This article gives an overview of the new England-wide restrictions announced by the Government on 31 October 2020.
On 4 November 2020, the House of Lords is due to debate the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations, which implement these measures. Debate on the regulations in the House of Commons is also scheduled for 4 November 2020. The regulations were laid under the made affirmative procedure on 3 November 2020 and, if approved, would come into force on 5 November 2020.
The government motion to approve the regulations in the House of Lords is the subject of a fatal motion in the name of Lord Robathan and five regret motions in the names of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, Baroness Noakes, Lord Shinkwin, Baroness Meyer and Lord Lilley.
The regulations would not come into force if the House either disagrees the approval motion or agrees to the fatal amendment.
What did the Prime Minister say on 31 October 2020?
On 31 October 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that England would go into a second ‘lockdown’ from 5 November 2020. The aim of the lockdown is to reduce transmission of Covid-19. In a televised statement the Prime Minister said that from 5 November 2020, people in England would be asked to stay at home and only go out for the following reasons:
- work, if this cannot be done from home;
- exercise and recreation outdoors;
- medical reasons;
- escaping injury or harm;
- shopping for food and essentials;
- providing care for vulnerable people; or
Non-essential shops, leisure and entertainment venues will be required to close. Pubs, bars and restaurants will be allowed to operate takeaway and delivery services only. Further detailed guidance on the new measures is available on the government website.
During the televised address, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance presented information showing that Covid-19 cases were rising across England. Although some areas, such as the south west, had fewer cases than others, the projections indicated that even these regions would run out of hospital capacity within the next month if transmission rates were not reduced.
What would the regulations do?
Regulations which would implement the measures announced by the Prime Minister were laid before Parliament on 3 November 2020.
The regulations would revoke the three statutory instruments implementing the tiered system in England that has been in force since 14 October 2020.
The regulations would prohibit people leaving their homes without “reasonable excuse”. The regulations provide a list of examples of reasons why someone would be permitted to leave their home. Some exceptions which were not mentioned in the Prime Minister’s address include to visit a person in prison, to undertake activities in relation to buying, selling and renting property, and to access banking services.
The regulations also:
- define linked households and linked childcare households;
- set out which businesses would be required to close, and exceptions to this; and
- state what level of penalty contravention of the regulations would incur.
Regulation 23 states that “these Regulations expire at the end of the period of 28 days beginning with the day on which they come into force”.
How will this lockdown differ from that announced in March 2020?
There are several major differences between the measures announced on 31 October 2020 and those that constituted the first lockdown. Educational establishments, including schools, early years settings and universities, will remain open. In addition, the Government has not asked clinically vulnerable people to resume shielding. Instead, the Prime Minister advised that clinically vulnerable people minimise contact with others and “do not go out to work if they are unable to work from home”.
What criteria will have to be met for the lockdown to be eased?
In his statement to the House of Commons on 2 November 2020, Boris Johnson said that the new measures would be “time-limited”. He said that the legislation would expire on 2 December 2020, at which point the Government would seek to ease restrictions and return to the tiered system which preceded the new restrictions.
In an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on 1 November 2020, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said that for restrictions to be eased, ‘R’ (the rate at which the virus is reproducing) would have to be below 1. In the House of Commons on 2 November 2020, the Prime Minister repeated that the Government intended the second lockdown to reduce the R to less than 1. However, Mr Johnson stated that “whatever happens, these restrictions end on 2 December, and any further measures will be a matter for this House of Commons”.
How can future lockdowns be avoided?
The Government has been questioned about how the UK can avoid future lockdowns if case numbers rise following an easing of restrictions. The Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, said in a recent parliamentary debate that “the best exit strategy is a combination of mass testing and a vaccine”. Mr Hancock said the Government was “working incredibly hard to deliver both as quickly as feasibly possible”.
In his statement to the House of Commons on 2 November 2020, the Prime Minister raised the prospect of using tests which give results very quickly to prevent outbreaks in institutions such as hospitals and schools:
We have the immediate prospect of many millions of cheap, reliable and rapid turnaround tests with results in minutes. […] These tests, crucially, identify people who are infectious but who do not have symptoms, allowing them immediately to self-isolate and stop the spread of the disease and allowing those who are not infectious to continue as normal.
