Boris Johnson plunged England into a third national lockdown to try to curb the rapid spread of coronavirus, as the country moved to Covid Alert Level 5.
Instead of introducing a Tier 5, the Prime Minister announced a new national lockdown, which replaced the Tier system across England.
Alert Level 5, the red level, is the highest level in the plan announced by Mr Johnson in May. Level 5 means there is a significant risk that the healthcare services could become overwhelmed, and strict social distancing rules are needed.
The lockdown means people will only be able to leave their homes for limited reasons, with measures expected to stay in place until mid-February. Some regulations could continue until March 31 if necessary, after the timetable passed through the Commons on January 6.
MPs voted overwhelmingly to back the measures, after the UK Covid death toll reached levels not seen since the spring peak.
With support from Labour, the vote in the recalled House of Commons passed comfortably by 524 votes to 16, which gave the Government a vast majority of 508.
But Mr Johnson is facing growing pressure to toughen the lockdown rules, as scientists and MPs warn the current regime may not succeed in reducing case rates fast enough.
And on January 10, Mr Johnson held a meeting with Cabinet colleagues at which they discussed whether the current lockdown rules were working and whether they needed to be tightened.
What tighter restrictions are being considered?
Tighter coronavirus restrictions are now being considered by ministers amid concerns the latest lockdown is not being followed strictly enough.
Rules banning people from different households who are not in a support bubble from exercising together are under discussion.
But when asked about the issue at press conference on Jan 11, Health Secretary said people will still be allowed to meet up with one other person to exercise in the park. He stressed that this means only one other person, spaced two meters apart, and groups are “not acceptable.”
However, Mr Hancock said if people continue to break the rules, then they may need to be reviewed, before stressing: “A flex to the rules can be fatal.
“If people push the boundaries of these rules or do not take them seriously, that can lead to more cases and that can lead to more deaths.
“We keep these things under review and we have demonstrated that we’re willing to tighten the rules if they need to be tightened,” he told the press conference.
The introduction of rules on face coverings in offices is also being mooted in Government circles, as some businesses are feared to have become lax.
Expanding the rules on face masks, which could see them become mandatory in some outdoor settings such as supermarket queues, and inside workplaces for those still attending, is also being discussed.
Wales’ health minister has called for people to wear a face mask whilst in public places, in a in a tightening of the devolved nation’s lockdown restrictions.
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for nurseries to be closed to stop the spread of the virus among young children.
The Government has also not ruled out abolishing support bubbles if case numbers continue to climb.
Other suggestions for the strengthening of lockdown have included the closure of mass worship sites.
What are the current lockdown rules?
Pupils will not return to the classroom until after the February half-term at the earliest as Mr Johnson shelved plans for a staggered reopening amid mounting resistance from England’s teaching unions.
He confirmed that blanket school closures would be implemented, having been warned by the Government’s scientific advisers that the measures used during November’s lockdown could prove insufficient to stem the spread of the new Covid variant.
As was the case during the first lockdown, pupils will now switch to remote learning. Children deemed vulnerable or whose parents are key workers will still be able to attend in person.
Mr Johnson has stated that schools will be the “very first things to reopen” once lockdown measures begin to be reduced, and hopes that children can return to schools after February half term, although the Prime Minister remains cautious of the timetable.
The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced on January 6 that GCSE, A-Level and AS exams will not take place this summer.
Exams will be replaced by teacher assessments, with Mr Williamson saying that the government “will put our trust in teachers, rather than algorithms”.
The Education Secretary has also stated that the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofqual had already worked up a range of options.
Details are currently being fine tuned, but it will be a “form of teacher-assessed grades, with training and support provided to ensure these are awarded fairly and consistently across the country”.
BTEC exams are still allowed to take place, but the DfE has stated that it is down to the discretion of individual colleges to decide whether students should sit the examinations.
It is the second time schools have been forced to shut since the pandemic reached the UK, with students missing almost six months of teaching in the last academic year during the first wave.
Secondary school pupils were originally due to return after the Christmas break under a staggered timetable, with GCSE and A-level students in Year 11 and Year 13 starting on January 11, followed by the remaining age groups a week later.
On January 4, Mr Johnson said that the Government would now provide “extra support” to ensure pupils on free school meals would continue to receive them during lockdown, with extra devices, such as laptops, distributed to aid remote learning.
He added that he understood the “inconvenience and distress” caused by the last-minute change, and that while schools were still safe for pupils, their closure was necessary because they are acting as “vectors for transmission” in the wider community.
The reopening of campuses will be delayed until at least mid-February after ministers moved to prevent students from reseeding the virus after returning home for Christmas.
Under the latest restrictions, students will be expected to study remotely from their current residence. Those who have not yet returned to their student accommodation should refrain from doing so until the restrictions are relaxed.
However, a small number of courses, such as medical students who need to be present for face-to-face teaching, will still go ahead.
