Coronavirus and the UK immigration system as of 29 March 2021

People stuck in the UK

Some people who were in the UK when the pandemic hit 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.

The first version of the coronavirus concession was introduced on 17 February 2020. It unilaterally conferred leave to remain until 31 March 2020 to Chinese citizens whose UK visas expired between 24 January and 30 March. It also allowed non-Chinese, non-EEA nationals in the UK who were normally resident in China to get an extension of leave by emailing in to request one.

On 22 May 2020 the Home Office extended the concession to 31 July and later bolted on a “grace period” allowing people to stay until 31 August. As the main coronavirus guidance page summed up the position:

To allow time to make the necessary arrangements to leave the UK, if you have a visa or leave that was due to expire between the 24 January 2020 and 31 August 2020, you’ll be able to stay within the UK to 31 August 2020.

The Home Office also said that it didn’t need to be notified if someone needed to stay on during the grace period.

What about now that the grace period is over? 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. The most recent version of the policy states that exceptional assurance is available to people who “intend to leave the UK but have not been able to do so and… have a visa or leave that expires by 30 June 2021”.

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.

The concessions for student sponsors specifically are addressed in more detail in another Home Office guidance document, Coronavirus (COVID-19): Tier 4 sponsors, migrants and short-term students. Among other things, it covers:

Validity of CAS which have already been issued: a CAS issued between 24 January and 31 July 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”.

Travel from the UK

New lockdown regulations for England came into force on 29 March 2021. They include an explicit ban on international travel, with some exceptions: 

8.—(1) No person may, without a reasonable excuse—

(a) leave England to travel to a destination outside the United Kingdom, or

(b) travel to, or be present at, an embarkation point for the purpose of travelling from there to a destination outside the United Kingdom.

The exceptions are addressed in Schedule 5 and Schedule 6 of those regulations.

Schedule 6 lists job-based exemptions from the travel ban for the likes of diplomats, air crew and sailors. Also relevant to immigration practitioners is the exemption for “a person who is being extradited or deported from the United Kingdom, and any person who is being removed from, or voluntarily departing from, the United Kingdom, because they do not have leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom”.

Schedule 5 contains a list of examples of what constitutes a “reasonable excuse” for international travel, including work, study and (naturally) property viewings. There are limited provisions for people with family obligations outside the UK: hospital, hospice or deathbed visits for a family member or friend abroad, for example, or to attend a funeral. Weddings are a “reasonable excuse” only where one of those getting married lives outside the UK, and the person travelling is either getting married themselves or is a “close family member”.

Journeys within the Common Travel Area are not caught by the ban, being listed as a “reasonable excuse” under Schedule 5. That means that the only country in the world where travel from England is not subject to outbound legal restrictions is the Republic of Ireland (and travel there will be subject to inbound restrictions).

To summarise, then, international travel is banned unless:

  1. It is within the Common Travel Area, or
  2. The person is exempt under Schedule 6, or
  3. The person has a “reasonable excuse” listed in Schedule 5, or
  4. The person has a “reasonable excuse” not listed in Schedule 5 but is nonetheless an excuse that is reasonable

These regulations cover England. The details for international travel from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may be different, but the basic vibe is the same: do not go abroad on holiday, important reasons only. Bear in mind also that leaving the UK and returning means having to follow the inbound travel restrictions covered above. 

Posted on Mar 29, 2021.

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