Due to worldwide increase of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) certain measures have been taken to combat its spread. Escalating impact of COVID-19 is leading to change in almost all aspects of society, inside and outside the UK. The immigration system is no exception.
Various updates and changes to immigration law and practice affected by COVID-19 are as follow:
General policy – Visa extensions and other concessions
In the current situation, non-EEA nationals in the UK (on temporary leave to enter or remain) on visas nearing the expiration of their validity, find themselves in a precarious immigration position. Especially, with numerous countries, impacted by the coronavirus, imposing travel restrictions which may be preventing their return home or because they are practicing self-isolation in the UK.
The Home Office public guidance updated on 24th March 2020 states;
“Visas extended for those currently unable to return home due to COVID-19
Leave extended to 31 May for individuals who are currently unable to return home at the end of their visa.
Visa nationals who cannot return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic will be able to extend their visa.
The extension, announced today (24 March) by the Home Secretary Priti Patel, will apply to anyone whose leave expired after the 24 January and who cannot leave the country because of travel restrictions or self-isolation.
This will last until 31 May but will be kept under regular review in case further extensions are needed.”
The guidance further states that;
A dedicated COVID-19 immigration team has been set up within UKVI, to make the process as straightforward as possible for those needing an extension on their visas. Individuals must contact the Coronavirus Immigration Team email to apply for such an extension on their visas.
Individuals should include the following in their email:
- Full name (include any middle names)
- DOB (dd/mm/yyyy)
- Existing visa details
- Reason that has required them to extend their stay (for example, the suspension of all travel to their place of permanent residence)
The email must be in English.
Further, please note as per the fact sheet published on 25th March:
- The Coronavirus Immigration Team will update relevant details on UKVI databases. Individuals will be advised that UKVI has noted their details; they will not be subject to any exclusion action; and this period will not be held against them for their future applications i.e. it will not be considered as an ‘overstay period’.
- This requirement to contact CIT applied to individuals of any nationality whose leave expires between 24th January and 31st May 2020.
[Earlier version of public guidance focused on Chinese citizens and residents of China stuck in the UK, as they were most affected at the time that guidance was first published, in mid-February 2020.]
The aforesaid public guidance further includes information on switching visas as follows:
“To help those who want to apply for visas to stay in the UK long-term, the Home Office is also temporarily expanding the in-country switching provisions.This will mean people can continue to apply to switch routes, such as from Tier 4 (student) to Tier 2 (General Worker), whilst remaining in the UK. UKVI will continue to process applications as quickly as possible, however some applications may take longer than usual due to COVID-19 related operational pressures.”
Further please note as per fact sheet:
- Where individuals would normally be required to return to their country of residence to apply for a visa in a different category, they’ll now be able to apply from the UK to switch.
- Individuals will need to be switching from/to a published eligible route and will need to meet the same visa requirements and pay the same application fee.
- This includes those whose leave has been auto-extended to 31 March 2020.
- Applicants can apply online as usual and select a biometric submission appointment to attend if they are able to in line with public health guidance. We will process applications as quickly as we can but there are likely to be delays due to Covid-19. The terms of their leave will remain the same until their application is decided
- Individuals will not be regarded as an overstayer or be subject to enforcement action if they are unable to attend a biometric appointment due to Covid-19 or if there are delays in processing your application.
Sponsor Duties – Tier 2, Tier 4, Tier 5
The Home Office brief guidance published due to Coronavirus impact for organisations who sponsors overseas workers or students under Point Based System Tiers 2, 4 and 5 states;
“We will not take enforcement action against sponsors who continue to sponsor students or employees despite absences due to coronavirus.”
The sponsor doesn’t require to report student or employee absences related to coronavirus, and this can include illness, their need to isolate or inability to travel due to travel restrictions.
The sponsor should not withdraw sponsorship if:
- A student is unable to attend for more than 60 days.
- An employee is absent from work without pay for more than 4 weeks.
*This will be kept under review.
The Home Office confirmed that, exceptionally, they will not consider distance learning a breach of the sponsor duties to offer distance learning to Tier 4 students who are in the UK, or who have returned home. Sponsors can also offer distance learning to international students who have been issued with a Tier 4 visa but who have not been able to travel to the UK. Sponsors do not need to notify UKVI if they switch to distance learning and the said arrangements apply until 31 May, when they will be reviewed.
In the same way, sponsors do not have to notify to the Home Office that their sponsoring employees who are working from home due to pandemic. Other changes to the working arrangements must still be reported as usual.
Special Hotline – Coronavirus Helpline Centre
The Home Office has set up a Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre:
If you have Immigration queries related to coronavirus, please contact;
The sponsor should not withdraw sponsorship if:
- Email at CIH@homeoffice.gov.uk [Email must be in English]. They will respond to your email within 5 working days.
You can also call the Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre. If you’ve emailed the help centre already, please do not contact them by phone.
- Telephone: 0800 678 1767 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm). Calls are free of charge.
If your query doesn’t relate to immigration provisions associated with coronavirus (COVID-19) please contact the general immigration helpline.
Status of UK Visa Application Centres inside UK
Within the UK (UPDATED 27 March) All visa appointment sites within the UK are closed.
