New COVID-19 restrictions in the UK—explained

The government has announced lots of new restrictions across the UK to slow the spread of coronavirus—and it can feel hard to keep up. Let’s break down exactly what’s changed and where.

Friday, Oct 23, 2020
4 min read

In the last couple of weeks, the government and local authorities have announced numerous new restrictions to help manage the spread of coronavirus across the UK.

And the constantly changing guidelines and terminology can feel confusing—especially for employers who are trying to keep businesses running and manage their staff through this challenging time.

Let’s look at the new restrictions in the UK and what they could mean for employers like you, starting with the tightest restrictions in place…

What is a circuit-breaker?

A circuit-breaker is currently the tightest set of restrictions in place in the UK (you might also hear it referred to as a “stay at home circuit breaker” or a “firebreak”). It’s similar to the national lockdown we all experienced in March, but for a fixed period of time—though the minimum would always be two weeks.

The hope is that a circuit-breaker would significantly bring the number of coronavirus cases down and would be less damaging to the economy and people’s mental health, as people could plan ahead for the clear end in sight.

Currently, the only place to face these severe restrictions is Wales. The country will start a 17-day circuit-breaker on Friday 23rd October at 6pm and it will stay in place until Monday 9th November.

What does this mean for businesses in Wales?

Essentially, a lot of businesses will be forced to close, including all hospitality venues, and people must stay at home except for very limited purposes (like getting food or medicine). These restrictions are serious stuff…

And they’re especially hard on employers who may have only just got their business back on its feet. There’s been a call for Welsh businesses to be given early access to the Job Support Scheme to support affected businesses, but this has been refused.

What is the new three-tier system?

Last week the government announced a new three-tier system that sees every area of England classed as being on one of three levels of alert to manage the spread of coronavirus. The restrictions get more severe as the tiers move up. Let’s take a look:

Tier 1 (medium alert)

Most of England is in Tier 1. This means:

  • Socialising: The “rule of six” applies. You can’t socialise in groups of more than six people, whether it’s indoors or outdoors.
  • Work: Businesses and venues can stay open in a COVID-secure manner, other than those that remain closed in law, like nightclubs. However, people are advised to work from home if they can do so effectively.
  • Hospitality: Pubs, bars and restaurants must be closed between 10pm and 5am. Takeaway food can still be sold after 10pm if ordered by phone or online.
  • Overnight stays: You should avoid overnight stays in any part of the country in Tier 3.

Tier 2 (high alert)

A number of areas have been placed in Tier 2, including London, Essex, Birmingham, and York. As well the restrictions in Tier 1, you must also follow additional rules:

  • Socialising: You can’t socialise with anyone outside your household or support bubble indoors. The “rule of six” applies to socialising outdoors.
  • Work: Businesses and venues face the same restrictions as Tier 1, but due to the stricter socialising rules you should be especially mindful to limit team meetings and use things like video calling instead.
  • Travel: It’s permitted for work or to access to education, but you’re advised to reduce the number of journeys you make as much as possible, so you might want to consider things like your employees’ commutes.

Tier 3 (very high alert)

Liverpool City Region, Lancashire and Greater Manchester are currently in Tier 3, and South Yorkshire is due to go into Tier 3 on Saturday 24th October. If you’re in one of those regions, as well as the restrictions in Tier 1 and Tier 2, you must also follow additional rules:

  • Socialising: You can’t socialise with anyone outside your household or support bubble indoors, or in a private garden, or at most hospitality venues and ticketed events.
  • Hospitality: Pubs and bars are only permitted to remain open to operate as restaurants, i.e. alcohol can only be served as part of a substantial meal, so if you’re running a hospitality venue you may need to change your offering.
  • Travel: You should only make essential journeys, for such things as work, education, or caring responsibilities, so you should let your staff do their jobs from home if they can do so effectively.
  • Overnight stays: You should avoid overnight stays in any other parts of the country.

Breaking news in Scotland

Scotland currently has its own lockdown rules, and while it isn’t under an official ‘circuit-breaker’ it has closed all pubs and restaurants across the central belt, which includes Glasgow and Edinburgh. The new rules came into force on Friday 9th October.

However, it was announced today that when these restrictions expire on Monday 2nd November, Scotland will enter a new five-tier system of coronavirus alert levels.

‘Level zero’ is the mildest set of restrictions, and levels zero-four will be applied in different areas of Scotland. The highest level, ‘level four’ will be close to a full lockdown—but with the aim to keep schools open at all levels. The Scottish government are due to release further details on this new five-tier system very soon.


The government guidelines are constantly being updated, and there’s a lot for employers to keep up with as the COVID-19 situation changes—but BrightAdvice is here to help.

If you have a question about running your business during the coronavirus pandemic, our advisers are ready to take your call. We’re open 24/7, so there’s always someone to talk to for expert legal advice, day or night. Call BrightAdvice on 0800 783 2806.

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