The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect foreign travel plans, whether for work or leisure purposes. The advice of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office remains that UK nationals should avoid all but essential international travel, and should not travel if they have COVID-19 symptoms.
However, new rules will be imposed at the UK borders, as of 8 June, which will have an immediate impact on any travel plans. These restrictions will require many international travellers to quarantine or “self-isolate” for 14 days on arrival into Northern Ireland, or any other part of the UK. The rules will apply to both Northern Ireland residents and residents from other parts of the UK and Ireland and all visitors coming into Northern Ireland.
Those travelling to Northern Ireland from within the Common Travel Area (CTA), namely, the UK (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland), the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, and the Republic of Ireland will not need to provide their journey or contact details, or self-isolate for 14 days if they have been in the CTA for a 14 day period before arrival.
Full details of the new rules which will apply across Northern Ireland are set out in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, (the NI Travel Quarantine Regulations).
The NI Travel Quarantine Regulations will be subject to review at least once every 21 days, to ensure that they remain in line with the latest scientific evidence, and that they are effective and necessary. The first such review is scheduled to take place by 29 June.
Below, we set out details of the NI Travel Quarantine Regulations, including an assessment of the latest developments from an immigration perspective.
Travel quarantine regulations: what do you need to know?
What passenger information must be supplied?
Individuals arriving in Northern Ireland, after 8 June, will be required to complete an online passenger locator form providing details of their journey, contact information and the address where they will be self-isolating. The detailed list of passenger information which must be supplied is set out in Schedule 1 of the NI Travel Quarantine Regulations and includes: their passport number; travel operator and booking reference; expected date and time of arrival; the name and telephone number of an emergency contact.
This information can be completed online up to 48 hours before arrival, but evidence of completion must be retained as an Immigration Officer may request to see it. However where an individual arrives at a place staffed by Immigration Officers, they will be able to complete the form electronically on their arrival in Northern Ireland. Assistance will then be available for completion of the electronic form, if necessary. Completion of a new form is also required if there are any changes to the passenger information.
When is someone required to self-isolate?
The NI Travel Quarantine Regulations distinguish between those travelling to Northern Ireland from within and outside the Common Travel Area (CTA), namely, the UK (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland), the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, and the Republic of Ireland.
Individuals arriving from within the CTA who have been in the CTA for the last 14 days before entering Northern Ireland, will not need to provide their journey or contact details, or self-isolate for 14 days.
Where someone is arriving in Northern Ireland from another CTA country and they have entered the CTA within the last 14 days, they will only have to self-isolate until they have spent a total of 14 days in the CTA. Such individuals will need to provide their journey and contact details as evidence, for example, their boarding pass or itinerary.
Is it correct that the requirements can be avoided if travelling through Ireland?
Those entering any part of the UK from within the CTA, including Ireland (which maintains separate measures in respect of quarantine after arrival), will not need to isolate for 14 days if they have previous residence in this area only. Demonstrating residence in the relevant part of the CTA, which has lasted for 14 days or more, will be necessary to avoid the requirement to self-isolate. This means the exemption will be limited to those who have immediate prior residence in the CTA and transiting through Ireland or elsewhere will not, in itself, be helpful.
For example, if an individual enters Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland, there is no need to quarantine, provided they have been in the CTA for the last 14 days. This will come as a relief to many that live in border regions of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland who cross the Irish border on a regular basis.
However if the individual enters Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland (or any other CTA country), and they have not been in the CTA for the last 14 days, then the individual will need to isolate until they have spent a total of 14 days in the CTA.
Who is exempted from these rules?
There are some limited exemptions which mean certain individuals will not need to supply passenger information or self-isolate. For example, foreign diplomats and authorised officials of a foreign government. Details of such exceptions are set out at Schedule 2, Part 1 of the NI Travel Quarantine Regulations.
Of greater interest to most employers will be the specific exemptions set out in Schedule 2, Part 2 of the NI Travel Quarantine Regulations. Individuals whose job role, or reason for travelling to Northern Ireland, falls within these exemptions will still need to provide passenger information, but they will not be required to self-isolate.
The various exemptions are summarised in the government guidance “Coronavirus: Travellers exempt from UK border rules”. The long list of specified roles includes: road haulage and freight workers; medical professionals travelling to fight COVID-19; and workers with specialist technical skills for essential or emergency works. The evidential requirements for each category of exempted worker are also confirmed.
Does this impact those coming to Northern Ireland on assignment?
Yes, they will be subject to the same requirements as other travellers to Northern Ireland and, unless exempt, will be expected to isolate for 14 days. Those sponsoring employees who need to self-isolate should make it clear that a residential contact address will be necessary on entry to Northern Ireland; that the employee may not physically attend work and is expected to comply with the Northern Ireland Executive’s isolation requirements for the first 14 days of the stay.
Practical issues which may arise for Tier 2 workers include whether a delay to the start date is reportable, collection of the Biometric Residence Permit and undertaking a right-to-work check on the first day of employment. UK Visas and Immigration has taken a practical approach to issues such as this to date and we consider that it should be possible to remain compliant with immigration requirements, whilst a sponsored employee is self-isolating.
What about employees who live in Northern Ireland and work in another country (outside of the CTA), or vice versa?
It is not uncommon for an employee to live in Northern Ireland and travel to Europe for work frequently, or the other way around. Such an employee will fall into one of the exempted categories, so long as travel to or from Northern Ireland takes place at least once per week. The traveller must provide their journey and contact details, but will not be required to self-isolate for 14 days. They will need to show evidence that they reside in one country, but work in the other, and must also be able to demonstrate that they travel between the two on a minimum of a weekly basis by producing, for example, a season ticket. Employers can support travellers by providing a letter of support confirming the frequency of travel.
