England faces even harsher lockdown rules as coronavirus spirals out of control.
Boris Johnson today confirmed more restrictions are on the way after a new variant led to 54,990 new cases in a day.
The Prime Minister will give a TV address to the nation at 8pm and Parliament will be recalled on Wednesday.
“If you look at the numbers there’s no question we will have to take tougher measures,” he said. “We will be announcing those in due course.”
The question is, what will he actually announce?
ITV’s Robert Peston claimed there will be a “tough national lockdown” with Tier 4 restrictions everywhere in England, schools closed and no more team games in parks.
Exact measures are yet to be confirmed.
However, the Prime Minister is in a nightmare situation as the new variant surges.
On one hand, there’s little wriggle room because 78% of England is already in Tier 4 – similar to the November lockdown.
Other than putting more areas in Tier 4, and shutting more schools – both of which we expect – there’s little else to do.
On the other hand, he may have to work out something. SAGE have warned even Tier 4 isn’t enough to curb the rise of the new variant.
So what else could the government do if it wanted to – or was forced to – tighten up the lockdown?
We look at the most likely options – as well as ones that are less likely, but technically possible all the same.
Measures that seem likely to happen
Move more Tier 3 areas into Tier 4
By far the most likely option is that some or all of the 22% of England currently in Tier 3, will move into Tier 4.
Matt Hancock said the virus is now rising fastest in Tier 3 areas – which include Liverpool City Region, Yorkshire and the Humber, and much of the South West.
“Whereas the old Tier 3 was able to contain the old variant, that is proving increasingly difficult in all parts of the country,” the Health Secretary said.
Both Tiers 3 and 4 ban pubs or restaurants opening, and ban social gatherings between households inside or in gardens.
Tier 4 also shuts non-essential shops and hairdressers; orders people to “stay at home” other than essential reasons; bans non-essential travel or overnight stays away from the house; and bans social gatherings even in parks.
The only multi-household or -bubble gathering allowed in Tier 4 is two people in a public open space.
The problem with this approach is – it won’t be enough.
78% of England is already in Tier 4 and cases are still rising. SAGE has warned that, now we have a new variant of Covid-19, it’s “highly unlikely” Tier 4 alone will keep the R number below 1.
Close more schools – or keep them shut for longer
Schools could shut, either partly or fully, after Scotland announced nurseries, primaries and secondaries will be open only to key workers’ and vulnerable kids until February 1.
Boris Johnson has repeatedly insisted a full-scale shutdown of all schools in England would be a “last resort”. But even before tonight’s announcement it was thought more could close, or for longer.
Keeping schools open was the big difference between the March and November lockdowns. In March they only opened to key workers’ and vulnerable children; in November they stayed fully open.
SAGE say shutting schools would help bring the R number down – though still can’t guarantee it’ll dip below 1.
The situation is different for primaries and secondaries.
Primary schools in England were meant to be fully open in all but 60 council areas from today, but many outside the 60 worst-hit areas have refused to open anyway.
It had been expected further closures beyond the 60 areas would be approved this week if councils formally requested them.
Meanwhile, secondary schools were meant to open fully from January 18 but the PM refused to rule out delaying that date.
Mr Johnson said: “It looks as though secondary schools probably play more of a role in the spread of the epidemic than primary schools. So we’ll have to look very hard at what we do with secondary schools later in the month.”
Asked directly if secondary schools could stay shut beyond January 18 he said: “We’re obviously going to keep everything under review. Education is of huge important to young people, it’s a real loss to them if they don’t get it.”
Other potential options
Impose a national lockdown – or make Tier 4 stricter
If most of the country is in Tier 4 anyway, Boris Johnson might as well call it a national lockdown.
That would replace the tier system with one set of “stay at home” rules for all of England, like in November.
But other than being clearer to the public, there are big questions about what a national lockdown would do that Tier 4 didn’t.
Tier 4 is almost (though not quite) exactly the same as the rules for the November lockdown, rather than the stronger March lockdown.
And SAGE say that’s likely not enough on its own to keep the R number below 1.
While Tier 4 rules are already pretty strict, there are some ways they could be made stricter.
This could theoretically include banning takeaway pints or shutting outdoor pools, zoos, and places of worship.
This idea has been widely nicknamed ‘Tier 5’, though government sources insist they’ve no plans to introduce a Tier 5.
A crackdown on outdoor sports
According to ITV’s Robert Peston, team games in parks would be banned.
It was not immediately clear what this meant, as Tier 4 rules only say outdoor organised sport can continue for children or disabled people.
However, Tier 4 was more relaxed than the first lockdown on what sport people could do with friends.
