Tier 4 travel rules: Can I still go on holiday and see family at Christmas?

Millions of people mainly in London, East Anglia and south east England have been placed into a new Tier 4, with extremely strict travel regulations. In addition, the Christmas easing allowing three households to mix has been reduced to a single day: 25 December.

“This is not the moment to have unnecessary travel,” says the government’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty.

These are the key questions and answers, starting with the tier 4 rules that now apply to residents of the southeastern quadrant of England, from eastern Hampshire to Oxfordshire, across to Norfolk, south to Kent and across to Southampton and all points between.

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I have just been told I am in tier 4. What does that mean for travel?

Unless there is an essential reason for you to travel – for work, education, medical treatment, caring responsibilities and urgent compassionate reasons such as to visit someone who is terminally ill – you will be expected to stay at home. 

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Travel for leisure is not permitted within your tier, elsewhere in the UK or abroad.

People who have recovered from coronavirus or who have been vaccinated must follow the rules along with everyone else.

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Some people have suggested that the guidance is voluntary. But although the legislation is yet to be published, the view of the government is clear: “If you live in a tier 4 area, you must stay at home. You must not leave your home to travel unless for work, education or other legally permitted reasons.”

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I live in tier 4 and I have a holiday booked. What are my rights?

Hundreds of thousands of people who live in the affected areas of England have travel plans for Christmas, New Year and into 2021 have been told to stay at home.

But the pan-European travel bans mean that most departures have been cancelled for the rest of the year, with a full refund available

Read more: Can you travel in and out of Tier 4 areas?

But I booked flights separately?

If the flight is cancelled then you will be able to get a full refund. If it goes ahead then you will may able to postpone the trip or get a credit note – and, in the case of easyJet, get their money back.

The budget airline has put a remarkably generous policy in place for departures up to and including 30 December: “Impacted customers in Tier 4 areas have the option of transferring to an alternative flight free of charge, receiving a voucher or receiving a refund.”

British Airways has a “book with confidence” policy in place that allows cancellations for a voucher, not a refund.

Ryanair says it will operate only “a small number of flights” until 3 January – primarily to support passengers who need to travel for essential reasons and to bring home British travellers stranded abroad. 

Anyone booked on one of the operating flights has limited options. The airline insists that its usual terms apply, and is only offering “fee-free” postponements up to mid-March – with the caveat that any difference in fares must be paid.

But when a flight is cancelled, European air passengers’ rights rules insist that a full refund is due. On a return trip, if one leg is cancelled then the traveller is entitled to their money back for the whole journey.

Ryanair says: “All affected customers will receive an email notification and they will be offered practical alternatives including a free move or refund if they so wish.”

The presumption from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is that if a passenger is unable to travel because of government restrictions then they should be entitled to a full cash refund, but that has not been tested in law.

I am in tier 1/2/3 but have a trip booked from an airport in tier 4. Can I go there? 

The main airports in Tier 4 – Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, London City and Southampton – will remain open, and people from other tiers will be able to access them, whether flying in or out. 

The government says: “If you live outside a tier 4 area you may still transit into or through a tier 4 area to travel abroad if you need to, but you should carefully consider whether you need to do so.”

Read more: Tier 4 international travel: Can you still go abroad?

Can I pick someone up from the airport?

In this case two sets of rules appear to be in conflict with one another. The government guidelines on self-isolation for arriving travellers say: “Only use public transport if you have no other option.”

The implication: ideally, a member of the household where the traveller will be in quarantine will be able to pick them up from the airport. But this would breach the stipulation not to leave your home.

It is not clear if picking someone up counts as a “reasonable excuse”. On balance, if you can make the journey to the airport and back without stopping along the way, that may reduce the chances of contracting (or spreading) coronavirus.

I live in Tier 4 but must travel abroad to work. What proof do I need to carry?

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The test for all exemptions to the “do not travel” policy is simply this: is your journey reasonable? 

Some employers are providing letters (typically from HR directors) to travelling staff explaining reasons for them to travel.

Airlines take the view that people will be suitably qualified to travel, and any kind of official checks on outbound passengers are most unlikely.

But should you be asked, something like a company-issued travel itinerary or a letter of engagement should suffice.

Can I use public transport to make a permitted journey in tier 4?

Yes. The government says: “We encourage you to walk or cycle where possible.” But there is no general warning against using buses, trains, trams or, in London, the Tube.

Will public transport run as normal?

The presumption – based on previous practice – is that a near-normal service will operate. The government advises: “Plan ahead and avoid busy times and routes on public transport. This will allow you to practise social distancing while you travel.” But with so few passengers, keeping your distance is unlikely to be a problem.

I have a train ticket to or from a tier 4 location. Can I change or cancel it?

You can amend it but, if it is an Advance ticket, you cannot get a refund. On Friday, perhaps to prepare people for this development, the transport secretary Grant Shapps announced fees for changing Advance tickets will be waived.

Travel between Scotland and England is banned. Will trains still run?

LNER, which links Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh and many other stations with Newcastle, York and London, says: “People may still need to travel if they are key workers or essential travellers so we will still be operating services.”

Avanti West Coast, which links Glasgow and Edinburgh with northwest England, the West Midlands and London says: “We are awaiting confirmation on next steps.” Certainly no leisure travel will be allowed. 

What about domestic flights? 

Many thousands of people will have booked flights to travel to or from what are now tier 4 addresses. Those trips cannot now happen. Again, individual airlines will decide their own policies.

For guidance, it is unlikely that many domestic flights will be cancelled.

I am on holiday in a Tier 4 area. Can I continue as planned?

No. The government says: “If you are already on holiday in a Tier 4 area, you should return to your home as soon as practical.”

I have a hotel/Airbnb booking over Christmas in what is now a tier 4 area. Can I use it?

No. “People should not enter or leave tier 4 areas, and tier 4 residents must not stay overnight away from home,” says the government.

The key question is: what are your rights now that you are obliged to cancel?

As the contract has been “frustrated” in legal terms, the CMA says that you should expect a full refund. Some providers, including Airbnb, say normal terms apply – but this policy may be challenged in the courts.

How will the new measures be enforced?

It is not clear. But it is assumed that people will do the right thing.

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