Guardian News and Media/ London
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, has accused the UK government of imposing “local lockdowns by stealth” and called for guidance limiting travel in and out of Covid hotspots to be withdrawn.
There was confusion yesterday after leaders in Bolton and Leicester encouraged residents to in effect ignore new government advice to not leave their local area, while a government minister said people should “use their common sense”.
Bolton’s Conservative council leader said residents should not cancel their half-term and bank holiday breaks.
They were free to travel “if they behave sensibly and follow the guidance”, said David Greenhalgh. Leicester’s director of public health said people should continue to follow existing national guidelines as before, insisting that the government had admitted it had made a “mistake” in suggesting there were travel restrictions.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, agreed people should not have to change their holiday plans, but demanded clarity from the government so that “everybody knows exactly where they stand”.
The government changed its official website last Friday to say that residents of eight areas where the variant first identified in India has been spreading rapidly should “avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless it is essential.”
About 1.7mn people live in the local authorities affected.
Local leaders and MPs reacted with fury, saying they were not told about the change.
An appearance in the House of Commons yesterday by the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, failed to clarify the matter.
“What we’re asking people in those affected areas is to be cautious, is to be careful – so on visiting family, meet outdoors rather than inside where possible.
“Meet two metres apart from people you don’t live with, unless you have formed a support bubble,” said Zahawi. “Yes, people can visit family in half-term, if they follow social distancing guidelines.” But then he added: “Avoid travelling in and out of the affected areas, as the prime minister said on the 14th, unless it is essential, for example for work purposes.”
Zahawi had been summoned via an urgent question from Leicester MP Ashworth, who said it was “insulting” to inhabitants of the hotspot areas, which also include Blackburn, Bedford, Kirklees, Burnley, Hounslow and North Tyneside.
Ashworth said: “Cities like mine in Leicester, or towns and boroughs like Burnley or Bolton, or Batley and Blackburn, have borne the brunt of this crisis these last 15 months. We’ve often been in lockdown longer than elsewhere. “At times we’ve felt abandoned. Can he understand how upsetting it is? Can he understand how insulting it is – to have local lockdowns imposed by the back door?”
Leicester’s director of public health, professor Ivan Browne, said he had attended a meeting with government officials yesterday who “confirmed there are no restrictions on travel in or out of each of our areas and it was a mistake to suggest there was”.
Similarly, North Tyneside’s director of public health, Wendy Burke, 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 North Tyneside.”
The leader of Hounslow council, Labour’s Steve Curran, said the travel ban was ridiculous for his particular area. “For one of London’s most connected boroughs – with Heathrow on its doorstep, the M4 and A4 running through it, the Piccadilly line, the main line from Waterloo, plus the North Circular via Kew Bridge – to try and limit travel within its borders is not only impossible, it’s a ridiculous idea,” he said.
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