COVID-19: Outrage at ‘local lockdowns by stealth’ in Indian variant hotspots

The vaccines minister has defended changing travel advice for areas of England worst affected by the Indian COVID variant, after Labour accused the government of imposing local lockdowns “by stealth”.

Ministers have been criticised for creating “confusion and uncertainty” after people were urged to restrict their social interactions and avoid non-essential travel into and out of eight areas where the new COVID-19 variant of concern is spreading.

The government’s coronavirus restrictions website changed its guidance over the last few days for people living in the areas, with health chiefs saying they were not consulted or told about the move.

Live COVID updates as new guidance issued for eight areas with Indian variant

Amid a row over the new guidance being issued without any widespread announcement, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth accused the government of imposing the new rules “by stealth”.

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.

Mr Ashworth had requested health secretary Matt Hancock answer his urgent question about the new rules, but instead vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi was there to respond.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Ashworth said: “Can he understand how upsetting it is, how insulting it is, to have new restrictions imposed upon us, local lockdowns by stealth, by the back door, and the secretary of state doesn’t even show up?”

Mr Zahawi refused to answer his specific questions about whether weddings and staycations can go ahead this weekend in those areas, or if students can go home or people can visit grandparents out of those areas.

The vaccines minister said people should meet other households outside, should social distance by two metres and avoid travelling in or out of those areas unless necessary – for work or education.

“People can visit family if they follow social distancing guidelines,” he added.

His advice follows that of the government website, which 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.”

Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East, said: “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.”

Royal Bolton Hospital’s emergency department had one of its busiest days on Monday, Andy Ennis, Bolton NHS Foundation Trust’s chief operating officer, said.

He said doctors are seeing “more people requiring hospital treatment from the effects of COVID-19”, with 41 inpatients remaining on Tuesday, including eight in critical care.

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”.

Kate Hollern, Labour MP for Blackburn, described the extra guidance as “lockdown-lite through the back door”.

Newly-elected West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin suggested the new advice could cause “anxiety and confusion”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on the government to “provide clarity fast” and said “local lockdowns are the wrong approach for both public health and local economies”.

“Making a major change that will impact so many people without even telling them is utterly shameful,” he posted on Twitter.

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, urged Mr Hancock to make a public statement in parliament to provide “urgent clarity” on the new local restrictions.

She 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.

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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 (DHSC) 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 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.

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