Coronavirus: Tiers, travel and Christmas bubbles – the latest COVID-19 developments impacting on employers

On 23 November 2020, the Prime Minster announced that England’s second national lockdown would come to an end on 2 December 2020 and that, on this date, England would revert to a revised and strengthened tier system of local restrictions, allowing many businesses to reopen.

End of second national lockdown

Whilst the 2 December 2020 reopening date came as a surprise to many (on the basis that the effect of the regulations which implemented the second national lockdown is that the lockdown does not expire until the end of that day, making 3 December the previously assumed date of a return to the tier system)  employers should take comfort that it is clear from the government’s Winter Plan document, and other official guidance, that 2 December is the date which now applies.  It is anticipated that this anomaly with the dates may be rectified once new regulations are made to implement the revised tiers.

From 2 December 2020, therefore, all non-essential retail, gyms and close contact services (for example, hairdressers and beauty salons) will be allowed to reopen, alongside the essential retailers which have been open throughout the lockdown period.

The impact of the tier system

Unfortunately, however, the news is less positive for businesses in the hospitality and leisure sector.  Here, the ability to reopen depends on the location – and consequent applicable tier – of the business.  Under the revised tier system, pubs, bars and restaurants in Tier 2 are only able to open if they are serving substantial meals and alcohol can only be sold alongside a meal order. Significantly, however, the 10 pm curfew has been extended to 11 pm, albeit last orders must still be placed by 10 pm.

Pubs, bars and restaurants in Tier 3 have the worst news of all, only being able to operate as takeaways or drive-throughs. In addition, in Tier 3, indoor entertainment venues must also remain closed.

On 26 November, the government published the allocation of tiers with all but 3 English regions being in Tier 2 or 3.  Whilst there has been some movement between tiers since the regime last applied, a significant part of England has been placed into Tier 3 and, therefore, many hospitality and entertainment businesses are subject to the most stringent restrictions.  The government’s postcode checker allows businesses to identify which tier applies. Tiers will be reviewed on 16 December 2020.

Travel and working from home

As before, the tier system has little impact on the ability to travel for work purposes, which continues to be permitted.  However, the message is clear that everyone who can work from home should continue do so, and the Winter Plan document indicates that the government will strengthen its guidance in this respect.  The Winter Plan also encourages employers to enable a greater degree of home working.  From this, it is apparent that continued home working (where it is possible) is here for the long-haul.  However, this does not mean that employees are prohibited from working in a workplace in certain, exceptional, circumstances, for example, if home working is detrimental to their mental health and wellbeing. The government’s approach here is undoubtedly sensible in terms of reducing the risk of transmission of the virus but will almost certainly also give employers pause for thought on how, and when, they resume their return to office programmes.  Employees who are unable to work from home should attend their workplaces as normal.

As far as international travel is concerned, the government has also announced plans to reduce the quarantine period for travellers into the UK, from non-travel corridor countries, under a new ‘test and release’ regime. From 15 December 2020, it proposes to allow the quarantine period to be reduced from 14 days to c.5 days provided a COVID-19 test is privately paid for and taken on day 5 and it returns a negative result. Results are normally returned in 24-48 hours.

This is likely to provide a huge boost to the aviation sector and also better facilitate business travel. It will also potentially assist employees to take holidays abroad. Employers should consider whether this impacts on their business travel and holiday policies and how to approach this in practice.

Christmas bubbles

The government has also announced an easing of the tier restrictions over the festive period, from 23 December to 27 December 2020 inclusive. During this time, households will be able to join up with up to 2 other households, with no restrictions on travel for this purpose. Many employees are likely to seek to avail themselves of this opportunity and employers may need to consider their approach to competing holiday requests over this period.

Useful links

Prime Minister’s statement on coronavirus: 23 November 2020

COVID-19 Winter Plan

Full list of local restriction tiers by area

Local restriction tiers: What you need to know

Tiers: Postcode checker

Making a Christmas bubble with friends and family

Working safely during coronavirus