The government has backtracked on its advice for people in several local areas worst hit by the Indian variant to not travel following widespread confusion.
There was concern local lockdowns were being imposed “by stealth” after the government’s website changed its COVID guidance over the last few days for eight councils without announcing it, saying people should not travel in or out of the areas unless necessary.
Local health chiefs said they were not consulted or told about the move and on Tuesday afternoon all affected councils said they had spoken to government officials who said people are still allowed to travel in and out of those areas.
The government then released a statement on Tuesday evening confirming they were not imposing local lockdowns but “are providing advice on the additional precautions people can take to protect themselves and others” in those areas.
Retreating from its previous advice, the government changed the wording to say people in those areas should “minimise” travel instead of “avoid” travel.
“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,” a spokesman said.
“This includes, wherever possible, trying to meet outdoors rather than indoors, keeping two 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.”
The local authority areas affected are: Bedford council, Blackburn with Darwen council, Bolton Metropolitan council, Burnley council, Kirklees council, Leicester council, Hounslow council and North Tyneside council.
Directors of public health from all eight councils earlier said: “Following the national coverage of recently revised guidance we have met with national officials and confirmed there are no restrictions on travel in or out of each of our areas: There are no local lockdowns.”
In areas where the Indian variant is spreading, they said they are “working together to boost testing and vaccination and to support self-isolation”.
“There are sensible public health precautions people can take as individuals in line with the sorts of advice we have all been following throughout the pandemic,” they added.
Their statement came soon after vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told the Commons that people in those areas should avoid travelling in or out of those areas unless necessary, for work or education.
His advice was in line with the changes on the government’s coronavirus restrictions website, which said: “In the areas listed… wherever possible, you should try to meet outside rather than inside where possible; keep 2 metres apart from people that you don’t live with (unless you have formed a support bubble with them), this includes friends and family you don’t live with; avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless it is essential, for example for work (if you cannot work from home) or education.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth accused the government of imposing “local lockdowns by stealth, by the back door”.
Andy Burnham, Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, had called for a minister to make a public statement about the changes.
Sky News understands the latest guidance was provided for Bolton on 14 May and the other seven areas have been added as more data has become available, with the updated guidance becoming widely known about on Monday evening.
Last week, health secretary Matt Hancock did not rule out imposing local lockdown restrictions in places worst affected by the Indian variant.