VisaUK Visas & Immigration (UKVI) has taken the decision without prior warning to suspend priority and super-priority visa processing services for all applications being made from outside the UK. Not only have the services been suspended, but the UKVI update says that “applications for study, work and family visas may take longer to process.”  This means that the most common visas sought by corporate employers, under the Skilled Worker and Intra-Company routes, could take more than three weeks (instead of five working days when the priority service is paid for or 24 hours in the case of super-priority). Standard visit visa applications are currently taking six weeks instead of the usual three.

Processing times for UK visa applications usually start once the applicant has attended their biometric appointment, or when using the UKVI’s visa processing app, once ID checks have been completed and the application is submitted.

At this stage, it is unclear whether UKVI will honour the priority or super-priority service for those applicants who have already purchased it when submitting their applications (and, if not, whether a refund will be available). Nor is it clear how long these services will be suspended for.

However, it’s difficult to be annoyed for too long. UKVI’s reason for the suspension is that it is “prioritising Ukraine Family Scheme applications in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the invasion of Ukraine”, doing its best to recover from what many regarded as an unnecessarily mealy-mouthed initial response by the Home Office to the Ukraine refugee crisis. According to UKVI, as at 3pm on 13 March, 17,100 Ukraine Family Scheme applications have been submitted and 4,000 visas have been granted, and that number is expected to increase very quickly. Immigration lawyers across the UK (including at this firm) have been working together led by the Ukraine Advice Project to provide pro-bono legal assistance to those who need it most.

Last week the Home Office confirmed that Ukrainian refugees who have passports will be able to use the online application system from Tuesday. This means they can verify their identity and submit an application without having to hand over their passports or attend a visa application centre in person, with the intention of enabling the centres to focus on helping those without passports.

Whilst the delay is therefore for good reason, employers should be aware that there will be many non-Ukrainian applicants across the world with urgent applications who are now unable to purchase much-needed priority services. This will inevitably delay UK work start dates and disrupt recruitment plans. Many will be forced to hand over their passports for weeks on end, with no certainty as to when their applications will be approved or their passports returned.

At the time of writing, priority services for visa applications submitted from within the UK were still available but this position may also change given the clear political imperatives and the pressure on Home Office resources.

If you have any questions relating to UK visa applications or other immigration matters, please contact your usual Squire Patton Boggs business immigration team member or Annabel Mace, partner and Head of UK Immigration.