Matt Hancock has been condemned for the ‘disastrous’ timing of his announcement late last night that lockdown is being partially reimposed on parts of the north of England.
The Health Secretary tweeted the news at 9.16pm, less than three hours before the new rules came into force, sparking a social media firestorm.
Meanwhile, the full details of the crackdown were only set out by the Department of Health after 11pm, further adding to the sense of confusion and chaos.
As of midnight last night people from different households in Greater Manchester, parts of east Lancashire and West Yorkshire were banned from meeting each other inside their homes or in gardens following a spike in virus cases.
The way in which Mr Hancock announced the shift has prompted a fierce political backlash with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer leading the criticism.
Sir Keir said ‘no one would argue’ with taking swift action to stop the spread of coronavirus but he claimed announcing measures on Twitter late at night represented a ‘new low for the Government’s communications during this crisis’.
Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow minister for business and consumers and Manchester Central MP, Lucy Powell, told Times Radio: ‘The way they’ve been announced has frankly been a bit of a disaster.’
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham echoed a similar sentiment as he said the Government has a ‘habit of saying something and then it being a few hours until the detail emerges’.
The blanket approach taken by ministers has also prompted Tory anger, with backbencher William Wragg telling the Government that Greater Manchester is ‘not one homogenous area’.
He said treating such a large swathe of the country the same was ‘not the right approach’. Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs, said he agreed with Mr Wragg.
The Government has also come under fire for setting out the new crackdown just as the Muslim festival of Eid al Adha got under way as critics on social media likened it to ministers announcing on Christmas Eve that people could not visit their family.
However, Mr Hancock defended the timing of the announcement this morning as he said it was important to move quickly in order to keep ahead of the virus as it spreads.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured on Sky News today) has been condemned for announcing a local lockdown in northern England on Twitter with less than three hours’ notice
Blackburn with Darwen – the worst-hit authority in the country – will be subject to the new rules, as will Burnley, Hyndburn, Pendle, Rossendale, Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees as well as all of Greater Manchester
The new rules announced at 9.16pm last night also ban members of two different households from mixing in pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues.
However these businesses will remain open for those visiting individually or from the same household. The new rules came into force at midnight overnight.
Sir Keir said: ‘No one would argue with putting in place local action to reduce the transmission of coronavirus.
‘But announcing measures affecting potentially millions of people late at night on Twitter is a new low for the government’s communications during this crisis.’
Ms Powell told Times Radio this morning that the measures had been imposed like a ‘bolt out of the blue’.
She said: ‘The way they’ve been announced has frankly been a bit of a disaster.
‘Announcing them two hours before they come into effect is a bit of a bolt out of the blue with no-one around able to answer some of the basic questions, is not the way to build confidence and to take people with you and to maximise compliance with these steps.
‘We really do need some real answers to basic questions this morning so that people can understand what they need to do.’
Mr Burnham, who has been critical of the UK Government’s handling of the easingof lockdown, said ministers should have all of the detail ready before announcing a new policy.
He told Sky News: ‘I understand how hard this is for Government ministers having been one myself.
‘I think at the moment they’re adopting (what) feels like a new strategy of the minute they see something they are taking decisive action, and I think that’s probably the right way to do.
‘But here’s the one caveat I would place on it – they have a habit of saying something and then it being a few hours until the detail emerges.
‘And that certainly was the case last night, and later on last night a lot of people I think felt very uncertain about what exactly was being announced.
‘So what I would say to them (ministers) is I understand the need to make announcements, I understand the need for decisive action, but when ministers go in front of the cameras, make sure you’ve got the detail ready to go exactly at the same time.’
Meanwhile, Tory MPs have expressed their disquiet at the blanket nature of the reimposition of lockdown measures.
Mr Wragg tweeted: ‘Greater Manchester is not one homogeneous area. We must always err on the side of caution with Covid, but to treat all 10 boroughs the same is not the right approach.’
Sir Graham retweeted Mr Wragg’s message and said: ‘I agree. Latest update for Trafford says “infections continue to be at a low level”…’
However, the criticism of the timing of the announcement prompted a sharp rebuke from allies of the Health Secretary.
A health source told Politico: ‘Starmer seems to want us to have waited for a while before telling people.
Mr Hancock issued this series of four tweets on his Twitter page from 9.16pm last night
‘When we see a problem, we act fast. We don’t sit around twiddling our thumbs and debating rhetoric.’
Mr Hancock said this morning that the nature of the pandemic meant swift action was needed.
He told Sky News: ‘We made the announcement last night, we are moving quickly in some circumstances and I think that’s very important and it’s one of the things that when you face a pandemic like this, it is important sometimes to move quickly, if that’s what’s needed.
‘And I’m pleased that Andy Burnham is supporting this action. It’s absolutely necessary and of course sometimes we have to move quickly when we can see the growth of the virus and I understand the impact of decisions like these.
‘I understand that this is not a sort of decision that anybody would want to take, but as we’ve seen before, it is important to move quickly because the virus spreads and you’ve got to make sure you do everything you can do keep ahead of it.’
Mr Hancock said last night that ‘households gathering and not abiding by the social-distancing rules’ was a reason for the stricter rules and that the move was in order to ‘keep the country safe’.
He said: ‘We take this action with a heavy heart but unfortunately it’s necessary because we’ve seen that households meeting up and a lack of social distancing is one of the causes of this rising rate of coronavirus and we’ll do whatever is necessary to keep the country safe.’
The Government said it will give police forces and councils powers to enforce the new rules – adding that some exemptions will be put in place, including for the vulnerable.
The move comes as celebrations take place for the Muslim festival of Eid al Adha, which started yesterday evening and continues over the weekend, and after the Government reimposed quarantine measures for those arriving in the UK from Spain and Luxembourg.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (pictured in Falmouth on Wednesday) said revealing measures late at night on Twitter is ‘a new low for the Government’s communications during this crisis’
Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham (on Sky News today) said the Government ‘have a habit of saying something and then it being a few hours until the detail emerges’.
One social media user said: ‘How are they announcing this two hours before Eid. Can you imagine at 10pm on Christmas Eve they announced that people can’t visit their families’ houses from midnight. Literally would never happen.’
Another said: ‘It is very important that we all comply with the rules but if, for example, you were told you had to change your plans for Christmas Day on Christmas Eve, even the most compliant like myself would struggle with that.’
The household mixing restrictions will also apply in Leicester, which has seen the first so-called local lockdown since June, but other measures in the city will be eased. From Monday restaurants, cafes, bars and hairdressers can reopen – but leisure centres, gyms and pools will remain closed.
Tomorrow, Luton will be brought in line with the rest of the country after ‘significant progress’, the Government said.
Mr Hancock added: ‘We’re constantly vigilant and we’ve been looking at the data, and unfortunately we’ve seen across parts of northern England an increase in the number of cases of coronavirus.
‘So, today, I held a meeting of the Government’s Gold Committee and working with local leaders, including, for instance, Andy Burnham the mayor of Greater Manchester, we’ve decided that we need to take action across Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire.
‘So, from midnight tonight (Friday) we are banning households meeting up indoors.’