Guidance was published online on Friday warning against meeting indoors and nonessential travel to six areas of England: Kirklees, Bedford, Burnley, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.
The instructions, issued by the Cabinet Office, urged “an extra cautious approach” in these locations, but they were not accompanied by any public information campaign or press conference.
Similar advice against travel and indoor mixing was issued for Bolton in Greater Manchester and nearby Blackburn with Darwen on May 14.
It provoked an outcry from politicians in those areas, who said they had not been consulted.
A government statement on Tuesday evening said travel in those locations should be “minimized” but stressed this was not a change to the law.
Local authorities in Leicester, North Tyneside and Blackburn with Darwen had earlier published statements informing residents that they were not subject to any travel restrictions, following a call between the councils’ public health directors and Jenny Harries, chief executive of the U.K. Health Security Agency.
On that call, Harries is understood to have told council representatives that the government had not intended to send the message that travel was restricted.
The councils’ health directors had warned they would publish their own guidance if no clarification from central government was forthcoming, according to local government officials familiar with the content of the call.
A U.K. government spokesman said in a statement on Tuesday evening: “We will be updating the guidance for areas where the new COVID-19 variant is spreading to make it clearer we are not imposing local restrictions. Instead, we are providing advice on the additional precautions people can take to protect themselves and others in those areas where the new variant is prevalent.”
They added: “This includes, wherever possible, trying to meet outdoors rather than indoors, keeping two metres apart from anyone you don’t live with and minimizing travel in and out of the area. These are not new regulations but they are some of the ways everyone can help bring the variant under control in their local area.”
Labour’s Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth both accused ministers of imposing “local lockdowns by stealth.”
A number of MPs in affected areas, including Conservatives Chris Green and Jake Berry, complained they had not been consulted in advance of the directions concerning their constituencies.
Labour’s Yasmin Qureshi and Conservative Mark Logan, both representing Bolton, called on the government to prioritize surge vaccinations above tougher restrictions after POLITICO reported last week that local lockdowns were under consideration.
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