Health secretary Matt Hancock has said fresh lockdown rules in northern England introduced at midnight are “absolutely crystal clear” amid criticism over the way a string of changes were announced late on Thursday night.
The cabinet minister defended the government's handling of the move to ban separate households from meeting indoors in Greater Manchester, east Lancashire and parts of west Yorkshire as Labour said the late-night unveiling of the changes marked a "new low" in comms around the pandemic
In a move trailed just hours before it came into force, Hancock said it had been prompted by a rise in coronavirus cases in parts of northern England – to which a “lack of social distancing” had contributed.
Hancock told reporters on Thursday that an increase in the number of cases of coronavirus across parts of northern England had prompted the government to "take action".
“So from midnight tonight, we are banning households meeting up indoors," he said.
The health secretary added: “We take this action with a heavy heart, but unfortunately it's necessary because we've seen 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 areas affected by the fresh curbs are Greater Manchester, Burnley, Bradford Pendle, Blackburn with Darwen, Rossendale, Kirkless and Calderdale.
The move was initially announced in a series of tweets by the health secretary, alongside a television clip.
Detailed guidance on what the new changes mean in practice did not appear until later in the evening, prompting criticism from opposition parties.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer 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.
"When the government ended the daily press conferences, they said they would hold them for 'significant announcements', including local lockdowns. It’s hard to imagine what could be more significant than this."
And he added: "For all the bluster, government has failed to deliver a functioning track and trace system that would spot local flare ups like these.
"The people of Greater Manchester now need urgent clarity and explanation from the government - and there must be proper support for those businesses and people affected by any lockdown."
Manchester Central MP Lucy Powell, who also serves as a shadow minister, said the way the changes had been announced had "frankly been a bit of a disaster".
She told Times Radio on Friday morning: "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.
"It really 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."
Defending the government's strategy on Friday morning, Hancock told Sky News that the guidance was "absolutely crystal clear".
He added: "I appreciate these decisions do have significant impacts on people's lives but we want to do it with the minimum impact.
"And the evidence shows that the biggest risk in terms of the spread of this virus across this area is household transmission, when people are going to see each other in their own in each other's homes when they're not in a household together, and also visiting friends and relatives."
Guidance issued by the Department of Health and Social Care says people in the areas affected by the new rules are "not permitted to mix with other households" apart from those in their support bubbles "in private homes or gardens".
The new measures will be enforceable, with police and local authorities handed the power to impose the restrictions.
But households are permitted to go to bars, pubs and restaurants, although the Government says "two households should not go to hospitality together".
Hancock said ministers had not seen "as much transmission in terms of people in that place of work or going to retail or other areas", and said the government would not curb travel and would still allow people in the affected areas to go on holiday and travel to work.
"But we have seen a significant increase in the spread of the virus in this area, and our data from the test and trace system shows that that is mostly from households meet each other.
"So that's why we brought this very specific measure in. It's absolutely crystal clear what the measure is, which is that you shouldn't socialise with people in other households, except in public outdoor places, so not in your own home, or your garden.
"You can go to the pub but with members of your own household and that applies to other areas of hospitality as well.
"So the rules are absolutely crystal clear. We brought them in rapidly because we had to, and we entirely understand the impact that this has."
Earlier this week Oldham pressed ahead with its own coronavirus restrictions after a dramatic rise in confirmed incidences of the virus.
The town’s leaders have asked clinically vulnerable people to remain in shielding until August 14, while residents face a two-week ban on visits by people from outside their immediate household.
Leicester curbs urged
The fresh measures in Greater Manchester came as the government confirmed that pubs and restaurants in Leicester are set to reopen from Monday.
The borough of Oadby and Wigston will also move out of a local lockdown – but the wider area will continue to be subject to the curbs.
All areas in the Leicester lockdown will be affected by the new restrictions on household visits.
Matt Honeycombe-Foster is acting editor of CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared.