How long have we been on lockdown in the UK and how long will rules stay in force?

It may be some time before a complete return to normal life...
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  • Last year was certainly one to remember and it looks as though 2021 has kicked off in much the same way, as a new lockdown has just been announced. So when were the very first measures put in place? When did the most recent ones come in and for how long will they last?

    The answer to ‘how long have we been in lockdown in the UK’ is ever changing, since new tier 4 restrictions in December quickly transformed into a January lockdown for the whole of England from January 6. What we once, many months ago, thought was going to be a couple of weeks break from normal life to help the NHS get back on its feet after the virus broke out, is set to continue for some months to come.

    On the plus side, it’s a different situation from the first lockdown. The Pfizer vaccine is now being widely distributed, with over one million people having already received their first dose, and the Oxford vaccine set to help efforts in the future now it’s been rolled out as well.

    Alongside rising coronavirus cases due to two new Covid-19 variants, this means that we’ll be in the new restrictions until the vaccine has reached enough people to pull us out of lockdown measures.

    This is what we know about the new lockdown, coming into place from January 6 2021…

    How long have we been in lockdown in the UK?

    England’s upcoming lockdown comes into place this week and is the third lockdown England has been under, since the first was imposed in March 2020. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also set to take on new restrictions this week, with a general ‘stay at home’ order issued widely across the UK as a whole.

    The last lockdown of this severity, where schools and colleges will close, officially began on March 23 last year with Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing the news of a three week lockdown initially in a national television address. The first set of rules laid out by the government all those months ago included restricted reasons for leaving home and social mixing prohibited, shops, restaurants, bars and all other hospitality venues were also forced to close while ‘working from home’ became standard for the very first time. Shortly after it was announced, the first lockdown was extended for another three weeks, before restrictions were eased slightly in May. This meant that the lockdown was in place for around seven weeks.

    Strictly speaking, while the ‘stay at home’ order was lifted, England and the rest of the UK never fully left lockdown like other countries such as New Zealand has. In autumn 2020, the first three tier system was announced before being replaced with a month’s worth of lockdown in November. Coming out of this, England was once again placed in a new and revised tier system with many areas immediately going into the higher tiers, including the later-named tier 4.

    This means that the country has been operating in a form of lockdown for over 8 months now. 

    chairs turned up on table under restaurants in lockdown

    Now, with the new lockdown announced by the prime minister in a statement from Downing Street on Monday January 4, the question of how long have we been on lockdown in the UK continues to change its answer.

    When does the new lockdown start in England?

    The new lockdown starts in England this week, on January 5 at one minute past midnight. From this time, the ‘stay at home’ order is enforced which means that everyone should stay inside wherever possible and only leave their home for essential reasons.

    These essential reasons do include going to work for those who can’t work from home, mixing with your support bubble only, exercise outdoors and shopping for essential food and medicines. Schools and colleges will close, school exams in 2021 will be cancelled, but nurseries can stay open for childcare purposes.

    On New Year’s Eve, dozens of parties were disbanded by police across the country and protests outside hospitals against the lockdown rules were broken up. Fines for breaking lockdown rules were issued hundreds of times and as a result, it’s thought that now the police will be more stringent with breaking up groups of people who ignore the new order to stay at home.

    When will the UK lockdown end – how long will the UK lockdown rules stay in force?

    Family using laptop to video chat during lockdown

    Credit: Getty

    The new lockdown is supposedly coming to an end in the middle of February with schools going back after half-term, but new comments from Dominic Raab and the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi has put doubt on this plan, suggesting that we’ll be phased out of lockdown in early to middle March instead.

    Dominic Raab said in an interview on Sky News that lockdown wouldn’t ease until March and that the restrictions would need to be “phased out” in specific areas of the country. Nadhim Zahawi appeared to confirm these comments a day later when he said that measures wouldn’t be eased until “two to three weeks after the middle of February.”

    “If we take the mid-February target, two weeks after that you get your protection, pretty much, for the Pfizer/BioNTech, three weeks for the Oxford/AstraZeneca, you are protected.” He told BBC Breakfast, “One of the things we don’t know yet, and the deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam is on record as saying ‘look give me a couple of months and I’ll tell you’, is the impact of the vaccine on transmission rates ie. on infecting people.

    “So there are a number of caveats that stand in the way of us reopening the economy.

    “It will be gradually, it will be probably through the tiered system but you’re looking at that sort of period, two to three weeks after the middle of February, after we’ve protected the top four cohorts.”

    By law, MPs can extend the lockdown until March 31 and in his address to MPs, Boris Johnson said that the situation would be kept under “continuous review” every two weeks. This means that the first review will take place on January 20 and the second on February 3.

    For lockdown to be lifted, however, a variety of conditions need to be met. In a statement from Downing Street on January 4, the prime minister said, “By the middle of February, if things go well and with a fair wind in our sails, we expect to have offered the first vaccine dose to everyone in the four top priority groups identified by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

    “That means vaccinating all residents in a care home for older adults and their carers, everyone over the age of 70, all frontline health and social care workers, and everyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable.

    “If we succeed in vaccinating all those groups, we will have removed huge numbers of people from the path of the virus.

    “And of course, that will eventually enable us to lift many of the restrictions we have endured for so long.”

    He also said that this could only happen if our “understanding of the virus doesn’t change dramatically once again”, if the rollout of the vaccine programme continues to “be successful”, if “deaths start to fall as the vaccine takes effect” and he added, “if everyone plays their part by following the rules.”

