Guardian News and Media/London
Boris Johnson has apologised and said he “misspoke” after wrongly suggesting the “rule of six” limiting public gatherings does not apply outdoors in northeast England, adding to confusion about the latest lockdown rules.
Answering media questions after a speech in Exeter, the prime minister had said: “Outside the areas such as the north-east where extra measures have been brought in, it’s six inside, six outside.”
He went on to say: “In the northeast and other areas where extra tight measures have been brought in you should follow the advice of local authorities; but as I understand it, it’s six in a home or six in hospitality but, as I understand it, not six outside.”
His remarks came after Skills Minister, Gillian Keegan, was unable to answer the question of whether households in northeast England would be able to meet in a restaurant garden.
An hour-and-a-half later, the prime minister tweeted, “apologies: I misspoke today,” and stressed that in northeast England, individuals from different households “cannot” meet in any indoor social setting, and should “avoid socialising with other households outside”.
The rule of six came into force across England two weeks ago, and makes gatherings of more than six people illegal, aside from a few exemptions such as large family groups.
The department of health and social care has not yet published details of the new restrictions imposed in the northeast.
Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, said: “For the prime minister to not understand his own rules is grossly incompetent. The government needs to get a grip.”
A series of new measures for England came into force on Monday, including a ban on mass singing in restaurants, £1,000 fines for falsely reporting that someone must quarantine, and a £4,000 fine for those deemed “reckless”.
Nearly 2mn people in northeast England also face fines of up to £6,400 if they mix with other households indoors in a significant extension of lockdown powers.
For the first time since the pandemic began, it will be illegal for people in parts of the UK to meet people they do not live with in restaurants.
Asked to clarify how the rules would affect millions of households in the north-east, Keegan was unable to answer.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m sorry I can’t clarify that. I don’t know the answer to that question but I’m sure they can find out the answer.”
Pressed on how people were meant to keep up to date with the latest restrictions when ministers cannot, she added: “I’m sorry I can’t answer that question. I’m sure there are many people who could. I don’t represent the northeast.”
It came as the leader of Gateshead council has said he was not warned that new restrictions were to be imposed to stem the spread of coronavirus across parts of north-east England.
Martin Gannon agreed that the measures were “unfortunately” necessary to deal with the number of cases having “skyrocketed” in the northeast, but said a “proper” test-and-trace system could have managed the pandemic.
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