COVID-19 EXPERT LEGAL INSIGHTS

UK immigration FAQs for UK visa holders and businesses

Last updated: 08/03/2021

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is causing particular problems for people with UK visas and for their employers.

Some UK visa application centres are still closed and there are new restrictions on international travellers arriving in the UK.
 

The Home Office has published limited guidance for visa applicants and temporary UK residents and guidance for Worker and Temporary Worker sponsors.

All of the online Home Office’s coronavirus-related immigration guidance can be found here.

Here are the main questions we have been receiving from our clients. We will update the answers when the Home Office provides more information.

Please note that the questions and answers on this page are for general information only and must not be used as a substitute for legal advice. You should always take legal advice which is tailored to your specific circumstances.

Applying for a UK visa outside the UK
 

Is it possible to travel to the UK at the moment? 

Yes. The UK has not closed its borders but there are new rules for travellers arriving in the UK. From 8 June almost everyone travelling to the UK (except from Ireland) has to provide their journey and contact details by filling in an online public health passenger locator form before they travel. Most people have to self-isolate for 10 days after they arrive.

The Home Office has published guidance on travellers who are exempt from the new border rules. Some people – such as diplomats – do not have to fill in the form. Other people have to fill in the form but do not have to self-isolate.

The guidance describes the documents which travellers need to show at the border as evidence that they are exempt from completing the form and/or from self-isolating. One of the exemptions covers people who live in the UK but work in another country and travel between the UK and country of work at least once a week. Another covers the reverse situation – people who live outside the UK but work in the UK and travel between the two countries at least once a week. These people are exempt from the self-isolation requirement.

The “travel corridors” exemption for England is currently suspended. The Test to Release scheme for new international arrivals went live on 15 December 2020. Under the scheme, new international arrivals who need to self-isolate on arrival in England can choose to pay for a private COVID-19 test. If the result is negative, you can stop self-isolating.  The scheme is voluntary and applies to those self-isolating in England only.  Further details on Test to Release and the self-isolation requirements for new international arrivals can be found here.

From 15 January 2021 a mandatory pre-departure COVID-19 test is required within 72 hours of travel to the UK.  From 15 February 2021 a COVID-19 test is also required on day 2 and 8 and a travel test package must be booked.

If you have been in or through any of the countries on the UK’s travel ban list in the last 10 days, you will be refused entry to the UK. British and Irish citizens, or those with residence rights in the UK will be able to enter the UK. They must self-isolate for 10 days on arrival and cannot use the Test to Release scheme.

From 15 February 2021 anyone travelling to the UK from a country on the UK’s travel ban list will be required to quarantine in a government-approved facility for 10 days.

From 8 March 2021, in order to leave England international travellers will need to have completed a travel declaration form stating the permissible reason for their trip.  Failure to have completed the form before arrival at the airport could result in a fine.  Some people will be exempt because of their job.

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Is it possible to apply for a UK visa at the moment?

It depends. UK visa application centres in many countries have reopened but some remain closed. If your local visa application centre is closed due to coronavirus, until 31 March 2021 you can apply in a different country.

The UK has not closed its borders – although flights and trains are limited – so you can travel to the UK if you already have a visa or you do not need one.

The companies which run the visa application centres should keep their websites updated. For visa application centres in Europe, Africa and parts of the Middle East check https://uk.tlscontact.com/. For visa application centres in the rest of the world check https://www.vfsglobal.co.uk/en.

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What do I do if I have been issued with a 30-day or 90-day visa and can’t travel to the UK before it expires?

If you have a 90-day visa in your passport and can’t travel to the UK before it expires you will have to apply online for a replacement visa – and pay a fee for this. Your biometrics (fingerprints and a digital photo) will need to be resubmitted at an appointment.  The replacement visa will be valid for 90 days

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Applying to the Home Office in the UK
 

Is it possible to make a Home Office application in the UK at the moment – for instance a Skilled Worker change of employment application or an application for indefinite leave to remain?

Despite the current national lockdown restrictions,  it is possible to submit an online application. The problem is that after submitting the application you have to book an appointment to attend a UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services centre to enrol your biometrics and scan your passport.

Many UKVCAS centres have reopened (and will stay open during the restrictions as they are deemed an “essential service”)  but capacity is limited. People whose appointments were cancelled because of the first national lockdown are being prioritised. To help clear the backlog, the Home Office previously invited some applicants who had provided biometrics in the past to use the Identity Verification (IDV) app.  Using the app meant that you do not need to attend an in person appointment.  Instead, your photo and a scan of your passport were uploaded.  Some applicants who used the app may be experiencing delays in the processing of their application. The priority and super priority services are currently available for some application types.

