'Beyond insulting': Confusion as Indian variant hotspots not told about new COVID travel guidance

·5 min read
A woman walks past an information sign amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Bolton, Britain, May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble
Bolton is one of eight areas in England where the Indian COVID variant is spreading. (Reuters)

The government has been accused of spreading confusion after advising against travel to and from England's Indian variant hotspots without making an official announcement.

Guidance updated late last week advises against all but essential travel to and from Bolton, Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.

People in those areas, where the Indian B.1.617.2 strain of COVID-19 is spreading fastest, should try to avoid meeting indoors, the new advice says. 

But ministers have been accused of “incompetence” after health bosses and residents in the affected areas said they weren't made aware of the changes.

And one local MP said it was "beyond insulting" a government minister said she was “surprised” to hear that areas impacted by new guidance around the Indian variant did not feel properly informed.

'Gobsmacked'

The updated guidance appears to have been published online on Friday without any official announcement, sparking anger from MPs and health officials.

Watch: Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs effective against Indian variant

The Manchester Evening News first reported that the government guidance – which is not law – was updated at 5.26pm on Friday – but no announcement was made.

On Tuesday morning work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey defended the government's handling of the issue, saying: "The prime minister set out that we need to take extra caution in certain areas regarding the Indian variant. 

"We have been working in close contact, so I’m surprised to hear that people think this has come out of the blue – it hasn’t."

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Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East and shadow international development minister, said: “I was not informed of this and I understand nor was anyone else in Bolton.

“I’m just gobsmacked. They’re making such an important announcement and they don’t even have the decency to tell us or tell our constituents.

“This is typical of this government’s incompetence.

"For a Govt Minister to then go on the media round this morning and say they were 'surprised' to hear we were unaware is beyond insulting. Maybe come to Bolton and see how surprised we are that we now are unable to travel out of the borough because of multiple Government missteps."

'Recipe for confusion'

There has been widespread criticism of the government's handling of the situation.

Layla Moran, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, said updating the guidance without a proper announcement “is a recipe for confusion and uncertainty”.

She said: “Local people and public health leaders in these areas need urgent clarity from the government. Matt Hancock must come before Parliament and make a public statement to explain these new rules.”

Newly elected West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin tweeted: “If government are concerned we need clear guidance and support not advice that could cause anxiety and confusion.”

Dr Deepti Gurdasani, senior lecturer in epidemiology at Queen Mary University of London, tweeted: “This messaging is incredibly confusing. 

“While we're opening up and B.1.617.2 is spreading across England – government now asking people in Bolton to work from home and not leave Bolton – but still no mitigations in schools and pubs open?”

On Tuesday, Professor Dominic Harrison, director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen, said he had not been made aware of the updated travel guidance.

He tweeted that the “areas involved were not consulted with, warned of, notified about, or alerted to this guidance”.

People leaving after having Covid vaccinations at the ESSA academy in Bolton as the spread of the Indian coronavirus variant could lead to the return of local lockdowns, ministers have acknowledged. Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen and Bedford are the areas ministers are most concerned about. Picture date: Tuesday May 18, 2021.
A COVID-19 vaccination bus in Bolton, one of the areas affected by the spread of the Indian variant. (PA)

He added: “I have asked to see the national risk assessment which supports this action – it has not been provided to us yet.”

North Tyneside’s director of public health Wendy Burke said there had been no indication of any additional restrictions when an announcement about extra testing was made last week.

She said: “Last Wednesday it was announced in Parliament that North Tyneside, along with five other areas in England, would be subject to enhanced testing and vaccinations.

“When the announcement was made there was no indication it would come with any additional restrictions for North Tyneside or the other areas.

“We understand that, later, government guidance around travel in and out of North Tyneside was posted on the government website.

“This has not been accompanied by any communication to the local authority, local residents or businesses."

Meanwhile, No 10 said it wanted 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.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “It is important to emphasise that this is guidance, these are not statutory restrictions placed on those local areas.

“We have talked before about where we are at this stage in the pandemic in the UK, where we are able to move away from top-down edicts from the government and start transitioning to a position where we have moved back to where the public are able to exercise their good judgment, as they have done throughout.”

Downing Street said there would be no extra financial support made available for the hospitality sector, local authorities or other businesses in the hotspot areas beyond what is already available.

Watch: People in virus hotspots with high Indian variant case rates should 'think carefully' about new freedoms, warns Van-Tam