SCOTLAND’S minister for Ukrainian refugees has called for the UK Government to devote “pandemic-level” resources to speed up the issuing of visas for people fleeing the war.

Neil Gray said the slow progress of the bureaucracy showed why the Scottish Government had urged the UK to follow other EU nations and waive the need for visas.

On Friday, new figures were published showing just 210 visas have been issued to Ukrainians to travel to Scotland under the UK Homes for Ukraine scheme – which was branded “woefully small” by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Of these, 180 have been approved for those who have an individual sponsor in Scotland, with 30 issued for those who have applied through the Scottish Government’s super-sponsor initiative.

READ MORE: First Minister slams 'woefully small' number of visas granted to Ukrainian refugees

The data published by the UK Government revealed that 32,200 applications have been made to the scheme yet less than 15% – 4700 visas – have been issued.

Gray told the Sunday National that having Scotland’s super-sponsor initiative was a huge shift in the UK immigration system in allowing “essentially a bespoke option within it for people to arrive in Scotland”.

But he said there were major frustrations in terms of the “complex and lengthy” application form and in relation to turnaround times for processing visas at the Home Office.

He said: “I remember when I was an MP and shadowing the DWP at the start of the pandemic, there was a huge shift in resource to cope with the demand in Universal Credit – to the extent I couldn’t get correspondence back from the DWP on much else other than Universal Credit, as everyone was working on that.

“So I want to see the same sense of purpose and the same investment in the visa system – if they are insisting on making people apply for visas, they should be turning them round as quickly as possible and have the resource there to be able to deal with it quickly.”

The UK Government has said it is moving as quickly as possible to ensure those fleeing Ukraine can come to the UK through the visa schemes on offer, including boosting caseworker numbers.

Another 24,000 visas – about 75% of the 32,800 applications – have been issued through the Ukraine Family Scheme, for those who have relatives in the UK.

According to UN figures, around 4.1 million Ukrainians have fled their home country since Russia’s invasion began on February 24.

Neighbouring Poland has received the most refugees at 2.4 million. Moldova, with a population of just 2.5 million, has taken in nearly 400,000 refugees. Almost 17,000 Ukrainians have fled to Ireland, which waived the need for checks or visas.

Gray has been meeting regularly with the Home Office and Lord Harrington, the minister for refugees at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, to press for action,

He said: “I don’t think it’s an issue around necessarily an unwillingness for the UK Government to see this work, it’s more just the capacity and the very slow and cumbersome system they have in place that’s causing the problem.

“That’s part of the reason why we said we should be following other European nations in waiving visas – just open the door, let people arrive, let them flee the war and get here to safety and sanctuary, and then we can sort it out after that.”

He added: “I’m still to see a credible reason for why the visa requirement is there. We’ve had security cited but I haven’t been shown anything to suggest that the security checks or the security concerns wouldn’t also be ones that other European countries would be mindful of.

“I’m still to be convinced as to the reason why visas are entirely necessary.”

Gray said if Scotland was independent, it would be looking to play more than its part – just as it is now.

He added: “But we would have the ability and the powers to be able to do that to a far greater extent.

“However, we’re having to work to the situation we currently find ourselves in.

“We’ve sought to maximise our ability and have maximum flexibility and control over how people are arriving here from Ukraine to make sure we are providing the warm Scottish welcome that people expect us to provide.”

The National: People protest against the Russian war in Ukraine in Dublin city centre

Around 12,000 people in Scotland have signed up to the Homes for Ukraine scheme to sponsor refugees and provide a place for them to stay.

Gray said he and his wife had considered taking part and would continue to think about it.

“We’ve got four young children under seven at home, so it would require quite a change in the way our house is run,” he added.

“But I think it’s important there’s no compulsion on anyone to be getting involved in the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

“We need to stress the responsibility that there will be on people who are opening their doors – that’s why I say it’s all the more heartening to see the generosity of the people who have come forward to say they would be willing to do that.

“We would expect that number to potentially rise as we see neighbours successfully doing this.

“But I think it’s incredible to see the generosity of spirit and solidarity of people in Scotland that there is to their friends and neighbours in Ukraine.”