This article explains what the rules of “lockdown” during COVID-19 are in Northern Ireland.

[This article is part of the COVID-19 Information Dissemination (COVID-19 ID) Project — a partnership between Community Development and Health Network (CDHN) and FactCheckNI. Its aim is to improve people’s health literacy about COVID-19 by providing accurate and up-to-date information which will increase knowledge, understanding and confidence and enable people to make good health decisions.]


Northern Ireland is currently under ‘lockdown’ since 23 March with citizens practicing social distancing to contain the spread of COVID-19. All citizens must stay at home unless they have a reasonable excuse or necessity for leaving.

  • Legislation was enacted on 28 March which governs enforcement by the PSNI.
  • Legislation was amended on Friday 24 April to include the opening of cemeteries and to allow for short distances travelled to safe places or facilities for exercise.
  • As of 25 April 2020, since lockdown began the PSNI has issued 570 cautions and 358 penalty fines (00:45).
  • The Irish Government have introduced ‘stay at home’ measures until 5 May with travel for exercise restricted to a 2km radius from the residence.

What is a “lock down”?

According to the World Health Organisation:

Physical distancing measures and movement restrictions, often referred to as ‘shut downs’ and ‘lock downs,’ can slow COVID-19 transmission by limiting contact between people.

UK-wide restrictions

The UK Government introduced ‘stay at home’ measures on 23 March, which included all parts of the UK. The primary measures required:

  • people to stay at home except for very limited purposes;
  • closing all non-essential businesses and venues; and
  • stopping gatherings of more than two people in public.

Initially in place for three weeks, the UK Government extended the ‘stay at home’ period on 16 April for a further three weeks, running until at least 7 May.

Northern Ireland and the lockdown

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 legislation was introduced by Northern Ireland Executive on 28 March. This makes the restrictions law and provides a legal framework for enforcement. It was introduced following a legislative consent motion for the Coronavirus Bill, providing consistency across all regions of the UK and in recognition of the urgent need for the provisions.

Health Minister Robin Swann stated that the legislation “is being used to provide the relevant Northern Ireland Departments with the necessary and proportionate legislative powers to allow them to act in a rapid and effective way to deal with the severe pandemic”.

The UK restrictions state that you can only leave your home for very limited circumstances which include:

  • shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible;
  • one form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle — alone or with members of your household;
  • any medical need, including to donate blood, avoid or escape risk of injury or harm, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person; and
  • travelling for work purposes, but only where you cannot work from home.

The restrictions also state that:

  • gatherings of more than two people (except of people from the same household, for work purposes or for a funeral) are banned;
  • police have the powers to disperse;
  • you may visit a park alone or with members of your household to exercise; and that
  • you are advised to stay local to exercise and not travel unnecessarily.

An exception to the once a day exercise restriction specifically allows people to leave their home for a medical need, for example those with learning disabilities or autism who require exercise 2-3 times a day in an open space.
There has been some ambiguity regarding travelling to exercise due to the advisory nature with police forces across the UK interpreting the advice differently. The College of Policing in England published guidance for police forces in England regarding appropriate enforcement, which states that travelling for exercise is “likely to be a reasonable excuse” if “far more time is spent walking than driving”.

When contacted by FactCheckNI, the PSNI stated that while they used the College of Policing guidelines as part of their decision making process, they are asking the public to adopt a ‘common sense approach’ and ask themselves before they travel is the journey both reasonable and necessary. Outlined in a social media post, the Assistant Chief Constable stated that as the vast majority of people can exercise from their home, travel to exercise may not be deemed necessary. The Assistant Chief Constable also stated: “We understand it is not possible to be definitive in each case, but officers will treat each case on its own merits and in a professional and proportionate manner.”

Comber Cemetery: Please respect social distancing. Comber, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

As of Friday 24 April, the Executive amended the regulations to allow councils to open cemeteries on a restricted basis if social distancing can be practiced, and to allow reasonable travel for exercise “to a safe space or facility. However, taking a long drive to get to a beach, or resort where numbers of people may gather is unlikely to be regarded as reasonable, even for exercise.”

As of 25 April 2020, since lockdown began the PSNI has issued 570 cautions and 358 penalty fines (00:42).

This playground will be closed until further notice. Bangor, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Local councils across Northern Ireland have used their discretion in closing parks and green spaces where social distancing could not safely be practised. Updated information is available on council websites.


The legislation enables enforcement measures by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which include the issuing of fines or ‘removing’ people to their home if they are not abiding by the restrictions. Fines are £60 for a first offence (reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days) and £120 for a repeat offence. The PSNI have stated that applying enforcement and the issuing of penalty notices (fines) are a last resort and will be issued to those who have failed to heed advice or return home following ‘encouragement’ by the PSNI.

The PSNI stated that up to 90% of the Northern Ireland population were adhering to the restrictions.

The PSNI may ask members of the public who have left their homes whether they have a reasonable excuse. A reasonable excuse includes:

  • going to a shop for food or a chemist for medication;
  • basic necessities such as taking your dog to the vet;
  • taking exercise either alone or with others who live in the same house as you;
  • getting medical assistance;
  • helping a vulnerable person that you are caring for, or to provide emergency assistance;
    donating blood;
  • attending a funeral of a close family member or someone that you live with;
  • fulfilling a legal obligation;
  • accessing critical public services; and/or
  • moving house if absolutely necessary.

The PSNI have introduced a webpage that allows members of the public to report other people who are breaking the restrictions. This was launched to protect the capacity of the non-emergency 101 number which police say has been swamped over the last few weeks.

Essential businesses

An Engagement Forum set up by Economy Minister Diane Dodds, chaired by the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) and consisting of representatives from business organisations, trade unions, local councils, government, the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland, Public Health Agency and Food Standards Agency drew up a list of priority business sectors (‘essential businesses’) and developed guidance on safe working practices during the current COVID-19 crisis. The Northern Ireland Executive agreed to publish the papers on 20 April.

Minister Dodds explained: “The list is published for advisory purposes to allow companies to make their own decisions. If a company can work within the social distancing guidelines then it should do so. The safety guidance will have practical application in the workplace.”

Restrictions in Ireland

On Friday 27 March the Irish Government announced public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. People were told to stay at home in all circumstances, except in the following situations:

  • to travel to and from work where the work is considered an essential service;
  • working in an essential shop, bank or post office;
  • to buy food, medicines and other health products for yourself, your family or someone who is vulnerable or ‘cocooning’;
  • to attend medical appointments;
  • for vital family reasons including caring for children, elderly or vulnerable people but excluding social family visits;
  • to exercise within 2 kilometres of your house (you cannot exercise with people from outside your household).

The Irish Government’s lockdown restrictions were originally put in place for two weeks but have been extended until 5 May.

The extent and application of physical distancing measures and movement restrictions vary among and between jurisdictions in the UK and Ireland, and this article may be updated to reflect future developments.

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