Ministers have been accused of creating “confusion and uncertainty” after people were urged to avoid non-essential travel into and out of areas of England worst affected by the Indian COVID variant.
The government’s coronavirus restrictions website changed its guidance over the last few days for people living in eight areas where the new COVID-19 variant of concern is spreading.
However, a row has broken out after the new guidance appeared to have been issued without any widespread announcement.
The local authority areas the new advice applies to are: Bedford council, Blackburn with Darwen council, Bolton Metropolitan council, Burnley council, Kirklees council, Leicester council, Hounslow council and North Tyneside council.
The government website says: “In the areas listed… wherever possible, you should try to meet outside rather than inside where possible; keep 2 metres apart from people that you don’t 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.”
Amid a backlash at the way the new guidance was issued, Blackburn with Darwen council’s director of public health, Dominic Harrison, claimed local officials in those areas affected “were not consulted with, warned of, notified about, or alerted to this guidance”.
“I have asked to see the national risk assessment which supports this action – it has not been provided to us yet,” he added.
The Manchester Evening News also reported local leaders and local public health directors in Bolton were unaware of the guidance, until news of it emerged on Monday.
Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East, said: “I was not informed of this and I understand nor was anyone else in Bolton.
“I’m just gobsmacked. They’re making such an important announcement and they don’t even have the decency to tell us or tell our constituents.
“This is typical of this government’s incompetence.”
Newly-elected West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin suggested the new advice could cause “anxiety and confusion” and promised to raise the issue with vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi at a meeting on Tuesday.
The chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus urged Health Secretary Matt Hancock to make a public statement in parliament to provide “urgent clarity” on the new local restrictions.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said: “This is a major change to policy that will have a huge impact on people’s lives. Simply updating the government website without an official announcement is a recipe for confusion and uncertainty.
“It seems crucial lessons have still not been learnt about the importance of clear messaging during a pandemic.”
However, cabinet minister Therese Coffey told Sky News the government had been “working in close contact” with affected areas and she was “surprised to hear that people think this has come out of the blue – it hasn’t”.
“This is just part of a coordinated effort and the guidance is simply a formality recognising people need to be extra careful in those communities in particular where the issue has been spreading,” she added.
“I’m pleased to see more people have taken up the vaccines – it’s important people get the jabs, it’s important people take the special precautions that we want to see to reduce the transmission.
“Otherwise there could be more problems in that community. So far we haven’t seen the impact because of the efforts by the community.
“And all the guidance does is simply formalise what was already effectively happening in practice in the locality.”
Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen and Bedford currently have the three worst two-week infection rates in the country, according to analysis by Sky News. They also have the fastest growing rates.
On Monday night, none of the eight authorities appeared on their own websites to be advising residents to avoid travelling into or out of their council areas.
A spokesperson for the Department for Health and Social Care said: “Working with local authorities, we took swift and decisive action to slow the spread of the B.1.617.2 variant by introducing surge testing and bringing forward second doses of the vaccine for the most vulnerable.
“We provided additional guidance for those living in affected areas when we became aware of the risk posed by the variant, to encourage people to take an extra cautious approach when meeting others or travelling.”
Sky News understands the latest guidance was provided for Bolton on 14 May and the other seven areas have been added as more data has become available.
The easing of restrictions that occurred across England on the 17 May still applies in these areas, but the DHSC believes it is necessary to continue to exercise caution to help reduce the risk of the virus spreading.
Last week, Mr Hancock did not rule out imposing local lockdown restrictions in places worst affected by the Indian variant.
It comes as NHS Test and Trace launched surge testing in a number of postcodes across the Hart District, Rushmoor Borough and the Surrey border in Hampshire, after a small number of confirmed cases of the Indian variant of concern B.1.617.2, were found.
The UK recorded 2,439 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, with three more deaths within 28 days of a positive test.