Why did the government change Covid guidance without announcing it?

New advice, which seems to amount to local lockdowns, appeared on the UK government website on Friday evening.

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People in Kirklees, Bedford, Burnley, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside – the areas of England most affected by the Indian variant of coronavirus – should try to avoid meeting indoors and travelling in and out of affected areas unless it is for essential purposes.

This guidance was published on the government website on Friday evening (21 May), but with no accompanying announcement. Four days later, local health officials, councils and MPs for the areas have reacted with anger at the lack of notice before, or indeed after, these changes, which were unearthed by the team at the Manchester Evening News. The government is now facing accusations that it has been trying to impose local lockdowns by stealth.

So what's going on? MPs this morning are baffled by the whole thing, with one noting that ministers would have needed to approve the changes. But the fact that it has blindsided even local Conservative MPs suggests that sign-off didn’t happen, or that something went wrong. While some MPs are wondering whether the advice was in fact published in error, Downing Street has said that the press conference on 14 May about the Indian coronavirus variant, which didn't contain specific guidance beyond urging caution, effectively amounted to an announcement of these changes.

Everyone should now avoid non-essential travel to these areas and local residents should not leave these areas for non-essential purposes, the government has advised, while stressing that this is only advice and that work and education both comprise essential reasons for travel. But aside from adding to the alienation that many areas have felt at the imposition of local measures with insufficient communication or consultation, this raises questions about the value or otherwise of advice without regulation.   

[see also: How the Indian variant threatens recovery]

Londoners and fans of Bend it Like Beckham will note that Hounslow, one of the areas on the list, is located beside Heathrow airport, and the airport is indeed deemed to be in Hounslow by many people. The government will be thankful that Heathrow is technically in Hillingdon, so it hasn’t inadvertently advised against travel to one of the country’s major airports. But people in Hounslow, as in the other named areas, will now be asking themselves whether it is safe to go to work (in many cases for workers in Hounslow, at Heathrow), while people travelling through Hounslow on the Tube to and from this major hub airport will question whether it is safe. Scary-sounding advice from the government prohibits neither action but will make all of it feel less safe.   

MPs are clamouring for answers about how the advice managed to be issued in this way. But a lot of them have bigger questions about whether the next phase of coronavirus management will amount to this: measures, which the government is reluctant to enforce or communicate for fear of being seen to impose a local lockdown, potentially resulting in a worst-of-both worlds scenario that both alienates residents and does little to stop the spread of the virus. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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