Mirror Online: LONDON, England – Half-term and bank holiday plans have been plunged into chaos after two million Brits were told not to leave variant-hit areas unless it’s “essential”.

Surprise government guidance advised people not to travel in or out of eight areas – Bedford, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.

But not even local directors of public health were told last week when the guidance was updated.

London mayor Sadiq Khan also had no idea there were restrictions on the borough of Hounslow, triggered by the B.1.617.2 Indian COVID variant.

Now Downing Street has added to the confusion by saying it will “not seek to encourage” people to travel in or out of the eight areas – but also saying there are no restrictions on those residents taking foreign holidays to the green list.

That suggests a family in Bolton is free to fly to Portugal, but is also being advised not to have their granny from the next town over for Sunday lunch.

The PM’s spokesman today stressed: “This is guidance, these are not statutory restrictions.”

But he also refused to rule out changing the law to make the guidance mandatory in future, saying: “I’m not going to jump ahead to what decisions will be made ahead of a potential move to step four.”

The PM’s spokesman also confirmed there is no extra regional cash for pubs in the eight areas – despite people being advised not to meet indoors. “There’s no change to the support set out nationally that’s available to businesses,” he said.

Asked if people should take a holiday in Bolton, Boris Johnson ’s spokesman replied: “This will be down to the public to exercise good judgement.

“So if there is an area where there is an outbreak going on, we would not seek to encourage people to go to those areas. But we will rely on people’s judgement.”

Asked if families in the eight areas should cancel half term plans, he replied the PM had “urged people to use their judgement and understand the extra risk of transmissibility this variant poses, and recognise that there is extra risk and a potential threat of disruption to the roadmap.

“So we urge people to use caution.”

But asked if people in those eight areas can travel to countries on the green list – like Portugal – he replied: “The guidance is clear on travel to the green list, that is not limited by region. So, that position is clear.”

Asked again, he replied: “As I’ve made clear, the position is set out that it is not limited to specific regions, but we would encourage people to exercise their good judgement as they have done throughout this pandemic.”

It came as the government was accused of incompetence and local lockdowns by the back door.

At exactly the same time as No10 was briefing journalists, Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi was giving apparently contradictory advice to the House of Commons.

He told MPs “yes people can visit family in half term” – if they follow social distancing. He added: “On visiting family.. meet outside rather than inside where possible.

“Meeting indoors is still allowed in a group of six or two households but meeting outdoors is safer.”

He went on: “So yes people can visit family in half term if they follow social distancing guidelines.

“The guidelines include specific sections on meeting friends and family.

“Avoid travelling in and out of the affected areas, as the PM said on May 14, unless it is essential, for example for work purposes.”

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Cities like mine in Leicester or towns and boroughs like Burnley or Bolton or Batley and Blackburn have borne the brunt of the crisis these last 15 months.

“We’ve often been in lockdown longer than elsewhere. At times we felt abandoned, we didn’t have adequate financial support. Families did their best but they struggled.

“So can the minister understand how upsetting it is, can he understand how insulting it is to have new restrictions imposed upon us? Local lockdowns by stealth, by the back door and the Secretary of State doesn’t even have the courtesy to come and tell us.”

He added: “Why was this guidance plonked on a website on Friday night and not communicated to everyone? Why were local directors of public health and local authority leaders not consulted?

“Why weren’t MPs informed? And what does it now mean for our constituents? What does it mean for the family in Leicester who have booked a few days next week for by the coast for school half term? Do they have to cancel that break?”

Officials warned against all but essential travel and against indoor mixing in the areas four days ago – and longer for Bolton – but did not tell local public health chiefs.

The rules on the government website say people in the eight areas should “meet outside rather than inside where possible”, “keep 2 metres apart from people that you don’t live with (unless you have formed a support bubble with them)”, and “avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless it is essential, for example for work (if you cannot work from home) or education”.

Yet Downing Street today refused to say it could have handled the communication better.

The PM’s spokesman said: “Throughout we’ve been clear that people in these areas should exercise the extra risk posed by the variant and exercise their judgement.”

He added: “We are in contact with local authorities and that will continue”.

Asked if the government could have handled the fiasco better, the PM’s spokesman replied: “We will continue to communicate with local areas at all levels.

“We did share marketing assets with local authority areas involved and we will continue to have discussions with local authorities at all levels to update them and seek their views as well, and that work will continue.”

It’s thought “marketing assets” is code for posters.

Asked about the non-essential travel ban, No10 said: “People should try to do this if at all possible. We recognise that in certain circumstances that will not be possible. And again, this will be down to individual judgement.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer said: “Making a major change that will impact so many people without even telling them is utterly shameful. The Government needs to provide clarity, fast.”

Bolton South East MP Yasmin Qureshi said: “I was not informed of this and I understand nor was anyone else in Bolton. I’m just gobsmacked.

“They’re making such an important announcement and they don’t even have the decency to tell us or our constituents. This is typical of this Government’s incompetence.”

Blackburn MP Kate Hollern accused ministers of a “lockdown-lite” in her area, adding: “I strongly oppose the Government’s attempt to introduce new measures by stealth and without consultation.

“Instead, the Government needs to continue to ensure it gets vaccines to where they’re needed the most.”

  • Top Feature Photo: PinPep / BEEM