UK government accused of ‘lockdowns by stealth’ in Covid variant hotspots | Coronavirus

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The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, has accused the government of imposing “local lockdowns by stealth” and called for guidance limiting travel in and out of Covid hotspots to be withdrawn.

The government changed its official website last Friday to say that residents of areas including Blackburn and Bolton, where the variant first identified in India has been spreading rapidly, should “avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless it is essential”.

Local leaders and MPs have reacted with fury, saying they were not told about the change.

Ashworth, whose Leicester constituency is one of the areas affected, said it was “insulting” to inhabitants of the hotspot areas, which also include Bedford, Kirklees, Burnley, Hounslow and North Tyneside.

He had tabled an urgent question in the House of Commons to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who sent the vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi to answer in his place.

Ashworth said: “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?”

He called on the government to withdraw the travel guidance, and instead enhance support for people self-isolating, and speed up the delivery of vaccines in the affected areas.

Zahawi took a conciliatory tone as he set out the government’s position. “What we’re asking people in those affected areas is to be cautious, is to be careful – so on visiting family, meet outdoors rather than inside where possible. Meet 2 metres apart from people you don’t live with, unless you have formed a support bubble,” he said. “Yes, people can visit family in half-term, if they follow social distancing guidelines.”

He added: “Avoid travelling in and out of the affected areas, as the prime minister said on the 14th, unless it is essential, for example for work purposes.”

Zahawi was referring to comments made by Boris Johnson at a Downing Street press conference on 14 May, when he warned that the 21 June unlocking might have to be delayed, because of the prevalence of the India variant.

Asked specifically whether people should travel to visit friends and family in Bolton or Blackburn – before other hotspots were identified – the prime minister said: “I would urge people just to think twice about that. We want people in those areas to realise there is extra risk, a threat of disruption to progress caused by this new variant, and just to exercise their discretion and judgment.”

The Bolton MP Yasmin Qureshi tweeted that she had not been given any official notification of the change of government advice on travel – and underlined the fact that many of her constituents had no choice but to travel for work.

“After the past 15 months we have had in Bolton, in and out of lockdowns, not provided with adequate support for businesses and individuals, and frankly being treated with contempt by Westminster, this is another kick in the teeth,” she said.

It emerged on Tuesday that patients were being urged only to attend accident and emergency at the Royal Bolton hospital if absolutely necessary, as hospital managers reported more people requiring treatment for the effects of Covid-19.

In the House of Commons, the Twickenham MP, Munira Wilson, challenged Zahawi about whether her constituents should be avoiding travelling across the borough boundary into neighbouring Hounslow to shop or go to school.

The minister replied: “People need to exercise that caution, that common sense.”

Zahawi said he had met metropolitan mayors on Tuesday to discuss their concerns.

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said after his meeting: “I raised the need for clarity on the government’s guidance and support for those living and working in Hounslow, and also the impact of new guidance on Heathrow airport. In order to prevent the further spread of the virus, including variants of concern, clear and timely communication with local leaders and public health officials is crucial. I’m pleased that the minister agreed to take these concerns back to government.”

The prime minister’s official spokesperson defended the government’s handling of the advice on Tuesday, claiming No 10 had shared “marketing assets” – posters and social media posts – with local authorities to help them spread the word about the policy.

But like Zahawi, the spokesperson stressed the need for individual responsibility. “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 … This is guidance, these are not statutory restrictions,” he said.

The home affairs select committee’s chair, Yvette Cooper, blamed the government’s tardy decision to put India on the red list for overseas travel for allowing the variant to take hold and called on the minister to apologise.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: UK government accused of ‘lockdowns by stealth’ in Covid variant hotspots | Coronavirus

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