On 7 January 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate the following coronavirus regulations:

Both instruments are subject to the made affirmative procedure, and therefore require approval by both Houses of Parliament to remain law. They came into force on 14 December and 16 December 2020 respectively.

What do they do?

The instruments relate to Government measures to control the spread of coronavirus.

Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation and Linked Households) (England) Regulations 2020

These regulations reduce the self-isolation period for people in England who have had close contact with someone who has coronavirus from 14 days down to 10 days. This change also applies to the minimum period of isolation for households switching their ‘support bubble’ or ‘childcare bubble’ from one linked household to another.

In addition, the instrument makes some changes to the starting date used for calculating the 10-day isolation periods, moving it from the date of a positive test or exposure, to the date after.

The Government stated that the changes were made following a review of the evidence on self-isolation by the chief medical officers. The review suggested that the chances of still being infectious 10 days after contact was low (although it was higher than the chances of still being infectious after 14 days). The Government said the change ensured the measures remained suitable and proportionate. It also believed there would be higher compliance with the self-isolation requirements if the period of self-isolation was shorter.

The changes to the self-isolation period starting points in England were made to bring this in line with the rest of the UK and therefore improve consistency.

Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020

These regulations moved a number of areas, including London and some parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, into tier three. A full list of the affected places can be found in the instrument’s explanatory memorandum.

At the time, tier three was the highest tier in the tier system for controlling coronavirus, and classed an area as being on ‘very high alert’. This brought a high level of restrictions; for example, areas in tier three have strict restrictions on social gatherings and allow hospitality venues (such as pubs and restaurants) only to operate a takeaway service. The areas were moved to tier three due to evidence of a substantial increase in coronavirus cases and rising hospital admissions in these areas.

However, on 19 December 2020, the Prime Minister announced that these areas, and others, were being moved to the new tier four status. This carries the highest level of restrictions, essentially requiring individuals to stay at home and to only go out if they have a ‘reasonable excuse’, such as for food, exercise and work. It is similar to the requirements placed on individuals during the ‘lockdown’ periods; for example, it requires all non-essential retail to close. The regulations implementing these changes came into force the next day and were laid before both Houses on 21 December 2020. These regulations also changed the rules for Christmas gatherings across all tiers.

Parliamentary scrutiny

At the time of writing, neither the tier three regulations or the self-isolation period regulations had been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments or the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. In addition, they had yet to be considered by the House of Commons.

However, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, did give a statement on the need to move London and other areas into tier three on 14 December 2020. He said that the tighter restrictions in these areas were necessary due to a sharp rise in cases and to limit hospitalisations and deaths. He also stated that a new variant of the virus had been identified, which may have contributed to the faster spread of cases. He said that the Government had to act, but accepted it would be difficult for individuals and businesses:

I know that this is difficult news. I know that it will mean that plans are disrupted, and that for businesses affected it will be a significant blow. This action is absolutely essential not just to keep people safe, but because we have seen that early action can help to prevent more damaging and longer-lasting problems later.

Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Jonathan Ashworth, stated that he was not surprised at the action being taken. He expressed concern at the increasing rate of the virus, and queried what other measures the Government was taking to control it and to support the NHS. He also asked for the Government to keep the House updated on news of the new strain of the virus.

Matt Hancock responded by stating that contact tracing was “rapidly improving” and that the NHS had the strongest funding in its history. He also said that there were 14,000 more nurses than there were a year ago.

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Cover image by Michael Marais on Unsplash.