SPICe FAQs – COVID-19 travel restrictions in Scotland and the rest of the UK– what is a reasonable excuse?

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This blog was last updated on 22 December 2020.


On Monday 2 November, the Scottish Government’s five level system came into effect across the country and each local authority area was placed in a protection level. The Scottish Government website contains a useful page of information on Coronavirus (COVID-19): local protection levels which provides details on what can and cannot be done at each level. More information on the tiered system can be found in the SPICe blog Coronavirus (COVID-19): Protection levels. You can find information on previous travel restrictions by using our Timeline of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Scotland.

On Tuesday 17 November, the First Minister announced that the travel restrictions, which were previously only in guidance would become law. A debate on Scotland’s Strategic Approach was held on 19 November. The motion that was passed (with a division: for 99, against 23, abstentions 0) is:

“That the Parliament agrees the measures set out by the Scottish Government on 17 November 2020 under its Coronavirus (COVID-19): Scotland’s Strategic Framework; notes that the regulations implementing these measures will be laid in Parliament; believes that these measures can only be fully effective if the test, trace, isolate, support system continues to improve; recognises that self-isolation poses significant challenges for many people, which the existing conditional self-isolation grant cannot fully meet, and calls on the Scottish Government to develop a comprehensive package of support for self-isolation to ensure that everyone who needs to is able to take this step to protect their community.”

The First Minister announced revised restrictions on travel during the festive period in a speech on 19 December 2020, these are outlined below.

Please note that SPICe cannot provide legal advice, and nothing in this blog should be read as doing so.

What are the new regulations?

The Scottish Government published the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions and Requirements) (Local Levels) (Scotland) Amendment (No.3) Regulations 2020 on 20 November 2020. A Business and Regulatory Impact Assessment and an Equality and Fairer Scotland Impact Assessment were also published.

These regulations came into force at 6pm on 20 November 2020.

What are the new rules?

Amongst other things, the regulations put into law a number of restrictions on the movement of people to and from level 3 and 4 local authority areas.

People who live in a level 3 or level 4 area must not leave the area, and people cannot travel to a level 3 area or 4 area, unless they have a reasonable excuse.

The regulations give a non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses for travel from a level 3 area. This includes to:

  • Obtain or provide food or medical supplies for their household (including animals) or for a vulnerable person.
  • Obtain or provide supplies for the essential upkeep, maintenance and functioning of the household or for a vulnerable person.
  • Work or provide voluntary or charitable services when it is not possible to do this from home.
  • Access, provide or receive childcare, education or training, including a support service for parents or expectant parents.
  • Access or undertake driving tuition or take a driving test.
  • Lead an act of worship or attend a usual place of worship.
  • Provide care or assistance to a vulnerable person.
  • Visit a person detained in a prison, young offenders institution, remand centre, secure accommodation or other place of detention.
  • Provide or receive emergency assistance.
  • Provide or obtain medical assistance, including:
    • audiology services
    • chiropody services
    • chiropractic services
    • dental services
    • ophthalmic services
    • osteopathic services
    • services relating to mental health.
  • Accompany a person obtaining medical assistance, or visit a person receiving treatment in a hospital or who is residing in a hospice or care home.
  • Avoid injury, illness or other risk of harm, or support someone who is doing so.
  • Move home or undertake activities in connection with the maintenance, purchase, sale, letting, or rental of residential property that the person owns or is otherwise responsible for.
  • Participate in or facilitate shared parenting arrangements.
  • Fulfil a legal obligation or participate in legal proceedings.
  • Vote, or register to vote, in an election (including to vote as proxy).
  • Donate blood.
  • Access public services including:
    • social services
    • services provided by the Department for Work and Pensions
    • services provided to victims (such as victims of crime)
    • asylum and immigration services and interviews.
  • Access services provided by voluntary or charitable services including food banks.
  • Access waste disposal or recycling facilities.
  • Obtain money from or deposit money with certain businesses.
  • Participate in or facilitate organised activity, sport or exercise for people under 18 years old.
  • Exercise outdoors as long as the exercise is not organised, starts and ends at the same place and is in the local authority area where a person lives or is within 5 miles of the local authority.
  • Allow professional sportsperson and their coach to coach, train or compete.
  • Attend a gathering which relates to a marriage ceremony or civil partnership registration.
  • Attend a gathering which relates to a funeral or to travel for compassionate reasons which relate to the end of a person’s life.
  • Feed or care for an animal including obtaining veterinary services.
  • Where the person is a member of an extended household – to visit a member of the household which forms the other part of the extended household and lives outwith the area.

