Auteur
Vikki Wiberg

Vikki Wiberg

Senior counsel

Read More
Auteur
Vikki Wiberg

Vikki Wiberg

Senior counsel

Read More

28 avril 2020

Law at Work - May 2020 – 2 de 4 Publications

The impact of coronavirus on UK visa holders and sponsors

  • IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS

On 12 March 2020 coronavirus (COVID-19) was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.  As travel restrictions and quarantine measures continue to be rolled out round the world, the Home Office released guidance on 24 March for individuals whose visas have expired or are due to expire imminently. Whilst this guidance is helpful, the fast changing nature of the pandemic has left UK businesses and visa holders in a state of uncertainty. Charlotte Sutton and Vikki Wiberg from Taylor Wessing's immigration team explore below the current position including the latest Home Office guidance and some of the key questions that UK businesses and visa holders may have. This can be read alongside our article on employment issues.

Guidance for UK Visa Holders - 24 March 2020

  • The Home Office previously announced that the visas of UK resident Chinese nationals and those ordinarily in China which expire between 24 January and 30 March 2020 will be extended to 31 March 2020. The latest guidance confirms that now individuals of any nationality, whose leave expires between 24 January 2020 and 30 May 2020, and who cannot leave the UK due to travel restrictions will have their visa extended to 31 May 2020. Unlike for Chinese nationals, the extension of the visa for other nationalities is not automatic. Individuals must submit an online form, here , to the Coronavirus Immigration Team (CIT) with their personal details and their reason for remaining in the UK. They should receive an email response from UKVI within 5 working days. Assuming that the extension request is approved, UKVI will update their systems with the extension for future UK immigration applications. There is also a Coronavirus Immigration Helpline (CIH@homeoffice.gov.uk / 08006781767) for all other immigration queries related to Coronavirus.
  • The Home Office previously made concessions for Chinese national Tier 2 Intra-Company Transfer (ICTs) holders with visas expiring between 24 January and 30 March 2020, allowing them to exceptionally "switch" their status into Tier 2 General from within the UK rather than return to China. The latest guidance confirms that now individuals of any nationality who cannot leave the UK due to travel restrictions or self isolation can exceptionally "switch" to a long-term visa category from within the UK until 31 May 2020. Individuals must be switching from / to a published eligible route and will need to meet the same visa requirements and pay the same application fee. Applicants apply online as usual and the terms of their current leave will continue until a decision on the application has made. Visa applications will be processed when the currently closed UK Application Support Centres have been re-opened.
  • Individuals in the UK who plan to extend their existing leave must submit a leave to remain application online before their current visa expires. The terms of their current leave will continue until the decision is issued. Anyone extending or switching into the Tier 2 or Tier 5 visa category can start work before a decision on their application has been made if they (i) have an assigned Certificate of Sponsorship (COS), (ii) submitted the application online before their current leave expires and (iii) are carrying out the role described on their COS. If the application is later rejected by the Home Office their employment must be terminated which could impact on their ability to remain lawfully in the UK. This should be carefully considered before the employee resigns.

Advice for Tier 2 Sponsors

The Home Office has produced advice on some sponsor licence duties. As UK employees are increasingly absent from work or work remotely, UK businesses holding a Tier 2 Sponsor Licence should take steps to remain compliant with their sponsor duties. The Home Office has confirmed:

  • that authorised employee absences due to coronavirus do not need to be reported on the SMS
  • sponsorship does not need to be withdrawn if an employee is absent without pay for four weeks or more as a result of coronavirus. That being said, until Home Office guidance confirms otherwise, businesses should still notify the Home Office if there is an arrangement for sponsored workers to go on unpaid leave for a period of 4 weeks or more
  • the 24 March guidance confirms that whilst a change of working location would usually be reportable within 10 working days on the SMS, sponsors are not required to notify the Home Office if an individual is working from home due to the pandemic.
  • where a Tier 2 migrant starts work with the sponsor following the submission of their Tier 2 application online but before the application is processed, sponsors will not be able to report changes of migrant circumstances to the Home Office via the SMS. Sponsors must record and maintain any reportable information on their own systems. Any changes that will impact the eventual consideration of the visa application should be updated on the individual's COS, as normal.

Sponsors should remember that if concerns about coronavirus impact on a sponsored Tier 2 visa holders plans to come to the UK or to leave earlier than anticipated then this must be reported in the usual way within 10 working days (along with any other reportable changes).

Access to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) for Tier 2 furloughed workers

Under the government CJRS, businesses may be able to keep employees on payroll if they are unable to operate or have no work due to coronavirus. This is known as designating employees 'on temporary furlough'. In such circumstances, the government will pay 80% of an employee's base salary up to a monthly cap of £2,500 which means that furloughed employees may have a temporary reduction in salary. Employers can, but are not required to, top up the salary.