    “Then I hope we can steadily move out of lockdown, reopening schools after the February half term and starting, cautiously, to move regions down the tiers.”

    two women sat on bench during lockdown

    Many had been hoping that a January lockdown wouldn’t have been needed and as the prime minister said, if we weren’t dealing with the new variant, the chances are that the measures in place would have worked. But the new variant, first discovered in the UK and another has been discovered in South Africa, is between 50 and 70% more transmissible than the original Covid-19 virus, meaning that people are more likely to catch it and pass it on.

    The UK’s chief medical officers alerted the government on Monday that the country should move into alert level 5 as the number of coronavirus patients in hospitals has dramatically increased to 27,000 people which is 40% higher than the first peak of the virus in April. The new level means that if action isn’t taken quickly, the NHS could be overwhelmed within 21 days.

    A new record was also reached just after Christmas as 80,000 people tested positive for the virus, which even after the Christmas delays on statistics, has experts extremely concerned.

    England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty predicted this earlier in 2020 as he said that social distancing measures would be in place for at least the rest of the year possibly, even into 2021. He was one of the first to say that this was because the only real way out of the pandemic was to find a vaccine or treatment, which likely wouldn’t be happening for some time. Although now in January, there has been signifiant progress on a vaccine.

    Professor Chris Witty said, “In the long run, the exit from this is going to be one of two things, ideally. A vaccine, and there are a variety of ways they can be deployed… or, and or, highly effective drugs so that people stop dying of this disease even if they catch it, or which can prevent this disease in vulnerable people.

    “Until we have those, and the probability of having those any time in the next calendar year is incredibly small, and I think we should be realistic about that.”

    “We’re going to have to rely on other social measures, which of course are very socially disruptive as everyone is finding at the moment. But until that point, that is what we will have to do.”​

    How long have other countries been under lockdown?

    While many other countries have now come out of lockdown and are enjoying a Covid-free existance, every country essentially shutdown from early in 2020. This is what happened in some of the other major countries around the world…


    Those in Wuhan, in the Hubei province of China where the virus originated, were in lockdown from January 23. They were first allowed to leave in April, following unprecedented restrictions on social mixing and travel, along with the majority of businesses across the city and province closing. 11 million people were affected by the restrictions in this region alone but the authorities credited the reduction in infection to these severe measures at the time.

    However in June, Beijing went back in lockdown after a significant rise in cases and schools were shut once again, with businesses forced to close. Since then, the country largely succeeded in reducing the number of cases across the region.

    In October, there was reportedly another outbreak and 9 million people were set to be tested for the virus from the area of Quingdao.

    So largely, China is in the same position as many countries around the world as areas experience rises and falls in cases. But they benefit from a highly-functional testing and tracing system that allows contacts of coronavirus-positive people to be tracked and told to self-isolate.

    New Zealand

    New Zealand street

    Credit: Alamy

    Famous for their fast-acting response to the virus, New Zealand went into lockdown on March 25. This was four days after the government enforced strict measures to deal with the threat of the pandemic, which included the total closure of hospitality venues and leisure facilities. Following success in reducing the infection rate of the virus, New Zealand began to lift their lockdown restrictions one month later, on April 28. This allowed some activities to be resumed, such as fishing, and schools were open for all other in Year 10 and above on a voluntary basis.

    In May, further measures were lifted in New Zealand that saw bars and restaurants re-open along with most other venues. Social distancing measures were still in place but large parts of society were able to open back up again.

    Since then, New Zealand has gone back into lockdown for a short time but Auckland, the capital of the country, recently went into the lowest level of restrictions. In total, 25 people have died on coronavirus in the country, including three since the capital city had another lockdown imposed on them in August.


    France imposed national lockdown restrictions on March 17 with some of the strictest rules in Europe. There was complete prohibited travel across the country, with all those leaving their homes having to have a document to prove their trip was essential. All hospitality and leisure businesses were closed.

    After restrictions were lifted, however, France has become one of the latest countries to resume lockdown after a significant rise in cases. President Emmanuel Macron announced the second national lockdown in late October and has said it will last until the end of November. People will only be able to leave their home for essential work or for medical reasons, as per the first lockdown.

    So it looks like France will be in lockdown in a similar way to England, with non-essential businesses like bars and restaurants closed into December. The news came after France reached their highest level of cases since April, with 33,000 new cases confirmed. This means that France has been in lockdown for over 7 months.


    With one of the harshest lockdown systems in place in the world, Spain enforced restrictions on March 14 2020. Later in the month, it was announced that all non-essential workers must stay at home for two weeks. Then by the end of the month, Madrid had already recorded the most cases and deaths in the country.

    Much like the UK, Spain has since battled with the virus and maintaining lockdown restrictions across the country. They first came out of lockdown earlier in the summer but now the capital is back under new restrictions. The partial lockdown began in late October in the city and the surrounding areas in the region, with people unable to leave except for essential reasons and the majority of the hospitality and leisure industries closed.

    While these are just some of the countries that have enforced new lockdown restrictions since they first took on measures back in the spring, they are largely representative of many countries around the world. In Europe, coronavirus cases have been surging and France isn’t the only country to resume a lockdown as England, as we know, and Germany both confirmed that they would be going back into a national lockdown.

    Other countries such as Vietnam and Australia have had similar success to New Zealand with controlling the virus, however.