The UK government issued just 100 visas to come to the UK in April after application centres were closed due to the coronavirus, official figures show.
It compares to an average of more than 258,000 a month in the year to March. Three-quarters of those last year were for visits, 6% were to work, 2% were for family, and 7% for other reasons.
New statistics lay bare how the COVID-19 pandemic and travel curbs have dramatically halted the flow of people into the UK, including migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, tourists and business passengers.
The number of passengers arriving in the UK by air fell from around 7.1 million in January to 3.8 million in March, according to a Home Office report.
Visa applications and decisions have been severely curtailed by the closure of UK government visa application centres by the end of March. Only around 250 applications were recorded in April, and only 100 of them were accepted.
The figures also show the number of visa extensions in April was down 77% on a year earlier. The government recently announced overseas nationals unable to return home because of the pandemic could stay until 31 July, though urged temporary visa holders to return home “as soon as it is safe.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the UK immigration system, both in terms of restricting migrant movements to and from the UK and the impact on operational capacity,” said a new Home Office report on Thursday.
Asylum applications and initial decisions have also fallen, with just 300 decisions in the first four weeks of lockdown. This is around one sixth of the level in the month prior to lockdown.
Most decision-making including interviews were stopped shortly after lockdown, while staff absence over COVID-19 has also hit processing. Travel restrictions meanwhile have curbed asylum seekers’ ability to apply to live in the UK.
Officials say asylum decisions have now resumed “following the implementation of measures to allow for safe working,” and remote interviewing is under consideration.
Meanwhile refugee resettlement has stopped, with all planned arrivals prior to the crisis cancelled, the report says.
The figures come as the government presses ahead with a radical shakeup of Britain’s immigration system. It won a Commons vote on taking Britain out of the EU’s free movement rules last week.
The legislation paves the way for the government’s plans to significantly curb low-paid and ‘low-skilled’ immigration, particularly from eastern and central Europe.
The government has portrayed its plans for a “point-based system” and end to “cheap labour” as a response to the public mood underpinning Leave’s victory in the EU referendum in 2016.
But the coronavirus crisis has shone a stark light on the vital services many migrant workers are providing and risks they are taking in jobs classed as “low-skilled” by officials.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds hit out at the plans at the time, calling them a “threat to our national interest.”
A former Conservative minister who supports efforts to reduce immigration also warned the government not to rush through the plans in the middle of a national crisis.
Caroline Nokes, Britain’s immigration minister until last year, warned rolling out reforms from the start of 2021 risks leaving shortages in roles on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic. The Conservative MP urged the government not to roll out wide-ranging reforms “in a big-bang fashion in just seven months’ time” as Britain grapples with COVID-19.