On 3 April the Home Office published guidance to confirm that the salaries of all Tier 2 sponsored workers, including those on restricted Tier 2 General visas, can also be reduced to the lower of 80% of overall base salary or £2,500 per month. It confirms that Tier 2 workers can also be designated as being on temporary furlough and that access to the CJRS (which is managed through the employer) will not be considered accessing a public fund by the visa holder.  There are still some considerations that need to be addressed. For example how does a reduction in salary interact with some  Tier 2 visa requirements such as the minimum salary thresholds. We expect that there will be an exemption to the usual rules around salary for those on furlough but have sought clarification on this point.

When designating sponsored employees on temporary furlough employers should consider:

  • any salary reduction need to be part of a company-wide policy ensuring that all workers (sponsored or not) are treated the same
  • it is essential that sponsors keep a good paper trail both with all furloughed employees (showing consistent treatment) and also company-wide communications 
  • the sponsored employee’s pay must return to at least previous levels once the furlough arrangements have ended, and
  • a drop in salary for sponsored employees due to furlough triggers a reporting duty to the Home Office through the online SMS within 10 working days of the change taking effect. The sponsor must report to the Home Office when a sponsored employee's salary is reduced and report again once it has increased.

We anticipate that the Home Office will issue further guidance on this area. In the meantime companies must be careful when managing furlough for Tier 2 visa holders to avoid any potential discrimination claims or breaches of their Sponsor duties.

Conducting compliant Right to Work (RTW) checks when working remotely

To carry out compliant RTW checks when on-boarding a new employee, a company must normally meet the employee before they start work and have sight of their original passport and other identity documents. Normally, unless they complete compliant in person checks the company will not have a defence against future illegal working charges.

On 30 March the Home Office published guidance to confirm that during this time employers can now conduct RTW checks by video call.  Workers can submit a scanned copy or photo of their original documents via email or a mobile app followed by a video call with the worker to present their original documents to camera allowing the employer to check against the digital copies. Employers must keep a record of the date the check was made and mark it as 'adjusted check undertaken on [insert date] due to COVID-19'. Employers must take compliant RTW checks within 8 weeks of the end of the current CIVID-19 measures. Both copies should be kept on file. More details can be found here.

If the employee is a non-EU national who holds a biometric residence permit card or biometric card, or is an EEA national who holds a status under the EU Settlement scheme, an employer can use the online RTW checking service whilst doing a video call (with the worker's permission). The RTW checking service is a Home Office online portal (UK Gov "View a job applicant's right to work" ) allowing online RTW checks  even when the employer does not have access to the original documentation. An online response should be generated showing a picture of the job applicant or employee to be verified and details of any visa conditions (if applicable). This response should also be retained on file.

All Change

UK visa services suspended in the UK from 30 March 2020

Individual's applying to extend / switch their visa from within the UK or applying for British Citizenship need to attend an appointment at a Sopra Steria UKVCAS Support Centre to enrol their biometric data (fingerprints and photo) as part of the application process. On 30 March 2020, all Sopra Steria Centres in the UK were closed until further notice, along with all Post Office enrolment Service and Support Centres. It is now no longer possible for applicants to book an appointment via the Sopra Steria website. That said, as set out in 'Guidance for UK visa holders' above, individuals must still submit an application online if they intend to remain in the UK beyond the expiry of their current UK visa . The submitted application will be processed once the UKVCAS Support Centres re-open. Applicants that have already booked an appointment or have a biometric enrolment letter will be contacted and told what to do next – we understand that existing appointments will be rescheduled for 6 weeks time.

The Home Office have suspended all Priority and Super Priority Visa Services, which means that standard processing times will apply to any recently submitted applications (where biometrics have not been enrolled) once the UKVCAS Support Centres re-open. For most applications standard processing times are approximately 8 weeks but may be longer given that Home Office will have a backlog of applications when services return to normal. After an application is submitted online, the applicant will not be able to travel outside of the UK until a decision has been issued, or the application will be treated as withdrawn.

UK visa services suspended around the world

Currently all overseas UK Visa Application Centres (VACs) are closed until further notice. This includes all VACs in the US which are closed until at least 4 June 2020.

The submission of biometric data is a mandatory step in the visa application process. The closure of these sites means that UK visa applications will not be processed until they re-open. Applicants are encouraged to visit the website of the relevant VAC for information.

FAQs

Whilst the guidance is a starting point for UK businesses and those with imminently expiring visas, at the time of writing the Home Office has not addressed many key questions. Some of these are set out below.

FAQs for sponsors

Can I reduce a Tier 2 migrant's salary for short-time working purposes?

In line with the Home Office guidance published on 3 April, we understand that any Tier 2 sponsored worker's salary can be reduced for short-term working purposes below the amount in the initial CoS. This is a key change from the usual restrictions on salary reduction for those sponsored through the Tier 2 General RCoS route where this takes salary below the level set out in the initial RCoS request. This means sponsors must usually continue to pay migrants at the level set out in their RCoS (even if they agree to a reduction in hours worked).

