Home Office preparedness for Covid-19 (coronavirus): immigration and visas Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The Home Office’s response to the impact of Covid-19 on the immigration and visa systems

1.We recognise that in the current unprecedented circumstances it is hard to operate a normal immigration system. Travel restrictions have made entering or leaving the country a complex or impossible process; there are difficulties in implementing normal work or income requirements without undermining public health messages; and the impact of the pandemic on workload and staffing levels is also being felt by the Home Office. We place on record our appreciation to Home Office officials and caseworkers who have provided support and guidance to people at this challenging time. In this context, we welcome recent developments that show that the Home Office recognises the need for pragmatic temporary changes to ensure that the UK’s immigration and visa systems can continue to function appropriately. (Paragraph 3)

Visa extensions for everyone with temporary status

2.We welcome the Home Office’s recognition of the problems faced by individuals with soon-to-expire visas and the offer of visa extensions. Granting temporary extensions—initially until 31 May and then to 31 July—has removed one burden at a time of great stress and difficulty for many people. We welcome the commitment by the Home Secretary and senior Home Office officials that nobody will be punished for circumstances beyond their control. (Paragraph 11)

3.Waiting until the middle of May to extend visas beyond 31 May to 31 July will have caused some people difficulties, however. If it is likely that travel continues to be difficult beyond 31 July because of Covid-19, the Home Office should continue with appropriate targeted or general extensions and must notify people affected in good time. (Paragraph 12)

4.The Home Office must clarify the legal basis for the offers of visa extensions. Relying on the Home Secretary’s discretion is not sufficient legal assurance for people whose lives in the UK depend on evidential clarity. We recommend that the department introduce a statutory instrument clarifying the legal basis for both the extension of leave for all individuals who are unable to leave the country before the expiry of their current visa, and for the automatic extensions of leave offered to NHS staff. (Paragraph 21)

5.The Home Office must also clarify the circumstances in which an individual who applies for a visa extension would not be successful in their application. (Paragraph 22)

6.The department must improve communication about the availability of visa extensions. This arrangement has not been well publicised, and we are concerned that there may be people who risk overstaying (or who have already overstayed) their visa because they are unaware that they may be entitled to an extension. We request that the Home Office is transparent about the scale of the issue by providing us with its estimate of the number of people whose visas have expired or will expire during the time period which would make them eligible for an extension, the numbers who have so far applied for an extension, and the numbers who are thought still to be in the country as unwitting overstayers. We call on the Home Office to contact all individuals whose visas are due to expire before 31 July 2020 directly, to inform them about what they have to do to extend their visa. (Paragraph 23)

7.We also request that the Home Office clarify whether an individual who does not apply for a visa extension, and therefore overstays their existing visa because of Covid-19, may retrospectively gain the extension to which they would have been entitled had they known about the department’s offer at an earlier point. We also ask the Home Office to explain what the implications are for individuals who have inadvertently overstayed but who do not apply for the extension, including in particular the impact this might have on future applications to return to the UK. (Paragraph 24)

8.As indicated in our letter to the Home Secretary of 22 May, we recommend that the Home Office explores the possibility of blanket visa extensions or an alternative automatic process, appropriately underpinned by statute and without any need for an application. This would prevent any unintentional overstaying due to travel restrictions and ease the burden on the Home Office. If the Home Office does not believe this is possible, it should explain why not. (Paragraph 25)

Visa arrangements for frontline NHS and care workers

9.We strongly welcome the Home Secretary’s offer of immediate and automatic indefinite leave to remain to the families of NHS doctors and nurses, and the more recent extension to the families of social care workers and non-medical NHS staff following correspondence with the Committee. It would be wrong to make a family that has just lost a parent, spouse or child to Covid-19 while working to care for others suddenly have to leave their home, their school and this country. (Paragraph 54)

10.The Government is right to recognise the huge debt we owe to all NHS and social care workers for the work they are doing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Given that they have already contributed so much to the NHS through their valiant and life-saving work, the Government’s announcement that NHS staff and social care employees will be removed from the Immigration Health Surcharge is very welcome. We encourage the Home Secretary and Health and Social Care Secretary to make fulfilment of this commitment an urgent priority. We also believe there is a need to review the appropriateness of the NHS charge, and the rate it is set at more generally. (Paragraph 55)

