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Ministers were forced to climb down on travel restrictions to English Covid hotspots after a day of mounting confusion and anger left millions of people wondering if they needed to cancel bank holiday plans.
Contentious advice will be removed from the government website, a spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday evening. It had advised against all but essential travel to and from eight areas of England where the Covid variant identified in India has been spreading. Instead, people will be advised to “minimise travel”.
The controversial guidance directly affected 1.7 million people living in eight local authorities – Bedford, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Kirklees, Leicester, North Tyneside and the London borough of Hounslow – as well as many others who had holidays or family visits planned to those areas following the easing of restrictions.
It was criticised by Conservative and Labour politicians as having been introduced “by stealth” after it appeared on the government website last week with no warning.
At lunchtime, Downing Street defended the move as part of a concerted shift away from legislation and towards individual judgment – but critics said this would mean cautious people bearing the weight of reducing the variant’s spread.
“We are moving away from central government edicts back to the situation where the public are able to exercise their judgment and that is what we are seeing up and down the country,” a No 10 spokesperson said.
But pressure built up on the government throughout Tuesday to remove the travel advice as MPs and councils were bombarded with queries from constituents about whether they should cancel bookings they had made for the bank holiday weekend and half-term break.
Hoteliers and campsite operators around the country were also left unsure if they should refuse bookings from guests from the affected areas. One couple from Bolton told the local paper they were being treated “like lepers” after a hotel on the Isle of Wight cancelled their reservation.
Officials held meetings with the eight directors of public health for the affected areas, who later issued a joint statement to say they had been assured “there are no restrictions on travel in or out of each of our areas: there are no local lockdowns”.
On Tuesday evening a government spokesperson said: “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.
“This includes, wherever possible, trying to meet outdoors rather than indoors, keeping 2 metres apart from anyone you don’t live with and minimising travel in and out 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.”
Earlier in the day leaders in Bolton and Leicester encouraged residents to in effect ignore the new government advice to not leave their local area, while a government minister said people should “use their common sense”.
Bolton’s Tory council leader, David Greenhalgh, said residents should not cancel their breaks and were free to travel “if they behave sensibly and follow the guidance”. Leicester’s director of public health, Prof Ivan Browne, said he met government officials on Tuesday who “confirmed there are no restrictions on travel in or out of each of our areas and it was a mistake to suggest there was”.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, agreed people should not have to change their holiday plans but demanded clarity so that “everybody knows exactly where they stand”.
Throughout Tuesday, the government continued to insist that it had been open about the guidance despite every affected local authority expert and their corresponding MPs all insisting they knew nothing about it until Monday evening. No 10 said “marketing assets” such as posters and social media graphics had been shared with local authorities to publicise the new guidance.
Summoned to the Commons on Tuesday morning to answer an urgent question, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi repeated the advice to avoid travelling in and out of the affected areas “unless it is essential, for example for work purposes”.
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, told him: “Cities like mine in Leicester, or towns and boroughs like Burnley or Bolton, or Batley and Blackburn, have borne the brunt of this crisis these last 15 months. We’ve often been in lockdown longer than elsewhere. At times we’ve felt abandoned.
“Can he understand how upsetting it is? Can he understand how insulting it is – to have local lockdowns imposed by the back door?”
The Twickenham MP, Munira Wilson, challenged Zahawi about whether her constituents should avoid travelling across the borough boundary into neighbouring Hounslow to shop or go to school. The minister replied: “People need to exercise that caution, common sense.”
Local council leaders were incredulous at the travel advice. The leader of Hounslow council, Labour’s Steve Curran, said the ban was ridiculous for his particular area. “For one of London’s most connected boroughs – with Heathrow on its doorstep, the M4 and A4 running through it, the Piccadilly line, the main line from Waterloo, plus the North Circular via Kew Bridge – to try and limit travel within its borders is not only impossible, it’s a ridiculous idea,” he said.
The confusion came as Covid rates continued to climb in many areas. In Bolton, the worst affected local authority in the UK, cases have reached the highest level for more than six months, with a total of 1,300 new cases of coronavirus recorded in the seven days to 21 May – the equivalent of 452.1 cases per 100,000 people.
Patients were urged only to attend A&E at the Royal Bolton hospital if it was absolutely necessary on Tuesday as the NHS trust reported one of the busiest days the department had ever had. But, the number of patients in hospital with coronavirus was still less than a third of what it was at the peak of the pandemic despite a higher prevalence of cases, according to Sir Richard Leese, the deputy mayor of Greater Manchester.
Last week the Scottish government announced a temporary travel ban for Scots visiting Bolton, Bedford and Blackburn.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Ministers back down over limiting travel to English Covid hotspots | Coronavirus