Visa implications of COVID-19 – A guide for employers
At times like this, it is important to support all your employees and identify at risk groups. One group of employees who need to be considered carefully is visa holders, in order to ensure work visas remain valid and employees continue to have the right to work.
Understandably we have been receiving a large number of enquiries from employers concerned for their staff members holding visas or applying for new visas. The main concerns seem to be: (i) can employees continue to extend visas from the UK; and (ii) how can new recruits submit their visa applications from British Consulates abroad given the travel bans and lockdowns?
The Home Office initially published guidance in mid-February for Chinese nationals who were unable to return to China due to travel restrictions. However with the escalation to a global pandemic scale, the Home Office published further guidance on 24th March that applies to all nationalities and does offer comfort to employers. That being said, we must show some caution as a lot of this has been rushed through without any legislation and so the legal basis for these changes is unclear.
What has the Home Office offered employers to help the situation?
1. Extending a visa for an employee already in the UK
The Home Office has confirmed that any UK visa that is due to expire will be extended to 31 May 2020 (to prevent individuals “overstaying” which is a criminal offence). However, this only applies to an individual who cannot leave the UK because of:
– travel restrictions; or
– self-isolation related to coronavirus (COVID- 19).
If the above applies, individuals must contact the Coronavirus Immigration Team to notify the government of their situation including the reason (for example, the suspension of all flights to their country of origin).
The extension is not automatic and so an individual must make an “application”. It is also unclear what will happen if the extension is not granted. Our advice is to only use this temporary extension option in emergency situations. It is much better to continue to extend a visa using the normal Tier 2 extension process, for the normal 2-3 year period. Please contact Stephen Hall who can assist with any extension applications required.
2. Switching to a different visa category while in the UK
The Home Office has also relaxed the rules where employees would normally be required to return to their country of nationality to apply for a visa in a different visa category. Individuals will now be able to apply from the UK to switch into the new visa category. For example, this will apply to the situation where an individual is in the UK on a “temporary” visa but has then been unable to leave to make a “long term” visa application from abroad. Although a welcome announcement, it remains to be seen how this will work in practice. At the moment the “in-country switch” application forms and the physical submission process have not been updated. As soon as we have clarity we will provide an update.
3. Visa applications from overseas
There is limited information within the new guidance for applications from outside of the UK. Many visa application centres overseas are closed, along with many English language testing centres. The only takeaway is to simply check if the UK visa centre abroad is still open before attending any appointments. If the visa centre is open an individual can submit their application, but note there may be local lockdowns, transport problems and flight cancellations to also factor in.
Whilst we await further guidance from the Home Office, please note an individual based outside the UK does not need a visa to work remotely for a UK company. Essentially there are no “virtual borders” so you could permit a new recruit to start work remotely (if the job allows) and then obtain the visa at a later date once they can be “physically present” in the UK.
4. Sponsor Duties for employers relaxed
For those employers holding a Sponsor Licence the usually strict reporting duties for visa holders are being relaxed, given many are working from home. Sponsors are normally required to notify the Home Office of any changes of circumstances. However, due to the current exceptional situation, they will not require sponsors to do so, if working from home is directly related to the pandemic. Other changes must still be reported as usual.
All the arrangements discussed above apply initially until 31 May 2020, by which date they will be reviewed. We will be keeping you updated on any changes. In the meantime if you have any questions please contact Stephen Hall.