Residents in eight Indian variant hotspot areas have been told “there are no local lockdowns” after the Government was accused of bringing in new Covid-19 restrictions “by stealth”.
Guidance urging people in areas with high levels of the strain to restrict their socialising and travel was added to the Government website on Friday, but local leaders said they had not been made aware.
In a joint statement on Tuesday the directors of public health in Burnley, Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside 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.”
It comes as figures showed Covid-19 case rates in Bolton are at their highest level for more than six months.
A total of 1,300 new cases were recorded in the seven days to May 21 – the equivalent of 452.1 per 100,000 people.
This is up from 300.8 the previous week and is the highest since the seven days to November 12.
Bolton continues to have the highest rate of new cases in the UK.
Blackburn with Darwen has the second highest, up week-on-week from 130.9 to 301.9, with 452 new cases.
Bedford is third highest, up week-on-week from 128.1 to 193.9, with 336 new cases.
All figures have been calculated by the PA news agency from Public Health England data published on Tuesday afternoon.
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.
But ministers came under fire for what Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham labelled a “fairly major communications error” which had caused “huge amounts of confusion”.
The mixed messaging prompted the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus to urge the Government to return to daily televised press briefings on the pandemic.
Dr Dan Poulter, vice-chairman of the group, said: “Over a year into the pandemic, the Government’s public health messaging needs to be clearer.
“People are being asked to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of information. What we need is much clearer information about the Government’s plans to keep the Indian variant under control, what local measures may remain in place and for how long, and whether they will be legally binding.
“It would help if the Government committed to daily press briefings as we approach June 21, as well as ensuring any local guidance is made available on the NHS Covid app.”
Caroline Lucas, the group’s second vice-chair, added: “Instead of providing clarity, the Government today has sown the seeds of yet more confusion.
“People are now being effectively told they can travel to Lisbon but not Leicester. It’s little wonder these contradictory messages have left the public more bewildered than ever.
“This does feel like local lockdowns being sneaked through under the cover of Government guidance. Urgent clarity is needed over how long this guidance will remain in force and what financial support is being offered to affected businesses in these areas.”
Earlier, Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called on the Government to withdraw the new advice.
Demanding answers during an urgent question in the House of Commons, Mr Ashworth said many of the areas involved had “borne the brunt of the crisis these last 15 months” and felt “abandoned” by Westminster.
“So can the minister understand how upsetting it is, can he understand how insulting it is, to have new restrictions imposed upon us?” asked the Leicester South MP.
“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.”
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.
“With the work we are doing on enhanced testing and additional vaccinations there was never any justification for the suggestion travel should not take place in and out of the borough.
“I am pleased that we have been able to clear up that confusion after meetings with Government officials.”
In an earlier statement, Leicester’s director of public health said it was a “mistake” to suggest different travel restrictions applied to the East Midlands 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.
Bolton Council leader David Greenhalgh told a press conference that people in the North West town should “behave sensibly” and there was no need to “be cancelling holidays”.
It follows a slight rise in weekly registrations of deaths involving Covid-19 in England and Wales, according to new figures.
However, the numbers are likely to have been affected by the early May bank holiday.
A total of 151 deaths registered in the week ending May 14 mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate, according to the Office for National Statistics, a 17% rise from 129 the previous week.