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Public health chiefs are demanding urgent answers about why the government failed to announce new travel advice urging millions of people not to travel into or out of Covid hotspots.
As news spread of the guidance on Tuesday, four days after it was quietly published on a government website, Dominic Harrison, the director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen council, said local councils had still had no notification from Westminster about it.
Harrison said he was “astonished” that public health chiefs had not been told about the latest advice, which affects millions of people, and that it was “very difficult” to support the advice without seeing the government’s risk assessment.
He added: “This advice has massive implications for school trips, for hospitality, for people playing football matches, for footfall for small businesses, and for the economic recovery for town centres. The fact that the government’s just announced it without consultation or evidence is astonishing.
“It does reflect the fact that in relation to our management of surges in areas that have variants, we simply have no strategy at the moment. What we seem to be subject to is random policy announcements.”
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said it was “utterly shameful” that the government had made such a “major change” without telling local leaders. He said: “The government needs to provide clarity, fast. Local lockdowns are the wrong approach for both public health and local economies.”
Wendy Burke, North Tyneside’s director of public health, said there had been no indication of any additional restrictions when an announcement about extra testing was made last week.
According to the guidance, which appears to have been updated on 21 May and is not law, journeys to and from the affected areas – Bedford, Blackburn and Darwen, Bolton, Burnley, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow, and North Tyneside – should be avoided “unless essential”. Exemptions include travel for work, where working from home is not possible, and education.
The guidance affects not only the 1.97 million people in the eight areas but also the millions of people who enter and leave those boroughs every day to go to work, school or for leisure.
The update did not seem to have been accompanied by an official announcement. On Tuesday, Harrison and Burke confirmed local public health directors were unaware of it.
One public health official pointed out that Simon Stevens, the NHS England chief executive, travelled to Bolton on Friday to visit a vaccination site. It is not clear whether he knew about the guidance although his trip may constitute “essential” travel.
Jamie Driscoll, the North of Tyne metro mayor, said nobody from central government had told his officials of the travel guidance. He said he would be speaking to ministers later on Tuesday “to get to the bottom of it”.
Another public health official, whose council borders one of the eight listed authorities, said she first heard the news on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday morning – shortly after unwittingly breaching the advice by travelling into the neighbouring area for exercise. “It’s just really silly,” she said.
Burke was quoted by the PA Media news agency as saying: “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. We have already queried this with the Department of Health and Social Care to seek clarification.
“We will continue to work with government on our enhanced testing and vaccination plan which is now in place.”
The areas subject to the new advice are those where the coronavirus variant first identified in India, known as B.1.617.2, is believed to be spreading fastest. As well as asking people not to travel in and out, the new guidance also recommends keeping meetings with others outdoors “where possible” and maintaining social distancing of two metres between people who do not live together.
Asked about the apparent confusion on Tuesday morning, Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, insisted the government had already been working with local areas where the B.1.617.2 variant was spreading fastest.
“This guidance was simply put out at the same time as the risk was identified and effectively notified of the increased caution which people should take,” Coffey told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“It’s just putting something on the record alongside that encouraging communities to take what had already been communicated about some of the extra precautions people should be mindful of in trying to stop the transmission of coronavirus.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Health chiefs seek urgent answers on travel advice for England hotspots | Health policy