According to the Home Office’s guidance, if you have made a Skilled Worker or Tier 2 application in the UK – for instance a Skilled Worker or Tier 2 (General) change of employment application – so long as the CoS is assigned before 1 January 2021 you can start your new job before the application has been granted. You must have a valid CoS assigned by your new employer and you must have submitted your online application before your previous visa expired. If the application is subsequently refused your employer will have to terminate your employment.

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I want to switch visa status. Normally I would have to apply outside the UK for this type of switch. Can I apply in the UK instead?

The previous Home Office guidance said that it is possible to switch visa categories in the UK even if you would normally have to make this type of application outside the UK – for instance, if you want to switch from a visit visa or a Tier 5 (Youth Mobility Scheme) visa to a Skilled Worker visa.  However, on 4 March 2021 that concession was removed from the guidance (apart from for family and private life applications) and it is not possible to switch visa categories unless you meet the rules.  It is still possible to switch visa categories from exceptional assurance.

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My visa will expire soon and I need to submit a Home Office application. Before I submit my Home Office application I have to pass an English language test and/or the Life in the UK test but I cannot get an appointment in time. What should I do?

 Test centres have reopened but it may not be possible to get an appointment before your visa expires. 

If you are in this position you should still submit your Home Office application before your visa expires. Do not book your UKVCAS appointment until you have an appointment and you have been able to pass the test(s). You may not have met the English language / Life in the UK requirement on the date you applied but if you meet it on the date of your appointment it would be unreasonable for the Home Office to refuse your application in the current circumstances.

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My visa will expire soon or has expired. I want to leave the UK but I can’t. What should I do?

The Home Office guidance states that if your visa expires (or expired) between 1 March and 31 March 2021 you can request additional time to stay by sending an email to the address indicated in the guidance with the stated information. If your existing conditions allowed you to work, study or rent accommodation you may continue to do so during the period of exceptional assurance so long as it is granted. This exceptional assurance is an emergency measure and does not grant you leave to remain in the UK. You should only apply for it as a last resort if you have no other options.

It is possible to switch immigration status from exceptional assurance.

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Sponsored workers
 

Our company has a new employee who has been issued with a 90-day Skilled Worker visa and can’t travel to the UK to start work on time. What should we do?

Normally, after the sponsored worker has been granted permission, the work start date for a Skilled Worker (or Intra-Company Transfer worker) can’t be postponed beyond 28 days.

The Home Office has indicated to us this rule will be waived. The Home Office should be notified through the Sponsorship Management System that the start date has been delayed.

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Our sponsored workers are all working from home. Do we need to tell the Home Office?

No. The Home Office Worker and Temporary Worker sponsor guidance states that employers do not have to report that sponsored workers are working from home if working from home is directly related to the coronavirus pandemic.

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We want to offer unpaid leave to sponsored workers to avoid redundancies. Is this ok? Do we have to tell the Home Office?

Usually sponsored Skilled Workers cannot take more than 4 weeks’ unpaid leave per calendar year.

According to the Worker and Temporary Worker sponsor guidance employers do not need to withdraw sponsorship from employees who are absent from work without pay for 4 weeks or more if the absences are related to coronavirus.

Absences related to coronavirus do not need to be reported to the Home Office.

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We want to reduce our sponsored workers’ hours and/or salaries to avoid redundancies. Is this ok?

Sponsored workers can work part-time but their salary must normally remain at or above the overall minimum level for the visa category regardless of their working hours. The overall minimum for a Tier 2 (General) visa is £30,000 per year (£20,800 for new entrants) and for a Skilled Worker is normally £25,600 (£20,480 for new entrants). The overall minimum for a Tier 2 (Intra-company Transfer) or Intra-Company Transfer visa is £41,500 per year. The salary must also be at or above the occupation-specific minimum (the appropriate rate for the occupation code) which is adjusted pro rata according to the person’s working hours.

The Home Office has published guidance stating that employers can temporarily reduce the pay of sponsored workers in line with government job support schemes. Sponsored workers are eligible for these schemes in the same way as resident workers.

Any reductions must be part of a company-wide policy to avoid redundancies and in which all workers are treated the same. You cannot reduce your sponsored workers’ rate of pay for the hours they work below the going rate for their occupation (subject to any discounts they qualified for when they were granted permission).
These reductions must be temporary, and sponsored workers’ pay must return to at least previous levels once these arrangements have ended.

Any change in working hours or salary needs to be reported to the Home Office.