He said the tests would begin to be rolled out within the next few days.
Boris Johnson also said he was hopeful a coronavirus vaccine would be available by spring 2021.
What economic support is being made available?
Through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, also known as the ‘furlough scheme’, the Government has been subsidising the wages of workers whom employers could not maintain because their operations were affected by coronavirus. This scheme was due to end on 31 October 2020, to be replaced with a scheme in which workers would receive a smaller proportion of their regular wage. The furlough scheme will now continue throughout November 2020.
In response to a question asked by Douglas Ross (Conservative MP for Moray), the Prime Minister said that the furlough scheme would be available to the devolved nations beyond November if necessary. He stated that “if other parts of the UK decide to go into measures that require the furlough scheme, then of course it is available to them”.
In his statement to the House of Commons, the Prime Minister announced that the Government will increase the support available to self-employed people, from 40% to 80% of trading profits.
Some members of the House of Commons criticised the Government for not committing to extending the furlough scheme sooner. They argued that the scheme should have been extended for businesses in regions that came under local restrictions before the nationwide lockdown was announced. Boris Johnson said that extending the scheme at its current level had only just become necessary, as the new national measures will be more restrictive than the local measures imposed during the summer and autumn.
What measures are in place in the other UK nations?
As health is a devolved matter, governments in the devolved nations are responsible for managing the public health response to the coronavirus pandemic. The four governments have instituted different restrictions at different times.
At the time of writing, Scotland has five tiers (numbered 0 to 4) of possible restrictions, and all parts of Scotland are in level 1, 2 or 3. In tiers 1 to 4, socialising inside is limited to six people from two households. Hospitality venues in tier 1 must observe a 10:30pm curfew. In tier 2, alcohol can only be served with a meal and there is an 8pm curfew for indoor seating, while the 10:30pm curfew remains for outdoor areas. In tier 3, alcohol cannot be served and there is a 6pm curfew.
On 19 October 2020, the Welsh Government announced a ‘firebreak’ lockdown to run from 23 October 2020 to 9 November 2020. The Welsh Government ordered non-essential businesses to close and households not to mix during the two-week period. The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, said that when Wales’s firebreak ends, people will not be able to cross the border between England and Wales without a good reason, such as to go to work.
What was the reaction to the Prime Minister’s statement?
In his response to the Prime Minister’s statement, Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer said that the Opposition would support the lockdown, and would vote for the measures in Parliament on 4 November 2020. However, Mr Starmer argued the Government’s decision not to impose a national lockdown sooner would have negative consequences for health and the economy. He highlighted advice from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies on 21 September 2020 that recommended the Government consider a range of measures to suppress the virus, including a two-or three-week national lockdown. Mr Starmer argued that if the Government had imposed the lockdown earlier, fewer people would have contracted Covid-19 resulting in fewer deaths. In addition, the lockdown could have achieved its aim more quickly and the impact on the economy could have been lessened.
Keir Starmer also said that the Government should use the time of the lockdown to “fix the broken track and trace system and give control to local authorities”.
House of Lords debate
The fatal motion, in the name of Lord Robathan, and the regret motion in the name of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean oppose or regret the regulations on the basis that no analysis of the non-coronavirus impact of the lockdown has been published.
Baroness Noake’s motion regrets that the modelling of the possible impact on the NHS and deaths from Covid-19 if the lockdown were not implemented “has not been subjected to independent review and challenge”.
Lord Shinkin’s motion regrets the impact the lockdown could have on the view “totalitarian regimes” hold of the UK’s handling of the pandemic and its parliamentary democracy.
Baroness Meyer’s regret motion is focussed on the possible mental health impacts of the lockdown.
The motion in the name of Lord Lilley regrets that the regulations have been laid under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 rather than the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. He argues that the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 “does not give specific powers to Her Majesty’s Government to impose restrictions on uninfected persons”.
Cover image by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.