Jamie Kerr: Coronavirus – immigration & visa update
As the UK starts to grapple with the impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), the Home Office has been quick off the mark to make a number of concessions aimed at assisting UK visa holders impacted by the spread of the virus and the associated disruption, writes Jamie Kerr.
The first significant sign that the UK visa authorities were alert to the potential impact of the virus was the closure of all the UK Visa Application Centres in China.
The UK resisted calls to implement travel bans for those coming from China, but the closure of the Visa Centres essentially halted travel of anyone who did not already hold a UK visa. The Visa Application Centre in Iran has now also been closed, as have the many approved English language test facilities in both countries.
The seriousness of these moves cannot be understated. The centres all closed without advance notice, meaning that thousands of visa applications remain outstanding, including for employees, visitors, students and business people.
The visa centres retained all the visa application paperwork, including passports - effectively meaning that those with outstanding visa applications are unable to travel anywhere as their passports are at the closed visa centres.
Since then, extensive guidance has been issued by the UK Home Office to help those impacted by the closures and by the spread of the virus more broadly. The key highlights focus on Chinese nationals with an absence of guidance for Iranian nationals, though that might expand in the days and weeks ahead:
Chinese nationals in the UK with expiring visas
Remarkably, the UK has automatically extended visas for Chinese nationals if they were due to expire between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020.
No further paperwork is to be issued to this group of people and this will cause issues for employers who need to retain proof of an employee’s right to work in the UK. In England, landlords will also have challenges in confirming the legal status of tenants and there are a cohort of people who remain lawfully in the UK although on the face of it their visas have expired. The new expiry date will be 31 March 2020. No such concession yet exists for Iranian nationals in the UK or any other nationality.
Foreign nationals in the UK who live in China
Foreign nationals who are not Chinese or European nationals who normally live in China, but find themselves in the UK and unable to return to China as a result of the outbreak will also have their visas extended to 31 March 2020, though this is not automatic and needs to be requested.
Chinese nationals in the UK with UK visas issued by Ireland or the Crown Dependencies
Those Chinese nationals granted UK visas by the Irish authorities under the British Irish Visa Scheme or visas granted in Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man need to contact the Home Office to discuss their visas being extended if they are impacted by the virus.
Tier 2 Sponsorship concessions
Chinese nationals wishing to move from Tier 2 (Intra Company Transfer) visas to Tier 2 (General) can now apply to do this from inside the UK if their visa expires between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020. There is no guidance for Iranian nationals in this regard, though given the closure of the Visa Application Centre in Iran, there would be no reason why the same rules ought not to apply.
UK based Sponsors – Tiers 2, 4 and 5
UK based institutions that hold Tier 2, Tier 4 or Tier 5 sponsor licences need to understand their compliance obligations. Those in quarantine/isolation or those ill or unable to travel might be absent from work or studies. Interestingly, sponsors do not need to report such coronavirus related absences that are authorised by them, but they should keep a note of such anyway. The Home Office are recognising the ‘exceptional’ nature of the current situation and are relaxing many of the usually very stringent sponsor obligations.
Passports at the closed visa centres
There is not yet any sign of the closed visa application centres re-opening, though the authorities are trying to return passports that have been retained, though this has been a slow process. Visas for the UK are not being processed by the Chinese or Iranian posts and there are likely to be significant backlogs when the centres re-open. Those with passports still at the application centres need to contact VFS Global directly.
British nationals in China needing UK passports
British nationals in China (and Iran) cannot currently apply there for a new UK passport. A process for applying for emergency travel documents is in place and all British passports that were ready for collection in China have been moved to either the British Embassy in Beijing or the Consulates in Shanghai or Guangzhou.
Jamie Kerr is a partner at Burness Paull LLP