Tier 4 rules currently say outdoor sports courts, gyms, golf courses, outdoor swimming pools, archery/driving/shooting ranges, riding arenas and playgrounds can remain open for individual exercise.
All those venues are also available for one person to meet one other person from another household.
While this is not in any way confirmed, Wtehall sources told the Telegraph discussions were under way about the return of shielding.
More than 2million people with health conditions stayed indoors entirely for months in the March lockdown.
Since then, full-blown shielding has not returned, although in Tier 4, shielders are told not to go to workplaces or shops.
Matt Hancock refused to rule out extending shielding rules but said any change will be communicated to people directly.
It was also claimed shielding could be extended to people in specific age groups, such as the over-70s.
Previously it only applied to people based on their health conditions, and wasn’t a blanket policy based on age. In the past, ministers have repeatedly insisted a blanket age policy won’t happen.
Tougher messaging or enforcement
One of the fears is that some people aren’t following the rules – either because the rules aren’t clear enough, they’re exhausted of lockdowns, or they don’t care.
That could lead to clearer messaging – something the government have repeatedly being accused of failing to do.
Matt Hancock said: “It’s down to people’s behaviour frankly. What matters is yes of course the rules we put in place but it’s also about how people act.” He later insisted “this isn’t about blame.”
Messaging is a key reason why Keir Starmer is demanding a national lockdown. Everyone knows where they stand.
Enforcement has also been stepped up in the past, with tougher fines for breaking lockdown laws and more patrols.
The least likely options – there’s been little to no suggestion these will happen, but they are all possible in theory
Close outdoor pools, zoos or places of worship
Outdoor pools, gyms and playgrounds were closed in the March and November lockdowns, but can stay open in Tier 4.
Zoos were closed in the March and November lockdowns, but outdoor parts of them remain open in Tier 4.
Places of worship have also had varying rules. They had to shut in the March lockdown, could remain open for private prayer in the November lockdown, and can open for communal worship in Tier 4.
All of these would be “easy” options for tightening up a lockdown.
However, they might make little impact on the virus – and all of them were kept open for good reason in Tier 4 because they have some kind of other public benefit.
Stop takeaway pints
During the first lockdown, pubs were only allowed to sell “takeaway food”.
But in Tier 4 that has expanded to “takeaway food and drink” – allowing pre-ordered pints to be sold to punters outside.
That led to some scenes of people queuing down the street for pints on New Year’s Eve.
While it wouldn’t be popular, stopping this would be one way to go back to March-style rules.
Boris Johnson and No10 failed to rule out a French-style, full-blown curfew when questioned by the BBC’s Andrew Marr.
France has introduced a 6pm order for people to return home in the hardest-hit regions.
However, government sources say this is not an option on the table in England.
Indeed, the UK has never imposed a full night-time curfew on its citizens during the coronavirus pandemic. The furthest we went was a 10pm ‘curfew’ on pub opening times, but people were not forced home after that.
Limit people’s daily exercise
During the March lockdown, people were limited to “one form of exercise per day”, such as a run, walk or cycle.
Contrary to popular belief, this was not time-limited despite Michael Gove suggesting it should be only an hour.
Since summer 2020, the “one form of exercise” limit has vanished and people can take unlimited exercise.
No10 refused today to rule out bringing back this limit. But we understand it’s highly unlikely.
“I think outdoor exercise is really important,” Matt Hancock said. “We know more about the transmission of the disease, and we know it’s much, much less likely to spread when you are outdoors.”
Ban people from meeting one person in the park
In the first lockdown, you couldn’t meet people outside your household or bubble for social reasons.
Under Tier 4, there is one exemption to this – two people from two separate households or bubbles can meet outside.
This can happen in a public open space, such as a park, allotment, forest or beach.
Children under 5 or certain adults with care needs don’t count towards the two-person limit.
The government could technically remove this but it would likely be seen as too harsh a crackdown.
End support bubbles
Millions of people are now reliant on a “support bubble” to see another household they’re close to.
The system allows a single-adult household, a couple with a child under one, to permanently bubble up with another household of any size.
However, it’s easy to forget this vital policy only began in England in June, after almost three months of lockdown.
Axing support bubbles would take England back to March – but be hugely unpopular and do a lot of damage to people who now rely on that support.
Stop non-urgent NHS treatment
This seems the most unlikely of all – at least, if the government can have any say about it.
Non-urgent NHS treatment and dentistry was stopped during the first national lockdown but continues now.
NHS chiefs and ministers say this is crucial to stop there being a huge backlog in care. Holding up non-urgent treatment also means other deadly conditions like cancer go undiagnosed.