What would change under Tier 5 Covid restrictions?

Stricter coronavirus rules looking inevitable as virus continues to spread across UK

A police officer wearing a mask
(Image credit: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty)

With offices, secondary schools, pubs and shops already closed across most of England, the government may appear to have little room left for manoeuvre in the struggle to control the new strain of Covid-19.

Yet the scientific - and political - consensus is tilting towards even stricter rules.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said yesterday that the coronavirus was “clearly out of control” and called for an immediate national lockdown. Hours earlier, Boris Johnson had told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that the tier system of local restrictions was “probably about to get tougher to keep things under control”.

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Curbing Covid: the options

Shutting schools and universities

“Scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have warned of ‘large resurgences’ of coronavirus unless schools and universities are closed,” Sky News reports.

Most primary schools were instructed to reopen this morning following the Christmas holidays - except in Covid hotspots around London. But “some local authorities have argued against reopening and some individual primary schools have remained closed for most pupils”, says the BBC.

Johnson has “insisted that schools are safe and said councils should abide by advice to reopen in most places”, The Telegraph reports. However, the prime minister also told Marr that schools could be closed as a last resort.

Although secondary schools are due to reopen next week, The Times says it now seems “inevitable” that many will not. “The question for ministers is whether to make school closures a de facto part of Tier 4 restrictions or whether to effectively introduce a new Tier 5 for the worst-affected areas such as London.”

Extending Tier 4

About 40 million people are living under England’s Tier 4 rules, introduced just over two weeks ago after the discovery of the new coronavirus variant. And many of the country’s remaining 15 million may soon join them.

Although gyms, restaurants and hairdressers are still open in Tier 3 cities including Liverpool, Bristol and York, “this looks set to change as the virus spreads”, says The Times.

A fifth tier

Johnson “has refused to be drawn on whether a so-called ‘Tier 5’ will be introduced”, Sky News reports, but the PM is “facing pressure to limit social contact further” in areas where hospitals are struggling to cope with Covid admissions.

“Many businesses currently deemed ‘essential’ under government guidelines may have to close if a fifth tier is introduced,” adds the broadcaster, which suggests that garden centres and off-licences would be among the retailers affected.

Communal worship could also be banned, as was the case during the first lockdown, last spring.

Another full national lockdown

Government sources say that “England could be back in lockdown by the middle of the month, prompting fears that the country will be kept in a straitjacket until at least Easter”, The Telegraph reports.

Although Johnson seems to be “committed to the existing tier structures”, The Times estimates there is a three in five chance that he will “attempt a repeat of November’s nationwide lockdown, scrap the tier system and put the whole country into the tightest form of restrictions”.

Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to impose a national lockdown in Scotland may have increased that probability.

Some England-wide restrictions are already under discussion in Whitehall, according to The Telegraph. The paper predicts “the return of national shielding measures”, meaning that people over 70, as well as those who are clinically vulnerable to Covid, would be advised not to leave their homes at all.

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Holden Frith is The Week’s digital director. He also makes regular appearances on “The Week Unwrapped”, speaking about subjects as diverse as vaccine development and bionic bomb-sniffing locusts. He joined The Week in 2013, spending five years editing the magazine’s website. Before that, he was deputy digital editor at The Sunday Times. He has also been TheTimes.co.uk’s technology editor and the launch editor of Wired magazine’s UK website. Holden has worked in journalism for nearly two decades, having started his professional career while completing an English literature degree at Cambridge University. He followed that with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Chicago. A keen photographer, he also writes travel features whenever he gets the chance.