The ‘secret pretend’ local lockdowns nobody knew about

Never mind the small print, let’s get away from it all down the M5. The forecast for the holiday weekend is good. So the least we should expect are traffic jams. – Owl 

Jennifer Williams 

At some point earlier this month, the government’s website quietly changed.

It appears to have happened on Friday, although ministers claim it dates back to May 14.

Either way, that blink-and-you’d-miss-it update has major consequences for thousands of people.

In Bolton, Blackburn, Bedford, Leicester, Kirklees, Hounslow, Burnley and North Tyneside, all places where cases of the Indian Covid variant have been rising fast, people 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’, it states.

It also specifies stricter socialising advice, warning people to only meet other households outside and to keep to the 2m rule, effectively rolling back to some of the national rules prior to May 17.

But in a technicolour re-run of the rows that played out between local and national government last year, there was no active communication of the change to the local populations affected, no press release, no announcement and zero notification to any of their local systems.

When Manchester Evening News reporter Ethan Davies spotted the change yesterday, we all had to take a step back. Was this something we already knew about, but that all of us had collectively forgotten?

But no. A few messages to local sources quickly showed this was news to them too.

“Nope…that hasn’t been communicated to Greater Manchester,” replied one. “I think it will be news to Bolton too.”

It was news to Bolton. Within minutes a source there had replied to say: “We have only just found out. No public health comms and no public health directors in all the area were aware of the change. We weren’t notified.”

As another official then said: “Which begs the question: do any of the local authorities referenced on the website know and what evidence was used to support this local restrictions guidance?”

The answer seems to have been no.

Last year these kinds of tensions were painfully common when covering the pandemic here – decisions landed from on-high at virtually no notice.

But even at the height of the madness, there was always some warning: local leaders knew shortly prior to the July 31 restrictions being introduced across Greater Manchester, for example; when the various hokey-cokey changes to borough-level measures were playing out, local authorities and MPs were generally consulted, even if they often didn’t like the outcome. Even during the tier three row, there were conversations.

This time, nobody had been told.

As in Greater Manchester, Blackburn’s public health director Dominic Harrison had no idea.

“Local government areas involved were not consulted with, warned of, notified about or alerted to this guidance,” he tweeted this morning.

“I have asked to see the national risk assessment which support this action – it has not been provided to us yet.”

In North Tyneside, director of public health Wendy Burke said the updated guidance had ‘not been accompanied by any communication to the local authority, local residents or businesses’.

Sources suggest the Local Government Association was not aware, MPs were not aware, the Association of Directors of Public Health were not aware…and it hadn’t come up on national discussions between central government and local officials.

“What’s the point of updating the government website when no Boltonian will bother to read it?” asks one senior figure here.

“If no one knows this, then there’s absolutely no chance of compliance.

“Boltonians can’t be blamed for not complying if they don’t know about any local restrictions. What’s puzzling is I didn’t know anything about these local restrictions, but did know that Boltonians have been barred from visiting Scotland, which says it all about the difference in national messaging.

“This is yet another clusterf***, to put it mildly.”

Today, meetings between local and national are escalating. There was already a meeting of Greater Manchester’s emergency Covid committee in the diary – which may end up being best summed up with a popcorn emoji – and sources say chief executives and directors of public health are meeting with Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries at lunchtime.

As yet, it remains unclear how the updated guidance ended up on, who drafted it and who signed it off.

Nevertheless the government seems, so far, to be doubling down on its latest advice.

Last night Number 10 tried to claim that the guidance had been contained in a speech by the Prime Minister on May 14, although in reality all he said was ‘those living in Bolton and other affected areas, there is now a greater risk from this new variant, so I urge you to be extra cautious’.

The government website was indeed updated on May 14 with ‘additional guidance on new variant’, according to its updates summary, although it was only on May 21 that it was updated with ‘updated guidance for areas where the new Covid-19 variant is spreading’.

This morning cabinet minister Therese Coffey appeared on Good Morning Britain to claim the web page update was ‘just an element of a formality’ around the need for extra caution in Bolton, adding that ‘the partnership has been there’.

Local level would disagree on both counts. Telling people not to travel in or out of their area feels like something a little more draconian than a formality.

As one official here points out, such a move will have an economic impact, including on hospitality.

And on ‘partnership’: “At least northern and southern councils are being treated equally sh*t.”

Or, as another puts it: “This doesn’t bode well for the future if government can’t be clear they need to have agreed a plan with local leaders. Secret pretend lockdowns ain’t going to help anyone.”