It was announced on Thursday that Oxfordshire will be placed into Tier 2 after the end of lockdown on 2 December 2020. 

Under this tier, household mixing indoors is not allowed. The ‘rule of six’ applies for outdoor meetings. Pubs and bars must not serve drinks unless accompanying ‘substantial meals’, and venues must stop taking orders by 10pm and close at 11pm.

In all tiers, many more businesses and venues will be allowed to remain open than under the most recent lockdown. This includes:

  • essential and non-essential retail services
  • gyms, swimming pools and sports courts (although indoor group activities and classes should not take place in Tier 3)
  • personal care and close contact services like hairdressers, barbers, tattoo parlours
  • public buildings such as libraries, community centres and halls
  • places of worship – subject to relevant social contact rules in each tier.

This tiered system is uniform and applies nationally, without any negotiations with regional governments. This means that additional measures cannot be imposed upon particular regions, which occurred in the first tiered system. The allocation of tiers will be dependent on a range of factors, including pressure on the local NHS services, each area’s case numbers (and, in particular, the number of people over sixty who are testing positive), and the reproduction rate. Tier allocations will be reviewed on a fortnightly basis and this regional approach is expected to last until March.

Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, said: “It’s the right move for Oxfordshire to go into Tier 2 after lockdown. The county’s numbers are looking good compared to surrounding areas thanks to superb teamworking of our local experts and leaders, under a county-wide systems approach.

“But we need to keep this trend going downwards, which is why it’s vital that we all follow the Tier 2 restrictions, so we don’t see a new uptick in cases in December and January.
“We must be careful for Christmas. And there are still serious questions to ask over the tiers system, which for many areas didn’t work last time. So today I called on Matt Hancock to listen to our local systems and give them the chance to lead, so we can be more flexible than before and take precautionary action where needed.”

Councillor Susan Brown, Leader of Oxford City Council, told the Oxford Mail: “I want to thank everyone in Oxford for sticking to the lockdown rules and helping bring the infection rate down in the city. This has been a whole community effort and the way you all have responded – businesses, residents and students – means Oxford’s case numbers started to come down last week. This is great news, but we are not out of the woods yet and we will all need to continue to take precautions to make sure the decrease in cases in the city continues.

“We are exiting into Tier 2, which means we can enjoy a bit more normality and social life, and it will give a welcome boost to our local businesses. Please do enjoy the run up to Christmas by using local shops and hospitality safely, but remember, the rule of six only applies outside and indoors you must stay in your household or bubble. Continue to take sensible precautions and don’t break the rules.  What we each do now will make a real difference to keeping safe over the Christmas break.”

Ansaf Azhar, the county council’s Director for Public Health, said: “I’d like to thank everyone who has adhered to the national restrictions during November. As the recent fall in COVID cases shows, by people playing their part and sticking to the rules, we can stem the spread of the virus in Oxfordshire.

“However, I must caution that this is just one week’s data and the situation could easily reverse. We can’t afford to be complacent. National lockdown may be lifting next Wednesday, but we are still in the middle of a pandemic. It’s critically important that we stick to the new local restrictions.

“With the festive season approaching, many of us will want to go out to see our friends or to hit the shops. If we do, it’s really important that we follow the guidance about keeping your distance, wearing a face covering and washing your hands regularly – it all still applies.”

Initially addressing tweaks to the tiered systems, Boris Johnson claimed that the tiers have been made “tougher”. However, he did also offer hope in his address to the House of Commons: “For the first time since this wretched virus took hold we can see a route out of the pandemic. The breakthroughs in treatment, testing, and vaccines mean the scientific cavalry is in sight and we know in our hearts, next year we will have success.

“By the spring these advances should reduce the need for the restrictions we have seen in 2020, and make the concept of a COVID lockdown redundant.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer described the government’s return to the regional system as “risky… because the previous three-tier system didn’t work”.

He added that decisions on which areas will belong to each tier must be taken without delay – “I just can’t emphasise how important it is that these decisions are taken very quickly and very clearly so everybody can plan.