The list of reasonable excuses for level 4 is the same as in level 3 but does not include traveling:

  • For driving tuition or to take a driving test.
  • To attend a usual place of worship.
  • To participle in or facilitate organised activity, sport or exercise for people under 18.
  • To attend a gathering which relates to a marriage ceremony or civil partnership registration although people can still attend a solemnisation of a marriage or registration of a civil partnership.

More information can be found in the Scottish Government publication Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance on travel and transport.

Can people travel through a level 3 or 4 area?

People who do not live in a level 3 or level 4 area can still travel through a level 3 or 4 area to reach an area outside level 3 or 4. The guidance states that:

“People who live in a Level 0 – 2 local authority area can still travel overseas including by travelling through a Level 3 or 4 area by road or public transport, or to reach an airport, railway station or ferry or coach terminal”.

How can I find out where the local authority boundaries are?

The Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland’s website has an interactive map showing local government boundaries.

What about travel to the rest of the UK? 

The regulations also place restrictions on leaving or entering Scotland to visit the rest of the UK. People must not travel to and from the common travel area namely England, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Wales unless they have a reasonable excuse. Travel to and from these areas is permitted to reach another destination.

The regulations give a list of reasonable excuses which is the same as for level 3 outlined above.

What about travel during the festive period?

On 19 December 2020, the First Minister gave a speech outlining further changes to restrictions on travel during the Christmas and New Year period. The Scottish Government has issued guidance which confirms:

Travelling in Scotland

On Christmas day you will be legally able to travel within Scotland, but should try to stay as local as possible. ​​​​​​

You can only travel only within Scotland to meet those in your Christmas bubble and you must travel and return home on 25 December.

You must not travel for a Christmas bubble gathering to or from the rest of the UK. 

From Boxing Day / December 26th as part of the Level 4 and 3 restrictions you will be legally required to remain within your local authority, except for essential purposes such as caring responsibilities.

Travel abroad

Whether over Christmas or beyond our strong advice is that people should not travel overseas for non-essential reasons, and once all of Scotland is in Level 3 and 4, non-essential travel into and out of Scotland will be prohibited 

A “Christmas bubble” can include up to three households (one of which can be an extended household), up to a maximum of eight people.  Children under 12 do not count towards this number, if they are from the three households.  While three households is the legal maximum, the Scottish Government advises that two is better​​​​​. 

The First Minister has been clear that this relaxation applies to Christmas Day only, emphasising that:

“there cannot be any further relaxation of measures for Hogmanay.”

Can students travel home for the festive period?

On 11 November, the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Richard Lochhead MSP, announced plans to support students to return home safely at the end of term. This included an early end to in-person teaching and assessment allowing for a “staggered and early departure” of students from late November and the roll-out of asymptomatic, lateral flow testing from the start of December. Tests will be offered to all students planning to return home who are not displaying symptoms of COVID-19. Students will be asked to take two tests, three days apart.

Further information about the roll out of testing was published on 25 November, and it is set to begin on 30 November. It is important to note that students with symptoms of COVID-19 must book a test through NHS Scotland. Students will be permitted to travel home at the end of term, and therefore will be exempt from travel restrictions to and from Level 3 and 4 areas for the purposes of traveling home from the end of November onwards or back to their student accommodation in January 2021.

Are these travel restrictions enforceable?

Yes. As of 6pm on Friday 20 November 2020 the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions and Requirements) (Local Levels) (Scotland) Regulations 2020 as amended gives the police the power to issued fixed penalty notices for breaches of the travel restrictions.

In relation to the enforcement of the travel restrictions Police Scotland has said:

“The Chief Constable has said publicly on numerous occasions that we will not be routinely stopping vehicles or setting up road blocks, and that will not change as a result of travel restrictions now being in law.

However, officers may in the course of their duties come across people who are travelling from one local authority area to another. In areas where travel restrictions apply, officers will continue to use the common sense, discretion and excellent judgement that they have applied since the crisis began.”

Lizzy Burgess, Senior Researcher, Health and Social Care; Lynne Currie, Senior Researcher, Further Education; Alan Rehfisch, Senior Researcher, Transport and Planning and Lindsay Richardson, Enquiries Assistant, SPICe.

Blog image: “Aberdeen Station” by Reading Tom is licensed under CC BY 2.0