This is where we keep tabs on changes to UK immigration laws, rules and procedures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve been trying to keep this post continually up to date rather than covering new coronavirus developments as separate blog posts that may become rapidly out of date.
Material that has been added or updated from one version of this post to the next is labelled NEW or UPDATED. Use the page contents to jump quickly to a particular section.
For a while there, we were updating this page every couple of days, but things are starting to settle down and updates are accordingly less frequent. In between updates, you can keep an eye on the now weighty collections of coronavirus guidance from the Home Office and the Judicial Office.
Free Movement members with a specific question not addressed here may wish to check the forum in case it has been asked and answered there.
Visa extensions and other concessions
Some people who were in the UK when the pandemic hit were unable to leave before the expiry of their visa because of travel restrictions. The government had been extending people’s visas through a simplified online application process, but that concession is now pretty much at an end.
The first version of the coronavirus concession was introduced on 17 February 2020. It unilaterally conferred leave to remain until 31 March to Chinese citizens whose UK visas expired between 24 January and 30 March. It also allowed non-Chinese, non-EEA nationals in the UK who were normally resident in China to get an extension of leave by emailing in to request one.
The concession was updated to cover all nationalities on 24 March. People in the UK on an expiring visa were able to have it extended to 31 May.
Between 24 March and 6 April, the Home Office wanted applications for an extension under this policy to be submitted by email to the Coronavirus Immigration Help Centre (see below). That set-up was then replaced with an online form.
On 22 May the Home Office extended the concession to 31 July and later bolted on a “grace period” allowing people to stay until 31 August. As the main coronavirus guidance page summed up the position:
To allow time to make the necessary arrangements to leave the UK, if you have a visa or leave that was due to expire between the 24 January 2020 and 31 August 2020, you’ll be able to stay within the UK to 31 August 2020.
The Home Office also said that it didn’t need to be notified if someone needed to stay on during the grace period.
What about now that the grace period is over? It is still possible to request additional time to stay in individual cases, although only if your visa expires between 1 September and 31 October. The Home Office calls this “exceptional assurance”:
If you are granted ‘exceptional assurance’ it will act as a short-term protection against any adverse action or consequences after your leave has expired. Exceptional assurance does not grant you leave.
Helpfully, when exceptional assurance was first introduced it was called “exceptional indemnity”. People requesting exceptional indemnity/assurance need to contact the coronavirus helpline to explain why they can’t leave by 31 October. The guidance emphasises that anyone whose leave expired before 31 August is too late to apply for exceptional assurance and “must make arrangements to leave the UK”.
The guidance also allows people to apply for further leave to remain in the UK even “where you would usually need to apply for a visa from your home country” — provided that the application is “urgent” and that “you cannot apply from outside the UK due to coronavirus”.
The Home Office announced on 31 March that around 2,800 doctors, nurses and paramedics with leave due to expire by 1 October would get a free one-year extension. Family members are included and there are no fees involved.
On 29 April, the department announced that it was extending the scheme to cover other frontline workers, including midwives, radiographers, social workers and pharmacists” with visas due to expire before 1 October.
A letter to the Home Affairs Committee on the same date confirmed that the extensions are available to anyone on the list of professions covered who is subject to immigration control, “not just sponsored migrant workers on a Tier 2 (General) or Tier 5 visa”.
The full list of eligible professions is on gov.uk:
- biological scientist
- dental practitioner
- health professional
- medical practitioner
- medical radiographer
- occupational therapist
- social worker
- speech and language therapist
- therapy professional
Anyone whose visa expires after 1 October 2020 will have to pay for an extension as normal.
Family members of NHS workers who die from COVID-19 can get indefinite leave to remain for free. On 20 May, this was extended to cover “NHS support staff and social care workers” as well. This should be automatic, but those affected can contact UKVINHSTeam@homeoffice.gov.uk.
Spouses and minimum income (UPDATED 16 October)
Another group of people under particular pressure during the crisis is families where one partner is on, or about to apply for, a spouse visa. Loss of earnings as a result of the coronavirus-induced economic crash may mean that the family fall foul of the financial requirements.
