Tier 4 lockdown: What are the rules, and how long will these restrictions last?

Tier 4 restrictions were first introduced in London and parts of the South East on Dec 20, and extended across other parts of England from Dec 26, to combat a more contagious strain of coronavirus.

The restrictions were “broadly equivalent” to a full lockdown and effectively cancelled Christmas for millions.

Non-essential retail, hairdressers and indoor gyms are closed, and people are not be able to meet more than one person from another household in an outdoor public space.

The tiers are to be reviewed on December 30, and Matt Hancock will announce the results of the review in Parliament at 3pm that day. One Whitehall source has reported that a new Tier 5 lockdown may be introduced.

And the Government has refused to rule out imposing a nationwide Tier 4 lockdown after daily UK coronavirus cases exceeded 50,000 for the first time. 

Here’s what we know about Tier 4 restrictions.

Why do we need a Tier 4?

A new variant of Covid-19, which is up to 70 per cent more transmissible, is spreading from London and the South East across the country. 

Cases of the new mutation of Covid grew “exponentially” during the November lockdown, the Government’s Nervtag committee minutes revealed, and even Tier 4 measures may not be able to stop its march. The committee’s assessments indicate the new variant could increase the reproduction rate (R) of the virus by as much as 0.93.

Matt Hancock confirmed on Dec 23 that two cases of a new variant had been identified in the UK. This second variant has been traced to South Africa.

The number of further lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus recorded in a single day in the UK also hit a new high of 53,135 as of Dec 29, according to government figures. 

Figures from NHS England showed there were 21,787 patients in NHS hospitals in England as of 8am on Dec 29, compared with 18,974 at the first wave peak on April 12.

Sir Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, said: “Many of us have lost family, friends, colleagues and – at a time of year when we would normally be celebrating – a lot of people are understandably feeling anxious, frustrated and tired.

“And now again we are back in the eye of the storm with a second wave of coronavirus sweeping Europe and, indeed, this country.”

Which areas are in Tier 4? 

Areas that were initially placed in Tier 4 include:

  • All 32 London boroughs plus the City of London
  • Bedford and Central Bedfordshire
  • Berkshire 
  • Buckinghamshire
  • Essex (excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring).
  • Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings
  • Hertfordshire
  • Kent
  • Luton and Milton Keynes
  • Peterborough
  • Surrey (excluding Waverley)

Which areas moved into Tier 4 on Boxing Day?

  • Brighton and Hove
  • Cambridgeshire
  • Remaining parts of East Sussex not already in Tier 4 (Eastbourne Borough Council, Lewes District Council and Wealden District Council)
  • West Sussex
  • Remaining parts of Essex not already in Tier 4 (Colchester Borough, Tendring District, and Uttlesford District Councils)
  • Hampshire (Basingstoke and Deane Borough, East Hampshire District, Eastleigh Borough, Fareham Borough, Hart District, Rushmoor Borough, Test Valley Borough, Winchester City Councils)
  • Norfolk
  • Oxfordshire
  • Southampton
  • Suffolk
  • Waverley Borough

What are the rules in Tier 4?

Rules in Tier 4 are similar to those of the last national lockdown:

  • Pubs, bars and restaurants can only serve takeaway
  • Hotels must close their doors 
  • Indoor gyms and leisure centres must close
  • Personal care services and non-essential retail must close
  • People living in Tier 4 cannot bubble with other households over Christmas
  • Residents should stay at home as much as possible
  • Residents should not enter or leave Tier 4 areas unless for essential reasons
  • Residents from Tier 4 areas should not stay overnight in other areas
  • They cannot go abroad apart from “limited exceptions” such as work
  • People should work from home if they can
  • Communal worship may continue 
  • Weddings and civil partnerships can only take place in exceptional circumstances, with a limit of six attendees

How are tiers determined?

Five categories are used to determine which level an area falls into:

  1. The rate of infection, particularly among the over-60s
  2. How quickly case rates are rising or falling
  3. Positivity in the general population
  4. Pressure on the NHS – including current and projected NHS capacity
  5. Local context and exceptional circumstances such as a local but contained outbreaks

When could Tier 4 restrictions end?

