What are the new tier system rules, and when will Covid restrictions end?

Tier 4/extremely high

What’s changed?

Those in the highest tier of restrictions may feel a sense of déjà vu as these areas are plunged back into strict restrictions similar to those first experienced in the November lockdown.

Residents in these areas must now stay at home, with limited exemptions.

Non-essential retail, restaurants, personal care, leisure facilities and indoors gyms must close.

People should work from home when they can, but may travel to work if this is not possible. This applies, for example, to the construction and manufacturing sectors.

The Government has said local and regional travel is not advised.

Those in Tier four areas will not be permitted to travel abroad, apart from limited exceptions such as for work purposes.

Unlike the March and November national restrictions communal worship can continue to take place in Tier four areas. 

Mr Johnson emphasised that these restrictions must be adhered to on New Year’s Eve.

What stays the same?

  • Pubs, bars and restaurants will only be able to serve takeaway services, and hotels will have to close their doors until the tier level in the local area drops back into Tier 2.  
  • Essential shops are allowed to remain open, as are schools, universities and workplaces.
  • Households in the highest tiers are still not allowed to mix households indoors.
  • People should try to avoid travelling outside the ‘very high’ area they are in, or entering a ‘very high’ area, other than for things like work, education, accessing youth services, to meet caring responsibilities or if they are in transit
  • Organised indoor sport, physical activity and exercise classes cannot take place indoors. (There are exceptions for indoor disability sport, sport for educational purposes and supervised sport and physical activity for under-18’s)

When will we see an end to the tier system?

Despite a rebellion from dozens of Tory MPs at the House of Commons vote on the tiers, and backlash from businesses, Matt Hancock said the restrictions were here to stay for the “forthcoming few months”.

Mr Johnson also told MPs at the Commons vote on December 1 that tiers would be decided on a more “granular” basis after the review in mid-December, raising hopes among backbenchers.

With the news that a vaccine has been approved in England, Mr Hancock encouraged people to “hold their nerve” and stick to the rules.

However, the Health Secretary has stated that the new Tier 4 restrictions could be in place for a couple of months until the vaccine roll out has been completed. 

What does this mean for Christmas? 

In a sharp turn around, Boris Johnson has introduced strict new measures over the festive period which will effectively cancel Christmas for millions of people across London and south-east England.

Previously plans to relax the rules on December 23 would have allowed up to  three households to Christmas celebrate together indoors, outdoors or in a place of worship until December 27.

However, the five-day window for mixing households has now been cut down to just one.

For those in tiers one, two and three, rules allowing up to three households to meet will now be limited to Christmas Day only.

Christmas bubbles for those in tiers one to three will also not be allowed to include anyone in tier four.

In tier four, people will not be allowed to mix with anyone outside their own household, apart from support bubbles, where the rules have not changed.

The Prime Minister said he “bitterly regrets” that strict measures are necessary, and that he knows how much “care and thought” goes into preparations.

However, elderly or lonely people will have the “consolation” of being able to form bubbles with other household, he said.

This is the year to “lift a glass to those who aren’t there” – knowing there will be a “better chance they will be there next year to celebrate with you”, he said , as he emphasised that these restrictions must be adhered to on New Year’s Eve too.

So far we are yet to hear if additional changes have been made to grottos, visits to Father Christmas and carol singing.

You can read more about the Covid Christmas rules here. 

Could there be a third lockdown after Christmas?

Boris Johnson failed to rule out the possibility of a third lockdown on December 18, saying infection rates have increased “very much” over the past few weeks. The issue was not addressed at the press conference on December 19.

On December 18 he said: “We’re hoping very much that we will be able to avoid anything like that.

“But the reality is that the rates of infection have increased very much in the last few weeks.”

Around 68 per cent of people in England were put in Tier 3 on December 17, after infection rates rose by up to two thirds in some areas.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak extended the furlough scheme until the end of April, interpreted by some as an indication tighter restrictions are coming in the New Year.

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Sage scientific advisory panel, said: “I think we are going to have to look at these measures and perhaps tighten them up, we really will.

“It’s a horrible thing to have to say but we are in quite a difficult position.”

Schools minister Nick Gibb said another national lockdown could not be ruled out.

Will things change now we have a vaccine? 

On December 2, the same day the UK approved the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine, Boris Johnson spoke out regarding the strict three-tier system. He acknowledged the restrictions are “tough” but are nevertheless essential to “keep the virus under control”. 

Senior Whitehall sources expect the Oxford vaccine to be approved within days of Christmas, kickstarting a massive drive to give jabs to millions of people in January.

The Prime Minister hopes certain areas will move down before Easter. However, he emphasised the tier system will remain necessary alongside the vaccine. He shared: “For the time being you’ve got to take it that tiering will be a very, very important part of our campaign against coronavirus.”

Mr Johnson also said we still had “some months before all the most vulnerable are protected” and so, we must remain cautious, and not be “carried away with over optimism”. 

He emphasised  the Government’s plan relies on the public’s continued sacrifice “for those we love”.

Mr Hancock has also said it is “highly unlikely” that the new coronavirus variant will cause a more serious disease or compromise the vaccine. In his address to the Commons, he shared: “I must stress at this point that there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease and the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine, but it shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules and everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.”

At a press conference on December 14, Professor Kevin Fenton, the regional director of Public Health England, encouraged Londoners to accept the vaccine as soon as they have the chance.

Speaking on the same day that the Government announced the capital would move to Tier 3; he stated the jab was “highly effective”, before suggesting it is one of the “keys to unlock the door to the end of this pandemic”. 

Read more: How long will it take for life to return to normal after the Covid vaccine rollout?​

Read more: What exactly is the Pfizer vaccine, who will get it, and is it safe?