New guidance applies to eight areas including Hounslow in west London, the central England city of Leicester and the northwest towns of Blackburn and Bolton. People there should not meet up indoors or travel outside their districts, according the government said.
The localized action — combined with a threat of further restrictions on British travelers heading to France — will be a blow to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s efforts to reopen the UK economy after three lockdowns and its deepest recession for 300 years.
After a rapid rise in cases of variant from India, Johnson has warned that the country is now in a tight race to get the population vaccinated more quickly than the virus can spread.
“People should try to avoid traveling in and out of the affected areas unless it’s essential, for example, obviously for work,” Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi told Parliament on Tuesday. “We’re trusting people to be responsible and to act with caution and common sense.”
The UK has one of the most successful Covid vaccine programs in the world with more than 70% of people now having received at least one shot.
Johnson’s officials have pointed to data showing a full vaccination course is effective against the variant first identified in India, but the spread of the new strain remains the biggest potential stumbling block to reopening the economy in full on June 21. Ministers are expected to consider new data on the variant before deciding if national restrictions can be lifted on schedule next month.
The Indian strain is also alarming officials in neighboring France, where the government is likely to decide Wednesday whether extra restrictions are needed at its border with the UK to prevent its spread. Germany has also said it will impose a two-week quarantine on such travelers, even if they test negative for Covid.
The UK is trying to make a case to France that extra curbs aren’t necessary, citing the large share of its vaccinated population, a person familiar with the discussions said.
Spokespeople for the French ministry of foreign affairs didn’t return multiple requests for comment. A spokesperson for the U.K. government didn’t immediately respond to calls seeking comment.
In the U.K., the government was accused of introducing “local lockdowns by the back door” with the new guidance against travel to hotspots, which was published without fanfare online late last week but didn’t reach the attention of local leaders for several days.
“Why was this guidance plonked on a website on Friday night and not communicated to everyone?” Jonathan Ashworth, the opposition Labour Party’s health spokesman, who represents the district of Leicester South, asked Zahawi in Parliament.
“Can the minister understand how upsetting it is, can he understand how insulting it is to have new restrictions imposed upon us?” Ashworth continued. “Local lockdowns by stealth, by the back door, and the secretary of state doesn’t even have the courtesy to come and tell us.”
Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s Labour mayor, called on ministers to issue an urgent clarification ahead of the bank holiday weekend. Schools were confused about whether trips could go ahead and amateur sport had been thrown into chaos, Burnham said at a press conference.
The row risks reigniting last year’s regional tensions after Johnson forced Greater Manchester into a localized lockdown because of a virus spike in the area. Furious local leaders accused the government of punishing northern England to protect the economy in the south and demanded further funds to support local businesses.
David Greenhalgh, the Conservative leader of Bolton council, said he had been reassured by central government that the new guidance was aimed at underlining personal responsibility in a Covid hotspot, rather than imposing fresh restrictions.
Johnson’s official spokesman Max Blain batted away questions about whether the government could have better communicated its changes, and said people should use their judgment.
“We’ve been clear that people in these areas should recognize the extra risk posed by the variant,” Blain told reporters on Tuesday. “We are in contact with local authorities and that will continue.”
Blain also rejected the idea that the government is imposing local lockdowns by stealth, saying the current guidance is “substantially different” to the legal restrictions in place previously.
“It is important to emphasize that this is guidance, these are not statutory restrictions placed on those local areas,” he said.
Blain said there would be no extra financial support made available for the hospitality sector, local authorities or other businesses in the affected areas beyond the aid that is already available.
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