Coronavirus / Coronavirus Step rules - frequently asked questions

Coronavirus Step rules: Frequently asked questions

This information was correct as of 1 April 2021 but is subject to possible changes.

Unless otherwise stated, this page sets out the law and guidance which applies in England only.

The coronavirus rules have changed several times in recent months. Here is a brief timeline of the different sets of rules we have seen:

  • On 2 December 2020, the Government introduced a new system of “Tier” rules, also known as local alert levels.
  • On 20 December 2020, the Government amended the existing system of Tier rules to introduce Tier 4.
  • On 6 January 2021, the Tier 4 rules were further strengthened and extended to apply to every area in England.
  • On 8 March 2021, the Tier 4 rules were relaxed slightly but still apply to every area in England.
  • On 29 March 2021, the Tier rules were repealed and replaced with the Step rules. From 29 March 2021, the Step 1 rules apply to every area in England.

What is a ‘support bubble’?

A “support bubble” also known as a “linked household”, is where two households, which meet certain conditions, are allowed to link up. This means that your household and your linked household are treated as one household for the purposes of the rules on how many people can meet up and where at any given time.

Can I form a support bubble?

You can only form a support bubble with another household if your household consists of:

  • a single adult
  • a single adult with one or more children who are under the age of 18 or were under 18 on 20 June 2020
  • one or more people under the age of 18 living alone with no adults
  • one or more adults and a child under the age of one or who was under that age on 2 December 2020
  • one or more adults and a child with a disability that requires continuous care who is under the age of five or was under that age on 2 December 2020
  • one or more disabled people who require continuous care living
    • on their own
    • together with one person who is not disabled
    • with more than one person who is not disabled provided only one of them is an adult (who was aged 18 or over on 2 December 2020).

Households which fall into the categories above can form a support bubble with one other household made up of any number of people.

For example, a single mother and her child who live together can form a support bubble with a household where there are two parents and five children living.

All adults in both households must agree to forming the bubble and neither household should be currently linked to another household or have participated in a gathering with another household as part of a support bubble within ten clear days of becoming linked to the new household.

The Government has provided specific guidance on forming a support bubble with another household.

Can I change my support bubble?

Yes. You can change your support bubble if:

  • your household, or the household you intend to form a bubble with, meets the criteria above for forming one
  • the household you intend to form a bubble with agrees to joining a bubble with you and breaking any existing support bubble it is part of.

If you want to change your bubble, you must wait a minimum of 10 days from the last time you gathered with someone in your existing bubble until you form a new one.

If all the members of one household decide they no longer wish to be linked to the other household, then the households will stop being linked and the support bubble will be broken.

Government guidance on changing support bubbles can be found here.

What is a childcare bubble?

A “childcare bubble”, also known as a “linked childcare household”, is where one household can link up with another household for the purposes of providing informal childcare. This means that your household and your linked childcare household are treated as one household for the purposes of the rules on how many people can meet up and where at any given time.

One of the households must include one or more children under the age of 14, and the other household must agree to link up with this household in order to provide informal childcare to that child or children. “Informal” childcare means that it is unregistered.

Neither household may have participated in a gathering with another household as part of a childcare bubble within ten clear days of becoming linked to the new household.

Note that childcare bubbles are separate from support bubbles, and if you are eligible you may be able to form both a childcare bubble and a support bubble.

Government guidance on childcare bubbles can be found here.

Can I change my childcare bubble?

Yes. You can change your childcare bubble if:

  • at least one of the people in the new childcare bubble is under the age of 14
  • the household you intend to form a bubble with agrees to joining a bubble with you and breaking any existing childcare bubble it is part of.

If you want to change your childcare bubble, you must wait a minimum of 10 days from the last time you gathered with someone in your existing bubble until you form a new one.

If all the members of one household decide they no longer wish to be linked to the other household, then the households will stop being linked and the childcare bubble will be broken. Similarly, if neither household includes a child under the age of 14, because the only child turns 14 for example, then the households will stop being linked and the childcare bubble will be broken.

Government guidance on changing childcare bubbles can be found here.

What is a public outdoor place?

A public outdoor place is any outdoor place that the public can access or are allowed to access, whether by paying for entry or not. It includes public gardens, open countryside and public roads. The full definition is set out in the regulations.

