UK government criticised for quietly changing Covid advice for 8 areas

The UK government has been criticised after it changed its coronavirus guidance to restrict travel into and out of areas with high levels of the variant first detected in India without telling the public, local officials or politicians.

The advice now says that people should only visit or leave eight council areas with almost 2m residents for essential reasons. Those living there should avoid socialising inside, despite national rule changes that took effect on May 17 allowing indoor gatherings of six people or two households. People should also work from home if possible.

The areas are Bolton, Kirklees, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, North Tyneside, Leicester, Hounslow in London and Bedford.

Dominic Harrison, director for public health in Blackburn with Darwen, said in a tweet: “Areas involved were not consulted with, warned of, notified about, or alerted to this guidance. I have asked to see the national risk assessment which supports this action — it has not been provided to us yet.”

Tracy Brabin, the mayor of West Yorkshire, said the change would cause “anxiety and confusion”.

The government is scheduled to face questions in the House of Commons on Tuesday on the guidance.

The advice was changed for Bolton and Blackburn on May 14, and for the other areas on May 21.

Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, denied it was “lockdown by stealth”. It was a call for “extra caution for us to try to get a grip locally on tackling the spread of this” variant, she told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on Tuesday.

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She brushed off questions about poor communication.

“The guidance was simply put out at the same time as the risk was identified,” she said, promising that the Department of Health and Social Care would continue to work with local authorities.

She denied that the fast spread of B.1.617.2, the variant first identified in India, would postpone plans to lift most remaining restrictions in England on June 21, which would allow mass indoor gatherings and end the two-metre social-distancing rule.

The government has increased vaccination rates and testing in the eight areas grappling with the new variant with emergency centres that do not require an appointment.

Anyone over the age of 16 who is vulnerable or lives with someone who is can get a Covid vaccine. The national programme in England is open to those aged 32 and over.

Bolton recorded 451 overall cases per 100,000 people in the week to May 20, the highest in England.

Experts believe the variant spreads more easily than the original Sars-Cov-2 strain. Studies show vaccines are effective against it but those who have had only one dose get only about 33 per cent immunity.

In the UK as a whole, more than 38m people have had a first vaccine dose, with 22.9m receiving a second — 43.5 per cent of the adult population.

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