Covid: Confusion grows as local officials in Indian variant hotspots dispute 'do not travel' advice

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Carl Dinnen

The government has said it will update guidance in Indian Covid variant hotspots after confusion over unannounced changes left many people and local health officials unsure whether or not they could travel in and out of the areas.

The government said in a statement it will update the guidance in affected areas "to make it clear we are not imposing local restrictions.

"Instead we are providing advice on the additional precautions people can take to protect themselves and others."

The new advice recommends people meet outdoors where possible and keep two metres apart.

The government emphasised "these are not new regulations" after confusion over what the recent changes to the guidance for affected areas were.

The government also did not comment on whether travel to and from the affected areas was being advised against.

Lancashire's Director of Public Health said on Tuesday the central government has agreed to withdraw the advice not to travel in or out of areas with high levels of the Indian variant.

It comes as coronavirus case rates in Bolton, one of the hotspots of the Indian variant, reached their highest level for more than six months.

Hospital bosses in the area said they were taking "urgent action" to manage demand with patients urged only to attend A&E at the Royal Bolton Hospital if it was absolutely necessary on Tuesday.

ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan discusses the situation in Indian variant hotspots

Originally, officials said areas including Bolton, Leicester, Kirklees and the London borough of Hounslow were hardest hit and people there should not meet indoors and people should avoid travelling to the impacted areas.

The advice got more confused as journalists and local officials raised questions about it - with health officials in Leicester later saying the do-not-travel guidance was, in fact, incorrect.

Vaccinations have been ramped up in Bolton, one of the areas hardest hit by the Indian variant Credit: PA

The original change to the guidance – which is not law – appears to have been made on Friday without an official announcement, prompting criticism from MPs and local leaders.

Leicester's Director of Public Health, Prof Ivan Browne revealed: "There are no restrictions on travel in or out of our areas", before adding that any suggestions of the sort was a 'mistake'.

Norma Redfearn, Labour Mayor of North Tyneside, said: "We received no consultation or communication about this advice which has implications for people across North Tyneside and the wider region".

A statement issued later on Tuesday by Wendy Burke, public health director for the area, said: "The government have today clarified that there are no travel restrictions in and out of North Tyneside and no local lockdown.

"People may travel as they wish but should exercise caution and follow standard public health advice."

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said the updated Government guidance was a “fairly major communications error” which had caused “huge amounts of confusion”.

He said: “It would appear guidance was reissued on Friday but has been amended and it would appear to put more emphasis around travel, hence the confusion that has been created.

“Nobody in our system was told about this change in the presentation of the guidance.”

A spokesperson for Bedford Borough Council said: "We were not made aware of the introduction of this advice and are urgently looking at the implications of this on the services we provide".

Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East, said the government's handling of the issue "smacked of incompetence".

She told ITV News the move was made "completely without thinking about the feelings of the people in Bolton."

"They can treat the constituents as adults, they can treat us as grown ups and let us know this is happening."

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

“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,” she said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said "the government needs to provide clarity, fast.

"Local lockdowns are the wrong approach for both public health and local economies.

"The Government is time and again failing to learn lessons.

"We need proper support to self-isolate, decent sick pay, a working test and trace system and the roll out of the vaccine as quickly as possible."

Newly elected West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin added the change could cause “anxiety and confusion”.

Ms Brabin said she would raise the matter urgently with vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi on Tuesday.

She tweeted: “If Govt are concerned we need clear guidance and support not advice that could cause anxiety and confusion.”

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey she did not why local authorities "don't think the messages about being extra cautious...hasn't come through clearly".

Speaking to ITV News, Ms Coffey said: "The government has stepped in, in various communities where we have seen a surge in the Indian variant of the coronavirus and have advised people to be extra cautious".

She added: "I don't know the reason why they don't think the messages about being extra cautious in those communities hasn't come through clearly, but I think it's important that the extra work on getting more people vaccinated is succeeding, that's really good news.

"So the communities are responding, recognising the risk."

Meanwhile, quarantine requirements will reportedly be maintained for those who come into contact with positive cases after June 21 even if they have received both doses of the vaccine.

The Daily Telegraph said this could mean the nearly 23 million people who have had both doses could be forced to isolate for 10 days if contacted by the NHS, adding a negative test would not allow an early end to quarantine.

Separately, the government will be facing an urgent question from Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth on Covid-19 on Tuesday.

A government spokesman said: “Working with local authorities, we took swift and decisive action to slow the spread of the B1.617.2 (India) variant by introducing surge testing and bringing forward second doses of the vaccine for the most vulnerable.

“We provided additional guidance for those living in affected areas when we became aware of the risk posed by the variant, to encourage people to take an extra cautious approach when meeting others or travelling.”

However, Professor Dominic Harrison, director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen, said he had not been made aware of the updated guidance advising against all but essential travel in the area.

He tweeted: “#localgov 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.”

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