Some restrictions specify actions which are, or are not, allowed in a public outdoor place. See our page on the rules on gatherings for further information.

What is a ‘qualifying group?’

Certain venues, like places of worship for example, are able to host multiple ‘qualifying groups’ as long as those groups do not mix with one another.

In Step 1, the definitions of a ‘qualifying group’ changes slightly depending on whether the gathering is indoors or outdoors.

For indoors gatherings: all the people in the group must be from either:

  • your household
  • your support bubble (if applicable)
  • your childcare bubble (where you are gathering for the purposes of informal childcare).

For outdoor gatherings: the group must:

  • consist of no more than 6 people, or
  • consist of the members of no more than two households (a support bubble or a childcare bubble are considered a single household)

What is ‘support group’?

There is an exception in the rules for ‘support groups’ which can meet indoors or outdoors providing they meet the following conditions.

The support group can be a group or may consist of one-to-one support. It must be organised by a business, a charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution, or a public body, with the purpose of providing mutual aid, therapy or any other form of support to its members or those who attend its meeting. The rules give a non-exhaustive list of examples which include providing support:

  • to victims of crime (including domestic abuse)
  • to those with, or recovering from, addictions (including alcohol, narcotics or other substance addictions) or addictive patterns of behaviour
  • to new parents
  • to those with, or caring for persons with, any long-term illness, disability or terminal condition or who are vulnerable
  • to those facing issues related to their sexuality or identity including those living as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender
  • to those who have suffered bereavement
  • to vulnerable young people.

The support group must consist of 15 people or fewer, and it must not take place in a private home. It must be reasonably necessary for members of the group to be physically present at the gathering.

Any child below the age of five does not count towards the maximum limit of 15 people.

Who is a ‘critical worker’?

Prior to 8 March, government guidance was that colleges, primary (reception onwards) and secondary schools should remain open only for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers.

From 8 March, schools and colleges are open for all children, but government guidance says that priority should continue to be given to vulnerable children and young people and children of critical workers to attend full time.

The term “critical worker” is not defined in law. The Government’s guidance provides a non-exhaustive list of factors which may lead to a worker being considered to be a “critical worker”. This includes parents whose work is critical to the coronavirus (COVID-19) and EU transition response, and those who work in certain other key sectors, including:

  • health and social care
  • education and childcare
  • key public services
  • local and national government
  • food and other necessary goods
  • public safety and national security
  • transport and border
  • utilities, communication and financial services.

Not all workers within these sectors will meet this definition – see the government guidance for full details. If you are uncertain whether you are a critical worker, you may wish to ask your employer’s advice.

Who is a ‘vulnerable person’ or ‘vulnerable child’?

In relation to adults, the Step rules state that a “vulnerable person” includes:

  • any person aged 70 or older;
  • any person aged under 70 who has an underlying health condition, including the specific conditions listed in the regulations;
  • any person who is pregnant.

From 29 March 2021, childcare provision (other than school education) for later years (children over the age of five) is only allowed in certain circumstances. One of these circumstances is for “vulnerable” children or young people. In these circumstances, the regulations define “vulnerable” as those who:

  • have been assessed by the local authority as being ‘in need’
  • are looked after by a local authority
  • are subject to enquiries or action by the local authority under reasonable suspicion that they are suffering significant harm
  • have an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan
  • have been identified as otherwise vulnerable by educational providers or local authorities (including children’s social care services).

The government has also produced guidance on this subject. If you are uncertain whether a child that you are responsible for meets the definition of “vulnerable”, you may wish to contact that child’s school for their advice.

What is an ’embarkation point’?

An embarkation point is an international terminal or any other place in England from which a person may travel to a destination outside the United Kingdom. The restrictions on leaving the United Kingdom to travel abroad also refer to these locations.

Can I leave the United Kingdom to travel abroad?

On 29 March 2021, the new Step 1 restrictions stated that no person may travel to a destination outside of the United Kingdom without a reasonable excuse. They also make it unlawful to be at an embarkation point for the purpose of travelling outside of the UK unless you have a reasonable excuse.

