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UK local virus lockdowns ‘stealth actions’

The UK government has been accused of using “stealth” measures to effectively apply local lockdowns in eight areas of England where the so-called Indian variant of coronavirus has been spreading.

On Friday, the British government quietly updated its guidance for the city of Leicester, the towns of Bedford, Blackburn, Darwen and Burnley as well as the boroughs of Kirklees, North Tyneside and London’s Hounslow.

Although not legally binding, the new advice had said people in those places should now physically distance from those they don’t live with, meet people not in their household only outside, work from home and avoid travelling out of those areas.

Everyone else in England can hug close friends and family members, meet up to six people indoors, go to work and travel freely – while avoiding the said areas.

The guidance was, unusually, not announced by the UK government and instead just updated on its website.

But after a heavy backlash leaders and health officials in seven of the eight boroughs said on Tuesday evening the local lockdowns had been scrapped.

The boroughs posted statements saying there were “no local lockdowns in place” in the areas after holding talks with government officials.

No statements have yet been made by the council for the borough of Kirklees, which was also placed into local lockdown, however it is also believed to no longer be affected.

Leicester’s Director of Public Health, Professor Ivan Browne, said people were now being asked to follow the same guidelines as before.

“We had an urgent meeting with government reps and other affected local authorities today, 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. There are no local lockdowns and there is no justification for Leicester to be treated differently to the rest of the country,” he added.

Opposition health spokesman Jon Ashworth, a Labour MP for a Leicester constituency, raised concerns with vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi in parliament on Tuesday.

He originally planned to ask Health Secretary Matt Hancock but the minister did not appear.

“Can (Zahawi) understand how upsetting it is, how insulting it is, to have new restrictions imposed upon us, local lockdowns by stealth, by the backdoor, and the secretary of state for health doesn’t even have the courtesy to come and tell us?” Ashworth asked Zahawi.

“Why was this guidance plonked on a website on Friday night and not communicated to anyone? Why were local directors of public health and local authority leaders not consulted? Why weren’t MPs informed? What does it mean for our constituents?” Ashworth added.

During the questioning, Zahawi said the new rules were “guidance” rather than restrictions.

Work and Pensions Secretary of State Therese Coffey told reporters the new guidance had not come “out of the blue” after MPs for the local areas claimed they were blindsided by the update.

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