Covid travel advice “a complete shambles”

Image above: LB Hounslow Leader Steve Curran

Steve Curran, Leader of Hounslow Council, started getting phone calls at about 10.30 on Monday night (24 May). The BBC was reporting that people were advised against travelling to Hounslow, or out of it if they lived there, unless strictly necessary.

Their source? The Government Covid advice website, which had been changed at some point the previous Friday. The reason? Hounslow was one of eight named areas where the Indian variant of Covid had been detected in the population, considered a hotspot where people were now advised not to visit.

Had the Leader of Hounslow Council received any prior warning about this? ‘Absolutely not’ he told The Chiswick Calendar.

Spool forward some 16 hours to a cloudy Tuesday afternoon, with rain threatening, and there’s a little gaggle of press and media assembled on the pavement outside the civic centre in Hounslow, with their signature collection of tripods, microphones and lenses. This is what passes for a press conference these days.

The story had blown up over the morning, with council leaders and health officials in the eight named areas – Bolton, Blackburn, Kirklees, Bedford, Burnley, Leicester, North Tyneside and Hounslow – all saying the same thing, that they’d heard nothing about it and were urgently seeking clarification from the Government. Government spokespeople were equally adamant they had been consulted.

Image above: Press conference outside Hounslow House

LB Hounslow was deluged with calls from the national media. Officials spent all morning fielding anxious calls from schools and councillors whose constituents wanted to know whether they could still travel to countries on the green list the following day, and from Brentford Football Club, 5,000 of whose fans desperately wanted to know whether they would be allowed to see their team play in the final at Wembley on Saturday, with promotion to the Premier League in the balance.

We were wondering whether we’d have to refund the tickets to The Chiswick Calendar’s Jazz at George IV night on Thursday. Friends were unsure whether it would be legal to drive home from Scotland. Everyone set about re-evaluating their plans. The website statement was after all underscored by the slightly menacing reminder that it was ‘underpinned by law’.

So what, the assembled media wanted to know, was the score? What had gone on? A hastily convened meeting between (unnamed) Government officials and the local councils concerned had elicited the information that the advice was a mistake. Whose mistake was unclear, and very deliberately so, but it would be rectified and the wording on the website changed.

They are not locking down the eight areas. We are free to go about our business as usual. People are allowed to travel in and out of the borough without restriction.

The misinformation on the Government website came to be there by an ‘unclear process’. I’ll bet it did. No one in their right mind would put their hand up to a cock-up like that, would they?

So that’s alright then, a storm in a teacup, no harm done and no one to blame.

“It’s been a very difficult day” said Council Leader @CllrSteveCurran “It’s a shambles. It’s diverted me and my Director of Public Health from doing what we should be doing and dealing with testing and vaccinations”.

“I’ve spent the whole day dealing with schools and people who are concerned about the travel restrictions instead of doing what I should be doing and dealing with surge testing and vaccinations” said Hounslow’s Director of Public Health Kelly O’Neill.

Image above: Kelly O’Neill

Quick fact check

There have been 81 cases of the Indian variant identified in LB Hounslow so far, since 3 April. 50% of them have been identified in last 10 days.

Every positive Covid test is sent off to the lab for genome sequencing. They’re waiting for the results of a further 141 positive Covid tests submitted over the past seven days. The cases are clustered in the west of the borough: Feltham North and Bedfont, Hounslow Meadows (which includes Cranford), Hounslow Central, Hounslow Heath and Hounslow West.

Hounslow’s Asian population is a little over a third of its total population. Of the Indian variant cases, a third are returning international travellers, a third are their families and friends and in a third of cases they’re not sure where the infection originated. Some have been passed on through schools. One school near Bedfont had a family member in every year group, which has caused havoc.

Kelly is clear that we suffer from having Heathrow, since such a high percentage of the working population have jobs which depend on the airport. There have for example been cases of Covid in the hospitality industry in hotels where travellers are quarantined.

She is politely baffled that it has taken until now for Heathrow to decide to keep arrivals from ‘red’ countries separate from mingling with everyone else in arrivals. It’s “embarrassing” that red route weren’t segregated from amber and green, she said.

Government “risks lives” by not communicating with councils

All the angst and wasted effort of the travel ban that wasn’t could have been avoided if the Government talked to local councils. But they don’t. They haven’t over the past 14 months. Why break the habit of a pandemic? Every twist and turn: lockdowns, tiers, testing and tracing, essentialness and easing, they have learned about from press conferences and ministerial announcements like the rest of us.

“We’re continually running to catch up” says Kelly.

And clearly they’re sick of it. You’d think giving the people charged with organising testing and vaccinations, the management of business grants and advising the local populace would get a bit of a heads up, but no.

“This Government needs to step up and start communicating with councils properly” said Steve.

“It needs to inform us directly of decisions and give us time to put measures in place to inform, protect and support our communities. Anything short of that risks lives.

“We need clear, joined-up thinking and communication between Central Government, the NHS, Public Health England and local authorities. The current communication from Government on our national COVID response is woefully lacking”.

The official statement from Hounslow following the day’s deliberations is this:

Official statement from Hounslow Council

‘Following the national coverage of recently revised guidance we have met with national officials and confirmed there are no restrictions on travel in or out of Hounslow:  There are no local lockdowns.

‘In areas where the new COVID variant is spreading we are all working together to boost testing and vaccination and to support self-isolation. There are sensible public health precautions people can take as individuals in line with the sorts of advice we have all been following throughout the pandemic.

We will keep sharing that and working with national officials to make sure people understand what they need to think about as they go about their daily lives’.

Kelly O’Neill

Director of Public Health

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Government “risks lives” by not communicating with councils says Steve Curran

See also: Vaccinations stepped up in Hounslow because of the Indian variant

Support The Chiswick Calendar

The Chiswick Calendar CIC is a community resource. We publish a weekly newsletter and update the website with local news and information daily. We are editorially independent.

Please support us by buying us the equivalent of a monthly cup of coffee (or more, if you insist).

Click here to support us.

To subscribe to the weekly newsletter, go here.