The new Covid guidance explained: Can you travel to affected areas?

25 May 2021, 15:55 | Updated: 25 May 2021, 16:12

Some areas of the UK have seen a rise in cases of the Indian variant
Some areas of the UK have seen a rise in cases of the Indian variant. Picture: PA

By Daisy Stephens

The government has come under fire for new guidance issued to certain parts of England, but now local authority leaders have rushed to clarify that the changes are only advice.

What happened?

On Friday May 21, the Government changed the guidance for eight parts of the UK which were seeing a sharp rise in the number of cases of the Indian variant of Covid-19.

However, unlike previous changes to coronavirus restrictions, there was no official announcement of the new guidance and local leaders said they were not notified.

The change in advice was discovered by a local reporter, at which point it had apparently been live for four days.

As a result, the government was accused of introducing "local lockdowns by stealth".

Where is affected?

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

These areas have all seen a concerning rise in the number of cases of the B.1.617.2 strain, which was first identified in India but has since spread.

Whilst it is thought to be more transmissible than the Kent variant, which is the current dominant strain in the UK, it is thought that vaccines are still effective against it.

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What does the new guidance say?

The new guidance advises "particular caution" in the eight local authority areas listed above.

It says people in these regions should meet outside rather than inside, keep two metres apart from people they do not live with and avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless it is essential, for example for work or education.

However, the above instructions are only advised, with the prime minister's official spokesperson saying they wanted the public "to exercise their good judgement".

Surge testing has been deployed in many areas seeing high levels of the Indian variant
Surge testing has been deployed in many areas seeing high levels of the Indian variant. Picture: Getty

What has the response been?

The new guidance and the way in which it has been introduced has made a lot of people unhappy.

Local authorities have said that they were not aware of the fresh advice.

Bedford Borough Council issued a statement advising people to "take extra care" to limit the rise in cases of the Indian variant, but saying they were "not made aware of the introduction of this advice" and were "urgently looking at the implications" of the guidance on the services provided by the local authority.

Professor Dominic Harrison, Director of Public Health for Blackburn with Darwen, also 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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The Mayor of London has also issued a statement regarding the guidance in the London Borough of Hounslow.

"The Government advises that where possible everyone should avoid travelling in and out of the area unless it is essential," Sadiq Khan said.

"Those in Hounslow should continue to work from home, should meet others outside rather than inside where possible and keep two metres apart from anyone not in your household or support bubble."

However, local leaders have also been keen to emphasise that the new advice is just guidance and is not equivalent to local restrictions.

Bolton council leader David Greenhalgh said that it was merely a reformatting of existing advice.

"We are in a position to be able to say with assuredness that there are no added restrictions coming to Bolton," he said.

"There is no local lockdown and the position in Bolton remains the same as it did at the time of the Prime Minister's announcement 10 days or so ago."

Leicester's Director of Public Health Professor Ivan Browne has also confirmed that the new guidance for Leicester and other areas is not tantamount to additional restrictions, and that people should continue to follow existing national guidance.

"We had an urgent meeting with Government reps and other affected local authorities today (Tuesday, May 25), after we became aware that the Government had updated its website to include specific advice around Leicester and some other areas where the new Covid-19 variant has been identified as spreading," he said.

"These officials confirmed there are no restrictions on travel in or out of each of our areas and it was a mistake to suggest there was."

However, he went on to say that people should be cautious and make "sensible judgements".

He said: "When making travel arrangements, or mixing indoors, we should all follow the necessary precautions which include ventilating rooms and vehicles if car sharing, wearing a face covering on public transport, and following the rule of two households or six people if meeting indoors."

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North Tyneside Council have also confirmed that there are no new travel restrictions in or out of the area.

“There are no local lockdowns,” said Wendy Burke, Director of Public Health for North Tyneside.

“In areas where the new COVID variant is spreading we are all working together to boost testing and vaccination and to support self-isolation.

“There are sensible public health precautions people can take as individuals in line with the sorts of advice we have all been following throughout the pandemic.”

Hounslow's Director of Public Health Kelly O'Neill has issued a similar statement.

Labour have called for the new guidance to be withdrawn
Labour have called for the new guidance to be withdrawn. Picture: Getty

What did Labour say?

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called it "utterly shameful" to introduce guidance without consulting the relevant local leaders.

Labour MP for Leicester and shadow Health and Social Care Secretary Jonathan Ashworth has called on the government to withdraw the advice, calling it a "fiasco".

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