This Commons Library briefing paper describes the law enforcing the UK's coronavirus lockdown. It discusses police enforcement of the lockdown and legal commentary of the lockdown rules.

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This is a fast-moving area and the paper should be read as correct at the time of publication (6 August 2020).

On Monday 23 March 2020 the Prime Minister addressed the nation to announce extraordinary measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Prime Minister asked the public to stay at home and said that the police would have powers to issue fines to those who left home without a reasonable excuse. The address effectively put the UK into ‘lockdown’.

The law

Originally all four nations made laws which:

  • significantly restricted people’s free movement by prohibiting leaving home without a “reasonable excuse” and banning all public gatherings (with some exemptions).
  • closed all but essential high street businesses. Businesses that could (retail and some hospitality), were permitted to operate by delivery.
  • provided the police with powers to enforce the new laws. Police officers could issue Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) to those they suspected of lockdown offences. FPNs allow the accused to pay a fine rather than face prosecution for the offence.

The full lockdown was in force across the UK for around five and half weeks. On the 13 May the Prime Minister announced changes to England’s laws which allowed people to leave their homes for outdoor recreation. The other three nations began easing their lockdown in the weeks that followed. In May and June, the lockdown laws in all four nations were frequently changed so that their restrictions were relaxed differently, both in terms of pace and substance, in each of the four nations.

On 23 June, around three months after he first announced the lockdown, the Prime Minister made a statement which would effectively end it in England. He announced that from 4 July lockdown laws in England would no longer provide legal restrictions associated with the Government’s coronavirus social distancing guidance. The other three nations made similar changes to their laws in the weeks that followed. Laws in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still provide some restrictive rules on social gatherings, but there is essentially no longer a national lockdown anywhere in the UK.

The UK’s lockdown laws are now focused on managing coronavirus transmission rather than suppressing the spread of the disease. New laws have been made in all four nations which make wearing face coverings mandatory for some people in some public spaces. The UK Government has also made laws which impose specific restrictions in areas where the virus is most prevalent, so called “local lockdowns”. Specific restrictions for individuals are now in place in Leicester and parts of Northern England. The Scottish Government has also enforced a lockdown measures on certain businesses in Aberdeen.

Summary of current coronavirus restrictions
  Gatherings Face coverings
England Gatherings involving 30 or more people are banned. People aged over 11 must wear a face covering on public transport and in shops unless they have a “reasonable excuse” not to.
Scotland Outdoor public gatherings involving people from more than five households and indoor public gatherings involving more than three households are banned. People aged over 5 must wear a face covering on public transport and in shops unless they have a “reasonable excuse” not to.
Wales People cannot gather outdoors with people from more than two extended households and indoors with people from another extended household without a “reasonable excuse”. People aged over 11 must wear a face covering on public transport unless they have a “reasonable excuse” not to.
Northern Ireland All gatherings involving more than 30 people and indoor gatherings involving more than ten people from more than four households are banned. People aged over 13 must wear a face covering on public transport unless they have a “reasonable excuse” not to.

What is not in the lockdown laws

New terms like ‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’ and ‘shielding’ have become common place during the coronavirus pandemic. These terms do not always describe restrictions and requirements in the lockdown laws. 

Social distancing

Social distancing is a general term which means staying away from others to slow the spread of coronavirus. Sometimes it is used interchangeably with “physical distancing” (which can also mean keeping a distance from others to limit the likelihood of catching the virus). The lockdown laws did cover most of what was in public health advice on social distancing. However, as the lockdown has been eased much of the new advice on social distancing has become voluntary.

The UK Government maintains detailed guidance on social distancing for England. Most of this guidance now represents advice rather than law but there is one legal requirement. It is against the law in England to participate in a gathering of 30 or more people. Social distancing guidance in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has a closer relationship to the lockdown laws in these countries. However, an increasing amount of this guidance is now also advice.

Social distancing guidance should indicate something is advice instead of law by the words used. The use of ‘should’ and ‘should notindicates something is advice whereas words like ‘must’ and ‘can’t’ are typically used when describing law. However, this is not always the case and discerning law from public health advice in social distancing guidance can be difficult.

