Measures taken to combat the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus have caused considerable disruption to global mobility. Travel in and out of China has been severely disrupted, with an immediate impact on UK immigration. Chinese residents are both stuck in the UK unable to return to China, and stuck in China unable to get visas to travel to the UK.
This post discusses the different immigration concessions introduced by the UK government in response to coronavirus disruption.
For Chinese people in the UK, automatically
On 17 February 2020, the Home Office unilaterally conferred leave to remain to Chinese citizens whose visas had or have an expiry date between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020.
The announcement states:
If you are a Chinese national in the UK and have been compliant with the conditions of your visa prior to the coronavirus outbreak, your leave will be automatically extended to 31 March 2020 if your visa has an expiry date between 24 January 2020 and 30 March 2020.
You don’t need to do anything to get this extension.
You will be subject to the same immigration conditions as your last visa during the extension period.
You will not automatically receive a new visa or Biometric Residence Permit card.
Your new expiry date (31 March 2020) will be added to UK Visas and Immigration’s systems.
If you need a status letter confirming this extension, or a new Biometric Residence Permit with a revised expiry date, you should contact thecoronavirus immigration helpline.
If you have already applied to extend your visa you don’t need to do anything.
If you are intending to apply to extend your stay in the UK before 31 March 2020 you should continue to do so.
You might not think this a big deal, but it is unprecedented in my relatively short career. No new legislation passed, no new Immigration Rules announced, just a simple policy announcement on a government webpage.
Not only is this further leave to remain automatic, but it is also potentially retrospective. That is, the policy backdates leave for any Chinese national whose visa expired on or after 24 January 2020 and who took no steps to apply for further leave. As a curious side effect, this will absolve any accidental Chinese overstayers (who fit within the above parameters) who just forgot their visa was expiring or missed their deadline for some other non-coronavirus-related reason.
Those granted automatic leave until 31 March 2020 will need to keep a close eye on developments to see whether their leave will be extended again nearer the time, or whether they will need to make arrangements to depart from the UK or apply for a visa at short notice.
For non-Chinese non-EEA nationals in the UK normally resident in China
Anybody fitting the above description whose UK visa expires between 24 January and 30 March 2020 can call the special coronavirus hotline to give details of their situation and seek an extension of leave to 31 March 2020, but only if they can demonstrate that they are normally resident in China. (“Non-EEA” means from a country not in the European Economic Area, which is made up of all European Union countries plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.)
How this will work in practice is not stated, but usually the Home Office seeks utility bills and other documentation as evidence of residence. Perhaps a Chinese visa permitting residence for the relevant period may suffice. If anyone has been in this position and sought an extension of leave, please do let us know what evidence you were asked for.
Switching from Tier 2 (Intra-company Transfer) to Tier 2 (General)
The Home Office has also announced a concession to allow Chinese nationals currently on a Tier 2 (Intra-company Transfer) visa to switch in-country to a Tier 2 (General) visa. Normally such a switch would require a fresh application for entry clearance to be made from abroad.
Relaxation of sponsor duties
Sponsors will not be required to report any absences from students or employees sponsored under Tier 2, Tier 4, or Tier 5, where those absences have been the result of the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak.
Sponsors will also not be 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.
The Home Office firmly places the onus on sponsors to make the decision about whether they need to withdraw a student from studies or terminate employment, hinting that they will not offer advice on this issue. Thankfully there is also an undertaking not to take compliance action against students or employees who have had absences as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Closure of all UK visa application centres in China
All UK visa application centres in China remain closed. This means a complete pause on return of UK visa applicants’ documentation, including their passports.
The Home Office advises anyone with an urgent travel need to contact the Chinese authorities (or if not Chinese, their embassy in China) about getting a travel document.
There is no further word on how the potential knock-on effects of these delays will be dealt with: for example, where a visa vignette has already been issued and is rapidly expiring in a passport sitting at a closed visa application centre, or where a visa application has been submitted online but biometrics cannot be enrolled in time. Presumably there will be some kind of concession but so far there has been no announcement on this.
The Home Office has also set up a special “Coronavirus Immigration Helpline”:
Telephone: 0800 678 1767 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm)
Calls are free of charge.
Email: [email protected]
Regulations have been passed adding “Wuhan novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)” to the list of diseases for which no charge is to be made for NHS treatment, regardless of the patient’s immigration status. This change will have most significance for short term visitors and for migrants without lawful status, who normally have to pay for NHS care. Those lawfully resident are already entitled to use the NHS.
There are separate regulations for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, since healthcare is a devolved matter.
Government guidance makes clear that a coronavirus test that comes back negative is still free under this exemption:
This exemption from charge will apply to the diagnosis of the condition, even if the outcome is a negative result. It will also apply to any treatment provided for a suspected specified condition, up to the point that it is negatively diagnosed.
This guidance covers the NHS in England, but it would be surprising if the position in the other jurisdictions were any different.
Setting a precedent
The Home Office’s automatic bestowal of leave to remain on a cohort of people based on nationality and visa expiration date is not something I have seen before. It proves that it is possible for the Home Office to implement a declaratory system of leave to remain.
A declaratory system is something that the Home Office has thus far resisted as a Brexit solution for EEA citizens living in the UK. One key difference is that all Chinese visa holders are already on Home Office systems, whereas the majority of EEA residents will not be “registered” on Home Office systems. Still: food for thought.
This article was originally published on 20 February 2020 and has been updated to add information about NHS charging. Darren Stevenson contributed.