During the first phase of the Covid pandemic, councils were driven to despair by the government’s failure to consult with them adequately or utilise local public health expertise. Last May, for example, as infection rates spiralled in the north-east, numerous northern councils defied Whitehall’s decree that all primary school reception classes should reopen. A dysfunctional relationship between Whitehall and local government undermined the national response to the crisis.
One year on, as concerns continue to grow over the B.1.617.2 variant of the virus, first detected in India, it is astonishing to see the same mistake being made all over again. On Monday night it emerged that new government guidance was issued last week for eight areas affected by the new variant, where surge testing and vaccinations have been taking place. The fresh advice, which would have major implications for millions of people, recommended that all non-essential travel in and out of the places concerned should be avoided, and people should meet outside rather than inside. But this major policy shift, which appeared to amount to a form of light local lockdown, was not communicated to local public health directors, council leaders or businesses. It simply appeared, unannounced, on the government’s Covid guidance website. The public health director of North Tyneside had spent the early part of this week reassuring regional media that it was “certainly OK” to visit the area. In Leicester, also on the list, 8,000 people attended a Premier League football match on Saturday. Yasmin Qureshi, the MP for Bolton South East, found out about the guidance from a local journalist.
There is no excuse for public messaging so incompetent that it fails even to reach local MPs and council officials, and then slowly but surely unravels. In the House of Commons on Tuesday, as confusion reigned, the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, accused the government of introducing “lockdowns by stealth”. By late afternoon, after officials from local authorities met government representatives, the directors of public health from all eight areas issued a joint statement, saying that there were “no restrictions on travel” and “no local lockdowns”. Given that the new guidelines, which are now being modified, had never been statutory, their sole effect appears to have been to infuriate local leaders and bemuse the 2 million residents of the eight areas. Families planning to see relatives at half-term are being left to make their own judgments. As with the “amber-listed” holiday destinations, the government appears content to hand responsibility, should anything go wrong, to those who fail to “exercise their judgment” wisely.
Confused messages and farcical muddle on this scale erode trust and endanger compliance. Overall, Covid infection levels remain low and the country remains on track for all lockdown restrictions to be lifted on 21 June. But the early signs are that vaccine efficacy after one dose is relatively low against the B.1.617.2 variant, and its transmissibility is relatively high. Until full vaccination is achieved, there will be a significant corridor of uncertainty. Clear communication and proper consultation with local authorities will be needed to navigate it. Why does that seem so difficult for the government to grasp?