Despite having the highest death rate in Europe from coronavirus, the UK is one of the few countries that has not to date overtly imposed significant restrictions on travellers entering the country as visitors. Although the numbers of flights arriving into the UK has been hugely reduced, it is still possible to travel here from a number of countries. The government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy indicates that travellers entering the UK will shortly be told to isolate for two weeks, potentially adding to the list of dilemmas facing those wishing – or needing – to visit the UK at the moment.

UK immigration rules draw a distinction between ‘visa nationals’, who require advance permission to come to the UK in the form of a visa even if just for a short visit, and ‘non-visa nationals’, who do not require a visa to visit the UK. Potential visitors to the UK can determine if they need a visa by checking Appendix 2 to the visitor Rules. Notable exceptions to the requirement to obtain a visit visa include the EU states, USA, Australia, Brazil and Israel, amongst others.

Due to the current crisis, UK visa application centres based overseas are currently closed; meaning anyone who wishes to apply for a visa is effectively prevented from doing so. Those currently able to travel to the UK for a visit are therefore limited to non-visa nationals and visa nationals who already hold an existing valid visit visa (these can be issued on a long-term basis, allowing for multiple visits). Whilst some Home Office guidance suggests that waiving the requirement for a visa may be considered on compassionate grounds in certain circumstances, the extent to which these are being granted is unclear. For many, then, visiting the UK right now is simply not possible.

For those who are able get to the UK, anecdotal reports suggest that the current context is throwing up additional barriers to their entry. One woman is reported to have been denied entry at the border because her visit to her heavily pregnant daughter, who lives in London, was reportedly deemed ‘non-essential’ by border officials. We have also heard of a non-visa national being questioned as to why he wanted to visit the UK during a pandemic, before being denied entry and returned to his country of origin. The lawfulness of these decisions is likely questionable. The immigration rules do however allow the cancellation of a visit visa or ‘leave to enter’ where it is undesirable to admit the visitor to the UK for medical reasons, unless there are strong compassionate reasons justifying admission. The extent to which this provision is being used in the context of coronavirus, is unknown.  

It is also unclear whether temporary concessions introduced for those currently in the UK and unable to leave due to coronavirus may be affecting those seeking entry to the country. Any visitor to the UK must in principle satisfy an immigration officer that they are ‘genuine’ visitors and that they are intending to leave the UK at the end of their stay. As concessions are put in place for those already here, giving greater flexibility as to who can apply from within the UK for longer-term permission to stay and allowing current visitors temporary extensions, might the existence of these concessions increase scrutiny and suspicion of those now seeking entry? Whilst some of the concessions would not immediately apply to those entering now, they may be extended in future and there is a potential tension between the treatment of those in the UK already, and those seeking entry now.

The UK is now on the brink of introducing a blanket “quarantine” requirement for international arrivals, other than for those on a short list of exemptions, including those arriving from the Common Travel Area, which includes Ireland and the Crown Dependencies (the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey), and it appears, freight drivers and perhaps those involved in Covid 19 research.  This will mean those arriving in the UK will be required to self-isolate for 14 days, and that they must provide their accommodation and contact information on arrival. Those unable to demonstrate where they would self-isolate will be required to do so in accommodation arranged by the government. It has been reported that any breach of the requirement could lead to the imposition of penalties, including deportation or removal from the UK, though the government is yet to provide clear guidance on this and it is not yet clear what the source of these powers would be. Those arriving at the border will also be strongly encouraged to download the NHS contact tracing app. These requirements will come into effect ‘as soon as possible’, with further details and guidance to be published ‘shortly’. The aviation and airport industry was already deeply concerned at the proposal of these measures, arguing that it would have a ‘devastating impact’ on the UK aviation industry, and expressed ‘collective and serious concern and frustration’ following publication of the government strategy. On the other hand many commentators are observing that this is a measure which should have been introduced months ago.

Striking the balance between public safety, commercial and economic concerns, and the rights of visitors to fair treatment under the Immigration Rules is without question a challenge, but transparency and an adherence to the rule of law is surely what is needed if confidence is to be restored and secured moving forward.

Much has been said in recent weeks about the contribution of migrants to the NHS and in other ‘key worker’ roles. We must ensure that the current context does not allow those who have a right to visit to be turned away unlawfully, and that all migrants are treated with dignity, respect and within the bounds of the law.

If you have any questions about any of the above, then please do get in touch with our Immigration department.