The Home Office’s recently published quarterly and annual immigration statistics show there were 2.1 million visas granted in the year ending June 2020, a 29 per cent decrease compared with the previous year. The official immigration statistics based on the International Passenger Survey have been suspended due to Covid-19.
The lower number of visas issued so far this year may be due to the closure of visa application centres around the world and people refusing to relocate during a pandemic. It could also be a result of Brexit and/or the UK presenting a hostile immigration environment.
In contrast to most other countries, the UK did not close its borders to travellers entering the UK during lockdown. Instead, the UK government said it would follow scientific advice. From 8 June 2020 the UK government implemented quarantine on arrival for travellers. Immigration for work, study, and tourism will take time to recover. However, without operational visa application centres it has been impossible for foreign nationals to obtain a visa to travel to the UK. Even if they could travel, many people have avoided flying to minimise the risk of contamination en route.
Now that visa application centres are slowly opening in many countries, there is a bottleneck of applications. The UK government has indicated that they instituted strong measures to clear the backlog of applications, and they strive to return to their standard processing times. Although there has been some progress, they are not yet back to that point.
The UK is exceptionally dependent on international travel, and so it is essential that policymakers find a way to allow people to move across our borders again, whether through screening, testing, post-arrival monitoring, or some combination of these.
What happens now restrictions are easing?
Now international travel is resuming, countries around the world are re-opening their borders, and visa application centres are re-opening and processing applications, we expect immigration numbers for next year to increase. We suspect this data will increase as a result of the new immigration system, applications by EU citizens (who have not had to apply previously so, until now, have not appeared in this data), and the removal of the cap on numbers in certain work visa categories.
From January 2021, EU free movement will end and employers who want to recruit from overseas will need a licence to sponsor foreign nationals for work visas. While the government has made it possible for businesses to apply for a Sponsor Licence ahead of time, the concern is that not enough are prepared for the shock of having to use the sponsorship system to hire EU nationals.
How can businesses prepare for the new immigration system?
Since the publication of the White Paper more than a year ago, many businesses have been so focused on the Brexit process and now the management of Covid-19 that they are yet to turn their attention to the new immigration system.
With only three months until the introduction of the new system, it is imperative that businesses begin to focus on the implications of the new 2021 immigration system. If companies are planning on recruiting anyone from overseas after 1 January 2021, including EU nationals, the new immigration system will apply.
If companies have not completed this step already, 2020 is the year to identify European employees (and their European family members) and to support them in securing Settled Status or Pre-Settled Status. EU nationals must have status in place before the end of June 2021. However, we recommend that all EU nationals ideally secure their Settled or Pre-Settled Status before the end of free movement in January 2021.
Companies should plan their recruitment strategy with the new immigration system in mind. If companies do not have a Sponsor Licence in place, and they wish to hire EU and non-EU nationals post January 2021, then securing a Sponsor Licence should be close to the top of the list as a key task to complete.
It is recommended that companies who already have a Sponsor Licence should renew their licence if they anticipate sponsoring foreign national and EU national employees in the new year. Although the numbers currently suggest that companies holding a Tier 2 Sponsor Licence have increased, we anticipate that there will likely be a significant spike in licence applications as we get closer to the end of the year.
When securing a Sponsor Licence, the company should arrange comprehensive training for their employees who will be involved in recruitment and the management of their Sponsor Licence.
Claire Nilson is counsel and Hodon Anastasi an associate at Faegre Drinker LLP