Covid-19 causing settled status application delays, Home Office warns

HR needs to encourage staff to apply early, as experts warn that guidance on furlough and coronavirus-related absence for sponsored employees lacks clarity

Applications to the UK’s EU Settlement Scheme will take “longer than usual” to process because of the coronavirus lockdown, the Home Office has said, warning that support services and application routes have temporarily changed.

In a blog post published yesterday, the Home Office said that – in keeping with Public Health England advice to work from home – the Settlement Resolution Centre responsible for processing applications would no longer answer inbound telephone calls, and the postal route for submitting identity evidence was “currently suspended”.

ID document scanner locations were also suspended. However, the identity stage of applications could still be completed using the ‘EU Exit ID Document’ app, the Home Office confirmed.

The Home Office said the situation was being kept “under constant review” and that it would reinstate the postal route and ID document scanner locations “to their original capacity in line with public health guidance”.

Email enquiries would still be responded to, and call-back functions were available for those seeking advice, it added.

Gillian McKearney, senior associate and head of UK immigration at Fieldfisher, said HR teams should continue to encourage EU employees to complete their applications as fully as possible despite the delays. But she warned there may be “an increase in concerns from employees requiring support with technical problems and possible delays”. 

“HR managers should be supportive and consider when it is appropriate to provide further assistance or seek legal support with the application,” she said.

Chetal Patel, partner at Bates Wells, agreed EU staff should be encouraged to be even more proactive in applying given the extra delays. “We can expect the application processing period to be delayed during these unprecedented times, so it’s important that people don’t put off the submission of applications,” she said.

“While the world is adjusting to a new ‘business as normal’, individuals affected by the EU referendum result need to also continue ‘as normal’ and get their status now.”

Despite the predicted delays, the Home Office emphasised that applicants still had until 30 June 2021 to apply. It added the reassurance that anyone with “reasonable grounds” for missing the deadline would be given further opportunity to apply.

The Home Office announcement followed a recent clarification from the government that it would not take enforcement action against employers that were Tier 2, 4 and 5 sponsors and that continued to sponsor employees absent because of coronavirus.

It said employers did not need to report any coronavirus-related absences for sponsored employees, and that sponsorships would not need to be withdrawn for those absent from work for more than four weeks. This covered absences as a result of inability to travel or self-isolation.

Employers were not required to report that sponsored employees were working from home, but other changes to working arrangements unrelated to coronavirus were still to be reported.

Pay could also be temporarily reduced to 80 per cent of the employee’s salary, up to £2,500 per month, in line with the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme without this affecting an employee’s right to work, the government confirmed. This was the case, it said, as long as reductions to the workforce were part of a company-wide policy to avoid redundancies, all workers were treated the same, and staffing levels returned to normal once the pandemic subsided.

However, Patel said the announcement on sponsorship left unanswered questions for employers. She said guidance on how the furlough scheme affected sponsored employees was not “spelt out”. The announcement’s wording suggested sponsored workers were required to work which “goes against the principles of the coronavirus job retention scheme,” she said.

“It’s important further clarifications are sought. Otherwise sponsors and sponsored employees risk falling foul of the sponsor regime,” said Patel.