“We are not imposing local restrictions,” says the government after confusion over new guidance.
Advice for eight areas worst-hit by the Indian Covid variant will be updated to make clear there are no local restrictions, the government has said.
There was confusion after No 10 published guidance for Bolton, Blackburn, Kirklees, Bedford, Burnley, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.
The guidance asked people not to meet indoors or travel unnecessarily.
No 10 said the updated advice will ask people to try to minimise, rather than avoid, travel in and out of the areas.
“We will be updating the guidance for areas where the new Covid-19 variant is spreading to make it clearer we are not imposing local restrictions,” said the government spokesperson.
“Instead, we are providing advice on the additional precautions people can take to protect themselves and others in those areas where the new variant is prevalent,” the spokesperson added.
“This includes, wherever possible, trying to meet outdoors rather than indoors, keeping two metres apart from anyone you don’t live with and minimising travel in and out the area.”
The statement followed a day of confusion which began when it was revealed advice for parts of England worst-affected by the Indian variant had been updated on 14 May and again on Friday without an announcement.
It prompted a denial from Downing Street that it was imposing local lockdowns by stealth, with the prime minister’s official spokesman said the government wanted to encourage the public “to exercise their good judgement”, rather than issuing “top-down edicts”.
In the afternoon, local councils for the eight areas – which together represent more than two million people – emerged from a meeting with government officials and insisted there were no restrictions on travel in their areas and “no local lockdowns”.
They said they are working to increase testing and vaccination and to support people self-isolating, adding “there are sensible public health precautions people can take as individuals in line with the sorts of advice we have all been following throughout the pandemic”.
Greater Manchester’s Labour mayor Andy Burnham said the confusion over the advice was a “major communications error” which had a “major effect on people’s lives” and a government minister should issue a clarification.
Norma Redfearn, Labour mayor of North Tyneside, said “after a day of confusion” it had been confirmed the area was “at the same stage of the road map as the rest of the country”.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the messaging had been “completely contradictory” at a time “when clarity is everything”.
He said: “If you’ve got a holiday booked for half term next week, does the government want you to cancel it or not? If you’ve got a wedding organised, do you have to cancel your wedding now?”
Bolton Council’s Conservative leader David Greenhalgh said there had been a “fear” the town would be singled out for a local lockdown. He said: “As long as they follow the guidance I don’t believe residents in Bolton should be cancelling holidays.”
Overall cases of Covid are at their highest rate for six months in Bolton, at 452.1 cases per 100,000 people. The Royal Bolton Hospital said it would take “urgent action” to manage an increase in Covid patients.
Can’t or shouldn’t?
This is the fundamental question behind a day of confusion over what the government is saying to people living in the eight areas of England most affected by the Indian variant.
The prime minister’s official spokesman told journalists that issuing guidance was “clearly different” to setting rules in law.
But is it that clear? Labour doesn’t think so.
It says telling people they can do something, but then also telling them they really shouldn’t, just creates confusion.
This is going to become increasingly important: ministers have said they want to move to a position of letting people make their own judgements about coronavirus rather than imposing rules.
Important too are the questions raised by this incident about how the government is communicating with other organisations.
If ministers want people to make informed choices for themselves, it will be vital that councils, public health bodies and the government are all sending out the same message.
Meanwhile, the UK reported 15 new deaths within 28 days of a positive test and 2,493 new confirmed cases. Tuesday’s figures for reported deaths are sometimes higher due to weekend reporting delays.
Several of the local authorities affected by the new advice said they were not consulted about it and only learned of its existence through media reports.
But the Downing Street source told the BBC all the areas were informed about the latest advice.
The guidance, published on a page titled “what you can and cannot do”, advises people in the eight areas of England to:
- Meet outside rather than inside where possible
- Keep two metres apart from people who you do not live with (unless you have formed a support bubble with them), this includes friends and family you don’t live with
- Avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless it is essential, for example for work (if you cannot work from home) or education
It was first published on 14 May to cover Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen and Bedford, before being updated to include the six other areas on Friday.
But Mohammad Yasin, Labour MP for Bedford and Kempston, questioned why there was no announcement, calling it “guidance, which astonishingly no-one was actually guided to”.
“Why put out advice, then tell people they don’t have to follow it? Surely these restrictions are needed or they are not?” he said.
Following a meeting with government officials, some of the local councils said they hoped the advice would be withdrawn.
Wendy Burke, director of public health for North Tyneside Council, told BBC Radio Newcastle “we think it would be helpful if it was removed”, adding that it was “very, very confusing”.
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