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COVID-19 and Immigration

The impact of COVID-19 (C19) on employers has become increasingly prevalent as the pandemic has developed, with the UK government taking unprecedented steps to limit job losses and support employers.

The situation is especially challenging for organisations who are licenced to sponsor non-EEA migrant workers and could face a number of additional challenges as a result.  In this Insight, we consider the Home Office’s recently-issued guidance and what this means for organisations who employ migrant workers.

The Home Office’s guidance currently focuses on 3 broad areas:

What if a visa holder’s permissions are due to expire soon?

For employees in the UK whose visa is due to expire before 31 May 2020, steps can be taken to secure a visa extension to 31 May 2020 if the individual “cannot leave the UK because of travel restrictions or self-isolation related to C19”.  This will clearly be beneficial for employers who have staff moving between visa categories where “switching” in the UK is not a possibility.

In order to seek such an extension, individuals must contact the Home Office’s Coronavirus Immigration Team to provide a variety of basic details – including details of why travel back to an individual’s home country is not possible.  We are obviously moving ever-closer to 31 May 2020 and it remains to be seen if and when this longstop date will be extended.  

NHS doctors, nurses and paramedics who have work visas due to expire before 1 October 2020 will have these automatically extended for a year.
All UK visa application centres are currently closed due to the pandemic.  A significant number of overseas centres are also either closed or offering limited services. 

What is the impact on sponsored workers and licenced sponsors?

Employers who hold a Home Office Sponsor Licence are – in addition to their usual HR obligations – subject to a raft of additional compliance and reporting obligations.  Non-compliance with such obligations can lead to Licence revocation, so it is crucial for employers to ensure compliance in this regard.

Home Office guidance confirms the following:

  • C19-related absences do not need to be reported via the online Sponsorship Management System.  Typically, absence without pay for 4 weeks would require sponsorship to cease – but this rule has been temporarily suspended.
  • A change of work location from a sponsored worker’s office to their home address need not be reported via the SMS if this is related to C19.  Other changes to working arrangements are still subject to the usual reporting obligations.
  • Sponsored workers’ salaries can temporarily be reduced to 80% of salary or £2,500 per month – whichever is lower – if the sponsor has temporarily closed or reduced trading.  Although not mentioned expressly in the guidance, this very much appears to suggest that sponsored workers can be placed on “furlough leave” in accordance with the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.  Reductions in salary must be part of a “company-wide measure to avoid redundancies and in which all workers are treated the same”, so sponsors will clearly not be allowed to “cherry pick” sponsored staff for pay reductions as a means of saving costs.  Any measures implemented must be temporary and pay must return to at least the employee’s previous levels when these special measures cease.
  • Typically, Certificates of Sponsorship assigned to an individual must be used to make a visa application within 3 months or will be lost.  Where a CoS has been issued – but the individual has been unable to apply for their visa due to C19 travel restrictions – the Home Office will consider issues on a case by case basis.  Changes to the start date on a CoS will not be automatically refused, whilst the use of otherwise out of date CoS’ may be permitted.

How can right to work checks be carried out?

Whilst the vast majority of employers will not be hiring staff at this time, businesses in some sectors are actively recruiting.  It may also be the case that follow up checks are currently required for staff with time-limited visa permissions.  In light of social distancing rules, how can right to work checks be carried out effectively?

From 30 March 2020, temporary changes were made permitting checks being carried out by video link, scanned documents/photos of documents being provided to employers and the use of the online Employer Checking Service if documents cannot be provided.

The Home Office will confirm when these interim measures will cease at a later date.  After this, standard checking processes will resume – whilst employers will also be required to conduct a retrospective check on any employees whose status was checked via the temporary revised measures.  This retrospective check must take place within 8 weeks of the C19 measures ending and records of both checks (in the requisite prescribed format) must be retained by the employer.

As well as the above areas where formal guidance has been issued, other areas of the immigration system have also been impacted.    In correspondence to those registered for EU Settlement Scheme updates, the Home Office confirmed that telephone queries in relation to the Scheme will not currently be dealt with.  ID document scanner locations are closed, whilst the postal option for document submission is also suspended.  Applications can still proceed if documents are submitted via the Home Office’s ID scanner app, but processing timescales will be impacted. 

Although not yet the subject of formal guidance, we understand that the Home Office is taking a more relaxed approach to supporting document submission in Sponsor Licence applications.

The Home Office has helpfully consolidated its C19 guidance here and set up a dedicated Coronavirus Immigration Helpdesk for further assistance.

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at 06 April 2020. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms & conditions.

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