COVID-19 Immigration Update: Exceptional Assurance and Automatic Visa Extension for Health Workers
The flexibility afforded by the government at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic to UK visa holders in the UK at the time has largely come to an end. Those whose visas expired between 24 January 2020 and 31 August 2020 should have taken steps to renew their visas or leave the UK. For those yet to take steps to regularise their immigration status, it may be possible to benefit from "Exceptional Assurance" until 31 October 2020 but scope for this is limited.
Employers should ensure that any members of staff subject to immigration restrictions, have a valid right to reside and work in the UK. Those whose visas have been impacted by the pandemic should take immediate steps to regularise their status and employers should engage in discussions with any affected worker/member of staff about how best to manage this process and the continuity of their employment.
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Almost all parts of normal life have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and the UK Immigration Rules are no exception. Both international travel and the processing of immigration applications drew to a near standstill in early 2020. With little scope to renew and switch visas and even less scope to leave the UK, those with expiring visas found themselves in an unenviable position. Thankfully, the UK Government offered some much needed flexibility to the Immigration Rules on 17 February 2020, permitting temporary extensions to visas. This concession, initially only for Chinese nationals and residents of China, was subsequently rolled out to all other impacted nationalities and latterly conferred a visa extension up to 31 July 2020. A further 'grace' period up to 31 August 2020 was then offered to those with visas that expired between 24 January 2020 and 31 August 2020, to allow them additional time to apply for a new visa or to make arrangements to leave the UK.
With both the concession and grace periods at an end, what does this mean for those currently in the UK and subject to immigration restrictions?
If your Visa expired on or before 31 August 2020
Unfortunately, if your visa expired on or before 31 August 2020 and you have not already taken steps to regularise your immigration status, you "must make arrangements to leave the UK". At present, there is no clear guidance as to whether or not a short period of overstaying at this time would impact future UK visa applications.
This, of course, does not apply to EEA national whose Residence Permits expired during this period.
For those whose visas expire between 1 September and 31 October 2020 the situation is a little less bleak. You can still request additional time to stay in the UK called "Exceptional Assurance". Exceptional Assurance affords short-term protection against any adverse action or consequences after your leave has expired (providing it expires between 1 September and 31 October 2020). To apply you must contact the Coronavirus Immigration Team (link).
If granted Exceptional Assurance, you will be permitted to stay in the UK under the same conditions of your expired visa until 31 October 2020. However, it is fundamentally important to note that Exceptionally Assurance does not grant you leave. Accordingly, you must use this additional time to either:
- Regularise your immigration status by making an application for a new visa. This can be done within the UK, even for those visa applications that normally need be submitted outside of the UK; or
- Make arrangements to leave the UK on or before 31 October 2020.
Unfortunately, if your visa expired before 31 August 2020 it is now too late to apply for 'Exceptional Assurance'.
A Token of Thanks to Front Line Health Workers
Happily, the government has agreed to offer an automatic 1 year visa extension to many health workers. To be eligible for the extension, you must:
- Have a visa that expires between 31 March and 1 October 2020; and
- Work for the NHS or an independent in an eligible profession.
For a full list of eligible front line workers, please see here. The list includes doctors, nurses, paramedics and other front line workers such as social workers and pharmacists.
This extension may also apply to the family members of eligible front line workers if, in addition to the above, they are a dependent of the eligible health worker's visa and their own leave expires between 31 March and 1 October 2020.
Unfortunately, there are limits to the government's gratitude. If a health worker's visa expires after 1 October 2020, they will have to apply and pay for a visa extension as normal.
What Steps should Employers take now?
Double check the immigration status of any employee/workers that are subject to immigration control. For those whose visas expired between 24 January and 31 August 2020 (or 31 March and 1 October for eligible health care workers), speak with the affected member of staff/worker and ensure that they have either made an application for a new visa or are eligible for the automatic healthcare worker visa extension.
For those whose visas expired on or before 31 August 2020 and have not made an application for a new visa/not eligible for the automatic extension, you may not be able to continue their employment. You should seek immediate advice from us if that is the case.
For those whose visa expire between 1 September and 31 October 2020, discuss what their intensions are. If they intend to stay, discuss whether there is any support you can offer and what evidence of their right to work you will need once their new visa application is submitted. If they do not intend to stay, discuss their notice period and what measures you will need to put in place to ensure a smooth handover prior to their departure from the UK.