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Out-Law Guide 5 min. read

Coronavirus in England: the roadmap out of lockdown

Empty cafe or bar interior, daytime

New regulations are now in force in England, setting out what organisations operating across all sectors of the economy can and cannot do within the context of measures designed to contain the spread of Covid-19.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps) (England) Regulations 2021 (the Steps Regulations) came into force on 29 March 2021. They replace the ‘tiered’ system created in 2020 and form the government’s roadmap out of lockdown in England, with fewer restrictions imposed as the country progresses through the steps.

The steps out of lockdown, as set out in the schedules to the regulations, are provisionally set to unfold as follows:

  • step 1 (schedule 1) – from 19 March to 11 April;
  • step 2 (schedule 2) – from 12 April;
  • step 3 (schedule 3) – not before 17 May; and
  • step 4 (no restrictions) – not before 21 June.

The government’s initial intention is to take an ‘all-England’ approach to lifting restrictions. However, the Steps Regulations do allow the government to switch from a national to a regional approach if it wishes to. They also offer the government the flexibility to go back to a previous step, should it consider there is a need to reimpose greater restrictions either regionally or nationally.

The Steps Regulations expire at the end of June, in line with the government’s aspiration to have moved to step 4 by then.

The regulations do not exist in isolation. The government has published a range of other material to supplement the rules in England, including:

Meeting family and friends

Under step 1, the previous requirement for a “reasonable excuse” to be outside your home is removed. Outdoor gatherings of no more than six people or two households, in a public or private place, and sports and childcare gatherings are permitted. Bans on indoor gatherings of two or more people remain. These social contract rules remain unchanged in step 2.

“Outdoors” in the Steps Regulations includes private outdoor spaces, such as gardens; and other outdoor public places and venues that are open, including parks, public gardens and playgrounds.

The government’s initial intention is to take an ‘all-England’ approach to lifting restrictions. However, the regulations do allow the government to switch from a national to a regional approach if it wishes to.

In step 3, most legal restrictions on meeting others outdoors no longer apply, although gatherings of over 30 people remain illegal. Indoors, gatherings of up to six people or two households are permitted. By step 3, the government intends to update its advice on social distancing between friends and family.

The government hopes to be in a position to remove all legal limits on social contact in step 4.

Visits and overnight stays

In steps 1 and 2, most holiday accommodation must remain closed. However, visits and overnight stays are permitted for certain reasons in principle, if they comply with the restrictions on gatherings and meeting others.

Holiday accommodation may open in steps 3 and 4, provided the restrictions on gatherings and meeting others are complied with.

There are separate regulations on international travel. These impose requirements relating to testing and quarantine for those arriving in England, including those returning to England after international travel.

Restrictions on retail businesses

Outdoor sports facilities such as outdoor gyms and swimming pools are permitted to open at step 1. People can use these venues in a group of six people, or with members of up to two households. Businesses eligible to host childcare and supervised activities for children are able to host all outdoor children’s activities.

Non-essential retail reopens in step 2. Personal care facilities such as salons and spas, and indoor sports facilities such as gyms and leisure centres, also open.

Most other businesses in all but the highest risk sectors may open in step 3. This includes indoor entertainment venues, the accommodation sector and indoor group sports and exercise classes. All businesses and venues that are open are expected to follow Covid-19 secure guidelines to protect customers, visitors and workers through ventilation, sanitisation and social distancing.

Restrictions on the hospitality industry

Outdoor areas at cafes and restaurants may operate in step 2, where table service is required at any premises serving alcohol. In step 3, indoor hospitality venues may operate without being subject to curfews or ‘substantial meal’ requirements as under the previous tiers system. However, customers must order, eat and drink while seated.

Night time leisure venues which are considered restricted businesses and services, such as nightclubs and dance halls, must remain closed until step 4.

Face coverings and social distancing

It remains a legal requirement for people to wear face coverings in most public indoor settings, unless they come under an exemption. This requirement is contained in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings in a Relevant Place) (England) Regulations 2020.

Guidance remains the same in that it is preferable to stay two metres apart from people that you do not live with where possible, or one metre with extra precautions – such as face coverings – in place. This is not a legal requirement in any of the regulations.

Businesses and venues that are open in any step are expected to follow the Covid-19 secure guidelines, which provide guidance on social distancing within various businesses. This includes managing contact between customers and between customers and staff; limiting maximum occupancy; and encouraging hand sanitising or washing on entry to the premises.

Shows and spectator events

Indoor entertainment and visitor attractions reopen as part of step 3. This includes concert halls, cinemas, theatres and other indoor attractions. Indoor events and remaining outdoor events such as elite sports, business events, cinemas and live performance events are also permitted.

The government has issued guidance limiting attendance levels for events, attractions and other large organised gatherings. If these take place in a public outdoor place, there is a legal duty on the organised to conduct a risk assessment and take the guidance into account.

A right to protest

There is a specific exception in the regulations for protests organised by a business; a charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution; a public body; or a political body. These are in addition to a ‘picketing’ exception.

Exceptions to restrictions on meeting

The basic rules on gathering and meeting with others are subject to exceptions, which are mostly the same as under the previous tiered regime. As in previous regulations, exceptions are permitted where the person has a “reasonable excuse”, and a non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses is set out.

The exception of ‘linked households’ allows a person to mix with another household if any of the following apply:

  • the person is the only adult in a household;
  • the person has a child under one year old;
  • the person is a child living in a household with no adults; or
  • the person lives with a child with a disability under five years old who needs continuous care, or the person is a person with a disability requiring constant care.

Other notable exemptions from the above gathering limits on mixed households are familiar from previous regulations and include:

  • childcare;
  • education and training;
  • work;
  • providing voluntary or charitable services;
  • support groups of no more than 15 people; and
  • to avoid injury or illness, or to escape a risk of harm.

The references to illness do not exclude mental health, and therefore a person should be permitted to mix with another household where this is necessary for mental health reasons.

Co-written by Rachel Cannon of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.

For advice on coronavirus restrictions in Scotland contact Audrey Ferrie; and in Northern Ireland contact James Griffiths.

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