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The Government Has Been Accused Of A "Domnishambles" After The PM Got The New North East Coronavirus Rules Wrong

Boris Johnson appeared not to know the details of the coronavirus restrictions placed on North East England (PA)

5 min read

The government has been accused of “making it up as they go along” by the mayor of Newcastle after Boris Johnson was forced to apologise for getting the rules wrong about the tighter coronavirus restrictions he is about to implement in the north east.

The prime minister was asked whether the ‘rule of six’ around meeting people applied to outdoor settings, after confusion arose around the exact guidelines.

It comes after additional measures come into place for Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Northumberland and Sunderland from midnight tonight, making it illegal to meet people from other households in any "indoor setting".

However, it has remained unclear if settings such as pub beer gardens or restaurant terraces would count, with minister Gillian Keegan unable to clear up matters on Tuesday morning.

And speaking at a press conference in Exeter, Mr Johnson seemed to wrongly suggest the rule only applied indoors.

Asked about the issue, he replied: "On the rule of six, outside the areas such as the north east where extra measures have been brought in, it’s six inside, six outside.

"And in the north east or other areas, where extra tight measures have been brought in, you should follow the guidance of the local authorities.

“But it is six in a home, six in hospitality, but as I understand it, not six outside. That is the situation there.”

The position was later clarified by the Department of Health and Social Care, who said while it would not be illegal to meet people from other households in outdoor hospitality areas in the north east, it would go against guidance on social distancing.

And Mr Johnson later tweeted: “Apologies, I misspoke today. 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. 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.”

But in response Nick Forbes, Newcastle’s mayor, said it was “another Domnishambles” - a reference to the PM’s chief aide Dominic Cummings,  who was accused of breaking lockdown rules in May.

He said of Mr Johnson’s answer: “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.”

He added: “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.”

And Catherine McKinnell, the Labour MP for Newcastle North, called the confusion over the rules “deadly”.

She said of the PM: “If he has no idea of his own government’s rules, how can he know or understand their impact on households & local communities? 

"Or blame ordinary members of the public for not understanding his rules (most don’t). This chaos and confusion is nothing short of deadly.”

Her party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, added: “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."

It came after Ms Keegan was asked about the same issue when appearing on the BBC on Tuesday.

She said: "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 to that question."

Pressed on how people are meant to keep up if ministers cannot, she said: "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."

And in a briefing with reporters, Downing Street was unable to clarify if households could mix in beer gardens in north east England.

The prime minister's official spokesman said: "It is the case that events are moving at speed and it's right that we can move quickly in relation to localised outbreaks working with local leaders to ensure that we have steps in place to help to slow the spread of the virus."

In response to Ms Keegan’s comments Kate Osborne, the Labour MP for Jarrow, tweeted: "If a government minister doesn’t know the latest guidelines, why do they expect people in the north east to know them? 

“The catastrophic communications from central government has been incredibly incoherent and just a whole load of mixed messaging.”

And Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead council, blamed central government for the spike in cases by not allowing local authorities to tackle the spread of the virus.

He told the BBC: “We have the pathology labs and the technology. We have the resources, we have the people there able to do the work.

“All we needed was the reagents and the kits supplied to us, rather than being sent away to national contractors. God only knows what they are doing with them.

“So it’s been the government’s failure, in terms of test, trace and trace, which is getting us to this place, which means we’re now back in a situation where the virus is out of control. 

"And, frankly, that makes me absolutely furious.”

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