Confusion has been mounting over current Covid-19 guidance after the government quietly issued a fresh warning against travel to and from eight areas of England.
The London borough of Hounslow is among the locations singled out in the new guidance due to high prevalence of the highly transmissible Indian variant of the virus.
According to the guidance, which is not law, journeys to and from Bedford, Blackburn and Darwen, Bolton, Burnley, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow, and North Tyneside should be avoided “unless essential”. However, exemptions include travelling for work, when working from home is not possible, and going to school or university.
The guidance affects about 2m people across England and but also those who enter and leave every day to go to work, school or for leisure.
London’s Heathrow airport is in the borough of Hillingdon, but many of its staff will live adjacent borough of Hounslow. As they cannot work-from-home, many staff will be leaving a variant-heavy location and interacting with those using the international travel hub.
The updated measures also state that people should avoid meeting indoors.
The guidance was published online on Friday without an official announcement.
Some of the local authorities said they were not consulted about the new advice, prompting criticism that the government was attempting to introduce local lockdowns by stealth.
Downing Street insisted all affected areas had been informed of the new advice, while the Department of Health said the guidance encouraged people to take an “extra cautious approach” in Covid hotspots.
Ministers earlier this month issued advice against all but essential travel to Bolton in Greater Manchester and Blackburn with Darwen, with people urged not to meet indoors.
Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East, said she had not been informed of the changes and was “gobsmacked” by the new guidance.
“They’re making such an important announcement and they don’t even have the decency to tell us or tell our constituents,” she said.
Health secretary Matt Hancock last week said surge testing and additional vaccines would be rolled out in areas of concern including Hounslow, Ealing and Harrow in a bid to halt the spread of the Indian Covid variant.
However, he did not outline any guidance on travel restrictions or indoor socialising.
This morning government minister Therese Coffey told Sky News: “The Prime Minister set out that we need to take extra caution in certain areas regarding the Indian variant.
“It is good practice to formally put that guidance on the record affecting those communities.
“We have been working in close contact, so I’m surprised to hear that people think this has come out of the blue – it hasn’t.
“It is about formalising on the record the guidance which we believe people can and should follow in order to make sure we tackle and don’t have more spread of the Indian variant.”
Coffey urged people living in areas where the Indian variant is spreading to consider “whether it really is essential” for them to travel, including when going on holiday to a “green list” destination.
Labour leader Keir Starmer demanded the government provide clarity “fast” over the changes.
“Making a major change that will impact so many people without even telling them is utterly shameful,” Starmer said.
“The government needs to provide clarity, fast. Local lockdowns are the wrong approach for both public health and local economies.”