Stay at home
The Government has strengthened its “stay at home” message, allowing people in England to leave their residence only for five legally permitted reasons:
- To work if it is “impossible” to work from home
- To shop for essentials
- To exercise
- To provide care
- For a medical appointment
The permitted reasons for leaving home include going to the supermarket or pharmacy, seeking medical assistance, fleeing danger or the threat of violence, or providing care to a vulnerable person.
Where travel is necessary, people should aim to stay local, and walking or cycling should be chosen above public transport.
People must work from home unless they are a key worker, in a return to the restrictions brought in during the first lockdown.
Under the new rules, construction workers can continue to go to work as this is deemed as essential work by the Government.
The list of key workers also includes those working in health and social care settings, schools, frontline charities, public services, food production and distribution, police and public transport.
People will be allowed to exercise outdoors with one other person outside of their household, although this should be limited to once a day and performed locally. This means two people may go for a walk together, but may not sit on a bench for a drink, it is understood.
The police will have powers to issue fines or dispersal orders if people are caught flouting the rules.
Every police officer has been told to fine people £200 if they believe they are in breach of the rules and refuse to return home at the first time of asking, in new guidance issued to all chief constables seen by The Telegraph.
Close-contact care home visits are not allowed. Driving tests for learners will be cancelled until the restrictions are relaxed.
Read more: When can I host events again?
Retail, entertainment and overnight accommodation
All non-essential shops, entertainment outlets and hotels must close nationwide, as the Government has levied the previous Tier 4 rules related to these categories on the whole country.
Supermarkets, chemists, garden centres and builders’ merchants may remain open; all other shops and market stalls must close.
Theatres, concert halls, cinemas, museums, galleries, casinos, bowling alleys and funfairs cannot open. Hairdressers, beauticians, nail and tanning salons, spas, and tattoo and piercing parlours must shut too.
Hotels, hostels, guest houses and campsites are banned from housing guests, unless providing a roof to people who cannot go home, are enrolled in a homeless support scheme, or need accommodation for work purposes.
Read more: What are the rules for non-essential shops?
All restaurants, cafes, pubs, bars and social clubs are banned from opening their doors to customers. Alcohol may no longer be sold as a takeaway in a tightening of previous Tier 4 rules. However, food and soft drinks can still be provided via takeaway, click-and-collect, and delivery services until 11pm.
Concerns had arisen on Whitehall that people were buying takeaway alcoholic beverages and then consuming them directly outside hospitality venues, leading to crowds building up.
Only essential journeys overseas are permitted, such as for work.
Pre-departure testing of travellers inbound to England and Scotland is to be introduced as part of a potential toughening of border controls to combat the spread of Covid.
All passengers excluding hauliers will have to show they had tested negative for Covid up to 72 hours before arrival at a UK airport or port under the proposals.
The measures would be on top of the current quarantine restrictions that require any arrival from a country without a travel corridor to quarantine for 10 days, an isolation period that can be halved if the passenger pays for a private test on the fifth day.
It is understood Boris Johnson has asked transport and home office ministers and officials to review whether border controls need to be tightened further.
People may still form a childcare bubble, through which they can provide or receive childcare from one other household if they live with a child under 14.
Support bubbles also remain permissible. A person is eligible to form a support bubble if they live alone, if their household includes a child under the age of one, or if they are a single adult living with one or more children under the age of 18.
A support bubble may include a maximum of two households and should be “fixed”; people are advised against switching between different bubbles.
Ministers were reported to be considering scrapping support bubbles as a way to slow the transmission rate of Covid-19.
But Mr Hancock ruled out cancelling them during lockdown at a press conference on Jan 11, saying: “I know how important they are to people, and they are an important part of the system we have got to support people.
Mr Hancock warned the public they should not change the people in their bubbles, adding: “The bubbles are there for individual specific people…if there is someone in your bubble, you are essentially part of the same household.”
Amateur and professional sports
All amateur sports are now banned, including outdoor games such as golf and tennis, as well as children’s sport. This marks a toughening of the Tier 4 rules, which had ordered indoor gyms and sports facilities to close, but allowed any outdoor sports courts, gyms, swimming pools, archery driving and shooting ranges, riding arenas to remain open.
Unlike the first lockdown in March, outdoor playgrounds will remain open.
Elite sportspeople and their coaches, as well as parents of athletes aged under 18, are still permitted to gather in order to compete and train.
Despite initial confusion, the Government has confirmed that fishing is allowed during the third lockdown.
The Angling Trust made an urgent representation following the announcement of a lockdown on January 4, after fishing was banned in England, but not Scotland and Wales.
The Government formally responded to the trust, and stated that after considering the benefits of fishing to individual health and wellbeing, fishing is permitted as a form of exercise and can therefore continue.
The Government and the Angling Trust have stressed that people must follow Covid rules, such as staying local, adhering to social distancing rules and limiting the amount of time spent outdoors. Overnight fishing and organised gatherings are not permitted under the new rules.
Under the latest government advice, car-related services such as vehicle repair and MOT garages are permitted to open. Fuel stations and automatic car washes can also open during lockdown, alongside vehicle hire and taxi services.
