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UK accused of reintroducing virus restrictions on the sly

LONDON (AP) — The British government faced criticism Tuesday that it was introducing local lockdowns by stealth after it published new guidelines for eight areas of England that it says are hotspots for the coronavirus variant first identified in India.

Lawmakers and local public health officials have said they had not been made aware of the changes 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, should not meet up indoors or travel outside their areas.

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.

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 quash outbreaks.

Cabinet minister Teresa Coffey said the updated guidance should not be a surprise to anyone as it just formalized “on the record” 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.

“The prime minister set out that we need to take extra caution in certain areas regarding the Indian variant,” she said. “It is good practice to formally put that guidance on the record affecting those communities.”

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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Pan Pylas, The Associated Press