As of midnight on 5 January 2021, England has been placed under a national lockdown, its third in 10 months. This followed the COVID-19 alert level for the whole of the United Kingdom being elevated to 5, the highest level, which indicates that without further action there would be "a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed" within 21 days, in the face of the new and more contagious strain of COVID-19 recently identified in the South of the UK.
These lockdown rules are set to be reviewed on 15 February, by which point the government is aiming to have had vaccinated all 13.9 million people in the top four priority groups in England. These groups are care home residents and carers, everyone aged 70 and over, all frontline health and social care workers, and the clinically extremely vulnerable. Any extension or loosening of the lockdown rules will be contingent on the success of the vaccination roll out.
The key rules for employers to be aware of, which are broadly similar to those imposed in March 2020, are that:
- People must stay at home except for limited circumstances, which include (i) essential medical needs, (ii) essential shopping, (iii) exercise (limited to once a day), and (iv) work that cannot be done at home (i.e. construction, critical infrastructure, manufacturing, key workers).
- Specifically, people can only leave their homes for work purposes if they "cannot reasonably work from home". This guidance is stronger than the Tier 4 rules that applied to more than 75% of England's population before 5 January, which stated that everyone who "can work effectively from home should do so". This means that the majority of employees will need to work remotely, including most office workers.
- Clinically extremely vulnerable people should shield (i.e. stay at home at all times except for exercising or attending medical appointments). They will receive a formal letter from the NHS advising them to do so. If they cannot work from home, they should not attend work (although their household members can).
- All non-essential retail, hospitality, and personal care services must close. Retailers that can stay open include supermarkets, pharmacies garden centers, and builders' merchants, while restaurants may remain open for non-alcoholic takeaway services only.
- All schools, colleges, and universities will move to remote teaching except for vulnerable children or the children of key workers. Nurseries for pre-school children, however, may remain open. This means many parents will be combining work responsibilities with educating elementary school age children at home, although limited third party childcare in the home is still allowed.
- International travel is only allowed if there is a legally permitted reason to leave the home (i.e. for work, medical treatment, or legal purposes). This means most international business travel will not be permitted. The UK government is expected to announce further travel rules shortly. However, travelers from the UK still face temporary travel restrictions imposed by more than 50 countries including the majority of the European Union, Middle East and South America, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Pakistan, and parts of the Caribbean. These restrictions vary in severity and were introduced in mid-December in response to the mutant strain of COVID-19 identified in the South of England.
- Employers can continue to furlough employees and reclaim 80% of pay from the government under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, until at least the end of April 2021. The furlough scheme applies to the whole of the UK.
The other three devolved nations of the United Kingdom are putting similar stay at home and shielding rules in place, with minor differences. Wales and Northern Ireland have been in national lockdowns since 20 and 26 December, respectively, while Scotland announced a similar lockdown (for the mainland and Skye) from 5 to 31 January.
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