The next review of local tier restrictions will take place on Dec 30, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock announcing the changes in the tier system in the House of Commons. These reviews determine whether areas will move down a tier, remain the same, or move up a tier. 

However, Tier 4 restrictions could be toughened further and remain in place until close to Easter, government sources have admitted.

Ministers believe at least 20 million people will need to have been vaccinated against coronavirus before any significant relaxing of the measures can be considered, it is understood.

Matt Hancock said on Dec 20 that Britain faces a “very difficult” few months, warning that the spread of the virus across swathes of England is now “out of control”.

Will there be a Tier 5?

A Whitehall source has indicated the possibility that parts of the UK could enter a new Tier 5 following the tier review on Dec 30. The Government’s scientific advisers have reportedly urged Boris Johnson to tighten the highest restrictions, which may result in a new tier forming. 

At present, there is a debate raging about whether schools should be allowed to reopen from Jan 4. 

Travel, holidays and work

Anyone living in a Tier 4 area is not allowed to leave to travel to lower-prevalence cities, towns and villages.

Those who have booked holidays abroad also need to cancel them, with Mr Johnson stating that the only foreign travel permitted will be for workers who have a business exemption. Anyone returning home would still have to quarantine.

Mr Johnson urged people to “carefully consider whether they need to travel abroad.” No outright ban was indicated, as per the first lockdown.

The World Health Organization has called on its members in Europe to step up their own measures against coronavirus in the face of the new variant circulating in Britain.

The first to do so was the Dutch government, which banned all passenger flights from Britain until Jan 1 after finding a case in the Netherlands of the new coronavirus strain.

50 countries followed suit including Italy, Austria, France and Spain, all banning all flights from the UK.

EU countries held discussions on 22 Dec and decided to lift the complete travel ban, allowing national citizens, foreign residents and key workers to travel from the UK to their home country, if they have a negative Covid test.

Belgium imposed a 24-hour ban on flights and rail links while it assessed the situation. Now, between 23 and 31 Dec, only those who are resident in Belgium, Belgian citizens and a limited number of strictly necessary journeys will be allowed from the UK.

Italy prohibited entry to the country by anyone who had been in the UK in the last 14 days while flights are banned until Jan 6. Now, only Italian citizens in the UK are allowed to return to Italy and those who need urgent entry.

Austria and the Czech Republic are also imposing restrictions, with Prague announcing stricter quarantine rules with anyone arriving in the country having spent at least 24 hours in UK territory required to self-isolate.

France imposed a 48-hour travel ban from the UK. Those restrictions came into force at midnight on Dec 20 causing mass disruption at ports. Now,  French citizens, British nationals living in France and hauliers are able to travel again – if they have had a recent negative test.

In Ireland, passengers arriving by plane or ferry from England, Wales and Scotland, with the exemption of essential workers, are banned until 31 Dec, regardless of nationality. 

The German government implemented a travel ban on flights from the UK as of midnight (Berlin time) on Dec 20. Flights and passenger transport by rail, bus and ship is banned until Jan 6. From Jan 1, transport operators can apply to the German authorities for an exemption to transport people who are resident in Germany.

Exemptions to the “stay at home” message which applied in the November lockdown, will also apply in the new Tier 4 – including support bubbles, childcare bubbles and children whose parents are separated.

People will be allowed to travel for education, childcare and to go to work if they cannot work from home and they will be permitted unlimited outdoor exercise.

Non-essential retail and hospitality

All non-essential shops in Tier 4 areas have been forced to close until restrictions are lowered.  

In a hammer blow to the high street, the return to lockdown-style closures affects fashion and department stores, toy, gadget and electrical shops.

Supermarkets, greengrocers, newsagents and corner shops remain open. Stores in lower tier areas are unaffected by the changes.

Pubs and restaurants remain shut in Tiers 3 and 4, except for takeaway. In Tier 2 last orders are 10pm with closing time at 11pm, and you can only dine with people in your own household. In Tier 1, rule of six applies indoors.

Personal care and entertainment

Hairdressers and other close personal care services have also been closed in Tier 4, including beauticians, nail salons and tattoo shops.

