The UK and many other parts of the world are entering a very difficult period due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the drastic measures it has provoked across the world.
We recognise that this is an intensely stressful time for everyone, as we all try to adjust to a ‘new normal’ and keep ourselves and our families safe and healthy.
We also recognise that for those navigating the UK immigration system, there is an additional layer of stress and worry that comes with the significant disruption we are all facing. We want to reassure you that we are taking steps to protect our people and to provide a seamless service to our clients.
Below are some of the ways in which the immigration system has already been impacted by the pandemic, and some sources of information. There remain many unanswered questions about how the recent measures and guidance announced by the government will affect the immigration system and we are liaising with the immigration law community and the Home Office to obtain answers and clarity on these as soon as we can. In the meantime, we will always be here to advise to the extent that we can, and to provide as much reassurance as possible during these difficult times.
Out of country applications
Visa Application Centre (VAC) closures
A number of VACs are closed, which will affect people’s ability to make their applications from overseas. The situation with regards to closures is changing extremely rapidly. If you have concerns about whether or not you will be able to make your application, please contact us and we can give you up-to-date advice.
English language testing
IELTs testing has been suspended in many countries and there is a comprehensive list of locations where this has happened and relevant dates available here. The website also states that where it is permitted and safe to do so, IELTs testing is going ahead with additional precautions in place to protect the health of test takers and staff. Where testing is going ahead, test takers are asked not to attend a test if they have been in contact with anyone suspected of having been exposed to coronavirus or if they have a cough, fever or shortness of breath. Additional requirements may apply depending on the region where the test is taken and test takers can contact the IELTs teams to discuss options for transferring to a later test date or for obtaining a refund.
There is specific UKVI guidance covering Chinese nationals in the UK, and non-Chinese non-EEA nationals who are usually resident in China (see below).
This guidance states that those intending to apply to extend their stay before 31 March 2020 should continue to do so.
Sopra Steria, which runs the biometrics service on behalf of UKVI, has published information on its website stating that anyone with symptoms who should be self-isolating, or who has coronavirus, should not attend their appointment and should email [email protected] to inform them of this, with ‘COVID-19’ and the individual’s UAN in the subject line. Sopra Steria will refund the fee and notify the Home Office. There is currently no further information as to what impact (if any) this may have on an individual’s application. Please contact us if you have concerns about not attending an appointment due to coronavirus.
Previous guidance asking those who attend an appointment and subsequently develop symptoms or are diagnosed with coronavirus are also asked to email [email protected] with ‘COVID 19’ and their UAN in the subject line, and include details of their appointment, seems to have been removed from the website.
A number of Sopra Steria service point locations have closed or will be closing due to the libraries from which they operate being closed by local authorities. A list of closures is available on the Sopra Steria website. The website states that customers affected by these closures do not need to take any action and that Sopra Steria will automatically rebook their appointments in the same locations in 6 weeks’ time. The website also states that Sopra Steria is making the Home Office aware of all affected customers; that no customers will be adversely impacted as a result of COVID-19; and that customers should not worry if their appointment has had to be rescheduled. Applicants are also asked to monitor their account, emails and voicemails and to check for updates on the Sopra Steria website.
English language testing
Trinity College says it has taken the decision to suspend all exams and awards with immediate effect, due to the increasing spread of COVID-19. It says it is working on a number of initiatives to enable candidates for certain examinations to submit work digitally (though it remains to be seen whether this will apply to English language tests relevant to UKVI), and individuals are asked to continue referring to the Trinity College website and local Trinity exam centre for updates over the coming days.
IELTS tests in the UK are currently suspended in a number of locations. As this list is being updated frequently, please check here for the latest information.
Life in the UK tests
The UKVI booking page for Life in the UK tests states that all Life in the UK test centres will be closed in line with official requirements of the UK government from 21 March until 13 April 2020 as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, to help protect the health of test takers and staff. Those who have already booked a test will have this automatically rescheduled to a date after 13 April 2020. For those booking a test, dates are still available from 13 April 2020.
The relevant guidance for Courts and Tribunals is available here and still currently states that as long as the individual going to court and those going with them do not have a confirmed or possible coronavirus infection, or do not need to self-isolate in line with NHS advice, they should continue to use the courts and tribunals as usual unless informed otherwise.
