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Vanessa Ganguin

All your UK immigration questions on Covid-19 answered

FAQs on Covid-19 and UK immigration

We have done our best to answer the main immigration questions thrown up by measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic below. These are based on the major urgent immigration questions firms, individuals and families have been contacting us with. If you have any other questions you would like to add, or for any more clarification, please do contact us on 0207 033 9527 or enquiries@vanessaganguin.com

Covid-19 FAQs for sponsoring employers

Can sponsored staff work from home?

As part of measures taken to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, the Home Office has relaxed certain reporting requirements. With workers following social distancing guidelines at home, the Home Office has confirmed that employers with sponsor licences will not have to report a change of location for sponsored migrants working from home on the Sponsorship Management System (SMS).

Do Tier 2 sponsors need to report sickness absences and self-isolating to the Home Office?

There is no need for sponsors to report sponsored staff sickness absence, the need for self-isolation or indeed an inability to travel due to travel restrictions if they are related to the coronavirus pandemic. 

What happens if we furlough sponsored staff under the Job Retention Scheme?

Sponsors may reduce salary on a temporary basis up to the lower of 80% of employees’ salary or £2,500 per month though they must report this change of status, including any change in salary. The salary must revert to at least the previous level once these arrangements have ended and the reduction must be done as part of a company-wide scheme to avoid redundancies, treating workers the same whether they are sponsored migrants or not. We advise that sponsors should of course make a further report once employees are back at work.

What if the employer tops up furloughed employees’ salary so it stays the same?

If they are sponsored migrants, it is still advisable to report this change in their status as well as their subsequent return to work.

What about absence without pay?

Ordinarily a sponsor is required to report and to cease sponsoring a sponsored employee if s/he is absent without pay for more than four weeks (although there are exceptions). Under the Covid-19 policy, sponsors are no longer required to withdraw sponsorship in these circumstances, though we would advise that such an absence and return to work are reported on the SMS with an explanation of the circumstances. 

Can Tier 2 sponsors reduce the salary or the hours that sponsored staff work?

Sponsors are in normal circumstances permitted to reduce sponsored employees’ salary provided the minimum salary thresholds are still met. There is a strong argument that temporary reduction below Tier-2 minimum salary thresholds (up to the lower of 80% or £2,500 per month) is acceptable where this is in line with a company-wide policy to avoid redundancies and applied fairly, although this is not currently made clear in the guidance. 

Recently, the Home Office has confirmed that where a high-earner’s salary is reduced below the £159,600 threshold, they will not need to submit a change of employment application (this will apply whether they are furloughed or still working on a reduced salary, so long as the reduction has occurred as part of a company wide policy and is temporary).

How can we still sponsor Tier 2 or Tier 5 employees while application centres are shut?

Visa Application Centres (VAC) abroad and UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services (UKVCAS) in the UK are currently closed, leaving many stuck as they are unable to submit their biometric data (digital photo and fingerprints).

Under current circumstances, the Home Office is allowing migrants who are in the UK to start their sponsored employment while still waiting for approval once a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) has been assigned and the online application has been submitted and paid for

Check the websites of VFS Global and TLScontact for updates on VACs abroad, the Sopra Steria website for news on the re-opening of its UKVCAS centres in the UK, or contact us on 0207 033 9527 or enquiries@vanessaganguin.com for updates.

Can sponsored health workers be moved to different sites or perform different jobs?

Temporary flexibility has been introduced around sponsored frontline healthcare staff working at different sites due to Coronavirus; sponsors will not need to notify UKVI if, for example, staff have to work in a different hospital. Sponsored staff can also carry out supplementary work in any role at any skill level with no restriction on the number of hours they can do this.

There is also no longer a limit on the number of hours those with leave in certain categories including healthcare workers sponsored under Tier 2 can work or volunteer for the NHS, and a facility to extend visas for free (see below for more details).

Can firms postpone a Tier 2 sponsored migrant’s start date? 

