LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson corrected himself on Tuesday after appearing uncertain about basic social distancing rules that will apply in a large swathe of England.
The government announced on Monday a tightening of restrictions on socializing in northeast England from Wednesday, in response to high and increasing COVID-19 infection rates in the region – the latest in a series of local measures.
In the affected areas, which include large urban centers such as Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland and Durham, people will face fines if they are caught meeting people from other households indoors, including in homes, pubs and restaurants.
After a junior minister said on morning radio that she did not know what the new rules were, Johnson was asked hours later whether people from different households would be able to meet outdoors in pub gardens in the northeast.
“Outside the areas such as the northeast where extra measures have been brought in, it’s six inside, six outside,” he responded, referring to the government’s “rule of six” which applies in areas not subject to specific local restrictions.
“In the northeast and other areas where extra tight measures have been brought in, you should follow the guidance of local authorities, but it’s six in a home or six in hospitality, but as I understand it not six outside,” he said.
Critics said the response was unclear and appeared to contradict the information released by the health ministry on Monday.
“For the prime minister to not understand his own rules is grossly incompetent,” said Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the main opposition Labour Party. “These new restrictions are due to come into force across huge parts of the country tonight. The government needs to get a grip.”
Johnson corrected himself soon afterwards on Twitter.
“Apologies, I misspoke today,” he said. “In the North East, new rules mean you cannot meet people from different households in social settings indoors, including in pubs, restaurants and your home. You should also avoid socialising with other households outside.”
With infection numbers rising again in different parts of the country, the government has said it wants to avoid a second national lockdown and instead is taking targeted local measures to try to slow the spread of the virus.
But the proliferation of different rules in different places has led to widespread complaints that citizens can no longer be sure what they can and cannot do, even as they face possible fines for breaching the guidance.
Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Nick Macfie
Image; British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a speech at Exeter College Construction Centre, part of Exeter College in Exeter, Britain September 29, 2020. Finnbarr Webster/Pool via REUTERS