The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is currently affecting the ability of people to travel to and from the UK, including those who require immigration permission for the UK. The Home Office has now issued short-term guidance on how to manage the immigration implications of the situation, which employers and individuals should continue to monitor over the coming days and weeks.
The guidance confirms that a telephone and email helpline has been set up as a contact point for affected individuals’ immigration-related queries. The guidance also provides information on specific issues.
We expect that in the future, more detailed policy guidance will need to be written into the Immigration Rules and caseworker policy documents. This should provide clear instructions for those who could otherwise be adversely affected, for example where an inability to return to the UK causes excess absences to arise for indefinite leave or nationality purposes.
Advice for people who are in the UK
Chinese nationals who are in the UK with a UK visa expiry date from 24 January 2020 to 30 March 2020 will receive an automatic extension to 31 March 2020. They do not need to contact the helpline unless they need a status letter or new biometric residence permit confirming this, for example if they need to prove an ongoing right to work in the UK.
Those in the UK who are normally resident in China but who are not Chinese or EEA nationals and who have a visa granted by the UK, Ireland (under the British Irish Visa Scheme) or by a British crown dependency should contact the helpline for advice.
Chinese nationals with a visa expiry between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020 will be allowed to switch from Tier 2 Intra Company Transfer to Tier 2 General without having to return to China.
Depending on how things unfold, the automatic visa extension provision may need to be revised beyond 31 March. The guidance should therefore be monitored for updates ahead of that date.
Advice for people who are in China
Significant travel restrictions currently apply between the UK and China, with many routes operated by commercial carriers being suspended.
The visa application centres (VACs) operated in China by the Home Office’s commercial partner, VFS, are currently closed with no information currently available on when they are due to re-open. Those needing to submit a visa application for the UK should continue to monitor the VFS website for updates.
The Home Office has confirmed that British citizens whose passports are currently at a VAC should apply for an emergency travel document if they need to travel.
Where their passport is held by a VAC, Chinese nationals should contact the Chinese authorities and citizens of other countries should contact the consular authorities of their country of citizenship to obtain an emergency travel document. A travel document will be needed before the UK government can entertain a request for an urgent visa to travel to the UK. Advice on making the visa application will need to be obtained via the helpline.
The return of passports will be prioritised when the VACs re-open.
Advice for points-based system sponsors
Sponsors do not have to report authorised absences of sponsored employee or students where these are related to coronavirus, for example because a migrant is unwell, in quarantine or unable to travel to the UK.
Sponsors who consider it appropriate to continue to sponsor an affected migrant due to the exceptional circumstances of the outbreak are not required to withdraw sponsorship and will not be subject to Home Office compliance action if:
The Home Office states it may review this position, so the guidance should be monitored for updates.
Employment law considerations
Employers should also be aware of the broader employment law issues arising from the situation, which our employment team has analysed here.