London was originally placed into Tier 2, allowing for pubs and restauararnats to reopen. But on December 14, in light of a surge in Covid-19 cases and the discovery of a new strain of the virus, the capital and swathes of Essex and Hertfordshire were plunged into Tier 3 measures.
On December 17 Matt Hancock announced that Surrey, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Berkshire would join London under the tougher restrictions.
The new measures will come into force on Saturday.
So as millions of people adapt to life under the top level of restrictions, how do the three tiers differ and where do they apply? Here’s a rundown of the rules.
How many people now face the toughest restrictions?
London was originally placed in Tier 2, but on December 14, Mr Hancock announced the capital, along with parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, would move into Tier 3 from December 16.
This means that on Wednesday, nearly 11 million people joined the top tier.
All of Surrey, except Waverley, the whole of Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Berkshire and part of Hampshire - Portsmouth, Gosport and Havant - will be put under the toughest coronavirus restrictions.
Bristol and North Somerset will move from Tier 3 to Tier 2.
Herefordshire will move from Tier 2 to the very lowest restrictions, in Tier 1.
Only the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly – accounting for little more than one per cent of England’s population – were initially placed into the lightest Tier 1 coronavirus restrictions.
What do the new coronavirus tiers mean?
Boris Johnson announced that non-essential shops, gyms, leisure centres, swimming pools, sports pitches, hairdressers, beauty salons, synagogues, churches and mosques would be allowed to reopen under all tiers.
However, there are different rules for the hospitality industry, indoor entertainment industry, socialising and travel under each tier.
What are you allowed to do in each tier?
Hospitality and indoor entertainment
In Tier 1, bars, pubs and restaurants can operate table service only, and must stop taking orders at 10pm, before closing at 11pm.
Indoor entertainment venues – such as cinemas, theatres, bowling alleys and casinos – are allowed to stay open but live indoor performances will be limited to 50 per capacity or 1,000, whichever is smaller.
In Tier 2, alcohol may only be served in hospitality settings as part of a substantial meal, before last order at 10pm and venues being forced close at 11pm. Indoor entertainment venues can open with and social distancing and limits of 50 per cent capacity or 1,000 people.
In Tier 3, hospitality venues must close apart from delivery and takeaway. Indoor entertainment venues – such as cinemas, theatres, bowling alleys and casinos – will remain closed.
Under Tier 1, spectator sports can resume with a maximum crowd of 50 per cent of stadium capacity or 4,000 spectators, whichever is smaller.
Under Tier 2, they can resume with 50 per cent of capacity or 2,000 spectators, whichever is smaller.
Under Tier 3, they cannot resume.
Socialising, travel and overnight stays
Only those in Tier 1 areas are able to meet up with people they don't live with indoors. They can also meet with people outdoors, subject to the rule of six.
In Tier 1, the stay home message is also being lifted although people are still be encouraged to minimise their movements and to work from home where possible.
Overnight stays are permitted if they are limited to a support bubble, household or up to six people.
People in Tier 2 can't socialise with other households indoors but can meet people outside under the rule of six.
Overnight stays are only permitted for those in the same household or support bubble and accommodation can open.
People are encouraged to reduce the number of journeys they make and to avoid travelling into Tier 3 areas, except for reasons of education or work.
Those in Tier 3 can't mix with other households indoors, or in private and pub gardens. They can meet under the rule of six in outdoor public spaces, such as parks and sports courts.
People should avoid travelling out of the area other than where necessary and to reduce the number of journeys.
No overnight stays are permitted outside the local area, except for work or education, with accommodation to stay closed.
There are exceptions for childcare and support bubbles.
People are advised not to travel to and from Tier 3 areas.
Under all tiers, 15 guests are allowed at weddings and civil partnerships, increasing to 30 for funerals.
But wedding receptions are banned in Tier 3.
Places of worship
Places of worship can reopen, but people must not interact with more than six people.
Under Tier 2 and Tier 3, people must not interact with anyone outside their household or support bubble at places of worship.
What are the factors that determine the rate in each area?
Five factors are considered:
– case detection rates in all age groups;
– case detection rates in the over-60s;
– the rate at which cases are rising or falling;
– the positivity rate – the number of positive cases detected as a percentage of tests taken;
– Pressure on the NHS, including current and projected occupancy.
Why are there not rigid thresholds?
The Government has said it needs to maintain flexibility to weigh the indicators against each other – such as whether hospital capacity in neighbouring areas is lower.
Another example given in the coronavirus winter plan is that case detection rates would need to be weighed against whether the spread of the virus is localised to particular communities.
The plan states “given these sensitivities, it is not possible to set rigid thresholds for these indicators, as doing so would result in poorer quality decisions”.
When will changes be made to the tier system?
The first review of the tiers was on December 16, and further reviews are planned for every 14 days onwards. In light of the alarming rise in cases in London, Mr Hancock announced some changes two days earlier on December 14.
The Prime Minister has written to Tory MPs offering them another chance to vote on the tiered restrictions early next year.
That vote after Christmas will determine whether the tier system stays in place until the end of March.
What will happen over Christmas?
The Government and devolved administrations have agreed a joint plan to relax social distancing rules over the festive period, allowing friends and family to hug for the first time in months.
This states that families will be able to spend Christmas under the same roof and travel restrictions will be lifted across the country between December 23 and 27.
However, Downing Street is facing mounting pressure to revisit the plans amid warnings that the festive five days could “cost many lives”.
A Government source acknowledged the four UK nations may take differing approaches, but insisted there would be no change in the law for the festive freedoms in England.
Instead it was said that the leaders would continue discussions on strengthening warnings, including advising people to stay local and reconsider whether they should spend Christmas with the elderly and clinically vulnerable.