New government advice said people should not travel in and out of eight hotspot areas (Picture: Getty)
Health leaders have effectively told two million people in Covid hotspot areas that they can ignore government advice against non-essential travel.
There was mass confusion after the Gov.uk website quietly changed its guidance over the last few days for people living in the areas worst hit by the Indian strain.
New advice warned people against travelling in and out of Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen, Kirklees, Bedford, Burnley, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.
However, the changes were not publicised or communicated to local public health teams or councils, who said they were ‘gobsmacked’ that they had not been told.
In a joint statement on Tuesday the directors of public health in Burnley, Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside effectively said the advice could be disregarded, saying it had been confirmed there is no restriction on travel in and out of the areas.
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.’
Health chiefs say there are no restrictions on travel in or out of each of our areas: (Picture: PA)
In areas where the Indian variant is spreading, they said they are ‘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,’ they added.
Shortly afterwards, The Department of Health and Social Care said guidance for the eight Covid-19 Indian variant hotspots is to be updated to ‘make it clearer we are not imposing local restrictions’.
However, the government said it will not actually change the substance of the guidance, with people still being told to minimise travel.
A statement released on Tuesday evening 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, wherever possible, trying to meet outdoors rather than indoors, keeping 2 metres apart from anyone you don’t live with and minimising travel in and out the area.
‘These are not new regulations but they are some of the ways everyone can help bring the variant under control in their local area.’
Earlier, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told the Commons people in those areas should avoid travelling in or out of those areas unless necessary, for work or education.
This was in line with the changes on the government’s website which said: ‘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.’
Downing Street has argued that the recommendations to the hotspot areas were first issued on May 14 – when Boris Johnson urged people to be ‘extra cautious’ – before being ‘formally’ published online last week.
The new information was shared at Gov.uk on Friday, but does not appear to have been accompanied by an official announcement, meaning the change went unnoticed for days.
Tory and Labour politicians condemned the chaos caused by the update, which they first heard about from local journalists who spotted them on the government website.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said it was a ‘fairly major communications error’ which had caused ‘huge amounts of confusion’.
Dominic Harrison, the director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen council, said he was ‘astonished’ they had not been informed while Labour MP for Bolton South East, Yasmin Quereshi, said she was ‘gobsmacked’ by the oversight.
Meanwhile shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth accused the government of imposing ‘local lockdowns by stealth, by the back door’.
The eight Indian Covid variant hotspots where people were told to avoid travel
At a press conference with other local leaders this afternoon, the Tory leader of Bolton Council David Greenhalgh said ministers had now clarified that there are no extra restrictions.
He said: ‘As long as they follow the guidance I don’t believe residents in Bolton should be cancelling holidays.’
Officials in Leicester council also weighed in to urge residents to ignore the advice.
A council statement said: ‘We don’t have any evidence as to why people or businesses in Leicester should not continue to follow the existing national guidance.’
No10 tried to cool the row by stressing that the guidance was ‘not statutory’ and that the government wanted to encourage the public ‘to exercise their good judgement’, rather than issuing ‘top-down edicts’.
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