On 23 November the Prime Minister announced the 'COVID-19 Winter Plan' which includes an end to the nationwide lockdown and introduces a new tier-based system to take effect in England on 2 December.
This plan is set to see us through until March 2021 when it is understood that a COVID 19 vaccination will be available. But what does this new plan look like in practice?
END OF LOCKDOWN
On the 2 December the Government's 'stay at home' order will be lifted which will allow for the following to take effect regardless of the tier system:
- Domestic and international travel will be permitted subject to guidance in each tier.
- Shops, gyms, personal care and the leisure sector will reopen.
- Collective worship, weddings and outdoor sports will resume subject to social distancing.
- The rule of 6 will resume.
THE NEW TIERS
A regional tiered approach will once again be introduced, but given the need to keep the virus under control during the winter months the tiers will be tougher and more areas will be in higher tiers:
- Tier 1 – the Government will continue to encourage working from home wherever possible.
- Tier 2 – Pubs and bars will close unless substantial meals are being served (such as full breakfast, main lunchtime or an evening meal).
- Tier 3 – all hospitality (except for delivery, take-away and drive through), all hotels and other accommodation (expect for exemptions such as overnight stays for work), and all indoor entertain venues will close.
In addition to the above, the Government has also announced:
- A modification to the 10pm closing time for the hospitality industry whereby last orders will have to take place by 10pm and closing time will be extended to 11pm, including New Year's Eve.
- Spectator sports and business events taking place in tier 1 and 2 (both inside and out) will be able to resume provided there are tight capacity limits and social distancing.
Whilst these new restrictions are to be imposed until March 2021, they are subject to change and the Government will be reviewing these measure every 14 days. The first of these reviews will take place on 16 December, however the Government warns that as prevalence remains high it is likely that it will be longer than 14 days before many places move down tiers.
It was announced on 26 November nearly 99% of the population of England will fall into either tier 2 or 3 from 2 December. This is a stark difference to the previous tier system under which 42% of the population were in the lowest tier 1 areas. Many of the areas which were previously tier 1 will now be tier 3.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR BUSINESSES?
The new restrictions continue to hit the hospitality and leisure sectors the hardest with major cities including Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Bristol initially facing tier 3 restrictions. In the majority of cases whole regions around those cities will also be in tier 3. Not only does this mean that pubs, bars, restaurants and indoor entertainment venues are to remain closed (with the exception of sales by take-away, drive-through and delivery), but travel in and out of tier 3 areas is strongly discouraged. Hotels and other forms of accommodation will therefore only be open if necessary for work, education or similar and the reality is that many will not stay open. Schools and education providers can (and indeed must) stay open since the twin impact of children missing out on education and parents being unable to work with children at home was judged unacceptable.
The majority of other cities and areas across England including London and Liverpool will enter tier 2. Whilst the restrictions in tier 2 are somewhat eased, hospitality and leisure will once again bear the brunt of the new measures. All pubs and bars will have to close unless operating as restaurants and an 11pm closing time (with last orders at 10pm) will apply.
For many businesses, November was a wipe out so a return to the tier system will be a welcome relief. As indicated the retail sector, personal care outlets and gyms will be allowed to re-open across all three tiers on 2 December. This however is not to say these sectors will not still be adversely affected. The guidance to restrict unnecessary travel in and out of tier 3 areas is likely to hit city and town centres where many of these businesses operate. This will be detrimental to businesses who heavily rely upon physical footfall. Retailers who lack a significant online presence may struggle to service consumers particularly in the approach to and during the holiday period, even if there is a short "window" for Christmas itself many are considering extended opening hours.
Challenges around managing the workforce will also continue for many businesses. The Government will continue to encourage working from home wherever possible throughout England. A large number of businesses will therefore need to continue providing adequate facilities to allow their staff to work from home until March 2021, whilst others will need to determine if working from home for a further 4 months is possible. The Government's continued encouragement to work from home is likely to further exacerbate footfall issues, particularly for those based in major towns and cities whose businesses are dependent upon the office community for weekday trade. The impact of this can be seen in cities like Manchester where local business owners have partnered up with prominent figures to launch a campaign to drive footfall back to the City Centre and recharge the local economy. If proven to be a success, this may inspire local leaders in other towns and cities around the country to do the same.
The COVID-19 Winter Plan is available on the gov.uk website and will be underpinned by new powers given to local authorities. We await the draft Regulations setting those out.