“That is obviously particularly important for the millions who were in restrictions before the national lockdown, because the message to them today seems to be ‘you will almost certainly be back where you were before the national lockdown – probably in even stricter restrictions’.”

However, many were initially concerned that no areas would be placed under Tier 1. Speaking about the new measures on BBC Radio 4 prior to the latest announcement, Grant Shapps said half the country could be placed under the strictest level of restrictions. He said: “I think it is the case that we do need to be a bit tighter on the tiers – Tier 3 in more places is a strong possibility – but there’s still a difference between that and what we’re doing now. For example, in terms of the number of people that can meet outside in a public place, and a number of other things. We’ve been living through this nightmare for a long time now, we all know the only way to defeat this virus is, I’m afraid, to keep people apart and separate from the most natural thing, which is human contact. You can only breach that in a certain number of places and I think we’ve made our decisions as a country that that has to be for things like education and work whilst we get through this winter.” Ultimately, only three areas have been placed into Tier 1 and The Telegraph has estimated that 98% of the country is under Tier 2 or 3.

Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said strengthening the tiers was a sensible approach, especially as it would reduce pressure on local healthcare services: “That is one of the key points of it, to make sure the healthcare is accessible both in terms of infection control and beds for Covid patients, and to ensure healthcare services are free for non-Covid patients as well, so that we don’t see cancer wards and stroke services and mental health services closed because staff are off sick or isolating because of Covid,” he said.

The British Medical Association has supported the idea of a tiered restriction, with tightened restrictions for more impacted areas. Their report regarding coming out of lockdown safely states: “Upon exiting lockdown, should there be local outbreaks or surges of infection, there should be a revised tiered system of local lockdowns, with clear “triggers” for when areas move up or down a tier; greater clarity and guidance to the public and clinically extremely vulnerable groups what the different tiers mean for them; and, crucially, stricter rules within the system, including greater restrictions on social mixing and travel between tiers. However, the report also stresses the need for a range of other improvements, including practical and financial support for vulnerable individuals, improvements to the NHS Covid-19 app and properly functioning testing and contact-tracing systems.

Under the previous tiered system, Oxford city moved into Tier 2 on Saturday 31 October, introducing the following measures:

  • People cannot meet “socially” with anybody outside their household or support bubble indoors, including at home or in public places such as restaurants and bars. 
  • People should try to reduce the number of journeys they are making, and if they need to travel should avoid public transport where possible. 

This news follows the announcement that a relaxation of coronavirus restrictions will take place from the 23rd to the 27th December for the Christmas period. Households will be allowed to travel to form a Christmas ‘bubble’ of up to three households. However, bubbles should not be changed throughout the period and should be exclusive in order to minimise potential infection. Other measures are also included in an attempt to limit risk – for example, between 23 and 27 December, people will not be allowed to meet friends and family in private homes unless they are part of the same Christmas ‘bubble’. The government guidelines stated that a “fixed bubble is a sensible and proportionate way to balance the desire to spend time with others over the Christmas period, while limiting the risk of spreading infection… You should consider ways to celebrate Christmas in other ways, such as the use of technology and meeting outdoors, without bringing households together or travelling between different parts of the country”.

The Prime Minister said: “I can’t say that Christmas will be normal this year, but in a period of adversity time spent with loved ones is even more precious for people of all faiths and none… We all want some kind of Christmas; we need it; we certainly feel we deserve it… but this virus obviously is not going to grant a Christmas truce… and families will need to make a careful judgement about the risks of visiting elderly relatives.” He continued “’Tis the season to be jolly but ‘tis also the season to be jolly careful”, adding that the virus “doesn’t know it’s Christmas”.

Professor Brendan Wren at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine urged caution, arguing that: “The best Christmas present ever is the promise of a new effective Covid-19 vaccine for everyone. It would be foolish to spoil this by relaxing measures too far and causing unnecessary deaths”. A poll for the Observer found that most of the public would rather have a locked-down Christmas than one with more relaxed measures which triggered a new lockdown in January. This was voted for by a margin of 54% to 33%, with older voters in particular preferring to avoid a January lockdown, even if the cost was Christmas.