Boris Johnson has apologised and said he “misspoke” after wrongly suggesting the “rule of six” limiting public gatherings does not apply outdoors in north-east England, adding to confusion about the latest lockdown rules.
Answering media questions after a speech in Exeter, the prime minister had said: “Outside the areas such as the north-east where extra measures have been brought in, it’s six inside, six outside.”
He went on to say: “In the north-east and other areas where extra tight measures have been brought in you should follow the advice of local authorities; but as I understand it, it’s six in a home or six in hospitality but, as I understand it, not six outside.”
His remarks came after skills minister, Gillian Keegan, was unable to answer the question of whether households in north-east England would be able to meet in a pub or restaurant garden.
An hour and a half later, the prime minister tweeted, “apologies: I misspoke today,” and stressed that in north-east England, individuals from different households “cannot” meet in any indoor social setting, and should “avoid socialising with other households outside”.
The rule of six came into force across England two weeks ago, and makes gatherings of more than six people illegal, aside from a few exemptions such as large family groups.
The Department of Health and Social Care has not yet published details of the new restrictions imposed in the north-east.
Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, 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.”
A series of new measures for England came into force on Monday, including a ban on mass singing in pubs, £1,000 fines for falsely reporting that someone must quarantine, and a £4,000 fine for those deemed “reckless”.
Nearly 2 million people in north-east England also face fines of up to £6,400 if they mix with other households indoors in a significant extension of lockdown powers. For the first time since the pandemic began, it will be illegal for people in parts of the UK to meet people they do not live with in pubs, bars or restaurants.
Asked to clarify how the rules would affect millions of households in the north-east, Keegan was unable to answer.
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 but I’m sure they can find out the answer.”
Pressed on how people were meant to keep up to date with the latest restrictions when ministers cannot, she added: “I’m sorry I can’t answer that question. I’m sure there are many people who could. I don’t represent the north-east.”
It came as the leader of Gateshead council has said he was not warned that new restrictions were to be imposed to stem the spread of coronavirus across parts of north-east England.
Martin Gannon agreed that the measures were “unfortunately” necessary to deal with the number of cases having “skyrocketed” in the north-east, but said a “proper” test-and-trace system could have managed the pandemic.
“It was announced in the House of Commons and we were not told beforehand that announcement was going to be made,” he said. “However, we had had discussions last week that led us to believe that this was going to happen. We just weren’t pre-warned that it was actually going to happen. It didn’t help.
“I got inundated with telephone calls and emails last night from people asking, ‘Can we do this, can we do that?’ and actually I didn’t have the precise wording of the regulations in front of us.
“So it is a bit chaotic the way these things happen, Nick [Forbes, the Newcastle city council leader] was quite right to be annoyed about that.”
Further lockdown restrictions are expected to be introduced on Merseyside within the next 48 hours. Government officials and local leaders were discussing the scope of the measures on Monday as the infection rate in Liverpool and Knowsley rose to among the highest in the country.
There had been speculation of a two-week shutdown of bars, pubs and restaurants in the region but council leaders would push back strongly on this without an urgent package of financial support for the industry. More likely is a version of the tightened measures that will come into force on Wednesday in large parts of the north-east, making it illegal to meet people outside your household in any indoor setting.
Ian Maher, the leader of Sefton council on Merseyside, said on Tuesday he would support additional measures but that he “would have liked to have seen enforcement of current restrictions before new ones are added”.
He added: “We want the government to extend the furlough scheme, and to provide further financial support for our businesses and their employees, particularly in the leisure, hospitality and sport industries.”
Meanwhile, the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, urged the government to let Bolton’s pubs and restaurants reopen, pointing to other areas that have higher infection rates but no restrictions on hospitality.
He tweeted: “This is the problem with local restrictions. Once they’re in, they tend to stay in. And the longer they’re in, the more the anomalies/injustices grow.
“Either ministers close hospitality in places with high cases with compensation. Or let Bolton’s open today. It’s that simple.”