The UK is to ease its rigid entry requirements for Ukrainian refugees, meaning those with passports can apply for entry online and only have to give biometric details when they are in the UK, Priti Patel has said.
The home secretary’s announcement, responding to an urgent Commons question from her Labour shadow, Yvette Cooper, follows increasing criticism about the bureaucratic delays facing Ukrainians with family ties to the UK.
Many have gone to Calais, to find out they could not apply for visas there, and were sent to other cities. A number of UK consular offices had very limited numbers of appointments.
From Tuesday, Patel told the Commons, such appointments would no longer be needed for Ukrainian nationals with passports. They could apply remotely and would be told when they could travel.
“In short, Ukrainians with passports will be able to get permission to come here fully online from wherever they are, and will be able to give their biometrics once in Britain,” she said.
“This will mean that visa application centres across Europe can focus their efforts on helping Ukrainians without passports.” This will only be the case for people with passports, not ID cards, she said.
Cooper welcomed the change, but castigated Patel for the system thus far, calling the treatment “a total, total disgrace, bringing shame on to our country”.
“I have to say to the home secretary – why does it always take being hauled into the House of Commons to make basic changes to help vulnerable people who are fleeing from Ukraine?” Cooper asked.
Cooper queried why the changes were only being made now “when she has had intelligence for weeks, if not months, that she needed to prepare for a Russian invasion of Ukraine”, saying Patel should accept an offer of help from the armed forces.
“It is deeply wrong to leave people in this terrible state,” Cooper said. “Our country is better than this. If she can’t get this sorted out, frankly she should hand the job over to somebody else who can.”
In her statement, Patel defended the decision to make checks on Ukrainian nationals before they came, saying she had sought advice from the security services before making the change.
Replying to Cooper, Patel insisted the government was taking a “pragmatic and agile approach” to visas. It was important for arrivals in the country to have proper documentation, she added, citing the Windrush scandal as an example of the problems that can otherwise occur.
Patel has also come under increasing pressure over recent days from fellow Conservative MPs to speed up the visa process.
Responding to her statement, a series of Tory backbenchers praised the change of stance but called for more to be done. One, Steve Baker, queried why a visa centre in Warsaw was closed from 5pm at weekdays, and all weekend, while former minister Robert Buckland asked her to better coordinate UK officials in the response, calling it “a crisis that will not wait”.
While EU nations are allowing Ukrainian nationals to stay long-term without visas, the only routes to the UK are existing ones, either for people with family ties, or if they are sponsored by an individual or organisation.