The Government has moved to clarify the Covid-19 guidance for Leicester – insisting it is not trying to impose local lockdowns in the face of the spread of the Indian variant of the virus.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it would instead be issuing advice to those living in the city as well Burnley, Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Kirklees, Hounslow and North Tyneside after ministers were accused of bringing in rules on socialising and travelling “by stealth”.
It had emerged the Government had updated its Covid-19 website page on Friday to specifically advise people not to travel in and out of the eight areas unless it was essential.
Local public health teams and council leaders in Leicester said they had not been made aware of the change until they saw media reports of it.
And following a day of hastily convened meetings between council bosses and DHSC the travel advice has been revised to ‘minimise travel’.
What is the DHSC guidance now?
In Leicester, wherever possible:
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
minimise travel in and out of affected areas
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
Refer to local health advice for your area (linked above)
You should get tested for COVID-19. This includes:
You should self-isolate immediately if you have symptoms or a positive test result for COVID-19. There is financial support if you’re off work because of coronavirus.
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.
In a joint statement released earlier on Tuesday the directors of public health in the affected areas 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.
“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.”
The Government said the recommendations to the hotspot areas were first issued on May 14 – with the Prime Minister urging people to be “extra cautious” – before being “formally” published online last week.
No 10 stressed that the guidance was “not statutory” and the Government wanted to move away from “top-down edicts” as lockdown eases.
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Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said many of the areas involved had “borne the brunt of the crisis these last 15 months” and felt “abandoned” by Westminster.
“Local lockdowns by stealth, by the back door, and the Secretary of State (Matt Hancock) doesn’t even have the courtesy to come and tell us,” the Leicester South MP said.
Mr Ashworth urged second doses of vaccines to be rolled out at a faster rate to protect against the highly transmissible Indian mutation.
Downing Street and vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi, answering the Commons question on behalf of the Government, defended the handling of the battle against the B1617.2 variant, which vaccines being rolled out in the UK have been shown to help guard against.
Mr Zahawi told MPs that the onus was on personal responsibility and that Boris Johnson – who has signalled he does not want to return to locally tiered measures – still intends to take a national approach to lifting restrictions.
“As the Prime Minister said, we want the whole country to move out of these restrictions together and we’re trusting people to be responsible and to act with caution and common sense as they have done throughout this pandemic and to make decisions about how best to protect themselves and their loved ones,” Mr Zahawi said.
North Tyneside’s Labour mayor Norma Redfearn said: “After a day of confusion the Government have clarified there are no restrictions on travel in or out of North Tyneside.
“The position for North Tyneside is as we were. We are at the same stage of the road map as the rest of the country.
“We have seen throughout the pandemic that clear communications are vital and this confusion has caused stress and anxiety for many people in North Tyneside and the region.
“There was no consultation on this advice, which was wrong.
Leicester’s director of public health said it was a “mistake” to suggest different travel restrictions applied to the city.
Arguing that Leicester has “lower rates of the variant than other parts of the country”, Professor Ivan Browne said: “There are no local lockdowns and there is no justification for Leicester to be treated differently to the rest of the country.”
Since May 17, pub and restaurant-goers have been permitted to eat and drink inside and foreign holidays have been allowed.