Additional lockdown restrictions are to be imposed over large swathes of northern England after a surge of coronavirus cases caused largely by people “not abiding to social distancing”, Matt Hancock has said.
The health secretary announced on Thursday evening that from midnight, people from different households in Greater Manchester, parts of East Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Leicester would not be able to meet each other indoors.
It is the first time further lockdown measures have been applied to such a large geographic area, covering millions of homes, and comes on the eve of Eid al-Adha celebrations, which would have been held in many of the cities and towns affected.
However, there was immediately confusion about how widely the restrictions applied and the handling of the announcement was criticised by both Labour and Conservative MPs.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said announcing the lockdown measures “late at night on Twitter” was “a new low for the government’s communications during this crisis”.
He added: “When the government ended the daily press conferences, they said they would hold them for ‘significant announcements’, including local lockdowns. It’s hard to imagine what could be more significant than this.
“For all the bluster, government has failed to deliver a functioning track-and-trace system that would spot local flare-ups like these. The people of Greater Manchester now need urgent clarity and explanation from the government – and there must be proper support for those businesses and people affected by any lockdown.”
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary and the MP for Leicester, said he had not seen the guidance in full, but he understood that “pubs, restaurants and hairdressers will reopen, but not gyms, leisure centres, swimming pools”.
He added: “But no household mixing other than bubbles. People cannot stay overnight at another house or meet in private gardens.”
Lisa Nandy, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary and the MP for Wigan, said she had been told that the guidance applied to homes and gardens, but that people would still be allowed to visit public spaces “where social distancing measures are in place”.
She said: “I know people are really worried about what they can and can’t do in just a few hours time. The way the government has announced this has been an absolute shambles and made it harder to follow advice. Please do what you can and we will keep trying to get clarity ASAP.”
In his statement, Hancock said he had ordered the lockdown due to an “increasing rate of transmission in parts of northern England” that was “largely due to households meeting and not abiding to social distancing”.
He said that from midnight “people from different households will not be allowed to meet each other indoors” in Greater Manchester, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Hyndburn, Pendle, Rossendale, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees and the city of Leicester.
In 13 of the 19 local authority areas affected, the rate of Covid-19 in the seven days to 27 July has gone up, with 1,536 cases recorded across all the areas in the space of a week.
Hancock added: “We take this action with a heavy heart, but we can see increasing rates of Covid across Europe and are determined to do whatever is necessary to keep people safe.”
In a press release sent to the media at 11.19pm – 41 minutes before the new rules came into effect – the government said police forces would be given the power to enforce the restrictions to prevent households from mixing in homes or gardens.
It said exemptions would be put in place, including for the vulnerable, but gave no further details. It said full guidance would be published online, but did not give a timeframe.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said families in the affected areas were allowed to go to pubs and bars but that “two households should not go to hospitality together”.
The DHSC said the new restrictions would “come as a blow” to those planning to celebrate Eid al-Adha this weekend, adding: “Mosques and other places of worship have reopened for prayer and communal worship, but in a different socially distanced and Covid-19-secure way. This means that while mosques can remain open, many will not able to welcome as many worshippers as before.”
The government also announced that the full local lockdown in Leicester would be partially lifted, allowing restaurants, bars, cinemas, museums and hairdressers to reopen from Monday and for religious ceremonies to take place. However, leisure centres, gyms and pools will remain closed in the city.
Jason McCartney, the Conservative MP for Colne Valley in West Yorkshire, said he expressed “surprise and disappointment” with the government and Dido Harding, the executive in charge of the NHS test and trace system, that his constituency was included in the new restrictions.
The move came on the day that Hancock warned of a second wave of coronavirus “rolling across Europe” and as health officials have been anxiously looking at rising rates across large parts of northern England.
One source briefed by health ministers said the rules were “potentially contradictory”, but that they were designed to clamp down specifically on transmission within households, which is where most recent cases have been spreading.
Ministers are concerned that people are less likely to observe social distancing if they invite others into their homes, it is understood, and are particularly worried about young people having house parties.
The rules, as they have been understood by local political leaders, mean that families will be required to to stay in their own so-called “support bubble” – their own household – if they do visit a pub or a restaurant.
“This is not a wide-ranging thing – we wouldn’t have agreed to that – and it is potentially contradictory but what they’re getting at is that in gardens and homes people don’t observe distancing but in regulated, more formal environments like pubs, they do,” they said.
The announcement was welcomed by Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, who said there had been a “marked change” in the situation in the region of nearly 3 million people in recent days.
Burnham said cases had risen in nine out of 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester this week, having been falling last week. In Rochdale, the one borough where cases had fallen, the rates were still too high, he said.
Several of the areas affected by the new rules – Leicester, Blackburn with Darwen, Oldham and part of Wakefield – had already imposed localised restrictions in recent weeks in an attempt to curb the rising infection rates.
In many of the areas, the recent jump in cases had been attributed to an increase in transmission in multi-generation households, generally in more deprived parts of the towns and cities, and with many working in at-risk occupations such as warehouse workers, taxi drivers, and health and care staff.
Muslims in some northern towns, such as Blackburn with Darwen and Oldham, had been told the celebrate Eid al-Adha at home and not to allow visitors as the majority of the recent cases had been in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities and were predominantly among younger people, aged 20 to 40.
However, the imposition of blanket restrictions covering an area of at least 5 million people suggests transmission has spread much more widely.
It was announced late on Thursday that some of the restrictions would be eased in Leicester, where the UK’s first full local lockdown was imposed a month ago, with pubs, cafes and restaurants reopening in the Midlands city from Monday.
The DHSC said hairdressers, cinemas and museums would also be able to open, but social gathering restrictions would remain in place for the city and leisure centres, gyms and public swimming pools would also remain closed. All restrictions in neighbouring Oadby and Wigston would be lifted, the department added.
Additional reporting by Peter Walker