Does this mean business visits to Northern Ireland will become impossible?
We expect serious challenges in respect of visits to Northern Ireland whilst these requirements are in place. The nature of visits for most passengers is such that social isolation is not possible or desirable, with activities such as sightseeing or conducting business meetings requiring contact with others. We recommend that any intention to visit Northern Ireland for a period shorter than 14 days is reconsidered because of this, unless the passenger clearly fits into one of the exempt categories.
What practical changes can be expected at airports in Northern Ireland?
Entry to Northern Ireland is now an automated process for travellers who enter using the E-gates system. Whilst visa application forms now contain questions about how the traveller will self-isolate, it is not clear whether passengers will be examined about this on entry, or if there will be any follow-up checks conducted by immigration officials to ensure these rules are being maintained (see below). Enforcing the requirements would require dramatic changes to border control, which is likely to cause some delay.
What about travel arrangements to the self-isolation location?
On arrival in Northern Ireland, individuals are required to travel immediately to their self-isolation location, unless an overnight stay is necessary.
The current advice is to travel by public transport only if there is no other option available. If using public transport, it is suggested individuals wear something covering their nose and mouth and stay 2 metres apart from other people.
What will self-isolation mean in practice?
The NI Travel Quarantine Regulations state that, once an individual arrives at their self-isolation location, they must then self-isolate until the end of the 14th day after the day on which they arrive in the CTA, or their departure from Northern Ireland. In other words, if someone is travelling to Northern Ireland for less than 14 days, they will be expected to self-isolate for the entire length of their stay.
The Executive’s guidance “Coronavirus – travel advice” clarifies this, stating: “You cannot go out to work or school or visit public areas. You should not go shopping. If you require help buying groceries, other shopping or picking up medication, you should ask friends or relatives or order a delivery”.
There are some limited exceptions to this, for example, if the person who is self-isolating needs urgent medical assistance or there is an emergency.
Unless the person who is self-isolating develops COVID-19 symptoms, anyone with whom they are staying (who was not also their travelling companion) will not need to self-isolate.
How will these rules be enforced?
From 8 June, an individual may be issued with a fixed penalty notice of £100 in the first instance, for contravening the passenger information obligations. However there is scope for this penalty to be increased, incrementally, up to £3,200 for repeated or wilful failures to provide the required information. In Northern Ireland, if a person does not self-isolate, they can be fined £1,000, or may face further action.
The Border Force will have the power to refuse entry to non-UK citizens who do not comply with the NI Travel Quarantine Regulations. The Government has also said individuals could be contacted regularly during the 14-day isolation period, in addition to random spot checks taking place.
What will the long-term effects of the new quarantine rules be?
These new quarantine rules have been criticised both on public health grounds (as being “too little, too late”) and because of the detrimental effect they are expected to have on the already struggling travel and tourism sectors. It is noteworthy that the Executive has committed to reviewing the NI Travel Quarantine Regulations within three weeks of their launch. As such, although employers should support their staff in complying with the obligations, it may be premature to make significant changes to employment policies and procedures at this stage. Employers may, instead, prefer to keep a watching brief.
Coronavirus: latest UK immigration news
Is it possible to make immigration applications in Northern Ireland following the COVID-19 lockdown?
The online immigration application process has remained open throughout the COVID-19 lockdown period, so it has been possible to apply for extensions of stay during this time. Due to the closure of immigration application centres in March, however, it has not been possible to progress these further. The company which administers the application process, Sopra Steria, has reopened some of its application centres from 1 June. Customers who had an existing appointment prior to the suspension of the service will receive an email explaining the next steps they need to take to rebook the appointment. It is not possible to book new appointments at present.
When can we expect visa application centres overseas to reopen?
Some UK visa application centres overseas are now offering a service. A phased resumption of service in, amongst others, some Chinese posts, Australia, Malaysia and Germany has now commenced. The provision of visa services is being reintroduced, based on the recommendations of the Government as to when it is safe to do so. Whilst we would expect a wider service to be offered in the near future, this needs to be checked on each occasion before planning to apply for a visa.
What steps have been taken to help sponsors comply with the immigration requirements in the UK whilst the Government has been unable to offer a service?
There have been numerous measures introduced to help those with immigration status in the UK, including Northern Ireland, expiring during the COVID-19 lockdown period. Those with leave to remain in the UK which expires prior to 31 July, who are unable to travel, may obtain extensions of stay to that date. In addition, it is possible for individuals in this situation to switch immigration status within the UK, regardless of whether this is permitted by the immigration Rules. This is a considerable benefit to those who would otherwise need to leave the UK and apply for visas to return.
The Government has advised that there will be no detriment to those applying for immigration status caused by COVID-19. This means, for example, that there may be helpful treatment in the future for those who have considerable absence from the UK or who have been unable to utilise a Certificate of Sponsorship before its expiry. We would expect this to be considered on a case-by-case basis in the near future.
Can we expect immigration processing to return to normal soon?
It will be difficult to offer the type of service provided in immigration application centres, whilst also respecting social distancing measures. Such centres prior to lockdown tended to be busy and required numerous applicants to wait for photographs and fingerprints to be taken. We would expect fewer such appointments to be possible in the future.
We have yet to see any proposals as to the steps UK Visas and Immigration will take to clear a backlog in applications which has arisen over the lockdown period. Whilst greater resources may be committed to the Department to help with this, UK Visas and Immigration has a poor record of handling such disruption in the past.
This note is a generic briefing, based upon Executive and Government Guidance available as at 15 June 2020. It is not a substitute for detailed legal advice on the specific circumstances employers are facing.