The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we all live our lives. With borders closing and planes grounded, immigrants will face particular problems. The Home Office needs to radically change the way they operate to ensure the system continues to function effectively as widespread social isolation, regular home-working, and travel restrictions become the new normal.
A hint at what to expect was given in February 2020 when the most liberal immigration policy I have ever seen was implemented to prevent Chinese residents, unable to return to China due to coronavirus, from becoming overstayers.
All Chinese nationals in the UK, whose visas were (or are) due to expire between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020 were automatically granted further leave to remain until 31 March 2020. Those who normally reside in China, bur are not nationals, were invited to contact the coronavirus helpline in order to receive a similar grant, upon demonstrating that they are normally resident in China. See here for a more detailed look at the policy from my colleague, John Vassiliou.
The Home Office essentially granted everyone a visa, without any application needing to be made. No online form. No fee. No biometric enrolment. No submission of documents.
It remains unclear what will happen after 31 March 2020.
Although only a few weeks old, the February 2020 guidance is now woefully out of date. New guidance is urgently needed to confirm how the Home Office intends to overcome the challenges coronavirus poses. Without answers, people will be left in a very difficult situation. They will be forced to choose between their immigration status and their health. Requiring people to travel internationally, attend biometric appointments, and attend Tribunal hearings puts everyone at risk.
The following questions need urgent answers
(1) Do Chinese nationals who benefited from the February 2020 policy need to apply for further leave to remain before 31 March 2020?
This is less than two weeks away. People need to know whether to expect another automatic extension or if they will need to make an application for further leave to remain.
(2) Do people overseas who have been granted entry clearance need to apply for a new 30 day vignette if they cannot travel to the UK?
When a person’s application for entry to the UK is granted, they have 30 days to travel to the UK. This will become increasingly difficult as more and more countries go in to lockdown and international travel becomes a rarity. Will those who cannot travel need to apply for a new 30 day visa vignette (at a cost of £154) or will they be permitted to travel after expiry of the 30 day period?
(3) Do visitors, of any nationality, currently in the UK need to apply for discretionary leave or will an automatic extension of leave be granted as was the case with Chinese nationals?
Visitors are permitted to remain in the UK for a maximum period of 6 months. In order to avoid becoming an illegal immigrant a visitor must leave the UK before the expiry this 6 month period (even if they are a non-visa national who entered at the UK border). The only way those unable to travel due to the coronavirus pandemic can currently remain in the UK lawfully is to make an application for discretionary leave to remain (at a cost of £1,033) before their visit visa expires. In normal circumstances, a request to extend a visit visa, or remain in the UK long term after entry as a visitor, will usually be refused. People need to know whether these application are necessary, and whether they are likely to be granted.
(4) Will my application be invalidated if I do not attend a Visa Application Centre to provide my biometric information?
At the moment, anyone who makes an immigration application needs to attend a Visa Application Centre in person to provide their fingerprints and have their photograph taken. Failure to do so within the time period prescribed upon completion of the online application form (usually 2 months) can lead to your application being invalidated. If this happens, you become an illegal immigrant. People need to know if physical attendance at an appointment will continue to be necessary during the pandemic.
(5) Will immigration and asylum hearings at the First-tier Tribunal and Upper Tribunal continue?
On Monday 16 March 2020 we received an email from the immigration tribunal in Glasgow advising that it was “business as usual”.
This is not sustainable and will surely change soon.
(6) Will people in immigration detention be released now that removal is no longer possible?
Immigrants can only be detained in order to be removed from the UK. Where there is no prospect of removal, they should be released. See here for further explanation.
(7) Will people who currently have immigration bail need to continue reporting regularly to the Home Office?
At the moment those released from detention, or liable to detention, are given immigration bail and are required to report to the Home Office regularly (usually once a week, but often more or less frequently). This requires travelling and face to face contact. Anecdotally I have heard that the Home Office is notifying those on immigration bail that their reporting conditions have been suspended. However ad hoc word of mouth is not good enough. We need clear published policy.
At the moment all we are being told is to call the coronavirus immigration helpline. Having seen reports of other people’s attempts to get information out of them, I don’t much fancy my chances getting answers to any of the above from them.
Katherine L via Yell - 03/01/202003 January 2020
Elena Goodall via Google - 28/12/1928 December 2019
David Meighan via google - 08/12/1908 December 2019