Since the Government lifted the national coronavirus lockdown, it has sought to control the spread of the disease through ‘local lockdowns’. In August and September 2020, the Government introduced a number of  statutory instruments aimed at reducing the spread of Covid-19. Some of these instruments provided for restrictions in certain areas in the north of England.

Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions on Gathering) (North of England) Regulations 2020 (No. 828)

What is the background to the instrument?

In July 2020, the Government began stage three of its recovery strategy for the Covid-19 pandemic. This saw the opening of the hospitality sector and further relaxations on gatherings of people. However, data shared by Public Health England and the Joint Biosecurity Centre showed that incidence rates of Covid‑19 were significantly higher in some areas than the national average. It also showed that household transmission, either within the household or due to transmission between households, made up a high proportion of Covid-19 cases.

As a result, on 30 July 2020, the Government announced that new rules on social gatherings would be introduced in certain areas in the north of England, with people not allowed to mix with other households (apart from their support bubbles) in private homes or gardens.

What does the instrument do?

On 4 August 2020, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock laid the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions on Gatherings) (North of England) Regulations 2020 (No. 828) before both Houses under the made affirmative procedure. The Government made the regulations on the same day, so that they could take effect from 5 August 2020. Both Houses must approve them by 28 September 2020 for the regulations to remain in force.

The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s 25th Report of Session 2019–21 provided an overview of the instrument (further information on the regulations is available in the Government’s Explanatory Memorandum):

Regulation 5 of SI 2020/828 […] prohibits gatherings of two or more people from different households in private dwellings in the protected area, and prohibits people living in the protected area from gatherings in a private dwelling outside the protected area, unless those meetings are between linked households. Within the protected area, regulation 7(4) prohibits indoor gatherings for more than 30 people but permits more than 30 people in a public outdoor space under certain defined conditions.

The protected area referred to is made up of the following areas (please note this list has been amended since the instrument was made):

  • Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council;
  • Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council;
  • Bury Metropolitan Borough Council;
  • Manchester City Council;
  • Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council;
  • Rochdale Borough Council;
  • Salford City Council;
  • Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council;
  • Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council;
  • Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council;
  • Pendle Borough Council;
  • Hyndburn Borough Council;
  • Burnley Borough Council;
  • Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council; and
  • Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council.

The Government must review the regulations every 14 days and they will expire after six months if the Government does not terminate them before that date.

The Government said that along with the regulations, it had published guidance for those living in or visiting the protected area, advising against gatherings in indoor public places. Guidance was also issued to businesses and care homes.

What amendments have the Government made to the instrument?

On 25 September 2020, the House of Lords is due to debate the instrument along with five others (they are yet to be debated by the House of Commons). These five instruments all amended the original regulations. They have all followed the made affirmative procedure.

Three of the instruments made changes to the ‘protected area’ set out in the original instrument:

The Government introduced another instrument (no. 865) in reaction to a relaxation of national rules which saw a number of the remaining aspects of England’s culture, sport and business sectors reopening from 15 August 2020. However, due to the transmission rates in the protected areas, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions on Gatherings) (North of England) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 (865), which came into force on 14 August 2020, were made to disapply the relevant provisions in the national regulations and insert business closure provisions.

Matt Hancock spoke about the remaining instrument on 8 September 2020, in a written statement to the House of Commons. He said that following a review of the local lockdown regulations in several areas, including the north of England, amendments had been made to ease restrictions through the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Blackburn with Darwen and Bradford, Leicester, and North of England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (954). This instrument, which came into force on 7 September 2020, applies relaxations made elsewhere in England on 25 July 2020 to the areas covered in the north of England regulations, apart from the area of Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council. Further information is available in the instrument’s Explanatory Memorandum.

What parliamentary scrutiny have the instruments received?

The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee reported on four of the instruments in its 25th Report of Session 2019–21. It considered another instrument (no. 931) in its 26th Report of Session 2019–21. However, the committee did not draw any of the instruments to the special attention of the House. The committee has not yet considered the remaining instrument (no. 954).

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments is yet to report on any of the instruments. In addition, the House of Commons have not yet debated or approved the instruments.

The House of Lords is due to debate the instruments (which have been grouped together) on 25 September 2020.

What criticism has the Government received over the regulations?

The Government received criticism over one of the regulations (no. 931) after deciding to reimpose the restrictions it eased in Bolton and Trafford shortly after they were lifted. Prior to the decision, leaders of the councils for the areas affected had argued against the lifting of restrictions. Although Chris Green, Conservative MP for Bolton West, had argued that they should be lifted.

Explaining the decision, Matt Hancock said that a review of the latest data showed that infection rates had more than trebled in Bolton in under a week and had doubled in Trafford since the last review. However, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, labelled the decision “complete chaos”. Leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, agreed arguing that the decision gave people “no confidence in the Government’s approach”. Mr Green tweeted stating that he was disappointed in how the Government had communicated the decision.

Have further amendments been made?

The Government has introduced the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 (986) which apply to the whole of England. It laid the regulations under the made affirmative procedure and they came into force on 13 September 2020. They provide for the restrictions on social gatherings so that they cannot be larger than six people unless exemptions apply.

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