Normally once a CoS has been assigned the employee only has three months to submit the online visa or leave to remain application form. The Home Office has stated that applications submitted beyond the three months will not be automatically refused, if for example the individual was unable to travel. This will be looked at on a case by case basis. If a sponsored employee is in this position it is still worth submitting the application. If the application is approved the sponsor will be able to extend the start date by way of a sponsor note provided this is done before the application is submitted. 

For those whose visa has already been issued clarification is still being sought around whether the position continues to be that their start date cannot be delayed more than 28 days after the original start date detailed on the CoS. Otherwise in the meantime a workaround would be for this to be reported as an unpaid leave scenario until they are able to commence work. 

Can firms conduct right to work checks without seeing someone in person during social distancing measures?

Social distancing measures, self-isolation and travel restrictions make it more difficult to see people in person, and postal delays make sending original documents harder too. To mitigate this, the Home Office is temporarily allowing employers to use the online right to work check process and then check original documents via video calls for those with EU pre-settled or settled status, a Biometric Residence Card or Biometric Residence Permit. Otherwise scans or photos of the documents can be emailed or sent over on a phone app before employers check them via video conferencing. 

Retrospective follow up checks must be done when these temporary measures come to an end. For more details call 0207 033 9527 or email enquiries@vanessaganguin.com

The Immigration Bill means the government still intends to end free movement. Do we need to prepare for a new Points Based System?

Recent Home Office guidance for employers seeking to sponsor Tier 2 and 5 workers is a warning for employers to prepare for the post-Brexit immigration system due to commence on 1 January 2021. The Government’s policy statement of 19 February 2020 urged employers who do not already hold a sponsor licence to consider applying for one, in advance of the post-Brexit immigration system. 

The Immigration Bill (full title: Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill 2019-21) passed its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday May 18. 

The legislation is still due to come into force on 1 January 2021, part of a “multi-year programme of change” led by the Home Office. The UK Government continues to insist that the Brexit transition will not be extended beyond the end of the year, when the new post-Brexit immigration system is also due to start, replacing free movement from the EEA. 

For companies that may wish to sponsor employees from outside the UK, now is the time to start thinking of setting up a sponsor licence or renewing one if it is due to run out in 2021.

For more details about sponsor licence readiness and preparations for next year, call us on 0207 033 9527 or email enquiries@vanessaganguin.com

Covid-19 FAQs for individuals

Covid-19 facemasks

Are there coronavirus restrictions on travel to the UK?

Currently unlike most countries in the world, there are no extra restrictions on people entering the country lawfully because of Covid-19 and passengers are still being processed on the few flights into the country.

Under the Coronavirus Act passed in March, UK border officials can detain people and screen them if they left a region which is stricken with the virus in the past 14 days or they have reasonable grounds to believe that they may be infected or spread Covid-19.

Do people arriving in the UK need to quarantine?

Government advice that people arriving from China and Italy should stay at home for two weeks was withdrawn on 13 March. Then on 22 May, the Home Secretary Priti Patel finally announced plans to emulate many other countries around the world with 14-day “stay home” notices for arrivals in the UK starting from 8 June – including for British citizens.

From 8 June, arrivals in the UK will have to fill an online form with an appropriate address at which they will quarantine, with enforcement through random spot checks and £1,000 fines if arrivals in England are found to have broken the rules.

There will be a fine of £100 for failure to complete the form, and the Border Force will have the power to refuse entry to non-UK citizens who do not comply with the new regulations. Lorry drivers, seasonal farm workers, and medics and scientists working on coronavirus will be exempt from quarantine.

Arrivals will be asked to avoid public transport and travel to their accommodation by car “where possible”, and not to go out to buy food or other essentials “where they can rely on others.”

The Government has clarified that the measures apply to those arriving by sea and train as well as air. According to advice published on Monday 11 May: “the Government will introduce a series of measures and restrictions at the UK border… First, alongside increased information about the UK’s social distancing regime at the border, the Government will require all international arrivals to supply their contact and accommodation information. They will also be strongly advised to download and use the NHS contact tracing app.