Sopra Steria (UKVCAS) who is official partner of UK Visas & Immigration which runs the network of Visas and Citizenship application services, has updated the following on their website;
“The UKVCAS service is currently suspended. The worldwide response to COVID-19 continues to affect the UK’s Visa and Immigration Service. As a result, the UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services (UKVCAS), led by Sopra Steria on behalf of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), has suspended all services to help protect the health and wellbeing of our customers and staff.This will remain under review with UKVI as the situation evolves.”
Further please note;
- If you already have an existing appointment, you do not have to do anything. UKVCAS will automatically reschedule your appointment.
- If you can’t make the rescheduled appointment, you can cancel this online and receive a full refund. However, you will not be able to rebook until the online booking system reopens.
Status of UK Visa Application Centres – Outside UK
The Home Office published guidance, the second factsheet for visa customers outside of the UK on 24th March 2020 states;
- Many of the UK’s Visa Application Centres (VACs) are currently closed and we anticipate more closing. Many that are open are offering limited services.
- For up to date advice on services in each country individuals should access the relevant commercial partner:
Further, to the latest update on 1st April 2020, the VFS website states that “UK has stopped accepting visa applications globally”.
Other visa application centres overseas run by TLScontact. It does not appear to have a centralized list of closures, but applicants can check the situation in their country through the TLScontact website.
In-line with the Home Office factsheet it states that;
- Where visa applicants have an appointment and the VAC is now closed, they will be contacted by the commercial partners and their appointments would be rescheduled.
- If customers have paid for courier return, commercial partners are sending passports back (where courier routes remain open to allow them to do so). If applicants are concerned about their passport, they can contact Coronavirus Immigration Team for advice.
- If individuals whose passport is currently held in a VAC but they have not previously arranged for it to be returned by courier, please contact either TLS contact or VFS global directly.
Immigration Tribunal Hearings
HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is now issuing a daily operational summary on courts and tribunals during coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The latest version summarizes the position with First-tier and Upper-tribunal immigration and asylum cases;
“The [First-tier] tribunal has suspended face to face hearings (other than in exceptional circumstances) until further notice. A notice containing instructions on the next steps in your case will be sent to you. We are working through the listed cases in priority and date order and you should wait until we contact you. Please do not call us unless your enquiry is urgent. Bail applications will be prioritised and where a hearing is required, will be listed to take place by telephone or video. Users are advised to contact the relevant hearing centre on the email addresses below until further notice”.
For the Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) work priorities:
There may be some delays in processing non-urgent work. Please see below different ways in which we are dealing with appeals and judicial reviews.
Appeals and Permission to Appeal applications to UTIAC:
- Appeals that were listed for hearing have been postponed. All appeals to UTIAC are being judicially case managed. There is also limited monitoring of the appeals email inbox currently taking place.
Judicial Reviews in UTIAC:
- A notice was issued (23 March 2020) on handling of urgent Judicial review applications.
- Form T483: Apply for urgent consideration in a judicial review – use this form to apply to the Upper Tribunal Immigration and Asylum Chamber (UTIAC) for urgent consideration in a judicial review.
- Non urgent judicial review applications should be sent by post and will be processed when our capacity increases.
- The fees counter at Field House is currently closed and calls to 020 7073 4278 may not be answered.
A network of priority courts will remain open during the coronavirus pandemic to make sure the justice system continues to operate effectively.
From 26 March, there has been a general ban of leaving the house that no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse. The coronavirus lockdown regulations do include an exemption “to fulfil a legal obligation, including attending court or satisfying bail conditions, or to participate in legal proceedings”.
The work of courts and tribunals will be consolidated into fewer buildings, maintaining the safety of all in the courts and in line with public health advice.
Work is being developed across the entire estate, following enormous changes to everyday life, and capacity for phone and video hearings has been significantly increased, so that lawyers and appellants need no longer turn up in person.
Hearings that cannot be heard by video or telephone and which cannot be delayed will be held in a priority court and tribunal buildings, except under extraordinary circumstances, from Monday, 30 March 2020.
Sir Ernest Ryder, the Senior President of Tribunal, has written to his judges saying that “The normal arrangement in all tribunals is now remote hearings and decision making online or by telephone conferencing, video or Skype”.
Remote Hearings – Overview
The Senior President of Tribunals issued a Pilot practice direction on 19th March 2020 covering contingency arrangements in the First-Tier Tribunal and The Upper Tribunal (i.e. including immigration).
The practice direction states that;
- Where it is reasonably practicable and in accordance with the overriding objective to hear the case remotely (that is in any way that is not face-to-face, but which complies with the definition of ‘hearing’ in the relevant Chamber’s procedure rules), it should be heard remotely.
The tribunals will take into account the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic when considering applications for the extension of time for compliance with directions and the postponement of hearings.
Further, the practice direction correspondingly agrees to;
- Decisions to be made on paper without an oral hearing, where possible;
- Where a Chamber’s procedure rules allow decisions to be made without a hearing, decisions should usually be made in this way, provided this is in accordance with the overriding objective, the parties’ ECHR rights and the Chamber’s procedure rules about notice and consent.
- Chamber Presidents to “triage” cases
- Hearings to go on in party’s absence;
- the hearing may proceed on that basis provided this is in accordance with the overriding objective.
- a decision made in their absence will not us
- ually be granted if the decision fully upholds or allows their appeal or application.
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