Until 8 June there was no published concession for people in this situation. There is now a section of the guidance on Changes to the minimum income and adequate maintenance requirement. It says:
If you’ve experienced a loss of income due to coronavirus up to 1 January 2021, we will consider employment income for the period immediately before the loss of income, provided the minimum income requirement was met for at least 6 months immediately before the date the income was lost.
If your salary has reduced because you’re furloughed, we will take account of your income as though you’re earning 100% of your salary.
If you’re self-employed, a loss of annual income due to coronavirus between 1 March 2020 and 1 January 2021 will usually be disregarded, along with the impact on employment income from the same period for future applications.
This concession initially applied only for loss of income up to 31 August, but was extended to 1 January 2021 on 16 October.
There is a bit more information on page 69 of the Appendix FM 1.7: financial requirement guidance.
Students (UPDATED 16 October)
The Home Office released a separate guidance document about coronavirus and student visas on 20 April. It covers a number of temporary immigration concessions for those on student and short-term student visas which “will be withdrawn once the situation returns to normal”.
The section of the document aimed at individual students covers:
- Distance learning: now permitted. This is both for existing students and, since a 16 June update, for new students “provided they intend to transition to face-to-face learning as soon as circumstances allow”. Students who do not intend to travel to the UK and will do the course entirely from abroad “do not require sponsorship”.
- Extending an existing visa: students who need to complete a course delayed by coronavirus can apply in-country for an extension to complete the course. If looking to extend to start a new course, officials will exercise discretion to overlook the normal requirement that the new course should begin no more than 28 days after the student’s permission expires, so long as the new course starts before 31 December 2020.
- Police registration: students normally required to do this need to check if their particular police force is facilitating it. If not, they can register “once social distancing measures are lifted”.
- Working hours: students working for the NHS in various listed professions are exempt from the normal 20 hour a week cap.
- Time limits: “discretion may be applied” if someone applies for an extension that would take them over the normal maximum period allowed for undergraduate or below degree-level study.
- Graduate route: still “scheduled to be launched in summer 2021″. Students who begin their course through distance learning can still switch into it so long as they ” enter the UK before 6 April 2021 and complete the final semester of their studies in the UK”.
For short-term students, in-country switching onto a full student visa was “allowed on an exceptional basis” until 1 October, provided the person arrived in the UK before 31 July. That has now been dropped from the latest version of the guidance, published on 5 October.
This guidance also makes some concessions for sponsors, discussed below.
Sponsor duties (UPDATED 16 October)
On 27 March, the Home Office published a coronavirus guidance page for organisations that sponsor overseas workers or students under Tiers 2, 4 and 5 of the Points Based System. It promises:
We will not take enforcement action against sponsors who continue to sponsor students or employees despite absences due to coronavirus.
Sponsors are not required to report any absences from students or employees sponsored under Tier 2, Tier 5 or Tier 4 (as was) where those absences have been the result of the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak.
Sponsors are also not required to withdraw sponsorship for affected students who have been unable to attend for more than 60 days or for employees who have exceeded four weeks of absence without pay.
As mentioned above, students can now do distance learning, although if they quit the course altogether this must be reported as usual.
Similarly, Tier 2 and 5 sponsors do not need to update the Home Office if workers are now working from home provided that the switch to home working is because of the pandemic.
In an update to the guidance on 3 April, the Home Office added that employers temporarily can cut the pay of sponsored employees to 80% of salary or £2,500 a month (whichever is lower). Although it is not spelled out, the implication is that if the salary drops below the minimum, sponsorship will not have to be withdrawn as it usually would be.
There is also a short section on what happens if a sponsor has issued a certificate of sponsorship (CoS) or confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS) and the person sponsored hasn’t used it to apply for a visa yet. It says, in full:
The employee or student will still be able to apply for a visa.
The start date for the course or employment stated on the CoS or CAS may have changed. We will not automatically refuse such cases.
For example, we may accept a CoS or CAS if they have become invalid because the employee or student was unable to travel as a result of coronavirus. We will consider this on a case by case basis.
An important addition on 14 April allows students to start their studies / employees to start working even if they are still waiting for a visa application to be decided.
These concessions are reiterated in another Home Office guidance document issued on 20 April, Coronavirus (COVID-19): Tier 4 sponsors, migrants and short-term students. That document also adds some new concessions for sponsors of students. It covers:
- Educational oversight: can be done remotely; “flexible approach to unavoidable delays in inspection”.