Self-isolation/ quarantining

People with coronavirus symptoms and those entering the UK from certain countries are being asked to ‘self-isolate’. The term “quarantining” is often used when describing the self-isolation of those entering the UK from certain countries. Those self-isolating should stay in one place (usually at home) without contacting or seeing anyone who does not live with them. There are some laws associated with self-isolating, but they are not in the lockdown regulations.

Powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020 allow the police and immigration officials to take those they think are “potentially infectious” with coronavirus to a testing facility. Public health officials can direct individuals who have tested positive for coronavirus to self-isolate under the 2020 Act (see section 4.3 of this briefing for details). However, most people with coronavirus symptoms self-isolate voluntarily without (or before) being directed to by a public health official. The UK Government has issued guidance on self-isolation to help those with symptoms understand what they should do. People with symptoms can request a coronavirus test on the NHS website.

Those entering the UK from certain countries are required to self-isolate for 14 days when they arrive. The rules are different depending on which of the UK’s four nations you are entering. UK Government guidance on entering the UK provides an overview and links to specific information for each country.

Shielding

People who are extremely clinically vulnerable to coronavirus were advised to ‘shield’ during the peak of the UK’s coronavirus outbreak. Shielding meant they should stay at home as much as possible. People who are clinically vulnerable were also advised to take extra precautions. The Government is no longer advising these people to shield unless they live in an area with specific local lockdown restrictions.

The lockdown laws apply/ applied to everyone. They do not/ did not place extra requirements on people who are extremely vulnerable to coronavirus (or those who live with them).

Easing the lockdown

Under the regulations as made, the relevant government had to review the lockdown restrictions every 21 days. This is still the case In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the UK Government must now review the new English regulations every 28 days.

During the early months of lockdown, the formal legislative review points were used to announce major changes to the lockdown laws as the restrictions they provided were slowing relaxed. Around the fourth formal review they lost their political significance. The UK governments continue to make frequent a changed to their laws with major announcements now occurring ad hoc.

Summary of the first four lockdown reviews

1st review

(mid-April)

The laws in all four nations were not changed. The UK remained in “full lockdown”.

2nd review

(early May)

The law in England and Northern Ireland was relaxed so that people could spend time outdoors for recreation. The Scottish and Welsh governments allowed unlimited outdoor exercise.

3rd review

(early June)

The law in England was relaxed so people could leave home for any reason. Indoor social gatherings were still banned but people were permitted to gather socially in small groups outside. “Support bubbles” were introduced in England mid-June. Similar changes were made in Wales but “support bubbles” weren’t introduced. The laws in Scotland were amended to allow outdoor recreation. The law in Northern Ireland was little changed.   

4th review

(late June)

The lockdown in England was effectively ended. Coronavirus restrictions still make large gatherings illegal but almost all the legal requirements associated with social distancing guidance were revoked. Laws were amended in Wales and Northern Ireland to allow people to meet inside each other’s homes in small groups. Scotland relaxed their law to permit small outdoor gatherings and introduced “support bubbles”.

Policing the lockdown

The police have adopted a co-operative approach to policing coronavirus restrictions. They have sought compliance before resorting to enforcement measures. Around 15,600 FPNs were issued in England and Wales whilst the full lockdown was in force (27 March to 12 May). This amounted to around 27 fines for every 100,000 people living in England and Wales.

The police dramatically reduced the number of FPNs they issued when the lockdown laws were relaxed. There was a 59% reduction in the number of fines issued in England between the last week full lockdown restrictions were and the first week outdoor recreation was permitted. The latest full week of data available (for the period between 10 July and 16 July) was the first in which no FPNs were issued in England under the national lockdown regulations at all.

Criticism of Government messaging

Some have criticised the way the lockdown rules are being communicated to the public. They say poor communication has created confusion about what is legal and how people should help slow the spread of coronavirus. There has been particular criticism of:

  • differences between information in Government guidance on social distancing and the legal restrictions imposed by the lockdown laws,
  • Government messaging as lockdown restrictions were relaxed; and,
  • dealys between Government announcement of major legal changes and new/ amended law coming into force.

Further resources

Digital versions of the lockdown laws are accessible online.

National laws

Local lockdown laws

The Library has published other briefings about other aspects of the lockdown laws:

The Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology has published information about the scientific evidence which supports coronavirus restrictions:

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