“Second, the Government will require all international arrivals not on a short list of exemptions to self-isolate in their accommodation for fourteen days on arrival into the UK. Where international travellers are unable to demonstrate where they would self-isolate, they will be required to do so in accommodation arranged by the Government… Small exemptions to these measures will be in place to provide for continued security of supply into the UK and so as not to impede work supporting national security or critical infrastructure and to meet the UK’s international obligations. All journeys within the Common Travel Area [from the Republic of Ireland] will also be exempt from these measures.”

Arrivals from the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are also exempt as well as from the Republic of Ireland.

Can I still apply for a visa to the UK?

While VACs are shut due to social distancing measures around the world, nobody can submit their biometric data. In the meantime an online application can be made, with the Home Office extending the usual deadline for attending a biometric appointment to 240 days. In some cases, for example an application when a child will soon turn 18, it will be worth doing the online application ahead of being able to book an appointment at a VAC. Check the websites of VFS Global and TLScontact for updates on VACs or contact us on 0207 033 9527 or email enquiries@vanessaganguin.com

What if I cannot travel to the UK within 30 days of my visa being issued?

Home Office guidance issued on 28 April allows people with 30-day temporary visa vignettes which have expired or are about to expire, to email the Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre (CIH@homeoffice.gov.uk) up to the end of 2020 to receive a new one for free once VACs reopen. Emails should have “REPLACEMENT 30 DAY VISA” as the subject and include the applicant’s name, nationality, date of birth and the GWF reference number from their application form. 

The Home Office has also assured that no one will be penalised if they have not been able to collect their Biometric Residence Permit.

Will my indefinite leave to remain application be affected by extended absence from the UK?

Normally absences from the UK must not exceed 180 days in any 12 month period to qualify for indefinite leave to remain. However the Home Office has the discretion to waive excess absences where serious and compelling reasons can be demonstrated. The current pandemic has severely disrupted many people’s ability to travel, so we would expect people applying for indefinite leave to remain not to be penalised in such cases.

We would advise people to retain evidence around their reasons for their inability to return to the UK. If working remotely, we would also advise retaining evidence relating to this.

Can I extend my visa if I am unable to leave the UK?

Home Office guidance published on 22 May allows people whose leave expired after 24 January and are unable to return home due to Covid-19 to extend their visas until 31 July. The concession will be kept under review in case the Coronavirus pandemic makes further extensions necessary. 

The concession applies to anyone whose leave expired or will expire between 24 January and 31 July 2020 and who cannot leave the country because of travel restrictions or self-isolation. The Home Office has made clear people in such a situation will not be regarded as a overstayer.

A request can be made by completing this online form. (Anyone applying before 6 April could contact the dedicated Covid-19 team at UKVI by emailing them (CIH@homeoffice.gov.uk) with full name, date of birth, nationality, existing visa details, and reason (eg: flights suspended or self-isolation).

Those who had already temporarily extended their visas until 31 May will be able to obtain a further extension until 31 July.

This is not intended for people who are eligible to apply for extension of their current leave or are planning to apply for a long-term visa to stay in the UK (see below or contact us on 0207 033 9527 or email enquiries@vanessaganguin.com). 

Can I apply for a different visa without having to leave the UK to apply?

While the UK is facing Covid-19 measures, switching visas has been made easier for those otherwise facing having to leave the UK. For those who wish to apply for long-term leave to remain to stay in the UK, the Home Office is temporarily expanding in-country switching provisions until 31 July 2020. So for example if people wish to switch from the Tier 5 (Youth Mobility Scheme) to the Tier 2 General worker category they will have the option to do so without having to leave the UK at the present time.

Applications can be made, despite UKVCAS centres being currently closed for biometric appointments (check the Sopra Steria website for the latest news on the UKVCAS service it runs).

In the case of Tier 2 and Tier 5 sponsorships, a new job can be commenced while waiting for visa application centres as well as English language and Life in the UK test centres to reopen, so long as a CoS has been issued and the application has been submitted prior to the expiry of their previous leave.

