The latest business immigration developments during COVID-19

Whilst, understandably, many employers have been consumed by COVID-19 and the impact this has had on their business in the past couple of months, there have also been some notable business immigration developments during this time. This article sets out a snapshot of the most important immigration developments, to have occurred during lockdown that all businesses need to be aware of. I have provided helpful signposts below where further information can also be obtained.

Temporary changes to Right to Work Checks

Due to COVID-19 and the associated lockdown, the government temporarily adjusted the right to work check procedure to allow employers more flexibility when hiring and updating existing workers ID documents.

Since 30 March 2020, employers can now:

  • carry out right to work checks over video calls.
  • obtain scanned documents from job applicants or existing workers, rather than requiring originals.
  • use the Employer Checking Service if a prospective or existing employee cannot provide any acceptable documents.

This government update can be found at this following link which provides further details of how you should record an adjusted check as well as the retrospective checks that will be required once these temporary changes end. After this time, employers should revert to the original documentation checks found at this link.

Self-isolation travel restrictions

From 8 June 2020, the government introduced a 14-day quarantine period for the majority of people arriving in the UK from outside the Common Travel Area (which includes Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands). The new regulations require most individuals to complete a passenger locator form and to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival into the UK. The self-isolation will normally take place in their own home or the home of friends or family members. Other members of the household will not need to self-isolate unless they, or the individual, develop symptoms of COVID-19.

The government has published detailed guidance on these new rules including separate guidance on those who are exempt from the quarantine rules. The restrictions are being reviewed every three weeks and the police will have the power to conduct spot-checks and impose fines of up to £1,000 for breaking the self-isolation rules.

If businesses have employees that can work from home during their self-isolation period they can continue to work and be paid as normal, however, for those employees that cannot work from home, the position in respect of pay remains unclear. At the time of writing, the government has not updated the provisions to confirm if Statutory Sick Pay can be claimed for those self-isolating following a return to the UK. This may change, so we would encourage employers to keep this under review.

There have been indications from the media that the Government was considering a series of individual 'air bridge' reciprocal agreements with individual countries, allowing travel from the UK and back to those countries without the need for quarantining on return. However, the latest reports in the Telegraph suggest that the Government is now leaning towards a blanket exemption list of up to 75 countries which would not be subject to the two-week quarantine rule.

Latest reports suggest this list will cover most European countries and some further afield, such as New Zealand, which have low numbers of cases. It is likely to exclude countries such as the USA, Portugal and Russia, where the number of cases are still relatively high. The Government is due to make an announcement on the latest air travel restrictions on either 2 or 3 July 2020.

Brexit – No extension to the transitional period

On 12 June 2020, the government formally notified the EU that the UK will neither accept nor seek any extension to the UK's Transitional Period.

On 30 June, the deadline to agree an extension passed, meaning that from 1 January 2021, free movement of people will cease in the UK and EU nationals and non-EEA nationals will be treated alike regarding entry to the UK. There remains much negotiation on the UK's future relationship with other countries and these high-level talks will continue throughout June, July and August 2020.

Businesses want these talks progressed and to be given certainty on many outstanding aspects as soon as possible. There remains a risk that a no-deal Brexit could occur if negotiations with the EU fall through and, if so, this will undoubtedly impact our economy which is already on the verge due to its COVID-19 recovery.

UK's points-based immigration system post-1 January 2021

The government's new points-based immigration scheme has passed its second reading in parliament and is expected to come into force in January 2021, after the transition period finishes at the end of December 2020.

In summary, the new framework will create a single system, whereby all EU and non-EU citizens are treated equally. The new system will allow those with a job offer from an approved sponsor, an A-level equivalent education and minimum earnings of £26,500 to enter via the Tier 2 visa route (this is compared to the current degree level equivalent education and a minimum salary threshold of £30,000). The government are also introducing a 'trade' system whereby certain characteristics can be traded against the salary of the role to be eligible.

However, despite the reductions in both skill and salary requirements, many employers have raised concerns that these reductions are just not enough. The UK currently has significant numbers of EU nationals in low skilled jobs, playing a vital role in our economy, especially within the health sector. Yet from 1 January 2021, EU nationals looking to come across to the UK to provide low skilled work are unlikely to be successful with their visa applications. In a time of crisis, where key workers such as supermarket workers and delivery drivers have been critical to sustaining our economy, these essential roles have not been acknowledged in the new immigration scheme.

Further details around the new initiatives for NHS workers, graduates and scientists are still to be released. However, a new Graduate Immigration Route will be available to international students who have completed a degree in the UK from summer 2021.

For more information on the UK's points-based immigration system and the steps employers can take to prepare, please read the latest government information here.

Becoming an approved sponsor

Employers not currently approved by the Home Office to be a sponsor should consider applying for a licence now if they think they will want to sponsor skilled migrants, including from the EU, from early 2021.

In the last three months of 2019, the number of UK businesses registered as sponsors for Tier 2 work reached a record high, but this is likely to increase significantly further by the end of 2020. The government is encouraging employers to apply early, even if they are not currently able to sponsor migrants under the current system or are not sure if or when they will need to sponsor migrants from January 2021. In such instances, the government will grant sponsor licences, provided the other eligibility criteria are met but will not allocate any certificates of sponsorship until the time they are required. Annex 9 of the Tiers 2 and 5: Guidance for Sponsors has recently been updated to reflect the above and is worth a read here.

The current processing time for a sponsorship licence application is between 8 and 12 weeks. Therefore, many employers will need to prioritise making this sponsor licence application alongside their COVID-19 responses, in order to be as best prepared as possible for 2021.

If you would like to discuss the sponsorship licence application process or any other aspects of this article, please get in touch.