Stranger than fiction

Government introduces new local coronavirus restrictions - but doesn’t tell anyone

Online update to guidance for areas hit by Indian variant branded ‘farcical’ before ‘screeching U-turn’

The government appears to have U-turned on new travel guidance for people living in the eight English areas worst affected by the Indian coronavirus variant after local leaders and MPs said they had no idea about the changes.

An update to a gov.uk page detailing “Coronavirus restrictions: what you can and cannot do” was made on Friday 21 May, advising people to “avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless it is essential”. 

The guidelines also encouraged residents in high-risk areas including Blackburn, Bedford, Bolton, Leicester and the London borough of Hounslow to meet people outside rather than inside where possible and to stay two metres apart from people that they don’t live with.

However, the new guidelines “are thought to have taken everyone by surprise, including Bolton’s public health directors and councillors”, says The Bolton News. Other local councils also said they were not informed of the changes, which would affect around two million people, until last night.

Wendy Burke, director of public health at North Tyneside Council, one of the high-risk areas, issued a statement saying that the change on the government website was not “accompanied by any communication”, says The Northern Echo, while Yasmin Qureshi, MP for Bolton South East, asked: “If this guidance was so important, why did no one know about it?”

Jennifer Williams at the Manchester Evening News called the whole thing “pretty bonkers”, while Layla Moran, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, told BBC News: “The whole thing is rather farcical; you update a website and then expect people are going to be scrolling through, hoping to notice the changes.”

Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth accused the government of imposing “local lockdowns by stealth” as residents affected by the new restrictions took to social media to express their dismay at the government’s handling of the situation. 

In response to the outcry, a government spokesperson initially said: “Working with local authorities, we took swift and decisive action to slow the spread of the B1.617.2 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.”

Then, this afternoon, the Manchester Evening News was reporting that the guidance would be “scrapped and rewritten by the government in a screeching U-turn”. After a “stormy meeting” with government officials, councils were told the wording will be changed, says the newspaper, although it remained the same at 5.30pm today.

In a joint statement, the eight local councils said: “We have met with national officials and confirmed there are no restrictions on travel in or out of each of our areas: there are no local lockdowns.”

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, said it was a “fairly major communications error” that had caused “huge amounts of confusion”.

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