Play Sport, Will Travel: The Impact of COVID-19 on Sports Immigration

Morgan Lewis
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Morgan Lewis

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic brought much of the world’s professional sport to a standstill during the first half of 2020. Set against the background of widespread border closures, there has been significant uncertainty with respect to the lawful movement of people. Here, we look at the options available for people working across the breadth of the sports sector who wish to visit or move to the United Kingdom.

For individuals working in the sports industry looking to visit or move to the United Kingdom, there are a number of different categories of visas that may apply, depending on the intended length of visit and whether the individual is planning to move permanently.

Tier 2 Sportsperson visas are intended for individuals looking to move permanently to the United Kingdom. In order to be eligible, applicants must be an international established player or coach at the highest level, intending to be based in the United Kingdom and make a significant contribution to their sport in the United Kingdom. Applicants will need to provide an endorsement from the UK sports governing body and evidence their English language proficiency.

Tier 5 Sporting visas are intended for individuals looking to engage in sport in the United Kingdom for up to 12 months. The applicant will also require an endorsement from their sport’s UK governing body; however they are not required to evidence their English language skills and the eligibility standards are significantly lower.

Sportsperson visitor visas are intended for individuals looking to visit the United Kingdom for no longer than six months to take part in a tournament, event, or series of events. Permitted Paid engagement visas are intended for individuals visiting the United Kingdom for up to one month to undertake a paid engagement at the invitation of a UK-based organisation. Neither of these options require an endorsement and are intended to facilitate short-term visits for a particular event, such as a tournament.

In addition, there may be further options available to applicants with British ancestry or British or European partners, on which Morgan Lewis would be happy to advise.

IMMEDIATE IMPACT

The national and international responses to COVID-19 have created a number of immediate impacts to immigration in the sports industry. Total or partial lockdowns, travel restrictions, and visa application services closures have all prevented immigration into the United Kingdom. The Home Office decision to close all visa application centres globally in March brought UK immigration to a complete halt. International athletes hoping to obtain a visa either to live and work in the United Kingdom or visit to attend sporting events were therefore unable to submit applications and receive visas. In addition, the closure of English language test centres has prevented applicants from providing acceptable evidence of their satisfaction of English, a key requirement for Tier 2 applications. While many of these services have started to resume, a significant backlog of cases has led to a shortage of appointments and further delays in submitting applications. Furthermore, the priority processing service previously offered to visa applicants remains suspended indefinitely. This has removed a historically faster route to obtain a UK visa for many applicants requiring a visa at short notice.

Where applicants are able to obtain a UK visa, thought must also be given to travel restrictions and the availability of flights; which can further influence arrival into or departure from the United Kingdom. The UK government introduced a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine period for all international arrivals from 8 June. The government has since permitted arrivals from a number of exempt countries to forego the self-quarantine, unless their journey involved a transit stop at a non-exempt country. Many other countries globally have similar rules or restrictions, which must be considered, particularly for athletes that normally travel extensively to attend competitions or events. These rules can also rapidly change, preventing travel at short notice.

IN-COUNTRY SWITCHES AND AUTOMATIC EXTENSIONS

As a result of the travel restrictions and travel issues that were caused by national and international responses to COVID-19, the Home Office issued further guidance for individuals already in the United Kingdom with visas that were due to expire. In order to prevent individuals from overstaying their visas, anyone with a visa expiring prior to 31 July 2020 can apply for an automatic extension to their visa to 31 July. In addition, the Home Office will also permit individuals to submit applications from within the United Kingdom that they normally would be required to return to their home country to submit, such as new Tier 2 visa applications.

This has ensured that sportspersons and individuals working in the sports industry will not find themselves in breach of immigration rules because they were unable to leave the United Kingdom as intended. While at the discretion of the Home Office, the in-country switch may also be a helpful possibility for individuals coming to the end of their current visa validity. However, for individuals required to travel frequently (such as Formula 1 teams) we would recommend submitting from the home country if possible. The huge backlog of cases caused by the visa service suspension earlier in the year has delayed in-country applications significantly. While there have been some delays to out-of-country applications, these have so far been impactful.

SALARY REDUCTIONS AND REDUNDANCY

In line with the wider furlough rules announced by the UK government, sportspersons and individuals working in the sports industry were eligible to be furloughed by their employer. For Tier 2 visa holders, the Home Office issued specific guidance permitting sponsored individuals to be furloughed or have their salary reduced to a minimum of 80% without this reduction impacting their UK immigration status. The reduction must be part of a company-wide scheme to avoid redundancies in which all employees were treated the same and the sponsored individuals must return to at least their previous income level once the company’s furlough measures ended.

When a Tier 2 visa national is made redundant their sponsorship is brought to an immediate end. If the individual is unable to find another company to sponsor them they will be required to leave the United Kingdom.

Sponsored individuals working in the sports industry may have been particularly affected by the UK lockdown measures and industry-wide cancellation of sporting fixtures, with businesses furloughing or making redundant staff. Even where sport has restarted, the lack of in-person spectators and social distancing rules has led to a general reduction in the number of staff required and a corresponding drop in the amount of sponsorship required. Furthermore, the cancellation of sporting events and the ban on in-person spectators has impacted the finances of sporting teams. These teams may therefore have less money to spend on the costly visa process of hiring foreign nationals.

It is not yet known how quickly, if at all, the in-person spectator number will bounce back. With the general public now more wary of large gatherings, it is possible that in-person sporting events may continue to see decreased spectator numbers for years to come, which will continue to have revenue impacts.

ENDORSEMENT ISSUES

A further less obvious consideration for sportspersons hoping to obtain a UK visa is the impact of COVID-19 on governing body endorsements. As mentioned previously, it is typically necessary for applicants for Tier 2 or Tier 5 visas to obtain an endorsement from their UK sports governing body in support of their application. Where seasons or competitions have been suspended, applicants may find it more difficult to satisfy the endorsement criteria until the sporting calendar returns to normal. Where they are still able to obtain an endorsement, it may take additional time to receive the endorsement as governing organisations themselves deal with staff shortages or furloughs due to COVID-19. In practice, applicants requiring an endorsement should allow additional time in order to complete this process.

PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR THE INDUSTRY

When considering immigration in the sporting sector moving forward, it will be important for athletes and organisations to account for the practical impact of the issues discussed above, particularly where athletes face sporting deadlines such as tournament dates or transfer window deadlines. Extra time must be allowed in the application process to facilitate the delays caused by the backlog of cases or difficulty in obtaining endorsements. Athletes must factor additional time into their application plans to accommodate hard deadlines such as tournaments, season starting dates or governing body rules, particularly where they are required to undergo mandatory quarantines on arriving into the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, as governments scramble to react to new developments in the spread or resurgence of the virus, the industry may be further impacted by sudden and unexpected rule changes or restrictions. The sudden reintroduction of lockdown rules in cities like Melbourne or Beijing could at short notice force sporting fixtures to be called off or postponed, or athletes prevented from travelling. Where athletes face travel restrictions on return to their home country, consideration must be given to any future events that may be impacted.

Longer term, it is possible that the general public’s attitude to large gatherings or the financial impacts of match/tournament suspensions may decrease the number of individuals sponsored in the industry.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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