- Student absences: as above, do not need to be reported if due to Covid-19. Records of such absences must however be kept.
- Distance learning: as above, now permitted even for new students.
- Attendance monitoring (now called “academic engagement”): no need to report students for missing expected contact points if it’s because of coronavirus or if they are doing distance learning. If the latter, “where possible sponsors should use expected online contact points” but there will be no repercussions if this isn’t technically possible.
- Basic compliance assessments: students who drop out because of Covid-19 don’t count.
- Validity of CAS which have already been issued: a CAS issued between 24 January and 31 July is still valid. The Home Office will “take a pragmatic approach to considering applications to study courses with significantly different start dates to those stated on CAS or expired CAS”.
- Original documents: Appendix D record-keeping can be digital.
- English language: sponsors can “self-assess students as having a B1 level of English” if a test centre is unavailable, although the latest version of the guidance stresses that many have now reopened and students should take a test as normal where possible.
Start-up and Innovator visas (NEW 16 October)
The guidance for the Start-up route was updated on 12 October to include a coronavirus concession. It says:
Where an migrant [sic] holds leave in the Start-up route and their business has been detrimentally impacted by COVID-19, they are able to apply for a one-time grant of additional leave of 12 months, beyond the normal maximum 2 year period permitted in the Immigration Rules.
There is also a newish coronavirus section in the guidance for Start-up and Innovator endorsing bodies. Among other things, it advises those handing out endorsements to have “frank discussions” with would-be applicants, who may wish to think about “whether they are likely to be able to start developing their business in the UK under the current situation”.
The Home Office is no longer insisting that applicants provide a fresh set of fingerprints every time they extend leave. The main guidance page now says if previous fingerprints can be reused, applicants can send in a photo along with supporting documents. Where applicable, “this will mean you do not have to attend a UKVCAS or an SSC service point appointment to provide biometric information”.
On 3 September the Home Office published guidance on this and other changes to biometrics because of the pandemic. Note that it seems to be limited to certain non-asylum applications made before 1 August 2020.
Travel to the UK
Compulsory quarantine (UPDATED 16 October)
International travellers arriving in England on or after 8 June 2020 were told to go into quarantine for two weeks:
To limit the spread of infection, arrivals must self-isolate for 14 days.
The quarantine requirement was dropped for people travelling to England from 59 countries and territories from 10 July, but kept in place for everywhere else. The number of exempt countries rose over the summer but has since fallen again; Italy is being removed from the list on 18 October.
There are separate exemption lists for:
Journeys from within the Common Travel Area were already exempt, as were a number of specific occupations.
Expiring entry clearance
Until close to the end of April, the Home Office did not advertise any concessions for people who have secured entry clearance to the UK but can’t use it before it expires after 30 days. But on 28 April the guidance was changed. It now says:
If your 30 day visa to travel to the UK for work, study or to join family has expired, or is about to expire, you can request a replacement visa with revised validity dates free of charge until the end of this year.
Note that this does not cover visit visas. To get the free replacement, email the coronavirus helpline (see above) with “your name, nationality, date of birth and your GWF reference number” and put REPLACEMENT 30 DAY VISA as the subject line.
The replacement visa will be valid for 90 days.
Visa centres overseas
All UK visa application centres overseas were closed for some time but as of mid-August most had now reopened.
To check whether the visa application centre for a particular country is open, go to the website of either TLScontact (for Europe, Africa and the Middle East) or VFS Global (for the rest of the world) and select that country from the dropdown menu.
If the visa application centre in your country is still closed because of coronavirus, you can instead make an appointment in any other country that you’re allowed into. This concession will be reviewed by 30 November; whether it is extended presumably depends on whether all VACs are back open again.
Applications from within the UK (UPDATED 16 October)
All visa application centres within the UK closed in late March but operator Sopra Steria now says that “normal UKVCAS service has resumed”. The online booking calendar has four weeks worth of appointment dates, although “free appointments do get booked up very quickly” (something of an understatement).
Sopra Steria had previously provided a list of centres that had reopened but that seems to have been discontinued as almost all are back up and running. The list instead shows those that have not reopened: