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How does COVID-19 affect UK migrants accessing public funds and the NHS?

10 August 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has put questions around the rights of migrants to access public funds and the NHS into the spotlight. Migrants are allowed to access the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (the ‘Furlough Scheme’) via their employer. However, there are limits to what government assistance some migrants are entitled to following disruption to their normal income, and access to free NHS healthcare may also be unavailable to some people.

What is ‘no recourse to public funds’ and why does it matter?

No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) is an immigration condition imposed on most individuals who hold limited leave to enter or remain in the UK. It does not apply to individuals who are in the UK exercising EU free movement rights, or people who have been granted pre-settled status (which is a form of limited leave) under the EU Settlement Scheme.

It is possible to check whether the condition has been imposed by looking at an individual’s immigration stamp, entry clearance sticker, biometric residence permit or Home Office approval letter.

The condition is breached if an individual accesses the following public funds:

  • Attendance allowance
  • Carer’s allowance
  • Child benefit
  • Child tax credit
  • Council tax benefit
  • Council tax reduction
  • Disability living allowance
  • Domestic rate relief Northern Ireland
  • Housing benefit
  • Income-based jobseeker’s allowance
  • Income-related employment and support allowance
  • Income support
  • Local authority housing
  • Local authority homelessness assistance
  • Personal independence payment
  • Severe disablement allowance
  • Social fund payment
  • State pension credit
  • Universal credit
  • Working tax credit

Breach of the condition is a serious matter. It can lead to the person having their leave curtailed (cut short) or to a future UK immigration application being refused. It is possible to remedy the breach by re-paying the funds received, however this is not always a straight-forward process.

What is excluded from the public funds definition?

It is important to realise that it will not be a breach of the NRPF condition to access government funding that falls outside of the public funds listed above.

So, as relevant to the current pandemic situation, receiving payment from an employer under the furlough scheme will not be considered a breach of the condition.

Also, Government guidance confirms that public funds do not include benefits that a person is entitled to because they have paid National Insurance Contributions, such as:

  • Contribution-based jobseeker’s allowance
  • Incapacity benefit
  • Retirement pension
  • Widow’s benefit and bereavement benefit
  • Guardian’s allowance
  • Statutory maternity pay

State-funded schooling is also not considered to be a public fund, however separate conditions for Tier 4 students mean that they must not study at a state-funded school.

To complicate matters, some people who are subject to NRPF are allowed to claim some of the listed public funds, for example due to an agreement between their country of nationality and the UK. The Home Office has guidance that summarises what exceptions apply, however individuals should consider seeking specific advice on their individual circumstances before deciding whether or not to claim a particular listed public funds.

Is it possible to have the NRPF condition lifted?

People granted limited leave under the ten-year partner, child or parent route, or under the ten-year private life route can apply to the Home Office to have the NRPF lifted. They must provide satisfactory evidence that:

  • They are destitute or at imminent risk of destitution
  • There are particularly compelling reasons relating to the impact on a child’s welfare due to the very low income of their parents or carers
  • There are exceptional circumstances relating to the migrant’s financial circumstances at the time their application was being considered, and they now wish to provideevidence of this

This process does not apply to people on the five-year partner, child or parent routes, or other immigration categories including work or student categories.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a considerable surge in applications to have NRPF lifted. The situation has also prompted the Government to take additional steps to ensure that migrants made vulnerable by the pandemic are supported in other ways that are not considered to breach the NRPF condition.

What other financial assistance may be available for migrants?

People who need to make a new immigration application under certain routes can make an application for a fee waiver if they are destitute our would become destitute if they had to pay the fee and/or the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS).

People who are facing difficulties due to the circumstances of the pandemic can contact the Coronavirus Immigration Team (CIT) on a case-by-case basis. This may become relevant for example where a sponsored employee has been made redundant, unable to find alternative sponsored employment, and is unable to leave the UK due to flight restrictions or other considerations.

Migrants can also approach their local authority for support.

NHS charging

Everyone in the UK, regardless of their immigration status, is entitled to free COVID-19 testing and  treatment.

However, The Home Office has not provided clarity on whether some NHS charging will be applied to individuals who are within scope of the COVID-19 immigration concessions granting a free automatic visa extension, grace period or exceptional assurance. This may be either because they have not paid the Immigration Health Surcharge or because they are a visitor or short-term migrant who is normally expected to retain appropriate insurance to cover the cost of health treatment in the UK.

The Home Office and Department of Health and Social Care do have mechanisms available to exempt individuals from being charged. Confirmation on whether these will be used in the current situation is urgently needed so that affected individuals are aware of the issue and can look at their options for securing appropriate insurance if required.

Those who are subject to charging may become liable for considerable cost. They may also have future UK immigration applications refused if they have an outstanding debt to the NHS of at least £500. A particular danger is that in some historic cases, notifications of NHS debts have not made until after the person has submitted and paid for their next immigration application.

If you have any queries on any of the topics covered in this article, please contact a member of our immigration team.

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