Boris Johnson has apologised for muddling up his own coronavirus rules on social gatherings.
At first, he said people could meet indoors and outdoors in groups of six in areas where no additional coronavirus restrictions are in place.
But speaking during a news conference in Exeter, he claimed: “In the North East and other areas where extra tight measures have been brought in, you should follow the guidance of local authorities.
“It’s six in a home or six in hospitality but as I understand it, not six outside.”
That was at odds with what residents had been told in Northumberland, Newcastle, North and South Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham.
Official guidelines warn people living there “not to mix with people outside their household or bubble in indoor settings, including pubs and restaurants”.
And hospitality workers are obliged to “take steps to ensure that people do not socialise outside of their households inside and outside your premises”.
Mr Johnson finished his answer during an event to promote a planned skills revolution by admitting “clearly for everyone watching this, this is one of those things people will feel is confusing”.
He later tweeted “apologies, I misspoke today” – and confirmed the new rules in the North East will mean residents “cannot meet people from different households in social settings indoors, including in pubs, restaurants and your home”.
The prime minister added people should also “avoid socialising with other households outside”, and wrote that the measures were “vital to control the spread of coronavirus and keep everyone safe”.
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. (2/2)
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) September 29, 2020
Earlier on Tuesday morning, education minister Gillian Keegan was unable to say whether the new restrictions in the North East stopped people meeting up with other households in a pub garden or in an outdoor seating area of a restaurant.
“I’m sorry, I can’t clarify that,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, also adding: “I don’t know the answer to that question.”
Local council leaders criticised the government’s confused messaging over the new restrictions, as well as how the measures were announced on Monday.
Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon said, although he was a life-long Labour supporter, he needed to see better leadership from the Conservatives.
“I just want the government to get a grip, get control of the situation, show some leadership and get some respect from the country,” he said.
“Despite the fact it’s Boris Johnson and a Conservative government, we need effective public health messaging. We need strong authoritative voices nationally.”
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Nick Forbes, the Labour leader of Newcastle City Council, posted on Twitter: “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.”
He also later told Sky News: “The government jumped the gun with the announcement yesterday – took us completely by surprise – and, as a result, instead of very clear messages about getting the virus under control, we’re in a completely unnecessary row about how the government made this announcement and why we weren’t involved in it.”
Sunderland City Council leader Graeme Miller criticised Health Secretary Matt Hancock for announcing the new restrictions on Monday before letting councils know.
“It left us in a position where we were unable to provide answers to the questions our residents quite rightly wanted to ask and did nothing to inspire public confidence,” he said.
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Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner accused the prime minister of being “grossly incompetent”.
“These new restrictions are due to come into force across huge parts of the country tonight,” she said.
“The government needs to get a grip.”
And shadow justice secretary David Lammy said Mr Johnson’s “incompetence” was “putting British lives at risk”.