Council leaders in England were given five minutes’ notice of local lockdown rules being confirmed in their areas, according to emails seen by the Guardian.
Amid growing calls for local authorities to have more control over restrictions, Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, is urging ministers to put councils “in the driver’s seat”.
Hartlepool and Middlesbrough councils were only informed of the confirmed detail of the proposed restrictions when they received a draft press release from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) at 10.25am on Thursday, five minutes before the measures were announced by Matt Hancock, leaked emails suggest.
In Merseyside, where new rules were also announced on Thursday, it is understood that council bosses were briefed on the measures 30 minutes before Hancock’s statement. One senior source said they were surprised and concerned that the rules had been “watered down” from what had been discussed with a minister only 12 hours earlier.
The restrictions are a significant extension to nationwide measures and make it illegal for households in the areas to mix in any indoor setting, including pubs, bars, restaurants and cinemas. The legislation will apply to nearly 5 million people across Merseyside, Warrington and most of north-east England from Saturday. The DHSC said discussions had taken place with local leaders over a number of days.
Starmer called for change after a week of “massive frustration”, he said, from local authorities. “The message to the government is: involve local leaders, whether it’s council leaders or mayors, much more intensely, and much earlier. Because what’s going on is sometimes consultation, sometimes not.”
Andy Preston, the Middlesbrough mayor, said there had been a “monstrous and frightening lack of communication” from the government, which had shown “disregard for local expertise, local knowledge and local need.”
Earlier this week Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle city council, accused ministers of creating “chaos and confusion” by making significant announcements affecting millions of people without properly consulting local leaders.
Local leaders say it is vital that they are closely involved in decisions, not least because they are often the first port of call for residents trying to understand new guidance.
Emails show that a senior DHSC official wrote to Hartlepool and Middlesbrough councils on Wednesday evening to say Hancock wanted them to provide “written confirmation” that the leaders “have been engaged and understand the measures being proposed”.
Hartlepool officials pushed back, saying it was not clear what measures were being proposed and they would not agree to restrictions “seemingly being proposed for us” that would make illegal any household mixing in pubs, bars and restaurants.
It is understood that the council leaders were then left in the dark until they were sent a draft press release by a DHSC official at the same time that Hancock was announcing the new rules in the Commons on Thursday.
Hartlepool officials demanded that the announcement be withdrawn pending further discussion. However, by that time the measures had been announced on live television.
Requests for an urgent conference call with the health secretary were rebuffed as Hancock was still on his feet in the Commons. The leaders then expressed their anger in a call with Helen Whately, a junior health minister.
The announcement also prompted frustration in Merseyside. The six local council leaders and Steve Rotheram, the mayor of Liverpool city region, had been in contact with DHSC ministers, officials and Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, all week but were left in the dark about the detail of the measures until just before they were announced.
In contrast to Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, the Merseyside leaders were anxious for stricter measures than those proposed by the government. Infection rates in the region have surged since the beginning of September, with Liverpool and Knowsley recording the highest infection rates in England, at five times the national average.
Merseyside officials have asked DHSC to urgently provide the scientific evidence behind the measures and to significantly increase financial support for the area.
A DHSC spokesman said: “It is wrong to claim councils were only given short notice as in fact discussions and engagement had been taking place for several days. We understand how much of an imposition these measures are but they are based on the latest scientific evidence and are in place to suppress the virus, protect all of us while doing everything possible to support the economy.”