Matt Hancock has defended imposing new lockdown regulations on more than 4 million people in northern England with only two hours’ notice amid criticism from Conservative MPs and confusion about the rules.
The UK health secretary announced on Twitter on Thursday night 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 or in their gardens.
The measures were introduced on the eve of Eid al-Adha celebrations, which would have been marked in many of the areas affected, and their introduction was caused largely by people “not abiding to social distancing”, Hancock said.
The measures drew immediate criticism from three Tory MPs, including Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee who represents a Greater Manchester seat, who complained that the blanket ban did not take into account local factors.
Hancock defended the move on Friday morning, insisting the new rules were “absolutely crystal clear” and that there had been increases in the number of cases “across the board in Greater Manchester”.
He said the virus was “spreading more widely” despite targeted measures introduced in Oldham and Blackburn with Darwen in recent weeks.
Hancock said the measures were specifically targeted at people’s homes because that was where the virus had been spreading in the areas affected.
He told Sky News: “The evidence shows that the biggest risk in terms of the spread of this virus across this area is household transmission, when people are going to see each other in each others’s homes … and also visiting friends and relatives.
“We’re not seeing as much transmissions, in terms of places of work or other areas, so we are able to put in place this specific action.”
People celebrating Eid would still be able to mark the occasion in mosques, Hancock said, but they must adhere to social distancing and not continue the celebrations in other households.
But on BBC Breakfast Hancock confirmed a household from one of the affected areas could visit other households outside the lockdown area as long as they observed social distancing.
“Strictly, the law that we’re bringing in is that two households cannot meet in the area defined but obviously any two households should follow the social distancing rules,” he said.
Hancock said different households would not be permitted to meet in pubs or pub gardens but other outdoor public places, such as parks, were fine as long as people adhered to social distancing.
The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, said announcing the lockdown measures “late at night on Twitter” was “a new low for the government’s communications during this crisis”.
Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, described the handling of the announcement as “an absolute shambles and made it harder to follow advice”.
Jason McCartney, the Tory 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 Conservative MP William Wragg, who represents the Hazel Grove constituency on the border of Greater Manchester and the Peak District national park, said: “Greater Manchester is not one homogeneous area. We must always err on the side of caution with Covid but to treat all 10 boroughs the same is not the right approach. I will update constituents as soon as I am given further information, other than what has been announced.”
In 13 of the 19 local authority areas affected, the rate of Covid-19 in the seven days to 27 July has risen, with 1,536 cases recorded across all the areas in a week.
The number of cases has risen in nine out of 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester this week, having been falling last week, according to the region’s mayor, Andy Burnham. In Rochdale, the one borough where cases had fallen, the rates were still too high, he said.
In many of the areas, the recent jump in cases had been attributed to an increase in transmission in multigeneration 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.
Burnham said on Friday that he agreed with the need to introduce the new measures but that ministers should have announced the move on television and released the detail immediately.
A government press release setting out some of the rules was issued at 11.19pm – 41 minutes before they came into effect – and two hours after Hancock announced them on Twitter. More detail of the measures was released on Friday morning.