 30 day period.
If a visa applicant has been unable to travel to the UK and their vignette has expired, it is possible to apply for another one. The cost of replacing an expired 90 day vignette is £154, and an appointment will need to be made for resubmission of the applicant's biometric information.
The new vignette will be valid for a period of 90 days.
As far as we aware, there has been no change to the reporting requirement that a migrant's start date cannot be extended beyond 28 days from the date listed on the CoS. Sponsors should therefore be mindful of using realistic start dates at present if delays in travel are going to be likely.
If you left the UK with valid leave before 17 March 2020 and you intended to return to the UK and make an application for Indefinite or Further Permission to Stay, but you were unable to do so before your leave expired because of travel restrictions related to Covid-19, a Covid Visa Concession Scheme was available until 31 March 2021. Those affected were asked to complete an online form, and the information provided was sent to a case working team who then contacted the applicant to explain their potential eligibility and next steps.
Your Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK (ILR) or Indefinite Leave to Enter the UK (ILE) will lapse if you are absent from the UK for over two years.
If your ILR or ILE lapsed on or after 24 January 2020, and you have been unable to return to the UK because of travel restrictions related to Covid-19, you may apply under the Returning Resident visa route to return to the UK and get indefinite leave. You need to complete the online 'returning resident' application form and pay the fee, which will be refunded. You will need to explain how coronavirus restrictions prevented your return to the UK as part of your application.
Those travelling to the UK should note the current Covid-19 testing requirements and travel restrictions. Currently, anyone arriving in England needs to either quarantine in the place they are staying for 10 days or quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days. What you need to do depends on where you have been in the 10 days before you arrive in England. You must also take two coronavirus tests after you arrive in England - you'll need to book these before you travel.
We strongly recommend reviewing the current government advice in advance of travel as in most instances a negative test result is required three days in advance of travel.
Different testing requirements and travel restrictions apply for arrivals into Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Again, these should be reviewed in advance of travel.
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.
During the pandemic, the Home Office made temporary changes to the employer process for conducting right to work checks. These temporary changes end on 20 June 2021.
From 21 June, employers must once again check individuals' original documents, rather than scans or photographs of the originals, or use the Home Office's online right to work check tool. Checks must be performed in the physical presence of the individual or via a live video link, while the original documents are in the possession of the employer.
Employers will not be required to carry out full right to work checks retrospectively where a Covid-19 adjusted check was carried out while the concessions were in force, between 30 March 2020 and 20 June 2021. However, where the worker's right to work was time-limited, additional checks required after 21 June must be carried out under the usual rules.
09 Nov 2020