The UK government’s “confusing and contradictory” Covid restrictions for the north-east of England have left space for “dangerous” conspiracy theories to fill the void, the leader of Newcastle city council has warned.
Nick Forbes, the city’s Labour leader since 2011, said confusion over the latest restrictions – which even Boris Johnson got wrong – were “deeply unhelpful”, admitting even his own enforcement officers were not immediately clear how to interpret them.
Some pubs in the city were already refusing to comply with social distancing restrictions before they were tightened with little warning this week, said Forbes. He said the confusion allowed conspiracies to breed, such as the false claim that the 10pm curfew was “part of a grand plan by the council to abolish alcohol” to appease Muslims.
On Monday, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, announced that tighter restrictions would apply from Wednesday across the north-east of England.
Forbes received no warning and only received the guidelines on Wednesday morning, after the restrictions came in at midnight.
“We didn’t get any pre-warning that the government were going to make that announcement. It was deeply frustrating because the gap between the government making the announcement and the regulations being made public meant there was space for conspiracy theorists to fill the void. It’s really dangerous,” said Forbes.
“The way the government did this has undermined the very public health message that we are all trying to unite around. It’s deeply unhelpful.”
He added: “Part of the problem is there are now so many filters people get their news and information from that it’s difficult to separate out messages circulating on social media from messages coming from established, credible media sources.”
Forbes said conspiracy theories “that sound remotely plausible are quoted back at me on a more or less daily basis by people I would consider to be normal friends and neighbours … For example, somebody thought this is all part of the council’s grand plan to abolish alcohol in the city.”
He said of the suggestion that the curfew was to appease Muslims: “It’s completely ridiculous. But you can see how in the absence of clarity and the uncertainty of what this means for pubs and so on, why that could be seen as a half truth and promoted as such.”
Forbes said he had asked the government for a support package that would include money to pay for communicating the rules, as well as compensation for affected businesses and for more testing. But so far none had been forthcoming.
One particular source of confusion is whether people in north-east England are allowed to meet friends in pub beer gardens, as long as they are in a group no larger than six.
The new regulations tell pub landlords they should “take steps to ensure that people do not socialise outside of their households inside and outside your premises”. Yet a few paragraphs later the operators are told they “must take reasonable steps to ensure … bookings are not accepted, or customers admitted on to the premises if groups include more than one household and support bubble, or more than sis people if the group includes multiple households, if they will be located outdoors.”
The same document advises (but does not compel) members of the public “to not to meet with people you do not live with, unless they’re in your support bubble, in any outdoor public venues”.
Forbes said his officers had studied the document and concluded it was “probably” still legal for groups of six people to meet in a pub garden – but not in their own gardens. “How on earth are the public meant to get their head around that?” he said. “So much of this is confusing and contradictory.”
The Guardian asked the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to clarify what the rules were but had not received a response by the time of publication.
There were 705 new cases of Covid in Newcastle over the last seven days, up from 393 the week before. That gives the city an infection rate of 233 per 100,000 people, more than Bolton and far above the English average of 51.