A Cabinet minister has told people “don’t travel to and from Hounslow” and seven other areas in England – unless it is an essential journey – to stop the spread of the Indian Covid-19 variant.
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey sought to argue new advice had not “come out of the blue” despite there being no major Government announcement.
She also faced a series of questions over whether it meant people should not go indoors in pubs and restaurants in the eight areas–Hounslow, Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Burnley, Kirklees, Leicester and North Tyneside.
People are urged to “avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless it is essential, for example for work (if you cannot work from home) or education”.
It also advises people in the eight areas not to meet inside if possible, which conflicts with the most recent relaxation of lockdown rules.
Labour MP Ruth Cadbury, whose Brentford & Isleworth constituency includes parts of Hounslow borough questioned whether the Government had looked at a map.
Hahaha Keep out of @LBofHounslow area?! Does anyone in @DHSCgovuk realise the Picadilly line & A4 through the borough are main routes between Heathrow and Central London?
Was there any plan to actually discuss this with the Council (or even perhaps look at a map)? pic.twitter.com/t1AJuUcYNC
— Ruth Cadbury MP 💙 (@RuthCadbury) May 25, 2021
Ms Coffey argued that the new guidance was only formalising what was already happening at local level.
She told Sky News: “When the Prime Minister talked about the issues of the Indian variant last week he said that we need to be extra cautious in certain areas.
“We are in regular contact with the councils and communities in that area so this was just about more formalising, on the record, the guidance.”
Pressed on why there was no official Government announcement, she added: “We have been working in close contact. I’m surprised to hear that people think this has sort of come out of the blue, it hasn’t.”
It also urges people in the eight areas not to meet inside, if possible, which conflicts with the most recent relaxation of lockdown rules and raises questions over whether people should be going indoors in pubs and restaurants.
Asked about this, Ms Coffey said: “I don’t believe we have changed any specific rules when it comes to hospitality.
“It continues to be about being careful, about making sure that we still preserve in effect the two metre rule, the ventilation.
“I’m confident that our excellent hospitality industry will be taking a careful approach particularly in those communities because they want to make sure that we carry along the roadmap to recovery.”
Pressed on whether it was OK to meet up indoors in the eight areas in a restaurant, she insisted: “The guidance is clear, do you really need to go inside to meet other people. Of course, there will be situations where people do feel that is necessary.”
She also suggested the new advice was unlikely to delay the final stage of easing lockdown on June 21.
City-wide policies needed in London
For London, the guidance is all the more surprising as restrictions have so far not been imposed at borough level, with health chiefs saying a city-wide policy was needed against coronavirus given how much people travel and socialise across the capital.
Surge testing for the B1.617.2 Indian variant has already been mobilised in Hounslow, as well as a number of other boroughs in the capital, and the vaccination programme is being sped up.
Ministers announced at the weekend that extra coronavirus PCR testing was to start in the coming days in targeted settings and postcodes within Harrow, Ealing, Hillingdon and Brent.
The new Government advice, for Hounslow and the seven other areas across England states: “The new Covid-19 variant spreads more easily from person to person. To help stop the spread, you should take particular caution when meeting anyone outside your household or support bubble.”
“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.
“You should also:
Get tested twice a week for free and isolate if you are positive.
Continue to work from home if you can.
Get vaccinated when you are offered it, and encourage others to do so as well
It also advises people should get tested for Covid-19 by arranging to have a PCR test if they have symptoms of coronavirus, participate in surge testing in the local area, and get regular rapid tests if they do not have symptoms of coronavirus.
The Government was insisting the new guidance is not local lockdowns by stealth as the latest moves, which were not highlighted, were advice not legal restrictions.
However, the BBC reported that at least two of the councils were unaware of the new advice.
No information on it could easily be found on the Hounslow council website.
Dominic Harrison, Director of Public Health, Blackburn with Darwen Council, tweeted: “#Covid19â¦â¦Travel Advisory #localgovareas involved were not consulted with, warned of, notified about, or alerted to this guidance. I have asked to see the national risk assessment which supports this action – it has not been provided to us yet.”
Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East and shadow international development minister, said: “I was not informed of this and I understand nor was anyone else in Bolton.
“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.
“This is typical of this Government’s incompetence.”
Layla Moran, chairwoman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, said updating the guidance without a proper announcement “is a recipe for confusion and uncertainty”.
“Local people and public health leaders in these areas need urgent clarity from the Government. Matt Hancock must come before Parliament and make a public statement to explain these new rules,” she said.
Newly elected West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin added the change could cause “anxiety and confusion”.
Ms Brabin said she would raise the matter urgently with vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi on Tuesday.
She tweeted: “If Govt are concerned we need clear guidance and support not advice that could cause anxiety and confusion.”
A Government spokesman said: “Working with local authorities, we took swift and decisive action to slow the spread of the B1.617.2 (India) 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.”