EU citizens could be deported if they do not apply for settled status after Brexit by the deadline, a Home Office minister has admitted.

Brandon Lewis said they may be forced to leave the UK if they do not sign up to the EU settlement scheme by the end of 2020, even if they meet all requirements for a residence permit.

A campaign group said this was the first time the “grim reality” of the Government’s position had been confirmed, and critics raised fears of another Windrush-style scandal.

The Home Office subsequently sought to clarify that those with “reasonable grounds” for missing the date would be granted an extension to apply for the right to live and work in the UK.

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Security Minister Lewis told German newspaper Die Welt: “If EU citizens until this point of time have not registered and have no adequate reason for it, then the valid immigration rules will be applied.”

Pressed on whether that would include those who met the legal requirements for residence but did not apply in the next 14 months, he replied: “Theoretically yes. We will apply the rules.”

Two million people have so far applied to the scheme, according to Home Office figures. This leaves up to two million more EU citizens needing to apply before the deadline.

As recently as Wednesday, the Home Office said EU citizens had until “at least” December 2020 to apply, but Lewis’s words appear to be a hardening of the deadline.

Maike Bohn of the3million group, which represents EU citizens, said it had pressed the Government “for years” to acknowledge what would happen to those who have not acquired the status in 2021.

“Today, after much wait, it is confirmed that hundreds and thousands of people will be punished with the threat of removal from their home,” she said.

“This is no way to treat people, let alone what was promised. Those people who miss the tight deadline will face the full force of the hostile environment.

“That is the grim reality of the UK Government’s position, no matter how many times they repeat the phrase ‘EU citizens and their families are our friends, neighbours and colleagues and we want them to stay’.”

SNP immigration spokesperson Stuart McDonald MP urged the Tories to stop “playing with people’s lives” and to implement automatic permanent residence for EU nationals and family members already in the UK.

He said: “Instead of issuing threats to EU citizens who have spent years building their lives here, he should be focussing on supporting them to stay,” he said. “It is a clear admission that there are fundamental problems with the settled status scheme and a very real potential for hundreds of thousands of people to go from being legal residents to undocumented migrants overnight – yet the Tories continue to wilfully sit on their hands and do nothing to address it.

“The UK Government is completely ignoring this looming threat that would not only see thousands of of people being forced to leave their home in the UK, but leave thousands more unable to work, rent somewhere to live, access free healthcare, and open a bank account in order to continue living their life in the UK.”

A statement from a Home Office spokesman repeated a similar phrase and added: “We have received two million applications and are looking for reasons to grant status, not refuse, and EU citizens have until at least December 2020 to apply.

“We’ve always been clear that where they have reasonable grounds for missing the deadline, they’ll be given a further opportunity to apply.”