Watch: Boris Johnson apologises for lack of clarity over North East coronavirus restrictions
Prime minister Boris Johnson has been slammed as “grossly incompetent” as he was forced to apologise after getting his own government’s coronavirus rules wrong.
The PM’s blunder over new restrictions on social gatherings in the northeast of England came as he answered questions on live TV just hours before they come into force, with the threat of fines for members of the public who fail to observe them.
Mr Johnson admitted that the public would find the government’s instructions “confusing” and said he was relying on “the great common sense of this country” to defeat coronavirus.
The situation was branded “another Domnishambles” by the leader of Newcastle City Council, who said he had still not received details of the new legal requirements a day after they were announced by health secretary Matt Hancock and less than 12 hours before they come into effect at midnight.
In a garbled response to a question on the new rules the PM suggested that people in the area were allowed to meet “six in a home, six in hospitality but not six outside”
In fact, the new restrictions make it illegal for people in the northeast to mingle indoors with anyone outside their own household or support bubble, while they are permitted to do so in groups of up to six outside, though they are advised not to.
Mr Johnson’s confused answer came just hours after government minister Gillian Keegan had to admit in a live radio interview that she did not know what the new rules were.
Answering questions following a speech in Exeter, the prime minister was asked whether people in affected areas of the northeast were allowed to meet up with other households in beer gardens of pubs.
He replied: “On the rule of six, outside the areas such as the northeast where extra measures have been been brought in, it's six inside six outside.
“And in the northeast and other areas where extra tight measures have been bought 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. That’s the situation.”
Apologies, I misspoke today.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) September 29, 2020
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. (1/2)
And he added: “Clearly, for everybody watching this, I appreciate that this is one of those things that people will feel is confusing. Just bear in mind that we are fighting a pandemic with the tools that we have, which is the great common sense of this country.”
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: "For the prime minister to not understand his own rules is grossly incompetent.
"These new restrictions are due to come into force across huge parts of the country tonight. The government needs to get a grip."
Mr Johnson later tweeted: "Apologies, I misspoke today. In the northeast, 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.
“This is vital to control the spread of coronavirus and keep everyone safe. If you are in a high risk area, please continue to follow the guidelines from local authorities.”
Watch: People in England face £10,000 fines for not self-isolating
Newcastle Council’s leader Nick Forbes complained on Monday that Mr Hancock had announced the new rules - which also cover Sunderland, Gateshead, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Northumberland and County Durham - without providing advance notice to local authorities.
Following the PM’s comments, Mr Forbes said: “This is the kind of entirely avoidable confusion that undermines basic public health messaging and gives a strong impression that the government are making it up as they go along.
“You can't just bluster your way through situations like this - making it up as you go has massive consequences, confuses people and undermines the very public health goals both local and central government are trying to achieve.
“It would help if they provided us with the full list of premises included in the new regulations - we haven't had it yet and they come into effect from midnight. Another Domnishambles.”
Earlier, education minister Ms Keegan was accused of “incompetence” after admitting that she did not know whether people in the local lockdown area will be able to book an outside table at a restaurant or meet people from another household in a pub garden.
"For the Prime Minister to not understand his own rules is grossly incompetent.— Labour Press (@labourpress) September 29, 2020
"These new restrictions are due to come into force across huge parts of the country tonight. The government needs to get a grip." - @AngelaRayner https://t.co/YMCLxBu67O
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m sorry I can’t clarify that... I don’t know the answer to that question… I just don’t have the details of those seven areas… I’m sorry I can’t answer that question, I’m sure there are many people (in government) who could. I don’t represent the northeast.”
She added that she “did not want to make a mistake” by answering the question when she was unsure of the specific restrictions.
Labour’s shadow health minister Alex Norris responded: “It speaks volumes that even the government’s own ministers don’t know what’s going on. This will do little to inspire public confidence in the northeast and across the country.
“The Conservatives’ incompetence is hampering our response to this pandemic.”