Local leaders in eight Indian variant hotspots have criticised the Government’s quietly-announced changes to advice on coronavirus controls, which have been described by one MP as “lockdown-lite”.
Health chiefs said they were not consulted or informed about fresh guidance asking those in affected areas in England to restrict their social interactions and travel.
The updated advice issued on Friday – which is not law and came without an official announcement – was published on the Government website, encouraging people in areas including Bolton, Leicester, Kirklees and the London Borough of Hounslow not to meet indoors in a bid to spread the halt of the highly-transmissible mutation.
People should avoid travelling into and out of the hotspots, with Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley and North Tyneside also on the list, while residents in the eight areas – nearly two million people – should also be tested twice a week, according to the Government advice.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the failure to alert local leaders was “utterly shameful” and branded local lockdowns the “wrong approach”.
MPs also aimed their fire at ministers, with Blackburn representative Kate Hollern describing the extra guidance as “lockdown-lite” for her constituents.
Labour’s Ms Hollern tweeted: “On Friday night the Government rolled out lockdown-lite through the back door.
“The guidance is likely to have major implications on businesses, schools and the hospitality sector and I’m furious that the Government hasn’t bothered to consult the local authorities involved.
“I strongly oppose the Government’s attempt to introduce new measures by stealth and without consultation.”
Bolton South East Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi said her constituency has been “placed in a quasi-lockdown state” and that the North West town is “frankly being treated with contempt by Westminster”.
West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin said she expects Health Secretary Matt Hancock to explain to Parliament what is happening after the emergence of the updated online advice “caused a lot of confusion”.
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey insisted the new guidance had not come “out of the blue”, but that was contested by local leaders and health officials.
Blackburn’s director of public health, Professor Dominic Harrison, tweeted that local authority areas affected by the guidance were “not consulted with, warned of, notified about, or alerted” to the instruction changes.
North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll said: “Nobody from central government had told us.”
The Government has argued that the recommendations were first issued on May 14 – with Boris Johnson urging people in the affected areas to be “extra cautious” – before being “formally” published online last week.
Cabinet minister Ms Coffey told Sky News: “The Prime Minister set out that we need to take extra caution in certain areas regarding the Indian variant.
“It is good practice to formally put that guidance on the record affecting those communities.
“We have been working in close contact, so I’m surprised to hear that people think this has come out of the blue – it hasn’t.
“It is about formalising on the record the guidance which we believe people can and should follow in order to make sure we tackle and don’t have more spread of the Indian variant.”
Ms Coffey urged people living in areas where the Indian variant is spreading to consider “whether it really is essential” for them to travel, including when going on holiday to a “green list” destination.
She said would-be holidaymakers “need to consider carefully the risks that they are under themselves” before making any journey abroad.
The Cabinet minister also said “June 21 is still very much under consideration” for lifting all coronavirus restrictions.
It came as reports suggested that quarantine requirements will be maintained for those who come into contact with positive cases after all measures have been scrapped, even if they have received both doses of the vaccine.
The Daily Telegraph said this could mean the nearly 23 million people who have been fully vaccinated could be forced to isolate for 10 days if contacted by the NHS, adding that a negative test would not allow an early end to quarantine.
Ms Coffey said she was “not aware of the basis” of the report.
In related news, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden hailed the UK’s Covid test event pilots, which included a reduced-capacity FA Cup semi-final at Wembley Stadium and a nightclub opening in Liverpool, as a “real success” after it recorded only 15 positive cases among the 58,000 people who took part.
Mr Dowden told the London Evening Standard the outcome meant he is “hopeful” that June 21 will see the full-scale reopening of theatres and other venues.