UK accused of reintroducing virus restrictions on the sly

LONDON (AP) — The British government faced accusations Tuesday that it was introducing 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 have said they hadn't been made aware of the changes to travel and social interaction that the Conservative government published online last Friday.

In that updated guidance, it recommended that people within the eight localities, which includes Hounslow in west London, the central 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.

Blackburn’s director of public health Professor Dominic Harrison said in a tweet that local authority areas affected were “not consulted with, warned of, notified about, or alerted” to the instruction changes.

However, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the updated guidance shouldn't be a surprise as it just formalized the outlines of what Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been saying over the past couple of weeks when warning about the so-called Indian variant.

“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," he told lawmakers.

Reintroducing local restrictions goes against the grain of the government’s stated strategy. It has said it wants to lift restrictions on a national basis, without directly ruling out local measures to keep a lid on outbreaks.

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.

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 by the new guidelines.

“Local lockdowns are the wrong approach for both public health and local economies," he said.


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