What happens while English language and Life in the UK test centres  are closed?

English language and Life in the UK test centres are still closed so the Home Office has also recently confirmed that pending leave to remain applications will be put on hold (and not refused) until applicants have been unable to sit a Life in the UK or English language test.

Coronavirus Covid-19 as it would appear under a powerful microscope (cc) HFCM
Coronavirus Covid-19 as it would appear under a powerful microscope (cc) HFCM

W health and care workers extending visas?

Frontline health and care workers, including midwives, radiographers, social workers and pharmacists, with visas due to expire before 1 October 2020 will receive a free automatic one-year extension. It will apply to those working both in the NHS and independent sector and include their family members too. This expands on the announcement last month for NHS doctors, nurses and paramedics.

Free visa extensions are available for the following:

  • 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 above can check with their employer if they are eligible, and if they have already paid for a visa extension they can email the UKVI NHS team (UKVINHSTeam@homeoffice.gov.uk) to withdraw it and apply for a refund if they have not already provided biometrics as part of that application. They are also exempt from the Immigration Health Surcharge.

There is also no longer a limit on the number of hours those with leave in the following categories can work or volunteer for the NHS:

  • tier 4 student
  • tier 2 worker and your NHS is a second job
  • visiting academic researcher
  • short-term visa holder which permits volunteering.

Which frontline workers are exempt of paying the Immigration Health Surcharge?

On 21 May the Health Secretary unveiled a plan to roll out exemptions from paying the Immigration Health Surcharge to all NHS, independent health and care workers as well as the above professions. The Government is set to unveil more details. The current surcharge is £400, rising to £624 this October. It is due to be removed for all NHS staff, including health workers, porters and cleaners, as well as independent health workers and social care workers, many of whom are on the minimum wage.

What is the coronavirus bereavement scheme?

Family members of NHS and independent health and social care workers who die from COVID-19 will be offered immediate indefinite leave to remain free of charge

They not need to do anything to receive this status. UKVI will contact employers to identify those eligible and will arrange for you to be issued with indefinite leave to remain.

However, people can contact the UKVI NHS team at: UKVINHSTeam@homeoffice.gov.uk.

Can migrants with no recourse to public funds receive payment if furloughed?

The good news is that payments for furloughed staff as part of the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme are not classified as “public funds” for migrants, so they would not be breaking any regulations. However most migrants have the condition stipulated in their leave of “no access to public funds” and are unable to claim Universal Credit or other benefits available to ease people’s economic plight during social distancing measures. That said, “New Style” Jobseekers Allowance, Statutory Sick Pay, and “New Style” Employment Support Allowance do not count as public funds.

In addition, those who are facing extreme hardship and have been granted leave to remain on family/private life grounds may be eligible to have the “no public funds” condition removed if their financial circumstances have changed since the leave was granted and they are no longer able to provide food or housing for themselves or their family; their child is at risk because of their very low income or they had financial problems when they first applied but failed to provide evidence of this.

If my endorsement for a Global Talent, Innovator or Start-up visa expires will I still be able to come to the UK?

The current Home Office advice now allows: “If your endorsement from an endorsing body has expired because you have not been able to travel to the UK you may still be eligible for a visa. You should make your application as planned and we will consider all applications on a case by case basis.” 

How will the Covid-19 measures impact on Tier 1 (Entrepreneurs) seeking leave to remain?

During the current situation, the Home Office has now confirmed: “You no longer need to employ at least 2 people for 12 consecutive months each. The 12-month period you are required to employ someone for can be made up of multiple employees across different months. Time when your employees were furloughed will not count towards the 12-month period.

If you have not been able to employ staff for 12 months in total by the time your visa expires, you will be allowed to temporarily extend your stay to give you time to meet the requirement.”

These arrangements will continue for applications made after 31 May 2020, where the jobs you are relying on were disrupted due to Covid-19.

 

Please contact us for more details on this or for more details on any of these questions on 0207 033 9527 or email enquiries@vanessaganguin.com.

 

(Main photo by Hersch Pasztirak)