Coronavirus lockdown: What can and can’t you do under new UK laws?

People can now leave home and spend time outside without needing a 'reasonable excuse' in England and Wales

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Monday 01 June 2020 16:51 BST
All you need to know about the lifting of lockdown measures

The government has eased unprecedented restrictions that were imposed on the British public in an attempt to control the spread of coronavirus.

Boris Johnson initially called for people to voluntarily use social distancing measures, before announcing a lockdown on 23 March.

The Health Protection Regulations, which give police the power to arrest and fine people for violating the lockdown, came into force three days later.

They were first updated on 22 April, when it became illegal both to leave home or remain outside “without reasonable excuse”.

Then on 13 May, substantial changes were made to allow people to spend more time outside in line with relaxed government guidance.

From 1 June, new updates mean that people can meet friends and relatives in groups.

But there are differences between the legal restrictions in force in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Leaving home

In England and Wales, people no longer need a "reasonable excuse" to leave home or be outside but the restriction remains in force in other parts of the UK.

New guidance for police officers in England states that: "A person may now leave and remain outside of the place where they live for any reason, subject to restrictions on gatherings and overnight stays."

Regulation 6, which previously restricted leaving the home, now applies to overnight stays only, reading: "No person may, without reasonable excuse, stay overnight at any place other than the place where they are living."

It contains a long list of exceptions, including for children whose parents are separated, for work, medical assistance and "elite athletes".

The updated English law makes social gatherings of more than six people outside, and of two or more people inside, illegal unless they live in the same household.

In Wales, a person can now leave and remain outside of their home for any reason but they are required to stay in their local area unless they have a reasonable excuse to travel further away.

The Welsh Health Protection Regulations say “it is not a reasonable excuse for a person to leave the area local to the place where the person is living to do something, or remain away from the area to do something, if it would be reasonably practicable for them to do that thing within the area”.

It means that people entering Wales from England for recreational purposes, such as walking in national parks, are committing an offence.

In Scotland, people can still only leave home with a "reasonable excuse" but that now includes outdoor recreation.

In Northern Ireland, people can also leave home "to take part in an outdoor activity".

Restrictions on leaving home do not apply to homeless people, or those – such as domestic violence or child abuse victims – who leave home to avoid injury or “escape the risk of harm”.


Under new laws that came into force in England only on 1 June, people are allowed to meet in groups of up to six in public spaces or private gardens.

It reads: “There is a gathering when two or more people are present together in the same place in order to engage in any form of social interaction with each other, or to undertake any other activity with each other.”

While the powers are in force, “no person may participate in a gathering which takes place in a public or private place outdoors, and consists of more than six persons, or indoors, and consists of two or more persons”.

The government's guidance says people should maintain social distancing but it cannot be enforced in law.

Police guidance states that officers can break up illegal gatherings by force when they are in public, but in a “private place you can only direct a prohibited gathering to disperse, or any person in the gathering to return home”.

In Wales, people can gather outdoors with people from no more than one other household, but there is no limit on the number of people in the gathering.

In Scotland, two households are now be allowed to meet in outdoor spaces. There is no limit on numbers in the law but the Scottish government has suggested a maximum of eight people.

Northern Ireland's version of the Health Protection Regulations allow people to gather outside in groups of up to six people from different households or unlimited people from the same household.

Gatherings are also permitted if they are essential for work purposes, to provide care to a vulnerable person, emergency assistance, take part in legal proceedings, attend a funeral or where “reasonably necessary”, such as when moving house.


The British government’s initial guidance said people could leave home for “one form of exercise a day” but ministers have since encouraged people to spend more time outside.

Wales was the only country to limit the number of times people could exercise outside in law, but scrapped the restriction on 11 May.

Gradual easing of restrictions has seen some outdoor sports courts and facilities reopen.

It is not illegal to exercise outside more than once a day in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland (Getty)

Travelling for exercise

In England, there is no limit on where the exercise can take place, and the government made clear that people can drive into the countryside for walks or recreation.

The laws in force in Scotland and Northern Ireland do not specify where exercise can be done.

But the Welsh version of the law states that it must be “within an area local to the place where the person is living”.

At the start of the lockdown, Derbyshire Police drew criticism after filming walkers who had driven to a beauty spot with a drone, while North Yorkshire Police started roadblocks after the government guidance was issued.

But the law across the UK did not prohibit travelling away from your home in order to exercise, for example by driving to a location in order to go for a walk.

Guidance issued to officers by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and College of Police in March urged them to “use your judgement and common sense”.

Police disperse sunbathers in London


The law has forced the closure of pubs, restaurants, cafes, gyms, cinemas, clubs, museums, spas, betting shops and other businesses that are deemed non-essential and bring people together in a way that could spread the virus.

Food retailers, off licences, pharmacies, newsagents, homeware and hardware shops, petrol stations and vehicle repair services are allowed to remain open.

Also allowed to continue work are taxi and vehicle hire businesses, banks, post offices, funeral directors, laundrettes and dry cleaners, dentists, opticians and other health-related services.

Veterinary surgeons and pet shops have not been forced to close.

Restaurants and pubs are able to operate as takeaways as long as no one eats or drinks on the premises, and shops are allowed to run delivery services.

On 22 April, an update to the English regulations allowed livestock markets and auctions, savings clubs and currency exchange or transfer businesses to remain open.

On 13 May, garden centres and outdoor sports courts were put on the list and on 1 June vehicle showrooms, outdoor markets and sporting amenities including water sports, stables, shooting and archery venues were added.

Police and local councils can enforce closures with prohibition notices and fines.

The Welsh law additionally states that retailers should take “all reasonable measures to ensure that a distance of two metres is maintained between any person on the business premises”.

A shopper passes empty shelves at a Tesco supermarket in London


Police leaders have instructed officers to use fines and arrests as a “last resort” and first encourage members of the public to follow restrictions on movement and gatherings voluntarily.

“We should reserve enforcement only for individuals who have not responded to engage, explain, and encourage, where public health is at risk,” official guidance states.

But there are two laws enabling police to arrest people for coronavirus-related offences – the Coronavirus Act 2020 and Health Protection Regulations 2020.

The first law gives police the power to direct any “potentially infected person” to go home, to a medical facility or to a testing location.

Following several miscarriages of justice, police were told not to use the "exceptional" powers unless at the request of a health professional.

The Coronavirus Act came into force on 25 March and had been drafted at a time when the threat was perceived to mainly come from people entering the UK from abroad.

But its provisions were rapidly overtaken by events as coronavirus transmission spread within Britain, and the mandatory testing envisaged in the law has not yet taken place.

The separate Health Protection Regulations 2020 came into force in March and enforce the terms of the lockdown.

The law – which will expire in six months and must be reviewed every 28 days – allows police to use arrests and fines for people violating the restrictions.

Any adults who commit an offence under the regulations can be handed fines, which are halved if payment is made within two weeks.

The default amount was set at £60 UK-wide until England raised it to £100 on 13 May.

But if anyone has been fined for breaking the coronavirus lockdown before, the fine will be doubled to a maximum of £3,200 in England and £960 elsewhere.

People will not be convicted of an offence if they pay the money within 28 days, after which enforcement action will start.

“Individuals who do not pay a fixed penalty notice under the regulations could be taken to court, with magistrates able to impose unlimited fines,” a Home Office spokesperson said.

“If an individual continues to refuse to comply, they will be acting unlawfully, and the police may arrest them where deemed proportionate and necessary.

“However, in the first instance the police will always apply their common sense and discretion.”

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