Law at Work - July 2020 – 4 / 5 观点
Like so many areas of the global economy, the UK's immigration system has been severely hit by coronavirus. That's no surprise, seeing as the pandemic resulted in worldwide travel restrictions and closure of visa centres. Those that applied for UK visas before the outbreak without receiving a decision found that all of the Visa Application Centres (VACs) immediately closed. Without the ability to enrol biometrics at a VAC, all applications already submitted were put on hold. Thousands of applicants have been stuck in limbo, waiting for an easing of the restrictions. It will be a slow road to recovery, but we are starting to see some signs of a gradual unlocking of the immigration system.
As a follow up to our piece summarising the Home Office's COVID-19 guidance, we will take a look at the current progress of phased reopening and what employers should be thinking about for the rest of this year and beyond.
For applicants with pending applications or the intention to apply for a visa shortly, the major roadblock has been the closure of all VACs. Attending an appointment at a visa centre to enrol biometrics has always been a mandatory step, although on 2 July the Home Office announced a relaxation of the rules for some applicants that have given biometrics previously. If they can reuse the fingerprints already given in a previous application, the applicant will be emailed with instructions on how to send an image of their face and supporting documents.
Some applicants that have given biometrics before will still need to attend a service point in person to enrol their biometrics, including all those who last enrolled their biometrics before July 2015 and all children under 18 who have not enrolled their biometrics in the last two years. In family groups where any of the group’s fingerprints cannot be reused, the family group will all need to attend a biometric enrolment appointment together if applying at UK service point.
VAC reopening is a mixed picture across the world, which will depend partly on coronavirus infection rates in the relevant country. For example, VACs in USA and Canada remain closed at the time of writing but some other VACs have started to reopen.
Applicants can monitor the progress of VAC reopening at the websites of the Home Office's commercial partners: TLS (for applications submitted in Europe, Africa and parts of the Middle East) and VFS Global (for applications submitted anywhere else in the world).
It is still too early to be able to predict visa processing timelines or accurate UK work start dates because we are still in the early stages of re-opening. Priority will be given to those that applied several months ago in the queue system. With reduced capacity, it may still be weeks before some applicants are able to book and attend appointments. At the time of writing, expedited processing options are unavailable. Some applicants will still need to prove English language, obtain a TB certificate or obtain verification from the National Recognition Information Centre (NARIC) for their visa applications to be processed, so will need to monitor local centres to book appointments or services as early as possible.
Applicants are still required to provide biometric information, even if they provided it in a previous visa application. There has been some limited reopening of UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services (UKVCAS) service points. You can see current status and future plans here. But for those who need an appointment (who do not qualify for the exemption around reusing previous biometrics), there will be restrictions on bookings for some time yet. The first to receive appointments will be those that had a scheduled appointment that was then postponed due to closure of service points.
For everyone else the Home Office is using a simple queue system, so those that applied earliest will get first access. All applicants should complete the UKVCAS account registration after submitting their online visa application so that they can be notified directly at a later date to book their appointment. Anyone who registered with UKVCAS before 27 March 2020 but before 30 April 2020 that did not have an appointment will have priority in the booking system. Applicants should be contacted directly by the Home Office about this. Applicants should monitor their emails as further information will be sent in the coming days and weeks.
In most cases, applicants must wait for visa approval before they have the right to work under the new visa. The Tier 2 concession allows a Tier 2 applicant to commence work in their COS role at the point that their online form and COS have been submitted, rather than at the date that the visa is approved. This is particularly useful for change of employment applications in Tier 2 General, bearing in mind the unavailability of visa appointments and severe delays. Obviously, the employment must be terminated if the visa application is ultimately refused for any reason.
The Home Office continues to update its guidance with specific concessions available due to the impact of coronavirus.
From 8 June 2020 most travellers arriving in the UK were required to self-isolate for 14 days under strict measures. This rule was heavily criticised, so on 3 July the government announced that from 10 July anyone travelling or returning from one of the 59 countries with travel corridor exemption (provided that they have not been to or stopped in a country that’s not on that list in the previous 14 days) will be exempt from quarantine on their return to England. This specific change only applies to entry to England - the other countries in the UK will make their own changes to the quarantine rules. Although not on the approved list, travellers meeting the rules from 14 British Overseas Territories will be exempt, as will travellers from Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man as they are part of the common travel area. The new list includes most EU countries, Australia and New Zealand, but arrivals from any countries not on that list – including USA, China and India - will still need to self-isolate for 14 days in line with the government's guidance.
The agreed transition period will still end on 31 December 2020 and the UK government's position is that it will not be extended. The immigration position for citizens of the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland will be unchanged, whether or not the UK and the EU agree a trade deal. Any EEA/Swiss citizens living in the UK by 31 December 2020 must apply to the EU Settlement Scheme to preserve their right to live, work and study in the UK. The deadline for that application is 30 June 2021.
UK employers should not routinely check whether their existing European workers have applied to the scheme, but can and should offer support to anyone who has not yet applied. More than 3.5 million people have already applied, but you may have colleagues that have unique circumstances, or that are confused or worried about the process that may need support.
With an eye on the future, when that Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020, European citizens moving to the UK from next year will need status under the UK's immigration system (see below). In many cases, European workers will need a sponsored work visa in order to relocate to your UK office.
If you are considering relocating EEA/Swiss workers to the UK, or UK citizen workers to a European office in the next few months, it is worth considering whether you can accelerate the assignment to ensure that the worker arrives in the new country before the Brexit transition ends on 31 December 2020. That should ensure that they have a relatively simple (and free) registration process to be able to work in that new country. If they arrive from 1 January next year, they will be subject to the local immigration system of the country of destination, which may well involve a work permit application, with additional delay and cost.