It is still not clear how a reduction in salary interacts with the various Tier 2 visa requirements, particularly the minimum salary requirements for a Tier 2 visa. We have sought clarification. Again reductions in salary for any reason need to be part of a company-wide policy to ensure that all workers (sponsored or not) are treated the same.

Are the Home Office accepting Sponsor Licence applications?

The Home Office has confirmed that, in a change to its normal requirement for prospective sponsors to post original / certified copy supporting documents to them within 5 working days of submission of the online licence application form, it will accept electronic copies of sponsor licence documents (via email) at their discretion on a case by case basis.  We suggest businesses email the Sponsor Licence Team (SCOC@homeoffice.gov.uk) before sending any electronic documents to check they will be accepted. The Home Office have confirmed that they still reserve the right to request original or certified documents and discretion based on the above will be noted on their records. As usual a confirmation letter will be sent via email to the Authorising Officer once a decision on the application has been made. All electronic documents must still meet the requirements outlined in published guidance as part of the Sponsor Licence application.

FAQs for Visa Holders

Will absences from the UK due to coronavirus impact on my future Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) application?

Typically applicants must have no more than 180 days absence from the UK in each of the years on which they are relying for the ILR application. This is a strict requirement. The Home Office residence guidance for ILR applications does contain flexibility around absence for "compelling reasons". This does not expressly refer to coronavirus absence and any decision on excessive absence would be a subjective one. We recommend keeping absence to a minimum where possible and retaining evidence of the links to the absence and coronavirus (e.g. flight booking information, FCO guidance etc).

What happens if I am unable to travel to the UK within the dates of the 30 day visa endorsed in my passport?

On 28 April the Home Office published guidance confirming that holders of expiring / expired 30 day visas can, until the end of 2020, request a replacement visa with revised validity dates free of charge. Applicants need to contact the Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre via email (CIH@homeoffice.gov.uk), with their name, nationality, date of birth and GWF reference number in an email with ‘REPLACEMENT 30 DAY VISA’ in the subject line. Applicants will be contacted when the VACs reopen to arrange for a replacement visa to be endorsed in their passport. It is not clear how quickly new visas will be issued or whether the process can be expedited by payment of priority fees. The guidance published reassures applicants that they will not be penalised for being unable to collect their BRP while coronavirus measures are in place.

What should I do if I have been unable to submit by biometrics due to Visa Application Centre (VAC) closures overseas?

Closures of VACs have left many applicants in "limbo" and unable to submit their biometric data following submission of their online application forms. Whilst usually, applicants need to submit their biometric data within 45 days for the application to remain valid, this has temporarily been extended to 240 days. VFS Global has confirmed that applicants will be able to schedule a new appointment or reschedule an existing one once the VACs re-open if their appointments have been missed.

Can I obtain a refund if I have submitted my application and have not yet received a decision?

Again, there is no Home Office guidance on this point. Usually fees are not refunded for visas that have been issued. VFS Global currently maintains this position on their website / Coronavirus FAQs page for applications that have been made overseas.  Those whose visas are still being processed may be able to withdraw their applications and seek a refund by emailing communications@vfsglobal.com. Any refund will be at the sole discretion of the British embassy.

I have my visa and am planning to travel to the UK. Will I face extra checks at the airport?

On 257 March the Government published the Coronavirus Act 2020. Amongst other things this confirms the pre-existing (albeit currently more limited) right for an Immigration Officer to hold anyone arriving at a UK port of arrival for further screening if the Immigration Officer has reasonable grounds to believe that (i) they may be infected or contaminated with Coronavirus and there is a risk that they might infect or contaminate others or (ii) they have left an infected area within the 14 day period immediately preceding the date of arrival in the UK. The Act contains a the power to detain an individual for 48 hours or until such time as any screening requirements have been complied with and assessment carried out. There is a fine of £1,000 for non-compliance.

Has the process for obtaining British Citizenship been affected?

As above, the Sopra Steria UKVAC Centres are now closed until further notice. This means applicants are unable to schedule / attend appointments to submit their biometric data as part of the citizenship application process. In addition, to complete the process of becoming British, applicants are required to attend a Citizenship Ceremony and obtain a certificate of naturalisation / registration. Citizenship Ceremonies are starting to be called off (although applicants should check with the relevant Council) and that the Home Office are no longer issuing naturalisation / registration certificates to applicants

What can businesses be doing now?

UK businesses should look out for Home Office and Public Health England guidance and seek advice on any queries particularly those relating to Sponsor Licence compliance.

Dans cette série

Droit Social, pensions et mobilité

The impact of coronavirus on UK visa holders and sponsors

IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS

par Vikki Wiberg

Droit Social, pensions et mobilité

Law at Work - Hot topics May 2020

QUICK READ

par Kathryn Clapp, Shireen Shaikh

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