11.We also welcome the Government’s offer of free visa extensions to some NHS staff and their families, who might otherwise have to pay thousands of pounds to stay in the UK. As of January 2020, 13.8% of NHS staff report a non-British nationality. They should not have to face the pressures and costs of the UK visa system in the middle of a pandemic, so the Home Secretary was right to introduce a free visa extension. We are pleased that the offer has now been expanded to a wider pool of workers than was initially communicated. (Paragraph 56)

12.However, we are extremely disappointed that the Government has so far decided not to extend the offer to non-medical NHS employees and social care workers. These lower paid workers have now rightly been included in the life assurance scheme, the provisions for bereaved families, and the exemption from the Immigration Health Surcharge. Excluding care workers and lower-paid NHS staff from the fee-free visa extension, however, is unfair and fails to recognise the scale of their contribution to the UK fight against Covid-19. We recommend that all NHS staff—regardless of job role, pay grade or visa route—and social care workers are offered the same fee-free one-year visa extension. It cannot be right that, at a time when they are providing a vital and life-saving service for the country, non-UK health and care staff have to worry about their status and residency in the country. (Paragraph 57)

13.Many of the excluded NHS employees—who include hospital porters, cleaners and administrative staff—are providing essential services to the NHS and its patients at this most trying time. They are also more likely to be in lower-paid job roles, meaning that the necessity of paying visa renewal fees is a much greater financial burden. The goodwill generated by the Government through this offer to NHS staff will only be sustained by addressing discrimination against workers in lower-paid and lower-profile roles. (Paragraph 58)

14.It is also unfair to exclude the overwhelming majority of social care workers, including those providing direct care, at a time when care homes are under immense pressure as a result of Covid-19. Care workers are as much on the frontline of fighting the virus and trying to save lives as the NHS, and they have also been more likely to see their own health suffer. A care worker who needs to renew family visas this summer could be facing costs of thousands of pounds, with more required for the Immigration Health Surcharge that has not yet been lifted. For care workers who often do not get more than statutory sick pay if they get ill or need to self-isolate this is an additional and grave financial worry, which could put them under pressure to keep working even when it is not appropriate to do so. (Paragraph 59)

15.We do not accept the Home Office claim that including social care workers in the free visa extensions policy is too difficult because many work for independent providers. The Government has rightly found ways to include care workers in the life assurance scheme, the provisions for those who die in service, and the exemption from the Immigration Health Surcharge. It must now address the remaining anomaly and include them in the free visa extension. A statutory instrument confirming fee-free one-year visa extensions to all NHS staff and social care workers would have an immediate effect, by confirming that these people are entitled to an extension while the Government seeks information from employers to apply the extensions in practice. The Health and Social Care Secretary rightly stated that “we are committed to doing whatever is needed; that promise applies just as much to social care as it does for the NHS”. The Government now needs to fulfil that promise. (Paragraph 60)

16.The Government should also ensure that foreign national family members of British health and care staff are included in its offers of fee-free visa extensions. There appears to be no good reason for excluding this group of frontline health workers. They should be able to receive free one-year visa extensions on the same basis as the family members of non-British health and care workers. (Paragraph 61)

17.We also call on the Government to take further measures in respect of those working in health and social care during the pandemic. Many frontline and support staff do not have British citizenship or long-term security in the UK as they will be on short-term visas. Some will ultimately hope to attain indefinite leave to remain and settlement in the UK. For those who have worked tirelessly to combat Covid-19, and who wish for it, the Government should set out new arrangements to offer them British citizenship or permanent residency in recognition of the huge contribution they have made to the UK health and social care system during the Covid-19 crisis. We believe that people who have given so much, and in many cases risked their own health, for the nations and people of the UK should be assisted to become permanent members of the society to which they have dedicated themselves. (Paragraph 62)

Other visas and requirements

18.We welcome the Home Secretary’s promise that “nobody will be punished for circumstances outside of their control”. To ensure this the Home Office must recognise that the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 crisis will have had unexpected impacts on the ability of individuals and families to meet visa conditions. We call on the department to issue guidance to caseworkers stating that they should exercise flexibility when considering applications which, on the balance of probabilities, would have met all relevant criteria had it not been for the Covid-19 crisis. (Paragraph 72)

