People living in Indian variant hotspots should exercise their own “individual judgement” on whether they follow new guidance not to travel in and out of local areas, Downing Street has said.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesman failed to explain why town halls and local health chiefs in the eight areas affected were not warned about the advice, saying only that the government had kept in contact with local authorities throughout the pandemic.
Labour said the measures amounted to “local lockdowns by stealth” and called for them to be scrapped and replaced with enhanced testing and front-loaded vaccination for the areas most affected.
And Leicester City Council effectively told residents they could ignore the new guidance. In a statement, the authority said it amounted to no more than “advice” and no evidence had been provided on why people or businesses in the city should not continue to follow the existing rules applying to the rest of England.
In a statement, the council said that no-one from the Department of Health and Social Care or Public Health England had been in contact about the new advice, which came at a time when Leicester has lower rates of the highly-infectious variant than other parts of the country.
The government guidance says people in the eight areas – Bolton, Blackburn, Kirklees, Bedford, Burnley, Leicester, North Tyneside and the London borough of Hounslow – should not travel in or out of their area, should not meet indoors and should stay two metres apart.
It was posted online without fanfare on Friday, but only became widely known after being spotted by journalists on Monday.
Mr Johnson’s spokesperson denied it amounted to a “lockdown”, telling reporters: “It is important to emphasise that this is guidance. These are not statutory restrictions. People should try to follow it if at all possible. We recognise that in certain circumstances this will not be possible.”
Asked whether residents should refrain from travelling to work outside their home areas and going on holiday during next week’s half term, or whether politicians should avoid campaigning in the by-election for Batley and Spen – which lies within the Kirklees area – the spokesperson said: “This will be down to individual judgement.
“I think the public understand, as we set out when we first moved to step 3 (of the roadmap out of lockdown), that we are moving away from central government edicts back to a situation where the public are able to exercise their judgement.”
He said that Mr Johnson had spoken in a press conference on 14 May about the additional risks in areas with high prevelance of the variant and that councils had been provided with “marketing assets” such as posters. But he gave no explanation of why the guidance was not specifically highlighted to local health teams.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the guidance was “plonked on a website on Friday night” without proper communication.
He called on the government to “withdraw this guidance now and convene a meeting this afternoon of the relevant directors of public health to produce a plan involving isolation support and enhanced contact tracing” as well as a plan to roll out vaccination to everyone in affected areas.
Speaking in the House of Commons, he told vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi: “A year ago ministers like him were defending Dominic Cummings on Twitter. Now Mr Cummings tweets about the lack of competent people in charge, while many of our constituents looking at this latest lockdown fiasco will think that Mr Cummings has a point.”
Mr Zahawi told MPs that Mr Johnson had said two weeks ago that the government was “urging people in these areas to take extra caution when meeting anyone outside their households or support bubble”.
This included “meeting outside rather than inside where possible, keeping two metres apart from people you don’t live with and that people should try to avoid travelling in and out of the affected areas unless it is essential”, said the minister.