Scientists have been left surprised and confused by the government’s failure to clearly communicate new advice urging millions of people against non-essential travel in eight areas of England, as No 10 said it is encouraging the public to exercise their own judgement.
The government has been accused of “local lockdowns by stealth” after quietly introducing new guidance on Friday. The guidance recommends that residents in the likes of Leicester, Burnley and North Tyneside should not meet indoors or travel in and out of their local area, as part of efforts to curb the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant.
It was published on the government’s website but the changes were not openly communicated by Downing Street, and nor were local public health teams informed of the new recommendations. For Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, the advice was first issued on 14 May.
Labour has called for the guidance to be withdrawn, while scientists and local directors of public health have criticised the government over its poor communications.
Kamlesh Khunti, a professor of vascular medicine at Leicester University and Sage member, said he had been left “completely unaware and surprised” by the recommendations, which he described as “vague”.
“If you’re going to issue advisory guidelines, you have to let the councils know. It doesn’t seem to me by design, it seems a complete and utter farce,” said Cristina Pagel, a professor of operational research at University College London.
In Bolton, she said, people have been freely mixing in indoor settings for more than 11 days without any awareness of the new guidance. The town has one of the highest rates of the Indian variant, and Bolton Hospital’s emergency department on Tuesday reported one of their “busiest ever days.”
Further south in Leicester, 8,000 fans attended a Premier League football match at the city’s King Power Stadium on Saturday – one day after the guidance was issued warning local people against all but essential travel.
Sian Griffiths, a UK-based professor of public health at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: “There is one thing we should have learnt from the handling of the pandemic it is that communication and collaboration between local and national levels is essential if guidance and management of the pandemic is to be effective.”
The prime minister’s official spokesperson stressed that the new guidance affecting the eight variant hotspot areas – Bolton, Blackburn, Kirklees, Bedford, Burnley, Leicester, North Tyneside and the London borough of Hounslow – was “not statutory” and does not amount to a lockdown.
However, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, and MP for Leicester South, called for the guidance, which he said has been rolled out “by the back door”, to be scrapped and replaced with enhanced testing and front-loaded vaccination for the areas most affected.
In a statement released by Ivan Browne, Leicester’s director of public health, he said no one from the government or Public Health England had been in contact about the new advice, which came at a time when the city has lower rates of the highly infectious variant than other parts of the country.
He said the guidance amounted to no more than “advice” and no evidence had been provided on why people or businesses in the city should not continue to follow the existing rules that applied to the rest of England.
Dominic Harrison, the director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen council, said the “advice has massive implications for school trips, for hospitality, for people playing football matches, for footfall for small businesses, and for the economic recovery for town centres”.
He said it was “astonishing” that the government had not consulted with local councils over the guidance, which affects roughly two million people in the eight areas but also applies to those who enter and leave every day for work, school or leisure.
Cases of the Indian variant, known as B.1.617.2, have been detected in every region of England and are continuing to spread with each week.
Some 3,424 infections caused by the variant had been identified up to 12 May. The Covid vaccines remain highly effective against B.1.617.2 but only after two doses.
Professor Gabriel Scally, an expert in public health and member of Independent Sage, said local authorities and central government needs to be prepared for “these fires breaking out around the country”.
“This is what life is going to be like for the foreseeable future, so the government needs to get its act together,” he said.
“It’s got to be dealt with locally by people who understand and know the community. There has to be a massive shift in resources to the local areas and empowering local directors of public health, authorities and the NHS.”
No 10 has meanwhile said it wants to move away from “top-down edicts” as lockdown restrictions ease, and stressed it was for individuals to make a judgment on how to behave.
“It is important to emphasise that this is guidance, these are not statutory restrictions placed on those local areas,” the PM’s spokesperson said.