Guidance criticised as “local lockdowns by stealth” published on the government’s website affects those who live or work in one of eight local authority areas in England where the Covid variant first detected in India is spreading. It also affects anyone planning to travel there, whether for a holiday or to visit friends or family.
Which areas are affected?
Bedford, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Kirklees, Leicester, the London borough of Hounslow, and North Tyneside. About 1.7 million people live in these areas.
Can you travel in and out of these areas?
Legally, yes, though new guidance says you should “avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless it is essential, for example for work (if you cannot work from home) or education”. But Bolton’s Conservative council leader, David Greenhalgh, said on Tuesday that Boltonians could still go away for the bank holiday weekend or half-term and should not cancel their holidays. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, agreed: “I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that people should change their plans.” But at least one couple from Bolton have already had their hotel booking cancelled. Paul and Ursula Rosimus complained they were being treated “like lepers” when a hotel in the Isle of Wight said they could not visit in June.
What about from Scotland?
Not to or from Bolton, Bedford and Blackburn. Last week the Scottish government announced a temporary travel ban for Scots visiting those places.
Can you go inside a pub or restaurant, or a friend’s house if you live in the eight areas?
Legally, yes. But the guidance advises to “meet outside rather than inside where possible”.
Can you hug a friend or relative?
Legally, yes. But you are advised to “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 do not live with.
Should I get tested for Covid?
If you live or work in one of the affected areas the government wants you to get tested twice a week, using a rapid lateral flow test from a local pharmacy if you do not have symptoms or, if you do have symptoms, a more reliable PCR test that gets sent to a lab for analysis.
What about vaccines?
Extra vaccine doses have been given to some of these places and some are offering “surge vaccinations” of people aged 16 upwards, if they fit the criteria. In Bolton and Blackburn, health bosses have been open about finding reasons to vaccinate people rather than turning them away. This includes vaccinating all members of multigenerational households as well as young people who live or work with anybody who has an underlying condition.
Did Sage experts recommend the travel restrictions?
Not explicitly. Recent documents from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) stress the need for “rapid containment” of the India variant – with testing, tracing and in particular isolation – being of huge importance for bringing the outbreaks under control. Getting case numbers down is seen as the most effective way of preventing the virus from spreading more widely. Local travel restrictions are not mentioned by Sage, but outbreak modellers make clear that for surge vaccinations to work they must be combined with “short-term non-pharmaceutical interventions covering the area in question”, which could plausibly include travel restrictions. On 13 May, Sage highlighted the need for “responding quickly, taking strong measures, and doing so over a wider geography than where the issues have been identified”.
Will the restrictions work?
Local travel restrictions may slow the spread of the variant from the worst hotspots but are not enough on their own to prevent outbreaks from spilling over into neighbouring areas. The India variant, known as B.1.617.2, has been detected in three-quarters of English local authorities.
Why have the restrictions caused so much confusion?
The travel guidance was updated on Friday but many local public health officials were still in the dark on Monday. The lack of any formal announcement prompted immediate criticism. Prof Stephen Reicher at the University of St Andrews, a member of the behavioural science subgroup that feeds into Sage, called the messaging “a mess” because the government had “painted itself into a corner”.
“They have ignored ‘data not dates’, raised expectations so high about relaxation of measures and invested so much political capital in reopening on time that they cannot back out. But at the same time they cannot ignore all the data about the dangers of the new variant,” he said. “So, at the same time as they spin an ‘all is fine, we are on top of the variant, nothing to see here’ message, they are acutely aware of the dangers of spread. So they tell people not to do the things they are told they can do, such as travel, meet, hug and drink, and put new restrictions in place. It is all a bit of a mess and they need to be open about the risks and how we mitigate them.”