Matt Hancock has been urged to publish the scientific advice behind his decision to lift coronavirus restrictions in some areas after critics accused him of “playing politics” with public health.
The health secretary announced on Friday that more than 1 million people across north-west England would be allowed to visit friends and family for the first time in a month from Wednesday.
However, the move has prompted fury among Labour MPs and council leaders, who accused the government of overruling local public health decisions in order to appease Conservative MPs.
The announcement means people living in some Tory-voting constituencies will no longer be subject to the restrictions, while those in neighbouring Labour seats with similar or lower infection rates will not.
The Guardian has been told the government had been due to announce the changes to local restrictions at 11am on Friday but it had to be pushed back several hours after serious concerns were raised by local leaders.
It is understood that a draft government statement outlining the changes described the decision as being made “in agreement with local leaders” – however this line had to be dropped after pushback from councils.
The announcement, eventually made at 5pm on Friday, will lead to restrictions lifted in the Greater Manchester borough of Trafford, where the infection rate rose over the weekend to more than three times the national average, at 35 cases per 100,000 people. The borough now has a higher infection rate than Salford and Bury, where the restrictions will remain in place.
Hancock had been warned by Trafford council, its director of public health and its two Labour MPs that it was too early to ease measures covering its 235,000 residents. However, they were overruled by the health secretary. The influential Tory MP Graham Brady, whose constituency includes part of Trafford, had been pushing for the area to be removed from the restrictions.
Andrew Western, the Labour leader of Trafford council, demanded an urgent explanation on Monday: “It would be common courtesy when you’re overruling the local authority, the director of public health and the vast majority of local politicians, to explain the reasons why – particularly because we’re now seeing the spike in cases we thought we may do.
“Nobody has bothered to explain it or give any justification whatsoever. We have to explain that decision to our residents. How can we have confidence in it if they have not bothered to tell us the reasons why?”
Restrictions will also be lifted from Wednesday in Bolton, Stockport, parts of Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees in West Yorkshire and Burnley and Hyndburn in Lancashire. A ban on households mixing remains in place in Oldham, Pendle and Blackburn – which have the highest coronavirus infection rates in England – and in the city of Leicester. A ban on two households mixing indoors remains in place in Manchester, Salford, Rochdale, Bury, Tameside and Preston.
In Bradford, nine wards in two Tory constituencies will see restrictions eased in line with the rest of England from Wednesday while the city’s remaining 23 wards – mostly represented by Labour MPs – will remain under local lockdown despite recording few recent Covid-19 cases.
Bradford’s three Labour MPs and its council leader accused Hancock of “playing politics” with the restrictions, and warned that removing individual wards would be “unenforceable” and confusing for residents.
It is understood that the city’s local outbreak control board, comprised of its most senior health officials, had also cautioned against this approach in a meeting with Bradford’s five MPs last week.
The council and Labour MPs had asked for the whole of Bradford to be lifted out of the restrictions, with targeted interventions in areas with a higher number of cases. However, the two Conservative MPs – Philip Davies and Robbie Moore – advocated a more localised approach.
Judith Cummins, the MP for Bradford South, said on Monday she had written to the health secretary urging him to publish the scientific evidence behind his decision.
She said: “In these difficult times it’s imperative that the secretary of state for health and social care not only act with political neutrality in determining these matters, but importantly he should also be seen to act without political bias.”
Two other West Yorkshire council areas, Calderdale and Kirklees, have also been carved up, with neighbourhoods in two Tory-voting constituencies removed from the restrictions from Wednesday.
Tim Swift, the Labour leader of Calderdale council, said it had agreed as a compromise to measures being eased in part of the borough, but added: “Looking at the proposals across the north it seems that this is a political decision to appease Tory MPs rather than something that is led by clear scientific evidence.
“I would now challenge the government to publish the scientific advice which underpins the decision they have taken.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said it was “regrettable” that some councils and MPs had not been able to come to a consensus on the appropriate measures for their area.
It said it welcomed the “constructive and collaborative” approach taken by many local authorities and that it would continue to work with all bodies in the areas “where this has not yet been possible”, adding: “We are prepared to take decisive action to stop outbreaks to save lives and will remove restrictions as soon as they are no longer necessary.”
Source: The Guardian