How is the three-tier system being introduced?

On 12 October 2020, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced that a new system of local Covid-19 alert levels would be introduced in England. On the same day, the Government laid the following three statutory instruments establishing this new three-tiered system:

They replace the system of local lockdowns introduced since July 2020. These regulations come into force on 14 October 2020. Both Houses of Parliament must approve the regulations within 28 days of them being made if they are to remain in force.

How are areas under each local alert level affected?

Under the new system, areas will have different levels of restrictions, including the following.

Medium local alert level areas

  • People must not socialise in groups of more than six (referred to as the ‘rule of six’).
  • Bars, pubs and clubs will be closed between 10pm and 5am.

High local alert level areas

  • People must not socialise with others outside their household or support bubble in an indoor setting.
  • People must not socialise in groups of more than six when outside, including in gardens.
  • As in medium alert level areas, bars, pubs and clubs will be closed between 10pm and 5am.

Very high local alert level areas

  • In addition to the high-local level restrictions on socialising indoors, people must not socialise with others outside their household or support bubble either in private gardens or most outdoor venues. This includes outdoor hospitality venues and ticketed events.
  • The ‘rule of six’ will continue to apply for meetings in other outdoor areas, such as parks, beaches or the countryside.
  • Pubs and bars can only remain open if they operate as if they were a restaurant. They can only serve alcohol with a meal.
  • People inside very-high local alert areas should avoid travelling outside these areas. Exceptions to this include if people are travelling for work, education, youth services or to meet caring responsibilities.
  • People in very high alert level areas should avoid staying overnight in another part of the UK.

Other requirements, including social distancing rules and wearing face coverings, will continue to apply in all areas.

Where will different local alert levels be in force?

From 14 October 2020:

  • The Liverpool City Region will be on the very high local alert level.
  • Areas where previous local lockdown regulations had been in place will be on the high local alert level. These include areas in Cheshire; Greater Manchester; Derbyshire; Lancashire; West Yorkshire; South Yorkshire; Durham; Northumberland; Tyne and Wear; Tees Valley; West Midlands; Leicestershire; and Nottinghamshire.
  • The rest of England will be on the medium local alert level.

The Government has published a full list of the areas in each category.

The Government has said the decisions on local alert levels will be kept under “constant review”. It has also described how areas may be moved into different local alert levels:

Geographical areas determined to be at local alert level medium will adhere to the ‘current national measures’ which are those set out in the alert level medium regulations. These represent the minimum level of restrictions in place across England. Geographical areas will be moved to local alert level high, or local alert level very high, based on a rise in transmission. Areas allocated to local alert levels high and very high will be subject to review.

Parliamentary Scrutiny

The regulations establishing the three-tiered system were made on 12 October 2020 using the ‘made affirmative’ procedure. This means both Houses of Parliament must approve the regulations within 28 days of their being made if they are to remain in force. The debate on the regulations in the House of Commons is scheduled to take place on 13 October 2020. They are scheduled to be debated in the House of Lords on 14 October 2020.

Given the timings, neither the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee or the Joint Committee for Statutory Instruments have yet reported on the regulations. The standing orders of the House of Lords say that an affirmative statutory instrument should not be debated in the Lords before the Joint Committee for Statutory Instruments has reported on it. As the debate in the Lords is scheduled to take place before such a report is published, the Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Evans of Bowes Park, tabled a motion to suspend the relevant standing order. The motion to suspend the standing order was debated and passed on 13 October 2020.

Reaction to new alert levels

Speaking in the House of Commons on 12 October 2020, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said that the Liverpool City Region would move into the very high alert level following an agreement reached with leaders in Merseyside. He told MPs that local authorities categorised as very high alert level areas would receive increased government support. He said the following offer would be made to local authorities:

[…] work with us on these difficult but necessary measures in the areas that are rated very high, in return for more support for local test and trace, more funding for local enforcement, the offer of help from the armed services, and the job support scheme, as announced by the Chancellor.

The Mayor of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, Steve Rotheram, issued a joint statement with the six local authorities in Liverpool affected on 12 October 2020. This statement said:

Since we were first informed by the Government that, in response to the high and rising Covid-19 cases in the City Region, they would be placing the Liverpool City Region onto new tier 3 restrictions, it was made clear to us that government would be doing this regardless of if we engaged with them or not. Since then we have been in dialogue with high level government officials to try to negotiate a package of support in the best interests of the people of Liverpool City Region.

The statement went on to say, while they welcomed the government support offered so far, they had not reached agreement with the Government over the wider economic support package they required.

The Mayor of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Andy Burnham, said the decision to place Greater Manchester on the high local alert level was the right one. However, he added that the Government needed to ensure all areas under restrictions received full financial support.

The Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority, Andy Street, stated he was disappointed by the decision to place areas in the West Midlands in the high local alert level. He argued the Government should have retained the existing local lockdown rules and that the new restrictions would damage the hospitality industry.

The Local Government Association issued a statement arguing the new tier system would make it “easier for communities and the councils who represent them to understand, communicate and follow the rules in place”. James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said the system “must also allow local councillors and public health experts to respond to specific causes of spikes in infections in their areas”. He noted the success of local track and trace with “figures showing they reached 97.1 percent of close contacts who were asked to self-isolate”. He welcomed additional funding but noted that “driving strong local action and effective contact tracing will add further pressure to already over-stretched council budgets”.

In its response, the trade association UKHospitality said things looked “bleak” for businesses forced to shut in tier 3 but it was hopeful government support would give such businesses “breathing room” to survive. However, it warned that for businesses in tier 2 and 1 “without enhanced grant support and enhanced government contributions to the Job Support Scheme, many [hospitality businesses] are going to fall by the wayside”. UKHospitality also called on the Government to “rethink the mandatory 10pm curfew”, which it argued “was imposed without credible evidence”.

SAGE advice

On 12 October 2020, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) published the minutes of the advice it had given to the Government on 20 September 2020 on measures to combat the spread of Covid-19. This included recommendations the Government did not implement such as: banning all contact within the home by members of other households; closing all bars restaurants and other venues; and for all university and college teaching to be online unless face-to face-teaching was absolutely necessary.

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