Fears for tiers: Government quietly issues new guidance for eight COVID hotspots

By Beth Park

Fears of the re-introduction of localised tier systems are growing, with news that people in the eight areas hardest hit by the Indian coronavirus variant are being told to avoid indoor gatherings.

If you were waking up in one of those areas this morning, you may have wondered how you missed that announcement. The truth is, you didn’t.

In another disheartening development for communities such as Bolton, Bedford, Leicester and North Tyneside, advice was published to the Government’s website on Friday, urging an “extra cautious” approach across the worst-affected areas. However, it wasn’t until yesterday that this was picked up on by some of the affected local authorities, who have expressed their disappointment that they were not consulted first.

The guidance advises people to meet outside rather than inside where possible, to keep two metres apart from those you don’t live with (unless in a support bubble), and to avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless essential. Some are labelling this a ‘local lockdown by stealth’. For others, it is just another example of a flaw in the Government’s COVID-19 communications strategy.

Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East – where 451 cases per 100,000 people were recorded in the week to 20 May – said she had not been informed and was “gobsmacked” by the updated 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, adding that many people would have made plans to travel over the bank holiday weekend.

Indeed, even further confusion was caused earlier today, after Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth demanded answers from Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi on that very matter – asking what the guidance means for people in the affected areas planning weddings, or a holiday at half-term. Speaking in Parliament, Mr Zahawi responded that people can visit family in half term, whilst also maintaining that people should avoid travelling into and out of COVID-19 hotspots.

It is certainly the case that, with the significant success of the vaccine programme and infection rates still relatively low, the UK is in an entirely different position to when the Kent variant emerged and local lockdowns were aplenty. Indeed, the Government’s roadmap was always clear that a rise in infection rates would not necessarily, on its own, lead to tougher measures.

But what a rise in infection rates in these areas means for hospitalisations, deaths, and a third wave of illness across the country is less certain. That makes deciding on a proportionate response very difficult, particularly when many of the businesses who have suffered through the last year of lockdowns maintain that they simply could not afford another blow.

The thing that is obvious, however, is that mixed messages help no-one. Indeed, the no.1 rule as a communications professional is to make your message clear.

Last year’s tier system was an unfortunate example of trying to have the best of both worlds but inevitably causing chaos and confusion along the way. Chaos and confusion that, in a pandemic, can potentially have a devastating impact.