An expanded visa scheme for Ukrainian refugees seeking to join family in the UK will now not open until tomorrow after the Home Office encouraged people to call a helpline that was not ready to offer support.
Home secretary Priti Patel announced on Tuesday evening that the family visa concession for Ukrainians would be extended to include parents of adult children, grandparents, children over 18 and siblings of British nationals and people settled in the UK, as well as a new sponsorship scheme to help people fleeing the Russian invasion.
The Home Office instructed people who thought they may be eligible for the expanded visa concessions to call the helpline but when people who met the new criteria phoned, they were told they are not able to apply for a family visa.
But both lawyers and would-be applicants to the scheme have reported that Home Office staff did not appear to know how the scheme was meant to work.
Lana Bilko a Ukrainian living in the UK, said she was told by hotline staff her elderly mother would need to apply for a general visitor visa to join her in the UK. “There [are] still no instructions for your staff in hotline how to deal with Ukrainian refugees,” she said on Twitter on Tuesday.
Immigration lawyer Sophie Spector tweeted on Tuesday: “I have just got off the phone with the helpline. The scheme for extended family members where the British national is in the UK is not open. There is no means to apply.”
She said helpline workers were "frustrated and upset" as they are receiving thousands of calls.
The Home Office has now updated its guidance, saying extended family members can apply to the scheme from Friday. It is now asking people to apply for the extended family scheme via an online application form rather than the helpline.
The visa changes allow for extended family members of British nationals and people settled in the UK to come over for 12 months, during which they can work and access public funds. Normal requirements for salary or language tests have been waived.
Until Tuesday's announcement, only particular relatives of Brits living in Ukraine qualified for a family migration visa: a spouse, civil partner or cohabiting unmarried partner; a child under the age of 18; a parent, if the British national is under 18; or a cohabiting adult relative who is also a carer.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper expressed “relief” that the government had agreed to allow more relatives from Ukraine to join family in the UK, but said there are still many questions and “real concerns about gaps and delays”.
“More family members are included. But it is still unclear if someone fleeing Russian attacks in Ukraine can come stay with an aunt or uncle, rather than a sister or brother,” she said.
“There is war in Europe; we should be helping all families reunite.
“It is unclear too if the UK relative has to be a British citizen or have been granted permanent leave to remain. What about a young woman who has fled to Poland with her children and desperately wants to join her brother who is here on a work or study visa? She should not be turned away.”
She also asked for more details on the planned humanitarian sponsorship scheme – which will allow sponsors, such as communities, private sponsors or local authorities to bring people to the UK – and when it will be implemented.
Sponsored refugees would be able to work and the sponsor would provide housing and support with integrating.
“The existing community sponsorship scheme is a very good thing but is slow and small scale,” Cooper said. “How will this be different?”
The Home Office said further details on the community sponsorship route, including how people and organisations in the UK can apply to be sponsors, "are being worked up at pace and will be communicated in due course".
Patel has rejected calls for a visa waiver for Ukrainians, however.
More than 107,000 people have now signed a petition calling for Ukrainians to be allowed to come to the UK without needing a visa. But Patel said the Home Office would not suspend security or biometric checks on people coming into the UK, warning that Russian troops are seeking to infiltrate Ukrainian forces.
"We have a collective duty to keep the British people safe and this approach is based on the strongest security advice," she added.
The Home Office has been approached for comment.