The listed reasonable excuses are as follows (the full list can be found here):

  • You are travelling to somewhere within the UK, Channel Islands, Isle of Man or Republic of Ireland (unless that is not your final destination)
  • You are travelling for work and it is not reasonably possible for you to work from within the UK
  • You are travelling for voluntary or charitable services and it is not reasonably possible for you to provide those services from within the UK
  • You were enrolled in a course at an education or training institution outside of the UK on 29 March 2021, and you need to leave the UK to attend this institution
  • You are enrolled in a course at an education or training institution inside of the UK and it is necessary for you to travel outside of the UK to satisfy the requirements of this course
  • You are enrolled in a course at an education or training institution inside of the UK and you need to travel outside of the United Kingdom in order to return home once after 29 March but before 29 April 2021 for your vacation from studies
  • You are an elite sportsperson and need to travel outside of the UK for training or competition (and, if the sportsperson is under 18, their parent)
  • It is reasonably necessary for you to leave the UK to fulfil a legal obligation or participate in legal proceedings
  • It is reasonably necessary for you to leave the UK for certain reasons necessary for the purchase, sale, letting or rental of a residential property
  • It is reasonably necessary for you to leave the UK for certain purposes necessary for medical reasons
  • It is reasonably necessary for you to leave the UK for certain purposes necessary for the care of a vulnerable persons, to visit a dying person or to attend a funeral
  • It is reasonably necessary for you to leave the UK to attend a wedding or civil partnership of your own, or of a close family member, and one or both of the persons getting married or becoming civil partners live outside of the UK
  • It is reasonably necessary for you to leave the UK for certain purposes necessary for contact between parents and children, child siblings or prospective adopters and children, when at least one child does not live in the UK
  • It is reasonably necessary for you to leave the UK to vote in an election or referendum held in a state outside the UK, where it is not possible to vote in the UK
  • You are only in the UK on a temporary basis, and are not resident in the UK
  • You are the child or dependent of a person who has a reasonable excuse to travel outside of the UK, and it is not possible to make alternative arrangements for your care.

The Step 1 restrictions also continue the use of the Travel Declaration Forms previously introduced under the Tier 4 restrictions. These require you to confirm your reason for travel and allow the police to assess whether this is a reasonable excuse. These forms require you to provide the following information:

  • your full name
  • your date of birth and nationality
  • your passport number, or travel document reference number (as appropriate)
  • your home address
  • your destination
  • the reason you are leaving the UK
  • a statement that you certify that the information you provide is true, and
  • the date on which the declaration is completed.

The form can be found here. You must fill out a form for yourself before you travel, and for any child or vulnerable person for whom you have responsibility.

When you are travelling to, or present at, an embarkation point, a ‘relevant person’ can direct you either to show your completed form or to complete one by a certain time if you do not have one.

A relevant person includes a police constable, a community support officer or a person designated by the Secretary of State. It is currently uncertain whether airport security are such relevant persons.

If you are intending to travel internationally and do not produce a completed declaration form and/or refuse to complete a declaration form when directed to, you can be directed to leave the embarkation point, without leaving the UK.

Breaching the travel declaration requirements by travelling to, or being present at, an embarkation point for the purposes of leaving the UK without a reasonable excuse is punishable by a Fixed Penalty Notice of £5,000. Leaving the UK without a reasonable excuse is also punishable by a Fixed Penalty Notice of £5,000.

Failing to have a completed Travel Declaration Form when at an embarkation point and intending to leave the UK is punishable by a £200 Fixed Penalty Notice. Failure to comply with a direction to produce or complete a Travel Declaration Form, or a direction to leave the embarkation point, is also punishable by a £200 Fixed Penalty Notice. Knowingly giving false information, or failing to adhere to a direction from a relevant person can also be punishable by a £200 Fixed Penalty Notice. See our post here about this and other coronavirus criminal penalties.

There is an exhaustive list of categories of people who are exempt from the requirement to produce a completed travel declaration form. This is mainly related to diplomats, officers of international organisations such as the UN and those who work in international travel. See the full list and details here.

What is a ‘relevant outdoor activity’?

“Relevant outdoor activity” means a physical activity which takes place outdoors and for which a licence, permit or certificate issued by a public body must be held by the organiser, or any person taking part in the activity.

What are my rights on this?

Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them

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