As each day goes by, the impact of COVID-19 grows more and more devastating. The scale of the pandemic is difficult to comprehend, with the number of global confirmed cases now approaching 1,500,000.
Whilst the spread of the disease is of course the central issue, its impact on daily life is also hugely significant. In an attempt to limit the transmission of infection, the government has introduced strict social distancing measures, essentially amounting to a full-scale lockdown.
Schools have closed, businesses have shut their doors and the streets are eerily quiet as the nation comes together stem the tide of COVID-19.
We are all living in deeply uncertain times. But for migrants in the UK, the situation is uniquely unsettling.
The economic shutdown leaves many overseas nationals at serious risk of losing their jobs. Not only this, but with borders closed and flights grounded, those in this situation have no viable way of returning home.
What is the current Coronavirus guidance for Tier 2 Visa holders?
On the 27th of March, the government announced that all visas due to expire between the 24th January and 31st of May will be automatically extended until the 31st of May.
This is positive for a number of reasons. When a Tier 2 Visa expires under normal circumstances, the holder has just 60 days to find a new job with a sponsored employer or return to their country of origin. An extension of the previous visa cannot be applied for- this is only possible prior to its expiration.
The impact of COVID-19 has left those with expired visas in a hugely difficult position. Even if a new job was found within the 60 day timeframe, the overseas national would require a brand new Tier 2 Visa. However, with visa application centres currently closed due to Coronavirus, this is an option that cannot be pursued.
Similarly, were the overseas national to attempt to return home, they would likely be unable to due to the current restrictions on travel. This would leave them at risk of receiving severe consequences, as remaining in the UK beyond the 60 day period would be classed as an immigration offence.
Taking all of this into account, the visa extension issued by the government will be of immense assistance. It provides overseas nationals with extra time to either apply for additional leave to remain, or put together solid arrangements for returning home once it is safe to do so.
Further to this, it is reassuring to see the government communicating an awareness of the hugely difficult circumstances facing migrants in the UK as a result of COVID-19.
As well as announcing the visa extension, the government has also stated that those intending to stay in the UK long-term now have until the 31st of May to switch onto a long-term visa. This includes visas that, under usual circumstances, can only be applied for from outside the UK.
It is hugely positive that all migrants now have the ability to switch visas from within the UK. Coronavirus travel restrictions make it simply unviable to apply from outside the country. Were it not for this announcement, many overseas nationals would be prevented from extending their stay in the country due to factors outside of their control.
Loosening the visa switching rules in this way prevents migrants from being unjustly penalised.
Where does this leave Tier 2 Visa holders whose employment has been terminated?
Whilst it is positive to see that those whose visas were due to expire have been catered for by the government, it does raise the question of what will happen to those whose employment gets prematurely terminated due to Coronavirus.
As touched upon, the economic impact of COVID-19 has been profound. The introduction of social distancing measures has resulted in the closure of businesses up and down the country, which in turn has caused a number of key industries to suffer.
Unfortunately, this has led to considerable numbers of workers being made redundant- hospitality, leisure and travel companies are among those worst affected.
For Tier 2 Visa holders, redundancy does not just mean the loss of a job. Having to return to one’s country of origin can often mean leaving one’s home, friends and partner behind.
These issues were discussed by a Tier 2 Intra-Company Transfer Visa holder in The Independent:
“This specific Visa is linked to my company and my job and is not transferable to another company in the UK, nor can I apply for a different Tier 2 visa while in the UK under this visa as there is a 12 month cooling off period at the moment.
If I lose my job, or can no longer be sponsored by my company for any reason, I will have to leave the country in 14 to 60 days dependent on the reason for ‘losing’ the visa – this is still unclear to me.”
It is currently unclear whether Tier 2 Visa holders who are made redundant due to COVID-19 are also able to extend their leave until the 31st of May.
The government has issued visa extensions for stranded migrants and non-EU NHS workers, but Tier 2 Visa holders who have lost their job remain a grey area.
As the situation continues to evolve, it is likely that more concrete information will become available.
Guidance for Tier 2 Sponsors
One group for whom the government has provided more clear guidelines are Tier 2 sponsors.
Usually, sponsors must report staff absences in excess of 10 working days to the UKVI. However, these absences no longer need to be logged providing they are a result of COVID-19.
Under normal circumstances, sponsors are also required to report a change in work location. Yet due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a sponsor does not need to inform the UKVI that a member of staff is working from home.