As the global COVID-19 lockdown starts to ease across the world, UK visa application centres are starting to reopen. From the start of June, a number of centres in Asia and Australasia reopened, with many more in Europe, Africa and Central Asia due to come on-stream from the week of 29 June.
As can be expected, the UK Government has no control over when the UK visa application centres operated by outsourced providers VFS Global and TLSContact, will re-open. That is entirely down to the local measures in place in each city, region and country.
Notable absences from any concrete information on scheduled visa re-opening are the two highest source countries for Tier 2 skilled work visas, India and the US. Indian nationals account for about 50% of the Tier 2 visas issued, with US nationals the next largest group at around 8.5%.
Increases in new daily cases continue in India, currently ranked third globally in terms of new cases, with no sign of the upward curve for these flattening. Notwithstanding this, VFS announced today that a number of UK visa centres would reopen. In the US, while there were some more positive signs of progress against the virus by early June, the number of new cases has started to pick back up, with over 40,000 new cases reported on June 24 and 25, the highest on record. California, Texas, Florida and Arizona are all seeing significant spikes in new cases.
The UK visa operations in the US use the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Applications Support Centers (ASCs) to enable visa applicants to provide their biometrics. The ASCs have been closed since March. On a call with stakeholders last Thursday, USCIS indicated that a phased re-opening of the ASC’s would start from 13 July. However, following a statement made yesterday evening by USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow, USCIS may have to lay off the vast majority of its staff at ASCs due to the huge fall in revenues for the service, which is funded through applications. Mr Edlow said:
Without congressional action before August 3, USCIS will need to furlough over 13,000 staff members, which will have tremendous negative impacts on our mission administering our nation's lawful immigration system”.
The key to any sort of US re-opening is New York City, the location of the UK Visas and Immigration Visas Scanning Hub. This is where all passports are sent once biometrics are completed and where the initial entry visas are securely stuck into applicants’ passports. Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of the City, announced that it was ready to go into phase 3 of lockdown easing from 6 July, conditional on there being no new spike in cases, which bodes well for the visa scanning hub to re-open its doors.
There could be many bumps on the road to a UK visa re-opening in the US. There are no easy work-arounds when physical attendance in bricks-and-mortar centres is a central part of the application process. I have suggested developing a mobile solution similar to the EU Exit app (currently used for EU nationals) to provide mobile biometrics, but while that is no doubt being considered, it will take time.
In the meantime, the UK needs to consider some radical alternatives to getting people to give biometrics abroad. It could for example, allow those sponsored under Tier 2 who are non-visa nationals to have their applications approved, travel to the UK and provide biometrics when they are in the UK. This could be extended to family applications, again through approving them and getting biometrics done here. That may not solve the problem for Indian nationals who require visas for travel, but it would be a start.
For further information on an issues raised in this blog, please contact a member of our Immigration team.
About the author
Nick Rollason heads our Immigration team and advises on all areas of UK immigration and nationality law. He has particular expertise in providing strategic advice to businesses on their global immigration needs. He is regularly consulted by the UK immigration authorities on proposed changes to the UK immigration rules and policy.