Campaigners fear that EU citizens who have made their homes in the UK are at risk of becoming illegal as the government diverts resources to fight coronavirus.
Under current rules, all EU citizens have until June 2021 to apply for settled status. However, there are concerns that the pandemic will mean that the government support available to help EU citizens will reduce, and public awareness campaigns, designed to reach the most vulnerable people and those without an online presence, will be delayed.
Campaigners claim that this could hit the very care workers – NHS staff and delivery workers – who are helping the country deal with the virus.
The Right to Stay campaign, newly launched by Another Europe is Possible and the Joint Committee for the Welfare of Immigrants, is urging the government to replace the application process for settled status with a guaranteed right to stay for all EU citizens residing in the UK written into law.
Zoe Gardner, of the Joint Committee for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: “The coronavirus crisis means that the entire system of applications is at risk of failing.
“Support services to help people through the process are largely face to face and simply won’t be able to function for a prolonged period, with charities designed to support vulnerable EU citizens severely limited in their ability to support vulnerable people.”
The charity sector, which also helps offer advice to EU citizens, could also be overwhelmed by the crisis as their resources are diverted to help people navigate the welfare system.
Clara Angela di Stefano, an NHS intensive care nurse from Italy, said: “In the next few months, migrants are going to save countless lives in NHS hospitals. Many of us will get sick, and some will die.
“We are proud to do this work. But when this crisis is over, many thousands of EU migrants could lose their status here because the government has insisted on persisting with a broken application system. Boris Johnson can solve this problem easily – by giving us a right to stay written into law.”
The government has already announced that the settled status processing service has been delayed by Covid-19. It normally takes about five days. To be eligible, EU citizens usually need to have lived in the UK, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man for at least six months in any 12-month period for five years in a row.
The Home Office declined 300 applications in February, which the department said had been because applicants had failed to provide the government with the correct evidence or information.