19.We consider that there are several steps the Government could take to mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic on the ability of visa holders and applicants to meet requirements. These could include: (Paragraph 73)

We call on the Home Office to consider and implement a combination of these measures to provide the appropriate flexibility required as a result of the pandemic and write to us with its conclusions. It should also ensure that where people are benefiting from this additional flexibility they are still able to remain on their current route to residency, and should not be moved onto a longer route. (Paragraph 73)

20.The Home Office must be conscious of the fact that the difficulties in meeting the Minimum Income Requirement and other visa requirements are not short-term problems which will go away in a few months: the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will affect visa holders and applicants for the foreseeable future. The Home Office therefore needs to conduct a thorough review of its policy on the Minimum Income Requirement and how the acceptable evidence requirements for each of the permitted income sources will be affected by Covid-19 related disruption. (Paragraph 74)

Home Office communication

21.We understand that this is an unprecedented time and that it is difficult to introduce new policies with the rapidity with which they have been required. However, at such a time adequate communication between the Government, legal professionals and the public is vital. The Government needs to know the concerns of the legal community and the issues which are being encountered; legal professionals need certainty so that they can advise clients appropriately; and visa holders and applicants need to know that their situations are being addressed. (Paragraph 80)

22.The Home Office must ensure that clear, unambiguous and up-to-date guidance is made publicly accessible on the Government’s website, and that previous versions of guidance are also available for reference. Informal lines of communication between the Home Office and immigration law practitioners are welcome, but they cannot be a substitute for making policy statements available and accessible to the public at large. (Paragraph 81)

EU Settlement Scheme

23.It is to the Home Office’s credit that more than three million grants of status under the EU Settlement Scheme have been made with more than a year to go to the deadline. However, our concern has always been for vulnerable people and others who will find it difficult to apply, and in many cases it will be people in these groups who will be particularly affected by impacts of Covid-19. Once the crisis abates, we call on the Home Office to step up its efforts to support those who have not yet applied to the EU Settlement Scheme to do so. We call on the Home Office to provide us with details—updated as a result of the pandemic—of the measures it is taking to identify and provide support to individuals who are yet to apply for status. We also call on the Home Office to explain clearly the approach it will take to late applications from those who may not have known they were required to apply to the scheme, and what work it will undertake, if any, to assess the numbers of eligible citizens who have not yet applied. (Paragraph 89)

24.We are particularly concerned about the reports of low rates of applications on behalf of children and young people in care. We recommend that local authorities increase efforts to identify young people in their care who are required to apply under the EU Settlement Scheme. We hope that the new guidance recently published by the Home Office, which we welcome, assists with this process. (Paragraph 90)

25.We recommend that, once they are identified by local authorities and health and social care trusts, the Government make automatic grants of settled status for all children in care and care leavers. (Paragraph 91)

26.We call on the Home Office to set out its position on the legal position of those with pre-settled status. (Paragraph 92)

No recourse to public funds

27.We are pleased that the Home Office has recognised the need to respond sympathetically to those with NRPF conditions who find themselves in difficulties owing to the pandemic and we are encouraged by the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to look into these concerns. No one should have to put their own or their loved ones’ lives at risk for fear of destitution. Throughout this report we have sought to address exceptional circumstances which call for a more compassionate response. (Paragraph 115)

28.We welcome the revised guidance issued by the Home Office, clarifying the situation for caseworkers and confirming that under the family and private life rules the NRPF condition must be lifted or not imposed if an applicant is destitute or is at risk of imminent destitution. There is scope, however, for further measures to provide reassurance and support to NRPF condition holders affected by the pandemic. There needs to be clarity that all who are prohibited from having recourse to public funds must have access to the support they need during this crisis, and funding provided to ensure that happens. The Government should immediately make arrangements for the temporary lifting of NRPF conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government should also direct local authorities to provide support where required by others who are destitute (or at risk of destitution) and who would otherwise be prohibited from accessing public funds, and it should provide funding to allow this to happen. (Paragraph 116)

29.We also recommend that the Government reduce the evidential burden on individuals seeking changes in visa conditions or fee waivers as a consequence of the pandemic. It should ensure that clear guidance on the options and support available to individuals and families with NRPF conditions is consolidated and easily accessible on the Government website. (Paragraph 117)

Published: 15 June 2020