Boris Johnson sets out new three-tier system of Covid restrictions for England

Peter Walker Political correspondent
·5-min read

Boris Johnson has set out a three-tier system of Covid restrictions for England to run until spring, saying that rules in many areas will be tougher than before the lockdown but imploring the public to make what he called “one final push” before the expected arrival of vaccines and mass testing.

Announcing the Covid Winter Plan to parliament, the prime minister said it would include an easing in some areas, such as reopening shops and gyms and letting crowds return to sporting events, but with tougher rules on pubs and restaurants.

The new regime, outlined in a 56-page document, expires at the end of March and puts areas in England into one of three tiers once the four-week national lockdown across England ends on 2 December.

While the three-tier system is broadly the same as before the lockdown, Johnson said restrictions in many areas would be tougher.

“I’m sorry to say that we expect more regions will fall, at least temporarily, into higher levels than before,” he told the Commons. “But, by using these tougher tiers and by using rapid-turnaround tests on an ever greater scale to drive [the R number] below one and keep it there, it should be possible for areas to move down the tiering scale.”

Under the plan, non-essential shops in all areas can reopen, as can gyms, hairdressers and other personal care businesses, with the formal instruction to stay at home coming to an end. The “rule of six” will again apply for outdoor gatherings.

In tier 1, the rule of six will be the same both indoors and outdoors, allowing people from across households to see each other indoors. In tiers 2 and 3, such meetings will only be allowed outdoors, and in the top tier, this can only happen in parks or public gardens. In the two higher levels, no household mixing will be permitted inside, beyond the expected relaxation of rules over Christmas.

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Places of worship will also open and weddings will be allowed within local restrictions. Limited and socially distanced numbers of spectators will also be allowed at both indoor and outdoor sports events, although not in the most stringent tier.

For hospitality businesses in tier 2, alcohol can be served only with a “substantial meal”, while in tier 3 all pubs, restaurants and cafes must close except for delivery or takeaway.

Downing Street has also confirmed the change to the previous 10pm closing time for pubs and restaurants. Instead, they must stop serving at 10pm, but people can stay until up to 11pm, to stagger departures times and avoid overcrowding.

For sports events outdoors, in tier 1, up to 4,000 people or 50% of the usual capacity can gather, whichever is smaller, while in tier 2 the number is 2,000 people, or 50% of usual capacity. With indoor events, the ceiling is 1,000 people.

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On Christmas, while Downing Street has confirmed the basic plan to allow some households to mix over a few days, details about this are not due until later this week. MPs are expected to vote on the overall plans early next week.

Johnson urged people to be careful with their festive plans. He said: “I can’t say that Christmas be normal this year, but in a period of adversity, time spent with loved ones is even more precious, for people of all faiths, and none. We all want some kind of Christmas, we need it, we certainly feel we deserve it. But what we don’t want is to throw caution to the winds and allow the virus to flare up again.”

He added: “This virus, obviously, is not going to grant a Christmas truce. It doesn’t know it’s Christmas, and families will need to make a careful judgment about the risk of visiting elderly relatives.”

Johnson experienced some immediate pushback from sceptical Conservative MPs. Mark Harper, who chairs the Covid Recovery Group, which organised a letter from 70 Tory backbenchers warning about overly tight restrictions, said he could not guarantee the group’s support for the new system.

“I think many will hold their judgment until we know which areas go into which tiers,” Harper said. “I think that if you go into tier 3, you’ll struggle to spot much of difference from the lockdown.”

Another Tory MP, Julian Sturdy, gave immediate warning about the concern of some areas of being put into tier 3, saying his York constituency would find this unfair.

The allocation of regions to tiers will not be announced until Thursday after more local data on coronavirus is assessed. Conditions will be the same for all areas in the same tier, with no local negotiations, in an attempt to prevent the wrangling that occurred under the previous tiered system.

The one area in which local authorities will get a say is whether to take part in expanded trials of mass and rapid testing for Covid, as is being tried out in Liverpool.

Johnson warned that for all the progress on vaccines and testing, “this will still be a hard winter”. People, he said, should be “pulling together for one final push to the spring”.

He said: “But we have turned a corner and the escape route is in sight. We must hold out against the virus until testing and vaccines comes to our rescue and reduce the need for restrictions.”

Tier positions will be reviewed every 14 days, and will be based on five criteria: case numbers across all age groups; cases in those aged over 60; the rate of rise or fall in infections; the percentage of those tested who have the virus; and current and projected pressures on the NHS locally.