The UK government has been forced to clarify that there are no further restrictions being imposed on hotspots currently experiencing high numbers of cases of the Indian Covid variant.
Eight areas in England are currently being monitored closely as cases of the foreign variant continue to rise - including Burnley, Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.
The Department of Health and Social Care said it would update guidance on its website after mixed communications led to confusion over whether the eight areas faced further restrictions than the rest of the country.
‘Not imposing local restrictions’
The department insisted lockdown measures were not being put in place and no advice was statutory.
A Government spokesperson said: “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.
“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.”
This includes urging people to meet outdoors rather than indoors, staying two metres apart from people not in the same household, and minimising travel in and out of the area.
The spokesperson said: “These are not new regulations but they are some of the ways everyone can help bring the variant under control in their local area.”
The move comes after a day of confusion over the measures, which appeared on the Government website on Friday, but without an official announcement.
Local leaders in the eight areas said they were unaware of any change.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham labelled the failure to communicate effectively, a “fairly major communications error” which had caused “huge amounts of confusion”.
‘Public health messaging needs to be clearer’
The mixed messaging led the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus to put pressure on the Government to reinstate the daily televised press briefings on the pandemic.
Dr Dan Poulter, vice-chairman of the group, said: “Over a year into the pandemic, the Government’s public health messaging needs to be clearer.
“People are being asked to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of information. What we need is much clearer information about the Government’s plans to keep the Indian variant under control, what local measures may remain in place and for how long, and whether they will be legally binding.
“It would help if the Government committed to daily press briefings as we approach June 21, as well as ensuring any local guidance is made available on the NHS Covid app.”
Caroline Lucas, the group’s second vice-chair, added: “Instead of providing clarity, the Government today has sown the seeds of yet more confusion.
“People are now being effectively told they can travel to Lisbon but not Leicester. It’s little wonder these contradictory messages have left the public more bewildered than ever.
“This does feel like local lockdowns being sneaked through under the cover of Government guidance. Urgent clarity is needed over how long this guidance will remain in force and what financial support is being offered to affected businesses in these areas.”
On 25 May, directors of public health in the eight areas also issued a joint statement telling residents to effectively disregard the advice as it was not enforced by the government.
The statement said: “Following the national coverage of recently revised guidance 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.
“In areas where the new Covid variant is spreading we are all working together to boost testing and vaccination and to support self-isolation.
“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.
“We will keep sharing that and working with national officials to make sure people understand what they need to think about as they go about their daily lives.”
Downing Street stressed that the guidance was “not statutory” and the Government wanted to move away from “top-down edicts” as lockdown eases.
In response to the confusion, Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said Westminster had “abandoned” many of the areas involved, which had “borne the brunt of the crisis these last 15 months” of lockdown.
He blamed the Health Secretary for “local lockdowns by stealth”, adding that “the Secretary of State (Matt Hancock) doesn’t even have the courtesy to come and tell us [about changes to restrictions].”
Ashworth urged second doses of vaccines to be rolled out at a faster rate to protect against the highly transmissible Indian mutation.
Since May 17, pub and restaurant-goers have been permitted to eat and drink inside and foreign holidays have been allowed.
There was a slight rise in cases of Covid 19 across England and Wales last week, thought to have been brought about by the early May bank holiday.