Last reviewed 5 January 2021

The Prime Minister announced a further national lockdown in England on 4 January 2021 with people told to stay at home, except for specific reasons including essential shopping, to work (if it is not reasonable for their job to be done at home), to exercise, to seek medical help or to escape domestic abuse.

With the new Covid variant being between 50% and 70% more transmissible, the chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty warned that the NHS could be overwhelmed within 21 days if action is not taken. The Covid alert level should therefore move to level 5.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson then announced the new lockdown which he urged people to begin obeying immediately.

Where people cannot work from home — including, but not limited to, people who work in critical national infrastructure, construction or manufacturing — they should continue to travel to their workplace, he said. Where it is necessary to work in other people's homes — for example, for nannies, cleaners or tradespeople — this will be allowed.

Clinically extremely vulnerable who shielded in March 2020 are advised to begin shielding again, Mr Johnson said. They should only go outside for exercise or to attend health appointments.

As for everyone else, they can leave home to visit people in their support bubble (if they are legally permitted to form one), to provide informal childcare for children under 14 as part of a childcare bubble (for example, to enable parents to work, and not to enable social contact between adults), to provide care for disabled or vulnerable people, to provide emergency assistance and to attend a support group (of up to 15 people).

Mr Johnson said that communal worship will still be allowed as long as social distancing is observed, but outdoor sports venues such as tennis courts, golf course and swimming pools must close.

Non-essential shops must close as must cafes, restaurants, pubs, bars and social clubs.

This is with the exception of providing food and non-alcoholic drinks for takeaway (until 11pm), click-and-collect and drive-through. All food and drink (including alcohol) can continue to be provided by delivery.

Entertainment venues must close including theatres, concert halls, cinemas, museums and galleries, casinos, amusement arcades, bingo halls, bowling alleys, skating rinks and indoor play and soft play centres.

Personal care facilities including hair, beauty, tanning and nail salons must also close.

On a positive note, the Prime Minister said that he hoped the top four priority groups will have received their first dose of the vaccine by mid-February including all residents in a care home for older adults and their carers, everyone over the age of 70 and all frontline health and social care workers.

At that point, if all goes well, regions might begin, cautiously, to move down the tiers.

Full details of closures and exceptions can be found in National Lockdown: Stay at Home, available at GOV.UK.

Schools, colleges and universities

All schools and colleges in England will move to remote learning from Tuesday 5 January except for vulnerable children and the children of remote workers.

Free school meals will be still available and nurseries can remain open while childcare and support bubbles will stay in place.

Mr Johnson went on to consider the impact on those facing exams later this year and said that plans will be put in place by the Education Secretary and Ofqual to address the unfair impact of restrictions on these pupils.

End-of-year exams will not take place this summer as normal, he confirmed.

If things improve, driven by the vaccination programme, perhaps schools could be re-opened after the February half term, the Prime Minister concluded.

As for universities, students will not be allowed to return to campus and will be expected to study remotely from their current residence. In-person university teaching will only take place for a small number of critical courses such as medicine.

Comment from BrightHR’s CEO Alan Price

With the new coronavirus variant spreading across England, it seemed inevitable that we would face yet another lockdown in early 2021, this itself coming when most businesses in the country were shut due to tier 4 restrictions anyway. In his sombre message to the country last night, the Prime Minister made clear that this lockdown is stricter than the one we saw in November, being more akin to the original one back in March of last year. Schools remain closed this time, guidance on shielding and working from home has also been amended.

Work from home guidance has already changed several times for England, with previous wording providing a degree of flexibility to employers around whether staff could work from home and do so effectively. Now, the guidance is much clearer. People should only leave their home for work where it is “unreasonable” for them to work from home. The knock-on effect of this is that employers will need to consider if any of their employees can reasonably work from home and take steps to implement the change. Employees are certainly more likely to encourage management to re-think their approach to this, and if a business is going to keep staff attending a workplace, they need to ensure they have followed all advice on making it Covid-secure.

In another significant development, individuals are once again being asked to shield in England and are entitled to receive statutory sick pay (SSP) for the period of time that they cannot work. There are a number of options open to a company in this situation. Those with less than 250 members of staff can still make use of the SSP Rebate Scheme, which funds up to two weeks of SSP for coronavirus absences. Alternatively, the furlough scheme remains an option for all businesses to now use if eligible, even if they have not done so before and will do so until April.

The Government remains hopeful that these restrictions will be lifted by February. However, this is dependent on a number of factors, in particular the success of the vaccine roll-out, and employers must keep up-to-date with all developments.