If the individual concerned or those going with them to court do have a confirmed or possible coronavirus infection, or need to self-isolate in line with NHS advice, they should contact the tribunal where the hearing is due to take place.
A pilot Practice Direction has been put in place for six months for the First Tier and Upper Tribunals (which includes the Immigration and Asylum Chamber), providing for greater use of remote hearings and for decisions to be made without a hearing where possible and appropriate. It also states that judges will make allowances for the pandemic when considering applications for extensions of time for compliance with directions and postponement of hearings. On 21 March the President of the First Tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) responded to letters from the Immigration Lawyers Practitioners Association and members of the Immigration Bar sent last week, raising concerns about the continued operation of the Tribunal at this time.
The letter states that from 25 March there will be no face-to-face hearings listed in any centre. Applications for bail and emergency work will continue to be given priority but, save in exceptional circumstances, applications and hearings will be conducted remotely. The Tribunal expects to send notice to parties in all cases that wherever possible evidence and submissions should be lodged by electronic means. Remote case management will follow and judges will decide whether appeals can be decided without a hearing, or if not whether a hearing can proceed remotely by means of Skype, Microsoft Teams or similar technology. On 23 and 24 March, only a handful of substantive appeals will be listed at each hearing centre, to allow guidance regarding social distancing to be applied. We also understand that all cases listed in the Upper Tribunal have been cancelled and that all parties in all cases will be formally notified.
UKVI published specific immigration guidance in February, when the focus of the outbreak was China. The main provisions of the guidance are as follows:
Chinese nationals in the UK with a visa expiry date between 24 January and 30 March 2020 will have their leave automatically extended to 31 March 2020, assuming they have been compliant with the conditions of their visa. This also applies to those on long-term visit visas who have reached 180 day maximum stay. They will not receive a new BRP and their new leave expiry date will just be added to UKVI’s systems.
Chinese nationals in the UK whose visa was granted by Irish authorities under the British Irish Visa Scheme (BIVS) or by the Crown Dependencies, and has an expiry between 24 January and 30 March, should contact the coronavirus immigration helpline.
Chinese nationals in the UK under Tier 2 (Intra-Company Transfer) whose visa expires between 24 January and 30 March can exceptionally apply to switch into Tier 2 (General) from within the UK.
Non-Chinese, non-EEA nationals in UK normally resident in China must contact the coronavirus immigration helpline – if they can demonstrate they are normally resident in China their visa should be extended but this will not be automatic.
For Chinese or third country nationals in China, all VACs in China are currently closed. They are trying to return passports where individuals have already made an application and attended, and paid for a courier service. Other applicants (i.e. those who did not pay for a courier) must contact VFS global directly on [email protected], including their GWF number and the city where they made the application in the email to find out more about passport return.
All SELTS in China scheduled for March have been cancelled. Those who have already taken a test will receive the Test Report Form (TRF) via email.
British nationals in China who need to apply for a passport cannot currently do so. Only emergency travel documents can be applied for. Passports due for collection at a VAC have now been delivered to British Embassy in Beijing or consulates in Shanghai/Guangzhou and applicants will be contacted to make arrangements for collection.
Licensed Tier 2, 4 or 5 sponsors do not need to report authorised absences due to coronavirus. They also do not need to withdraw sponsorship if they consider there are exceptional circumstances when a student will be unable to attend for more than 60 days or an employee is absent from work without pay for four weeks or more.
This guidance was last updated on 27 February and is available here. We are anticipating updated guidance from UKVI and will be looking out for further developments as they are announced.
Regulations have been passed adding coronavirus to the list of diseases for which no charge should be made by the NHS for treatment, regardless of immigration status. Government guidance is clear that this includes any test that comes back negative.
Face-to-face asylum interviews have been suspended and we also understand that further submissions no longer need to be made in person but can be made via email instead.
Campaigners are calling for the release of all those currently in immigration detention and the charity Detention Action has begun legal action in the High Court to secure the release of all immigration detainees. It has been reported that hundreds of detainees have already been released and that the first case of COVID-19 at an immigration removal centre has been confirmed at Yarls Wood in Bedfordshire.
If you have questions or concerns about any of the above or about how the current situation may affect you, please contact us. We are here to help.