The social distancing rules and exemptions

The chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, agreed

The chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, agreed that the action was needed urgently after the number of positive cases rose steeply.

Where do these rules apply?

When the tier system continues, the rule of six will apply across England to all ages and to indoor and outdoor gatherings, depending, most crucially, on what tier your area is in. 

This will include private homes, parks, pubs, restaurants and sporting events.

In Tier 1, you cannot sit at a pub or restaurant table with more than five friends at any given time. In Tier 2 and above, it is banned to meet anybody indoors beyond your home or support bubble. 

What are the exemptions?

Support bubbles

Households or support bubbles of more than six people are exempt from the new rules. Support bubbles allow adults who live by themselves and single parents with children under 18 to join up with one other household.

Under new rules, parents with babies under the age of one can also form a “support bubble” with another household.

This means they can do things such as visit their house, stay the night and travel together in vehicles.


These will still be allowed to go ahead, with ceremonies and receptions of up to 15 people permitted. However, Mr Johnson made clear that they must be conducted in a Covid-secure way. Guests will have to stand or sit at least one metre apart, as well as take other safety precautions. 


These can continue to occur, with 30 people allowed to pay their respects. The Government previously faced criticism at the outset of the pandemic when guidance limited mourners to groups of between five and 10. 

Funeral directors accused councils of misinterpreting lockdown rules by banning family members from crematoria and graveyards and going “way beyond” their legal powers.

Matt Hancock said he regretted the move because it meant that “in the peak of the pandemic, lots of people didn’t go to the funeral even of someone they’ve been married to for 50 years”.

Schools and offices

Schools and workplaces continue to operate under existing Covid guidelines, which include year groups being kept in bubbles, classrooms reconfigured and masks worn in communal areas. 

However, the Prime Minister has encouraged people to walk at home wherever possible. 

Read more: Will schools close again?

Pubs and restaurants

In Tier 1 areas, groups will be limited to six, however, Covid-secure hospitality venues will still be able to hold larger numbers of people. They will be legally required to request test and trace information from customers and keep the details for 21 days.

All pubs, bars and restaurants must now operate a table service only, except for takeaways. Together with all hospitality venues, they must close at 11pm.

Places of worship

Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples will remain open, although congregations will be required to stay at least one metre apart. Under the existing guidance, services are expected to conclude as quickly as possible, with worshippers encouraged to leave “promptly” afterwards. 

It came after the Archbishop of Canterbury confirmed that the rule of six would not apply to churches, writing on Twitter: “Worship is the work of God – not a social gathering – and gives the strength to love and serve.”

Sporting events

All adult team sport events will now be forced to legally abide by the rule of six with only six players now allowed to play at any one time. This will include indoor five-a-side football matches and the planned return of spectators to sports venues. 

Grouse shooting 

The Government has been criticised after granting grouse shooting a special exemption from the rule of six.

Hunting with guns was included on a list of sports, pursuits and outdoor activities where groups of up to 30 people will still be allowed to gather, despite the introduction of the new restrictions.

It is understood the exemption was granted after the Cabinet Office’s special Covid-19 Operations ministerial committee organised a meeting to specifically discuss hunting and shooting.

Will there be an exception at Christmas? 

Ministers have agreed a UK-wide plan to allow up to four households to mix for five days between December 24 and 28, subject to a vote in parliament and each of the devolved administrations.

Northern Ireland is discussing a cross-border agreement with Ireland, which means the same rules are likely to apply in every part of the British Isles.

Families must decide on their extended bubbles in advance and will not be able to mix with anyone from outside that bubble during the festive break.

Other restrictions, including pub closures, are expected to be relaxed over the festive period but final details of the arrangements are expected to be announced later this week.


Medium level/ tier one 

  • People must not meet in groups larger than six, indoors or outdoors.

High level/tier two

This is for areas with a higher level of infections.  This means the following additional measures are in place:

  • People must not meet with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor setting, whether at home or in a public place
  • The “Rule of Six” will continue to apply outdoors and in private gardens.

Very high level/tier three

This is for areas with a very high level of infections. 

The Government has announced tougher measures for Tier 3, which will be uniform across any area in this tier.

These state that people must not meet with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor or outdoor setting, whether at home or in a public space. The Rule of Six applies in open public spaces like parks and beaches.

The other Tier 3 measures include:

  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of attendees (15 and 30 respectively), but wedding receptions are not allowed
  • Non-essential shops are allowed to stay open, including hairdressers and other personal care businesses
  • People should try to avoid travelling outside the ‘very high’ area they are in, or entering a ‘very high’ area, other than for things like work, education, accessing youth services, to meet caring responsibilities or if they are in transit
  • Leisure and sports facilities, such as gyms, can stay open, but group exercise classes (including fitness and dance) should not go ahead
  • Organised outdoor sport, and physical activity and exercise classes can continue, however higher-risk contact activity should not take place
  • Places of worship remain open, but you must not attend with or socialise with anyone outside of your household or support bubble while you are there, unless a legal exemption applies
  • People will not be allowed to attend spectator sports in Tier 3, as now permitted in Tiers 1 and 2
  • 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

Will I be punished for breaking the rules?

The Government hopes the new rules will be more simple for people to understand. It will also make it easier for the police to break up large gatherings.

Failure to stick to the new rules could mean a £200 fine, which will double with every subsequent offence up to £3,200.

What are the rules in other parts of the UK?

Different rules apply to social gatherings elsewhere in the UK.

Scotland has recently announced a four tier system, which has placed 11 of its central and western areas, including Glasgow into a near-full lockdown.

Northern Ireland announced a circuit breaker lockdown which is set to begin on November 27. This will see the closure of all non-essential businesses, amongst other restrictions across the entire country-wide and imposed. Northern Ireland also has a rule of six which is likely to resume after their circuit breaker lockdown. 

In Wales, their ‘fire break’ lockdown is complete, and the rule of six is still in place. 

How can we socialise safely?

A campaign was launched to encourage people to help stop the spread of coronavirus because people are more likely to socialise indoors during autumn and the winter.

The Hands Face Space campaign urges people to ensure they wash their hands, use a mask where appropriate and stay at least two metres apart – or one metre with a face covering or other precautions.

The campaign states that these are the three most effective ways the public can contain the spread of the virus.

When might we see the end of the Rule of Six? 

The current restrictions will expire at the end of March, with Mr Johnson saying he believed the vaccine would make Covid lockdowns “redundant” in the new year.

Recent news surrounding the vaccine has seen the Government’s plans to vaccinate 44 million adults before April 2021 was praised by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, who shared he was “more and more confident” that life will be closer to normality in the spring. Other ministers have labelled it as “a ray of light”, which may reintroduce us to everyday life. 

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