The restrictions also apply to entertainment venues such as cinemas, bowling alleys, bingo halls, casinos, indoor skating rinks and amusement arcades.

Gyms and leisure centres

Just weeks after reopening, gyms and leisure centres have been shut again in areas placed into Tier 4.

Outdoor sports courts, outdoor gyms, golf courses, outdoor swimming pools, archery/driving/shooting ranges, riding centres and playgrounds can remain open for individual exercise, and for people to use with others within your household, support bubble, or with one person from another household. Organised outdoor sport for under-18s and disabled people is allowed.

The measures announced do not appear to have any impact on professional sport, as spectators are still not allowed to enter stadiums and other sporting venues in Tier 3.

The changes do not affect lower tiers, meaning people can continue to use gyms and leisure centres.

Professional football, rugby and other matches will still take place with limits on crowd sizes, which are a maximum of 4,000 in Tier one, dropping to 2,000 in Tier two.


People are still able to attend services in all areas of the country, although it is thought that those in Tier 4 will have to remain within their own households.

In the lower tiers, people attending church are required to observe the restrictions on household mixing indoors as set out for their tier.


Couples in Tier 4 are now forced to postpone their plans unless they meet an exceptional circumstances exemption, which normally only applies for someone who does not have long to live.

However, in the lower tiers people are still able to tie the knot, albeit with strict limits on their size.

Under the Government’s ‘Covid Winter Plan’, civil partnerships and wedding ceremonies can go ahead with up to 15 guests and under social distancing requirements. However, receptions remain banned in Tier 3.


People who were asked to “cocoon” themselves at home for weeks on end could be asked to do so again, Prof Whitty indicated.

While the Government relaxed the rules due to concerns over the impact on people’s mental health, the chief medical officer revealed that the guidance around shielding was now being reviewed as the virus continues to surge.

“The shielding patterns are actually being re-looked at,” he told a Downing Street press conference.

“The view about shielding is that, in the first wave, shielding did many things that were useful but also did many things that were actually actively harmful.

“And we therefore changed the model of shielding since the first wave, and that includes people being able to get out more in many situations, and also areas around work.

“But this is something which people are keeping on looking at, to try and get the optimal balance between isolating people too much and isolating them enough from the virus.”


Secondary schools are on course not to open as planned next week as ministers prepare to push “far more areas” into a Tier 4 lockdown on Dec 30.

Most Government scientists are now saying a national lockdown will be needed next month if schools are to reopen before the February half-term.

Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said on Dec 29 that there had been a “balancing act” since lockdown was initially eased between keeping control of the virus and maintaining “some semblance of normal society”. But he said planned school reopenings from Jan 4 might have to be postponed.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “Clearly nobody wants to keep schools shut. But if that’s the only alternative to having exponentially growing numbers of hospitalisations, that may be required at least for a period.

“There are no easy solutions here. My real concern is that even if universities, schools, do have staggered returns or even stay closed, how easy it would be to maintain control of the virus is unclear now, given how much more transmissible this variant is.”

Earlier, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) members Professor Andrew Hayward and Dr Mike Tildesley signalled the possibility of a “slight delay” to having pupils back on site, with latest figures from NHS England on Dec 29 showing that a further 365 people who tested positive for Covid-19 had died, taking the total number of confirmed reported deaths in hospitals in England to 49,225.

The Government said it is “still planning for a staggered opening of schools” after Christmas but is keeping the plan under constant review.

Boris Johnson’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “We’re still planning for a staggered opening of schools and we are working to ensure testing is in place. As we have said throughout the pandemic, we obviously keep all measures under constant review.”

Earlier this month, the Government said exam-year students in England would go back to school as normal after the Christmas holidays, from Jan 4, but the majority of secondary school pupils would start the term online to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff.

Schools in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will also use staggered returns for pupils in January, with some pupils participating in online classes before the gradual reintroduction of face-to-face teaching later in the month or in February for some age groups.

The Government said soldiers would be drafted in to help schools set up testing facilities in order to welcome pupils back on site, but that prompted calls from unions for better support.

Do you have any questions on Tier 4 restrictions or the new coronavirus strain? Email and your questions will be answered by our experts. 

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