LONDON — The British government faced accusations Tuesday that it was reintroducing local lockdowns on the sly after it published new guidelines for eight areas of England that it says are hot spots for the coronavirus variant first identified in India.
Lawmakers and local public health officials expressed shock that they hadn’t been made aware of the changes to the guidelines to travel and social interaction that the Conservative government published online last Friday. They also said the guidelines weren’t mandatory and that the mixed messaging could undermine efforts to keep a lid on the virus by creating unnecessary confusion.
In last week’s updated guidance, the government recommended that people within eight localities, including Hounslow in west London, the city of Leicester and the northwest towns of Blackburn and Bolton, shouldn’t meet up indoors or travel outside their areas unless it is for an essential matter, such as going to work.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, accused the government of behaving in an “utterly shameful” fashion by not informing people in areas affected.
“Local lockdowns are the wrong approach for both public health and local economies,” he said.
In response, the government says it was just putting on the record the guidance that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has presented in the past couple of weeks during the spread of the so-called Indian variant, which critics say was seeded by a too-lax border policy.
“We want the whole country to move out of these restrictions together and we’re trusting people to be responsible and act with caution and common sense as they have done throughout the pandemic,” vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told lawmakers.
He insisted that the onus was on personal responsibility and that the government is still intending to take a national approach to lifting restrictions.
In a joint statement, the directors of public health in the eight areas affected said government officials confirmed there are “no local lockdowns” and that everyone is working together to boost testing, vaccinations and to support those people who have to go into quarantine.
The government’s strategy over the past couple of months of lockdown easing has been to lift restrictions on a national basis, though it hasn’t ruled out the possibility of local measures if needed.
Restrictions across England — and the rest of the U.K. — have been lifted over the past few weeks as the number of coronavirus infections has fallen sharply in the wake of a strict lockdown and the rapid rollout of vaccines. Among many changes, the most recent easing has seen pubs and restaurants reopen to customers indoors and the number of people allowed to meet up outdoors increased to 30.
The next easing is planned for June 21 and is intended to involve the lifting of all social restrictions. However, Johnson has warned that it could be pushed back if the new variant spreads widely. A decision on that date is set to be announced on June 14.
Though new cases in the U.K. remain low at around 2,500 a day, against nearly 70,000 at one point in January during the peak of the second wave, they have been inching up slightly in recent weeks.
That’s raised concerns that the so-called Indian variant, which is thought to be more transmissible, is taking off at a time when restrictions have been eased and many younger people have yet to receive a dose of vaccine.