We are now beginning to approach the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UK’s death toll currently stands at 13,729, with the number of confirmed cases reaching 103,093. In order to turn the tide, it is absolutely essential that we work together to limit the transmission of infection. Only then will we flatten the peak and emerge from the situation with as few casualties as possible.
Abiding by the government’s social distancing measures is central to achieving this. At the time of writing, the government has announced that the lockdown is to be extended by at least another three weeks. Adapting to such a dramatically altered way of life is of course difficult, but as we batten down the hatches in preparation for the pandemic’s most intense period, following the government’s advice could not be more important.
Migrants in the UK are facing immense uncertainty due to the ongoing crisis. The economic dimension alone is causing immense chaos, with many Tier 2 Visa holders facing redundancy due to the closure of businesses up and down the country. This raises a number of important questions- for example, should redundancy still be classed as a breach of visa rules when COVID-19 is the cause? Lockdown measures have forced many companies to cut costs by any means necessary, so many Tier 2 migrants have actually lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Whether the government will treat these cases as exceptions to the general rule remains to be seen.
The predicament we are in is also particularly distressing for those with expired visas/visas that are due to expire. Many are stuck in a form of limbo, with travel restrictions and the need to self-isolate ruling out the possibility of returning home.
It is imperative that individuals in this situation are catered for. Under normal circumstances, those whose leave to remain has expired are given 30 days to either return home or apply for additional leave to remain. Both of these options are made immensely difficult by COVID-19, and it is important to discuss what steps should be taken by those affected.
What measures have the government put in place to protect those with expired visas?
In order to safeguard migrants from the impact of COVID-19, the government has announced that individuals of any nationality whose leave expires between the 24th of January 2020 and the 30st of May 2020 will have their visa extended until the 31st of May 2020.
This is hugely positive news- as touched upon, those with expired leave have been left in a state of limbo due to COVID-19. The Home Office provides a strict 30-day window within which a person must either vacate the country or apply for a new visa. Were neither of these options to be pursued, remaining in the UK beyond this window would be classed as an immigration offence, potentially leading to detention or deportation.
The government’s announcement accounts for the fact that this offence- visa overstaying- would be unavoidable due to COVID-19. With nations around the globe closing their borders to limit the spread of the disease, there is essentially no viable way for overseas nationals to return home.
Applying for additional leave is also made immensely difficult by the pandemic. With visa application centres closed under social distancing measures, there is no way of obtaining biometric information, meaning a key part of the visa application process cannot be completed.
Further to this, Tier 2 Visa applicants would be seriously hard-pressed to find a job offer from a sponsored employer amidst the economic chaos of COVID-19. Businesses up and down the country are taking drastic measures to mitigate the financial hit caused by temporary closure, leading to many staff being made redundant. As a result, finding a job- particularly in such a short space of time- is even more difficult than usual.
It is important to note that the visa extension is not automatic. A holder must notify the Coronavirus Immigration Team and discuss their situation. Receiving an extension will not be held against the person in any future immigration applications.
The government has also announced that those intending to stay in the UK long-term have until the 31st of May to switch onto a long-term visa. This is hugely beneficial for those whose leave is due to expire, as it provides them with additional time to extend their stay in the country. The announcement also states that visas which usually need to be applied for from outside the country can now be switched onto from within the UK, an essential move in light of the COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Other rules for visa switching still apply, however. Individuals are only permitted to switch onto a published eligible route, and fees and requirements remain unchanged.
What was the government’s initial reaction to the crisis?
With the COVID-19 pandemic originating in China, the government’s first move was to protect Chinese nationals. On the 17th of February, it was announced that all Chinese nationals whose visa was due to expire between the 24th of January and the 30th of March 2020 would automatically have their visas extended until the 31st of March.
The same arrangements were put in place for non-Chinese, non-EEA nationals in the UK who usually reside in China. It was also announced that Chinese nationals on a Tier 2 Intra-Company Transfer Visa were able to switch onto a Tier 2 General Visa providing their existing leave was due to end between 24th January and 30th March. This waived the rule preventing in-country switching that would usually apply.
A key difference between this announcement and the current arrangements were that Chinese nationals had their leave automatically extended, whereas now nationals of other countries need to contact the Coronavirus Immigration Team.
What is the latest COVID-19 travel guidance?
The UK lockdown has been extended for at least another three weeks, meaning that the existing social distancing measures will remain in place.Due to widespread border closures and restrictions, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have advised against travelling abroad indefinitely.