Boris Johnson recently announced further restrictions in England in an attempt to curb the growing spread of coronavirus but didn’t go as far as banning household mixing, as other parts of the UK did.
On Tuesday 22 September, the prime minister outlined a raft of new rules, including asking office staff to once again work from home and implementing a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants.
These are on top of restrictions already in place across the country, with some areas having stricter rules than others due to local lockdowns.
The prime minister stated that the measures may be in place for six months, adding that while he was “deeply, spiritually reluctant” to infringe on people's freedoms, there would be a need for harsher regulations later “when the deaths have already mounted” unless action was taken now.
But some experts warned that the changes did not go far enough and called for England to follow the devolved nations by introducing a ban on household mixing.
Days later, on 28 September, it was reported by The Times that the government is planning to potentially enforce such a ban on socialising and household mixing across London and much of northern England. Although a timeline has not yet been confirmed.
So, what are the rules on socialising in England at the moment and why might they change? Here is everything you need to know.
What are the current rules for socialising in England?
Lots of places across England are already under local restrictions, which forbid them from meeting indoors: including Leeds, Bradford, Kirklees, Calderdale, east Lancashire and Greater Manchester.
For the rest of England, the number of people allowed to legally socialise is now capped at a maximum of six.
The new rule applies to both indoor and outdoor gatherings and to people of all ages, meaning that people can no longer socialise in homes, parks, pubs, and restaurants in groups of more than six.
Previously, up to 30 people from two households were permitted to meet socially, or six from various households.
Anyone caught socialising in groups larger than six in England will be fined. The fine for a first-time offence is now £200.
Why might the rules change?
Reports on Monday said ministers are preparing to enforce a “total social lockdown” in the capital and across large parts of northern England, taking measures a step further than last week.
This emergency plan would reportedly include closing all pubs, restaurants and bars for two weeks and households being banned from meeting in any indoor location, for an indefinite period.
This is because of a rising number of coronavirus cases in those locations.
On 22 September the alert level for Covid-19 was raised from three to four, meaning transmission of the virus is “high or rising exponentially”.
Sir Patrick Vallance stated that if current trends continue into autumn, then by mid-October, England could face around 50,000 new cases every day.
— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) September 23, 2020
But SAGE member Professor John Edmunds warned that more “stringent” measures will have to be put in place across the whole of the UK in the coming months.
Professor Edmunds, who is the head of Epidemiology and Population Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told Radio 4: “I don't think the measures have gone anywhere near far enough. We have to put stringent measures in place, and as fast as possible.
“I suspect we will see very stringent measures coming into place throughout the UK again at some point. But it will be too late again.
“We will have let the epidemic double and double and double again until we do take those measures. We didn't react quick enough in March, we haven't learned enough... and we are about to repeat it.”
Have the devolved nations banned households from mixing?
Last week Nicola Sturgeon announced a new ban on households mixing across Scotland.
In a statement, the first minister said Scotland would align with England on its plans but added that they would not be sufficient to bring down the R rate of Covid-19 transmissions.
"If we stick with it - and, above all, if we stick together - we will get through it."
Today FM @NicolaSturgeon announced new restrictions to help stop the spread of #coronavirus.
Watch her message to Scotland ⬇
Learn the new rules ➡️ https://t.co/W4DZ2Quaru#WeAreScotland pic.twitter.com/VOJDMMrFjw
— Scottish Government (@scotgov) September 22, 2020
Ms Sturgeon said data suggested banning households from mixing had reduced the spread of the virus in the west of Scotland and that extending it to the rest of the country will hopefully reduce transmission. Certain exemptions apply, however, including couples not living together, tradespeople, and those who need childcare.
“Difficult though it is, any serious effort to reduce the R number below one must take account of this key driver of transmission and seek to break it,” she said.
“So after careful consideration, we have decided that from tomorrow, to be reviewed after three weeks and with exceptions that I will come on to, visiting other households will not be permitted.”
Tougher coronavirus restrictions have also been extended to Northern Ireland.
From 22 September, different households are not allowed to mix indoors, except for single-person household bubbles and certain other exemptions, including childcare, supported living arrangements, visits for legal or medical reasons, or marriage or civil partnerships where one partner is terminally ill.
Similarly, no more than six people from two households can meet in private gardens.
It has been gatherings in domestic properties where most #Covid19 transmission has taken place.
The Executive met today and agreed to extend the restriction on mixing of households to all parts of NI from 6pm tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/uaecusAQyh
— Arlene Foster #We’llMeetAgain (@DUPleader) September 21, 2020
The ban on mixing indoors initially applied to some areas including greater Belfast, Ballymena and parts of County Armagh, but has now been extended nationwide.
First Minister Arlene Foster reassured the public the measures were not a return to lockdown.
“Doing nothing was not an option but neither is returning to full lockdown,” she said.
“These are limited restrictions which I hope by taking action at this early stage means we can prevent the need for more draconian measures.”
In Wales, there is currently no nationwide ban on households mixing - but there is in areas with local lockdown.
This now applies to two thirds of the Welsh population and 22 local authorities, including Cardiff, Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Torfaen and Vale of Glamorgan.
For people living elsewhere in Wales the general rule is that people can meet socially with others who are in their exclusive extended household group (bubble) indoors.
From 14 September, meetings or gatherings indoors within extended households in Wales were limited to six people at any one time (not including any children aged under 11). This also applies in places like pubs and restaurants as well as in people’s homes.
Extended households (also known as bubbles) were designed to allow friends and families to reunite and to support caring arrangements, particularly working parents with informal childcare, as more businesses reopen, and other caring arrangements.