Lockdown tier system: Can you travel under the new coronavirus restrictions?

The courts have yet to rule on whether lockdown rules preventing travel should legally trigger a full refund

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 27 October 2020 11:30
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New Covid-19 alert levels announced by Boris Johnson

The three-tier system for additional restrictions in England to try to limit the spread of coronavirus is now in full effect.

In addition, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have stepped up their controls.

The consequences for travellers are not as clear as they might be, but these questions and answers are intended to reflect the differences across the UK.

What are the “three tiers” and what do they mean for travellers in the affected areas?

The government says it aims to “simplify and standardise local rules by introducing a three tiered system of local Covid Alert Levels in England”.

The levels are set at medium, high, and very high – also known as Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3.

The “medium” alert level – which covers most of the country – simply continues the national measures that came into force on 25 September, such as “the Rule of Six” and the closure of pubs at 10pm. This covers areas of England with low infection rates.

The “high” alert level is mainly about reducing household-to-household transmission “by preventing all mixing between households or support bubbles indoors”.

Outdoors, including private gardens, the Rule of Six applies. The category includes many areas in northwest and northeast England, parts of the Midlands, plus London and most of Essex.

The government says: “People should aim to reduce the number of journeys they make where possible. If they need to travel, they should walk or cycle where possible, or to plan ahead and avoid busy times and routes on public transport.”

The “very high” alert level means there is no social mixing indoors and in private gardens, but the Rule of Six applies in open public spaces like parks and beaches. 

It currently applies to  Lancashire, Liverpool City Region, Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire. Warrington in Cheshire is due to move to this tier on 27 October, and Nottingham may also be deemed very high risk.

Pubs and bars can remain open only if they operate as if they were a restaurant, and alcohol can be served only as part of a “substantial” meal.

Crucially for travellers, the government says people will be advised not to travel in and out of very high risk areas – other than for work, education, accessing youth services or to meet caring responsibilities.

People who are outside these areas should not enter except for the purposes above – or if they are in transit. Typically that would mean travelling through on a train, or arriving or departing from an airport in the “very high” risk areas. So a road or rail journey such as London-Leeds that passes through South Yorkshire, or using an airport such as Manchester, Liverpool or Doncaster-Sheffield, would be acceptable.

Can I travel from a higher tier to a lower tier and vice versa?

While there is no legal restriction on travel between different tiers, the government is urging people not to move to or from the two higher tiers.

Anyone in a “high” area is “advised not to travel in and out of these areas” – whether to a “medium” or a “very high" area.

For “very high” areas the government says: “People should try to avoid travelling outside the ‘very high’ area they are in, or entering a ‘Very High’ area.”

People living in Tier 2 (high) or Tier 3 (very high) areas in England cannot travel to Wales. 

What about staying in hotels or other paid accommodation?

“People should avoid staying overnight in another part of the UK if they are resident in a ‘very high’ area, or avoid staying overnight in a ‘very high’ area if they are resident elsewhere,” says the government.

If you in are either category – not able to leave an area, or not able to enter it – and booked in a property, you should contact the proprietor as soon as possible to discuss options. 

The ideal solution will be for both parties to agree to a postponement until happier times.

I have an Advance train reservation to or through a very high risk area. Can I get my money back?

Train operators are not generally offering refunds, but will allow you to reschedule. Some are charging a £10 amendment fee, others allowing free changes.

If you are booked to travel through a very high-risk area, you may continue to do so in accordance with government advice.

Be aware of all  the rules for public transport, and any additional stipulations by individual operators, eg mandatory seat reservations and no consumption of alcohol as LNER requires on the East Coast main line.

I live in a very high risk area and have a flight/holiday booked. Can I get a refund? 

You should not travel, although from England there is no law standing in the way. Some people will doubtless seize upon the fact that this is only advice – and point out it is potentially contradictory because of a passage in the official guidance for Tier 3 areas that recommends studying prevailing restrictions abroad “when considering travelling internationally”.

In these difficult times,  it is usually best to err on the side of caution. The only holiday people in Tier 3 areas should take is to “hotels and other guest accommodation within that area” – and even then, only with people in your household or support bubble.

Those with bookings elsewhere should contact the operator to discuss options. Some will allow postponements without problem, but others will argue: “The seat is there, and it’s not our fault you can’t use it.”

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) says: “A consumer will generally be entitled to a refund when they have paid money in advance for services or goods that cannot be provided because of the coronavirus pandemic.”

There has yet to be a test case to see if lockdown rules preventing travel should always trigger a full refund.

What are the rules to and from other nations of the UK?

People living in very high risk areas in England should not travel anywhere else, but that does not have the force of English law behind it.

As a result the Welsh government is banning travellers from high and very high risk areas in England, the central belt of Scotland (including Edinburgh and Glasgow) and anywhere in Northern Ireland from visiting Wales.

Within Wales, anyone in a lockdown area is not allowed to travel out for a holiday. No one from a low risk area elsewhere in the UK can enter these locations, which include large parts of North and South Wales.

That precludes travelling to Ireland via one of the Welsh ports.

What is the effect of the Scottish special measures for the central belt?

The government in Edinburgh has imposed restrictions on the area stretching from the Clyde to the Forth. It says: “We are not imposing mandatory travel restrictions at this stage however you should avoid public transport unless it is absolutely necessary – for example for going to school or to work, if home working is not an option."

Travellers whose journeys would take them through the central belt are told: “Please think about whether you need to travel."

People living in the area can still go on holiday, and take public transport as necessary. “You should only travel with and stay with people from your own or extended household group,” says the Scottish government. 

It adds: “Check local guidance before travelling to others parts of the UK.”

What about Northern Ireland?

"No unnecessary travel should be undertaken," says the Northern Ireland Executive, during its four-week “circuit breaker”.  The entire hospitality sector has closed down, apart from deliveries and takeaways. Some hotels are remaining open for essential workers/long-stay residents, but they are not available for tourists.

This rules out tourism in Northern Ireland until Friday 13 November at the earliest. But the rules do not appear to preclude travelling out of the country on holiday.

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