From Monday 14 September, new laws in England will further limit our ability to mix with friends and family. Coronavirus cases are shooting up again, and the new measures hope to slow that growth. But what do the changes mean for families?
Note: the following is a distillation and discussion of the official UK Government guidance for England.
Can we still meet with friends and family?
Yes, you can meet in a group of no more than six. The usual rules about social distancing still apply. Those gathering can come from more than two households.
This puts a limit on playdates, for example. A family of four who would normally meet up with another family of four can no longer do so. The smiling family in our top image would also now be breaking the law -- two of them must go home.
The change has harshest consequences for families with three (or more) children. The whole household will no longer be able to meet with both grandparents, for example, as that would push the number up to seven. Even Health Secretary Matt Hancock, a father of three, finds himself in this boat.
How have things changed?
Six people was, in fact, the existing limit for gatherings of three or more households. People found it confusing, because you could also meet in groups of up to 30 if only two households were meeting (and only outdoors). The new rule simplifies matters, giving just one limit (six people) whether two, three or more households are involved. Police also have greater powers now to break up any gathering of seven or more people.
Do we have to be outdoors?
No. The ‘rule of six’ is the same whether you’re indoors or outdoors. Many news reports have missed an interesting detail here. You can now meet indoors with *anybody*, whereas before, indoor gatherings had to come from no more than two households. So, in this respect, the new laws are slightly more permissive. However, you’re encouraged to meet outdoors if possible, as the better ventilation means less chance of spreading coronavirus.
What about school?
The Government has announced certain exemptions to the ‘rule of six’. One of them is school, where children are free to mingle within much larger ‘bubbles’. Parents should be careful, when picking up and dropping off, not to huddle round with other parents and children in groups that would break the rule of 6. See our guide on returning to school, and the social distancing measures in place. Other exemptions include work, weddings, funerals and organised team sports (see below).
Exemptions have also been announced for childcare provision. So if your child is at a nursery, a registered playgroup, or child-minder with multiple other children, that’s fine with the law.
Can we get a larger group of kids together, if they’re in the same school bubble?
No. The rules are now clear. No more than six people of any age or status. So it would be against the law for, say, seven friends to leave school together and go sit in the park.
What if my household has more than six members?
Nothing has changed. Tough though the new laws are, no one’s going to force a large family to keep in separate rooms. The rules do mean, however, that you’ll no longer be able to meet another household all at the same time. Previously, up to 30 people from two (but not three) households could gather.
What sports and activities can we do in larger groups?
Although the Government initially announced only “organised team sports” could go ahead, the published list of permissible activities seems to be much broader. Children (and adults) can take part in “organised indoor and outdoor sports, physical activity and exercise classes” where the numbers can be greater than six (and subject to social distancing). That would seem to include dance classes and any other physical activity, so long as it is “organised” and follows Covid-safe guidelines.
Do softplay, trampoline parks and other activity centres count for the sports exemption?
It seems not. The Government has not stated it explicitly, but communications so far have specified “organised sports”. It would be difficult to describe children running around a softplay centre as “organised sport”.
The wording would also seem to rule out a jumpers-for-goalposts kick-around in the park (not formally “organised”), if more than six people would be participating. *However*, one other exemption under the Government’s new rules says that “Youth groups and activities” can still go ahead. No further guidance is given on what this means, though presumably it is restricted to organisations like Scouts, Guides etc.
Can we hold birthday parties?
Not really. The rule of six still applies. So, unless everyone at the party is drawn from one large household and support bubble (see below), then you can’t surpass six attendees (including the birthday boy/girl and any adults). We have further tips on celebrating birthdays under these conditions here.
What about support bubbles?
People in your support bubble (for example, a grandparent living on their own, or a single-parent family you’ve hooked up with) effectively count as part of your household. So a family of six could still meet with the person or people in their support bubble. It is another of the exemptions to the ‘rule of six’.
What if parents live in separate households?
The laws do allow an exemption for parents to see their children if they live in a separate house. So, for example, if a couple had five children, who all now live with one parent, the other parent can come to visit, making a total of seven.
Can we still go to restaurants?
Yes. Restaurants, pubs and other establishments remain open for groups of six or fewer. You won’t be able to dine in any greater number. You will also be asked to provide contact details for the purposes of track and trace -- often the case before, but now a legal obligation. Places of worship, gyms, hospitality venues and leisure facilities also remain open, subject to the ‘rule of six’.
What if we break the rules?
Then you’re not just being a bit naughty, you are breaking the law. If caught, you can be fined £100 on first offence, which will double with every subsequent offence up to £3,200.
Is this just in England?
Yes. At the moment, the new rules apply only to England. You may befree to mingle in larger groups in other parts of the UK. See the Government website for the latest guidance.
Any other exemptions?
The Government has set out a number of other exemptions to the ‘rule of six’, most of which are less pertinent to families. You can assemble in groups of more than six for charitable work, voluntary service, legal obligations (e.g. jury service), emergency assistance, supporting someone vulnerable, and religious ‘life-cycle’ ceremonies (but not parties).
What if I don’t like the new laws?
You can still protest. A final exemption from the rule of six is “protests and political activities organised in compliance with COVID-19 secure guidance and subject to strict risk assessments”.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.