Covid regulations must remain in place at all the above. However, car showrooms must close.
People deemed “clinically extremely vulnerable”, which means they are at very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus, have been ordered to shield once again. They should avoid the workplace or school, and should aim to visit shops or the pharmacy only at quieter times of day, or else ask friends, family or volunteers to collect supplies on their behalf. It echoes advice first issued in the initial March lockdown and latterly applied in Tier 4 areas.
Worship, weddings and funerals
Communal and individual prayer will be permitted to continue, marking a change in strategy from the first lockdown. However, Tier 4 requirements will now apply nationwide, meaning people will be required to observe social distancing rules and will be banned from attending services at churches and other places of worship with anyone outside of their household.
For weddings and civil ceremonies, only six people will be permitted to attend. Funerals can be attended by up to 30 people, although both are subject to strict social distancing rules.
The decision to keep churches open comes after ministers said in December that they recognised the importance that many people placed on religious worship.
When could we see the end of lockdown rules?
Boris Johnson left open the door for the measures to remain in place beyond the initial six-week period set out.
It is unlikely that restrictions will be lifted before the middle of February, with lockdown regulations lasting until March 31 after the regulations passed through the Commons on January 6.
Why do we need a third lockdown?
The Telegraph understands that the tipping point for the Prime Minister came when he was told that more than 80,000 people had tested positive on December 29 – around 20 times the peak of last spring.
The Government’s Joint Biosecurity Centre placed the country in Covid Alert Level 5 for the first time since the system was introduced last year, meaning there is “a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed”.
It follows warnings from doctors that many hospitals around the country have already exceeded the numbers of Covid patients they were treating at the height of the first wave of the pandemic.
In his address to the nation, the Prime Minister said that on December 29 “more than 80,000 people tested positive for Covid across the UK”, the number of deaths is up by 20 per cent over the last week “and will sadly rise further”.
“It’s clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control while our vaccines are rolled out,” he said.
“In England we must therefore go into a national lockdown which is tough enough to contain this variant.”
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, tweeted: “Covid cases are rising rapidly across the UK in large part due to the new variant.
“The NHS is treating many more Covid patients and vaccinating vulnerable citizens. NHS staff deserve our profound thanks. But we must act now or the NHS will come under even greater pressure.”
What about the other nations?
The chief medical officers for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland said in a joint statement: “We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”
A few hours before the PM’s televised address, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced at the Scottish Parliament that most of the country would be placed in lockdown for the rest of January.
A legally enforceable stay-at-home order has been applied since January 5 to areas that were under Level 4 – mainland Scotland and Skye – with exemptions in place for carers, essential shopping, unlimited outdoor exercise and being part of an extended household.
Schools and nurseries will remain closed to most pupils until February, meaning an additional two weeks of home learning for most pupils.
All of Wales is at alert Level 4, meaning people should stay at home, not mix with other households and not travel without a reasonable excuse. Restrictions are expected to last for at least three weeks from January 8.
Although Wales was due to go into lockdown after Christmas, these plans were brought forward to December 20. The First Minister, Mark Drakeford, told BBC Radio Wales on January 8 that the transmission rate had “fallen compared to where we were before Christmas”, but that the number of seriously ill people being admitted to hospital was still very high.
Some schools in Wales were preparing to resume face-to-face learning as early as January 6, but education minister Kirsty Williams announced on January 4 that schools and colleges would remain closed until at least January 18 and move to online learning.
“Wales remains in the highest level of restrictions. Everyone must stay at home,” Ms Williams said.
Northern Ireland is in a six-week lockdown in which non-essential retail is closed, and people are urged to stay at home.
But, amid soaring numbers of coronavirus infections, ministers were taking part in an urgent meeting late on January 4, with First Minister Arlene Foster saying the Stormont Executive has “very difficult decisions to take” in a “dire situation”.
She did not rule out keeping schools closed.
The plan was for primary pupils to be taught remotely for the week from January 4-8, while for secondary school Years 8 to 11, remote learning is due to last for the entire month.
Will things change now we have two vaccines?
The Prime Minister celebrated the rollout of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, which began on Jan 4, with an 82-year-old man in Oxford the first to receive it.
But he was forced to admit that even if vaccinations quickly reach two million per week, drastic action is needed immediately to slow the spread of the new strain of the virus.
Mr Johnson has challenged the NHS to vaccinate all over-70s and vulnerable people by mid-February – a total of 13.2 million people – in order to protect the health service from becoming overwhelmed.
The lockdown will be reviewed at that point, with a possible easing of restrictions at the end of February, as the vaccines take around two weeks to give recipients immunity.
Mr Johnson told the nation: “I know how tough this is, and I know how frustrated you are and I know you have had more than enough of government guidance about defeating this virus, but now, more than ever, we must pull together.”
The Moderna vaccine was also approved for use by the MRHA on January 8, although this will not be delivered until the spring.