Boris Johnson has faced criticism after much-anticipated changes to visa rules for Ukrainians hoping to seek refuge in the UK from the war turned out to be minimal.
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said that the government’s record was “shameful” and that, despite claims that Ukrainians who were close relatives of British nationals would be able to benefit, in practice even brothers or sisters might not.
Downing Street first announced the change on Sunday evening, after coming under pressure for days from campaigners and opposition parties angered by the failure of the Home Office to announce a wide-ranging visa waiver for Ukrainians seeking sanctuary.
“Any person settled in the UK will be able to bring their Ukrainian immediate family members to join them here,” No 10 said in a statement. “This will benefit many thousands of people who at this moment are making desperate choices about their future.”
Johnson made the announcement as he gave a speech in the Ukrainian catholic cathedral in London in which, pledging support for Ukraine, he referred to the parable of the Good Samaritan and said: “We in the UK cannot shut our eyes and pass by on the other side.”
The No 10 announcement did not include any further detail but, on the basis of what it promised, Cooper said that Labour regarded it as a “welcome first step”.
But, after the Home Office published updated guidance on its website later in the evening, Cooper was much more critical, saying many close family relatives of British nationals would not be covered by the updated rules.
The visas, which are being issued free, are only available to spouses, unmarried partners of at least two years, parents or their children if one is under 18, or adult relatives who are also carers.
In a message on Twitter she said: “What are they thinking? What about people struggling to get elderly parents here, or Ukrainians who can’t come stay with sister or brother here?”
Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem home affairs spokesperson, criticised the announcement as “woefully inadequate”.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Kevin Foster, the immigration minister, provoked outrage by posting a message on Twitter saying there were “a number of routes, not least our seasonal worker scheme” for Ukrainians wanting visas to visit the UK.
Foster subsequently deleted his tweet, but David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, said it was “totally unacceptable” and that the government should be much more hospitable to Ukrainian refugees.
Although the government has made minor changes to visa rules for Ukranians in recent days, people still in Ukraine who do not have British relatives have been unable to make a visa application from that country. Ireland has dropped its requirement for Ukrainians to have a visa before they enter the country, although refugees will be expected to get permission to be in the country after their arrival.
The Guardian spoke to the UK resident Nataliya Rumyantseva, the daughter of 69-year-old Valentyna Klymova who escaped from Kharkiv where fighting is under way and who has been denied entry to the UK. She seems unlikely to be affected by the change announced by the PM on Sunday night.
Klymova escaped to Hungary from where she took a flight to Paris – under European Schengen rules, visa-free travel between countries is permitted for several months. From there she was hoping to fly to the UK to join her daughter, an academic who works in London and has indefinite leave to remain. But UK Border Force officials rejected the travel request and wrote on a form “No entry clearance.”
“The Border Force official was quite defensive,” Rumyantseva said. “She said: ‘I can’t just allow her to come into the UK.’ She said that my mother could claim asylum in France. But she doesn’t speak the language and I want her to be with me for now.”
The official said Klymova could go to the British embassy in Paris on Monday and apply for a visa to visit the UK. However, those applying for a visit visa have had to give an undertaking to return home after six months and at the moment, with the uncertainty of the situation in Ukraine, there were fears the Home Office could refuse to grant this kind of visa.
The only visa option currently available for Klymova has been a standard visit visa. The family’s lawyers submitted an application for this visa on Sunday.
The family has been told that a fast-track, next-working-day visa costs €1,312 (£1,100), excluding the €120 appointment fee. A five-day processing visa costs €394 along with the €120 appointment fee. Klymova did not qualify for the fee waiver announced by the Home Office because, although her daughter is resident in the UK, she is not a British citizen.
Enver Solomon, the head of the Refugee Council, said: “We urgently need the government to announce a clear plan which immediately relaxes visa requirements to allow family members of Ukrainians in the UK to join them here.
“We must uphold our tradition of supporting people fleeing war and persecution by sending a clear signal to Ukrainian families that they are welcome in the UK.”