The Independent Sage group of scientists said the government’s failure to explain the new regional ban on different households meeting indoors with any clarity would damage public engagement with the guidance, which is soon to be law.
The announcement of a ban on indoor gatherings in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and east Lancashire – which also covers the city of Leicester – was made at about 9.15pm on Thursday via a series of tweets and a short TV clip by health secretary Matt Hancock.
“This is no way to handle a pandemic,” said Professor Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine. “It seemed designed to undermine public confidence.”
Professor Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at UCL, added: “Having such sudden announcements is very damaging from the point of view of morale and people’s engagement.
“We’ve also had real problems [with] mixed messaging. It means people are not understanding the messaging, getting alienated from it.”
Muslim leaders have condemned the government for the “shockingly short notice” of new restrictions, which was announced just before the Eid festival began. The new rules ban people in affected regions from meeting each other inside homes or in gardens.
The government announced that pubs, cafes, restaurants – and places of worship – can reopen in Leicester from Monday following four weeks in more extensive lockdown than the rest of the country. But people from different households in Leicester cannot meet in homes or gardens.
The Independent Sage panel condemned the “inconsistencies and apparent insensitivities” in the announcement.
“There’s an inconsistency when people are told you can go to pubs, which is not an appropriate place to celebrate Eid, but you can’t do this in private gardens – which is a lot safer,” said Professor Michie.
“It’s part of pattern of not having joined-up messaging with enough preparation and planning to engage people in a response.”
Professor Stephen Reicher said the handling of the announcements for Leicester and the north of England were “in many ways deplorable – at the last minute in the evening on Twitter”.
The Independent Sage called on the government to release the data on local transmission between households, after Mr Hancock said the spike in transmissions is largely due to people visiting family and friends and failing to stick to social distancing rules.
Mr Hancock insisted the new guidelines were “crystal clear”. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, however, said “announcing measures affecting potentially millions of people late at night on Twitter is a new low for the government’s communications during this crisis”.
Boris Johnson announced on Friday that measures due to be lifted on Saturday across England – including allowing small wedding receptions and reopening bowling alleys and casinos – have been postponed for at least two weeks.
The group of independent experts – led by former chief scientific adviser for England Sir David King – is calling on the government to adopt a “zero Covid” strategy.
They argue that effectively eliminating the virus by getting the number of infections down to one case per million people should be the government’s focus, rather than easing any more restrictions.
“We cannot [continue] like this,” said Prof Scally. “This will be a very difficult situation if it were to continue month after month. It would be much better to concentrate our efforts on getting down to zero and maintaining zero.”
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