A recent change to Covid-19-related concessions for work visa applicants may have prevented some firms from hiring overseas workers from 1 January, immigration experts have said.
According to law firm Bates Wells, Home Office guidance for work visa applicants changed at 5:32pm on 23 December, when some organisations would have closed for Christmas, to state that people still awaiting a decision on their visa application can only begin working for a new employer if they have been assigned a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) before 1 January 2021, or are applying under the new Health and Care Visa. They must also have submitted their application before their current visa expired.
If a CoS was assigned after 1 January, the employee must wait until their visa application is approved before starting work, unless their current visa allows them to work in a new role.
The change applies to non-UK citizens living in the UK who are switching to the new Skilled Worker visa, or changing employer.
Chetal Patel, a partner at Bates Wells, told Personnel Today that this was a reversal of a Covid-19 related concession the Home Office made last year, which allowed visa applicants to begin work before their visa application in the UK was approved.
The change meant employers were given just nine days – some of which were bank holidays or the weekend – to ensure they had a CoS assigned for new hires.
“We are aware that a number of organisations were relying on this and now the carpet has been pulled from under them,” said Patel.
“It would be useful for stakeholders to be told in advance of such changes, but the Home Office has the power to remove concessions at any time.”
Patel said many HR professionals have returned from their Christmas break to find that their new hires might not be eligible to legally work in the UK.
“This concession was put in place to help businesses through the coronavirus crisis, which hasn’t gone away. Businesses need support, not more delays and bureaucracy,” she said.
“New hires who have already come to the UK and were reliant on being able to start work immediately could face significant delays before they can start earning. This will create needless stress and uncertainty for both businesses and their employees.”
Jonathan Beech, managing director at immigration law firm Migrate UK, agreed that the change had only just been picked up by HR professionals and had caused some disruption.
He said there was little employers or workers could do to speed up the visa application process, other than attach a covering letter and supporting documentation explaining their reasons for needing a new visa urgently.
“The main issue is that the option to pay for a priority or super-priority service is still not available and although expensive, this was a very popular option prior to the pandemic. Instead, employees must submit their application, book and attend a biometric data enrolment appointment and then await a decision.
“Application decisions have sped up since September, however, with another lockdown, there is a worry that the biometric data enrolment appointments will be difficult to obtain in the desired location and at short notice,” said Beech.
Kim Vowden, a senior associate at Kingsley Napley, said: “We were hoping this was a sign that the Home Office was about to restart its priority service, which has been suspended for months, but this hasn’t happened. If the priority service is restarted and the waiting time for biometric appointments is reduced to five working days (it’s currently around three or four weeks) then it’s fair enough to require applicants to wait for the application to be approved. But until those things happen it makes no sense to restrict the concession to applicants with a CoS assigned before 1 January.”
People who submitted applications on the basis of a CoS issued prior to 1 January may still begin working for a new employer before their application has been decided, Beech said but they must stop working if their application is refused or invalid.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “This was a temporary concession which was in place earlier this year when there were delays to visa processing, as we adjusted to safer ways of working as a result of the national lockdown.
“Service levels have now returned to normal, and workers should have permission to work in the UK before they undertake employment.”