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Can we use the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for sponsored workers?

Yes. The Home Office has said that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme can be used for migrants. They have to meet the same eligibility requirements as other employees. For instance, they must been on the employer’s PAYE payroll on 28 February 2020. Some sponsored workers – especially some Tier 2 (Intra-company Transfer) or Intra-Company Transfer migrants – will not qualify because they are not on PAYE.  

The Home Office has published guidance stating that employers can temporarily reduce the pay of sponsored workers in line with the government job support schemes. This is clearly intended to cover sponsored workers who are furloughed. See above for more information about absences and salary reductions.

For more information on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, please see our FAQs for UK employers

We await Home Office guidance on the government’s new Job Support Scheme due to start when the extended Job Retention Scheme ends  and how this will affect sponsored workers.

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We want to recruit someone who needs a Skilled Worker visa. Can we? How long is the process going to take?

You can start the process in the normal way – apply for and assign a CoS – and the prospective employee can apply for a visa (or make a change of employment application to the Home Office if they are already working in the UK).

But to complete the process if the prospective employee is a non-EEA national they will have to attend a biometric appointment and this may not be possible at the moment – see above for information on applying for a visa outside the UK and applying to the Home Office in the UK.

If the new recruit is applying from within the UK and the CoS is assigned before 1 January 2021 they can start work before their application has been granted, according to the Home Office’s guidance for sponsors. They must have a valid CoS and they must have submitted an online application before their previous visa expired. If their application is subsequently refused you will have to terminate their employment. In the meantime you will not able to carry out a right-to-work check on their new biometric residence permit (if they are a non-EEA national) – because they will not yet have one. Instead you will need to carry out an online check on their existing biometric residence permit or – depending on the situation – apply to the Home Office’s Employer Checking Service for a positive verification notice. You will need to carry out a follow-up right to work check when their application has been granted and a new biometric residence permit has been issued.

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Some of our Tier 2 and Skilled Worker sponsored workers have gone back to their home country and are working remotely. They may stay there for several months. Is this ok?

Yes, as long as they continue to be employed by you – and paid, unless they are taking unpaid leave (see above).

Note that the sponsored worker’s absences from the UK could have implications for a future application for indefinite leave to remain – see below.

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Indefinite leave to remain

 

I have a long-term UK visa which leads to indefinite leave to remain. I may be stuck outside the UK for several months. Will this affect my application for indefinite leave to remain?

If you have a visa which leads to indefinite leave to remain you cannot normally spend more than 180 days outside the UK in any 12-month period during the five-year qualifying period. This rule does not apply to every visa category and the way it works depends on the date when your visa was issued.

The Home Office enforces the 180-day limit strictly but will consider granting indefinite leave to remain if the absences are over the limit and the applicant provides evidence that the excess absences were due to serious or compelling reasons. According to the Immigration Rules on continuous residence, any period spent outside the UK will not count towards the 180-day limit if the absence was because of travel disruption due to a pandemic.

If you are staying outside the UK for an extended period because of the coronavirus pandemic you should keep evidence of the reason. For instance, you should keep evidence of any travel bans in specific countries, closures of visa application centres and evidence of illness and/or caring for family members who are unwell. 

If you left the UK with a valid visa before 17 March 2020 and you intended to return to the UK and make an application for indefinite leave to remain or permission to stay, but you were unable to do so before your visa expired because of travel restrictions related to coronavirus, you can complete an online form. The Home Office will then confirm whether you are eligible under the Covid Visa Concession Scheme.

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Right to work checks
 

How do we do right to work checks on new employees who are starting work from home?

The Home Office has confirmed that right to work checks can now be carried out over video calls.

If you want to carry out a right to work check in this way you will need to ask the employee to send you a scanned copy or photo of the relevant right to work document(s) – usually their passport photo page and/or biometric residence permit. Arrange for them to show the original document to you on a video call before they start work. Record the date of the check and mark it as “adjusted check undertaken on [insert date] due to COVID-19”. When these temporary COVID-19 measures end you will have 8 weeks to carry out a retrospective check on the original document. For full details see the Home Office guidance.

You can avoid this process by carrying out an online right to work check if the person has a biometric residence permit, or a biometric residence card (these cards are issued to family members of EEA nationals), pre-settled or settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme or a different digital immigration status issued to EEA nationals. The employee will have to log into the Government website here to get a right to work share code. They will need to give you that share code and their date of birth. You will then be able to carry out an online right to work check here. For detailed information about how to carry out a right to work check see the employer’s guide to right to work checks.

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For more information please do not hesitate to contact a member of the immigration team.

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