Coronavirus and the UK immigration system

People stuck in the UK

Some people who in the UK during the pandemic were unable to leave before their permission to be here expired because of travel restrictions. The government had been allowing people in this situation to easily extend their visas through a simplified online application process, but that concession has now been replaced with “exceptional assurance”, a promise of extra time to stay that falls short of proper leave to remain.

It is still possible to request additional time to stay in individual cases. The Home Office initially called this “exceptional indemnity” but it is now  “exceptional assurance”. Either way, it is a weaker form of concession than outright visa extensions:

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. If conditions allowed you to work, study or rent accommodation you may continue to do so during the period of your exceptional assurance. Exceptional assurance does not grant you leave.

Exceptional assurance was initially available only to those with a visa expiring up to 31 October 2020, but the cut-off point was repeatedly pushed back as the virus crisis escalated again over the winter. It is available to people whose permission to be in the UK (including an existing exceptional assurance) expires before 30 September 2021. However, it is now restricted to people aiming to return to countries on the red or amber list. Those claiming to be unable to return to a green list country can only invoke exceptional assurance “in exceptional cases”, such as where that country has closed its borders entirely or has run out of quarantine hotel spaces (Australia springs to mind). Previous versions of the concession did not make this distinction.

People stuck outside the UK

On 11 January 2021, the Home Office published a Covid Visa Concession Scheme. It was designed to help people who had permission to live in the UK but whose permission expired while they were stuck abroad due to coronavirus travel restrictions, leaving them unable to return. Provided they met the eligibility criteria in the guidance, such people were granted entry clearance valid for three months to allow them to travel back to the UK and apply properly to extend their stay. 

The concession was also “available until 21 June 2021”, with a brief extension to 19 July, so presumably applications under it will no longer be accepted.

For those worried about breaking their period of continuous residence in the UK for the purposes of indefinite leave to remain, Appendix Continuous Residence now states that absences caused by “travel disruption due to… pandemic” will not count towards the 180-day maximum. There is also guidance for people with EU pre-settled status worried about losing the right to upgrade to full settled status (a form of indefinite leave to remain).

Those who already had indefinite leave to remain but have now been outside the UK so long that it has lapsed will have to apply for a returning residents visa and pay the usual fee, but have most of it refunded

Spouses and minimum income

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 or visa extension. 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 2020 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 31 October 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 31 October 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 2020, but was extended repeatedly, most recently until the end of October 2021. 

Students

The Home Office released a separate guidance document about coronavirus and student visas on 20 April 2020. 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 possible outside the UK for both new and existing students, provided that they will be coming to the UK to begin learning in person before 6 April 2022. Distance learning from within the UK is only allowed until 27 September 2021, after which point they must transition to at least a mix of in-person and distance learning. This “blended learning” can then continue until 6 April 2022. 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 beginning before 27 September, officials can exercise discretion to overlook the normal requirement that the new course should begin no more than 28 days after the student’s permission expires. This concession was briefly deleted from the guidance but has since been reinstated.
  • 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 “until 30 September”.
  • 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.
  • The new Graduate route: those studying abroad by distance learning may still be eligible to switch into this route.

For short-term students, in-country switching onto a full student visa was “allowed on an exceptional basis” until 1 October 2020, provided the person arrived in the UK before 31 July. That has now been dropped from the latest version of the guidance, partly because of unrelated changes to the Short-term Student route.

Sponsor duties

 On 27 March 2020, the Home Office published a coronavirus guidance page for organisations that sponsor overseas workers or students under the Points Based System. It promised:

We will not take enforcement action against sponsors who continue to sponsor students or employees despite absences due to coronavirus.

Importantly, in certain circumstances the guidance allowed students to start their studies / employees to start working even if they were still waiting for a visa application to be decided.

These and other concessions continue in force

  • Educational oversight: can be done remotely; “flexible approach to unavoidable delays in inspection”.
  • Student absences: do not need to be reported if due to Covid-19. Records of such absences must however be kept.
  • Distance learning: as above, permitted for new and existing students outside the UK so long as he or she will begin in-person learning by 6 April 2022. For students in the UK, permitted until 27 September 2021, after which point there must be at least some in-person learning.
  • Blended learning: permitted for students in the UK until 6 April 2022.
  • 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 coronavirus don’t count.
  • Validity of CAS which have already been issued: a CAS issued between 24 January and 31 December 2020 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.

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