Labour Accuses Government Of Sneaking In "Local Lockdowns By Stealth"
Writing for Politics Home, Eleanor Langford reports that Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told the Commons that new regional guidance in coronavirus hotspots was “local lockdowns by stealth”, adding that it was “insulting” that the changes were kept quiet.
Ashworth, whose Leicester South constituency includes one of the affected areas, demanded newly published guidance be withdrawn and that the health secretary meet with local leaders to establish a new approach.
It comes amid the backlash against new coronavirus guidance released quietly on Friday night, which tightened current rules in eight local areas where the B.1.617.2 variant is most prevalent. Several local health directors and MPs have said they were not made aware of the change, which is believed to have come into force 11 days ago.
People in these areas are advised to only meet outside where possible, keep two metres apart from people not in their bubble, and avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless for essential purposes.
Addressing the issue in an urgent question on Monday, Ashworth said many of the areas impacted by the new changes had “often been in lockdown longer than elsewhere” and “felt abandoned” by the government over lack of support.
“Can the minister understand how upsetting it is? Can he understand how insulting it is to have new restrictions imposed upon us — local lockdowns by stealth, by the backdoor — and the secretary of state doesn’t even have the courtesy to come and tell us?" he continued.
“Why was this guidance plonked on a website on Friday night and not communicated to everyone? Why were local directors of public health and local authority leaders not consulted? Why weren’t MPs informed? And what does it now mean for our constituents?”
Speaking opposite vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi, who was sent to answer the question rather than Hancock, Ashworth asked if the government could clarify whether families needed to cancel plans for the school half term, or whether students would be allowed to return home once their exams finish. He added: “Can he take a message from me, as the MP for Leicester South, back to the secretary of state? Withdraw this guidance now.”
Responding to the urgent question, Zahawi said people in the affected areas — which includes Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Burnley, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside — needed to be “cautious”.
“The whole principle here is that we need to work together. He has a responsibility, as I do, as do the metro mayors, to communicate to our residents, our constituents, that this is a time to be vigilant, to be careful,” he continued.
The Prime Minister's spokesperson said that people in the coronavirus hotspots should “use their judgement”, and insisted that local councils had been kept informed. “We've been clear that people in these areas should recognise the extra risk posed by the variant and exercise judgement. We are moving away from central government edicts, we're back to the situation where the public are able to exercise their judgement,” they said.
Asked if parents should cancel plans over the school half term, the spokesperson reiterated that people should “use their judgement and understand the extra risk of transmissibility this variant poses and recognise that there is extra risk and potential threats of disruption to the roadmap”.
But Conservative MP Jake Berry, whose constituency includes one of the affected areas, said he was “disappointed” in how the government had communicated its message.
“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, more often than not it is a duck,” he said, speaking on BBC’s Politics Live. “It looks like a local lockdown to me and I’m very disappointed in that, and I think that if that is the government’s new approach then they need to come out and explain it both to MPs and local councils, and to affected communities who are the most important part of this.
“In truth, most people don’t follow the government website in great detail. If you’re changing the guidance — and it is only guidance — that affects people, there needs to be proper communication so MPs can communicate it with our constituents.”
Minister Insists New Local Lockdown Guidance Isn't "Out Of The Blue" Despite Never Being Announced
A senior minister has insisted that new travel advice for people living in the areas most affected by the Indian variant of the coronavirus should not come as a surprise, despite the government neither announcing it nor informing local leaders. Confusion reigned on Monday evening when it emerged that the government had quietly updated its website to reflect stricter guidance for people living in eight areas of the country where the B.1.617.2 variant is most prevalent.
The guidance, which appears to have been updated on Friday, says people in those areas should only meet outside where possible, keep two metres apart from people not in their bubble, and avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless for essential purposes. It affects the following local authorities: Bedford council, Blackburn with Darwen council, Bolton Metropolitan council, Burnley council, Kirklees council, Leicester council, Hounslow council and North Tyneside council.
However, Dominic Harrison, the director of public health at Blackburn with Darwen Council, said the affected areas were "not consulted with, warned of, notified about, or alerted to this guidance".
Yasmin Qureshi, the Labour MP for Bolton South East, said she said also wasn't informed of the updated guidance and "I understand nor was anyone else in Bolton". She said: "I'm just gobsmacked. They're making such an important announcement and they don't even have the decency to tell us or tell our constituents".
Chris Green, the Conservative MP for Bolton West & Atherton, tweeted that he only found out last night and would seek clarification from the government this morning.
Tony Roe, a political reporter for the BBC in the East Midlands, pointed out that 8,000 people attended Leicester City's Premier League match against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, while the local authority was subject to the stricter travel guidance.
But this morning Therese Coffey, the secretary of state for work and pensions, said she didn't understand why people were surprised by the new guidance, telling Sky News the government had been "working in close contact" with the affected local authorities.
"I'm surprised people think this has come out of the blue. It hasn't," she said. “The prime minister had laid out that we needed to take extra caution in certain areas regarding the Indian variant. It’s good practice to formally put on the record guidance affecting those communities".
Boris Johnson said in a press conference on Friday 14 May that he'd "urge people" in Bolton to "think twice" about staying over with family and friends and that people in the most affected areas "should recognise the extra risk of disruption with this new variant".
However, the government did not formally announce the updated guidance for those areas. Coffey later told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the updated guidance was "about extra caution" as the government attempts to stop the spread of the variant first identified in India.
"We know in particular communities we have seen an increase in transmission of infection so it's just about sensible extra caution for people, for us to try and get a grip locally of tackling the spread, and I’m also very pleased that more people have come forward to get their vaccinations. It’s a concerted effort with extra focus in certain communities and I think it’s a sensible approach”.
© Eleanor Langford / Adam Payne / Politics Home
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