The UK government on Tuesday faced accusations of "confusion and uncertainty" after it introduced additional guidance to curtail non-essential travel in and out of so-called hotspots of the B1.617.2 variant of concern (VOC), first identified in India, as part of measures to control the spread of the virus.
Local authorities in the affected areas said they were not consulted or informed as the government's coronavirus restrictions website changed its guidance over the last few days for people living in eight areas of Bedford council, Blackburn with Darwen council, Bolton Metropolitan council, Burnley council, Kirklees council, Leicester council, Hounslow council and North Tyneside council.
The guidance also calls upon residents of these regions of England to avoid indoor gatherings, which is now currently permitted in most other parts of the country as part of the lockdown lifting roadmap.
"In the areas listed... wherever possible, you should try to 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), this includes friends and family you don't live with; avoid travelling in and out of affected areas unless it is essential, for example for work (if you cannot work from home) or education," the website notes.
However, a row has broken out after the new guidance appeared to have been issued without a widespread announcement.
"This is a major change to policy that will have a huge impact on people's lives. Simply updating the government website without an official announcement is a recipe for confusion and uncertainty," said Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus.
"It seems crucial lessons have still not been learnt about the importance of clear messaging during a pandemic," she said.
Cabinet minister Therese Coffey told 'Sky News'' the government had been "working in close contact" with affected areas and she was "surprised to hear that people think this has come out of the blue - it hasn't".
"This is just part of a coordinated effort and the guidance is simply a formality recognising people need to be extra careful in those communities in particular where the issue has been spreading," she said, adding that all the guidance does is simply formalise what was already effectively happening in practice in the locality.
A Downing Street source told the BBC that all the areas were informed about the latest advice and pointed out that it was advice rather than law and therefore dismissed allegations of localised lockdown by stealth.
According to the latest Public Health England (PHE) data released last week, B1.617.2 VOC cases had risen by 2,111 over the previous week to hit 3,424 cases across the UK and experts are certain of its higher transmissibility than the dominant local B1.1.7 VOC, first discovered in the England county of Kent. The health officials continue to monitor both mutations to try and keep the UK's planned end to lockdown on track for June 21.
The UK has reported more than 4,480,760 confirmed cases and over 127,986 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 tracker.