LANCASHIRE’S public health bosses today said people in Blackburn with Darwen and Burnley were free to travel in and out of their areas after confusion reigned over new government Covid guidelines.

Ministers had been accused of trying to bring in ‘local lockdowns by stealth’ by quietly slipping out guidance urging people in Indian variant hotspot areas to restrict their socialising and travel.

The updated advice issued on Friday, which was not law and came without an official announcement, came to light on the government website on Monday evening.

It encouraged people in Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Bolton, Bedford, Leicester, Kirklees and Hounslow and North Tyneside not to meet indoors in a bid to spread the halt of the highly-transmissible mutation.

The nearly two million people in those areas should only travel in and out of the areas for essential reasons - work, health and education - and also be tested twice a week, it said.

Late this afternoon public health directors for the eight affected areas issued a joint statement saying that after a meeting with government officials they had had it confirmed that there were no travel curbs on people in their boroughs.

It said: “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 each of our areas: 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.”

Earlier, Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called on the government to withdraw the new advice for the eight areas in England and demanded answers during an urgent question in the House of Commons.

He said many of the areas involved had “borne the brunt of the crisis these last 15 months” and felt “abandoned” by Westminster.

“So can the minister understand how upsetting it is, can he understand how insulting it is, to have new restrictions imposed upon us?” asked the Leicester South MP.

“Local lockdowns by stealth, by the back door, and the Secretary of State (Matt Hancock) doesn’t even have the courtesy to come and tell us,” the shadow minister added.

Mr Ashworth urged second doses of vaccines to be rolled out at a faster rate to protect against the highly-transmissible Indian mutation, while calling for ministers to “withdraw this guidance now”.

Downing Street and vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi, answering the Commons question on behalf of the government, defended the handling of the battle against the B1617.2 variant, which vaccines being rolled out in the UK have been shown to help guard against.

Mr Zahawi told MPs that the onus was on personal responsibility and that Prime Minister Boris Johnson – who has signalled he does not want to return to locally-tiered measures – still intends to take a national approach to lifting restrictions.

The government has argued that the recommendations to the hotspot areas were first issued on May 14 – with the Prime Minister urging people to be “extra cautious” – before being “formally” published online last week.

No. 10 stressed that the guidance was “not statutory” and that the government wanted to move away from “top-down edicts” as lockdown restrictions ease.

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey earlier today said she was “surprised” to hear local leaders declare that they were not told about fresh guidance calling on people in Indian variant hotspot areas to limit their travel and social interactions.

Ms Coffey said the updated guidance, affecting areas such as Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, had not come “out of the blue”.

She told Sky News: “The Prime Minister set out that we need to take extra caution in certain areas regarding the Indian variant.

“It is good practice to formally put that guidance on the record affecting those communities.

“We have been working in close contact, so I’m surprised to hear that people think this has come out of the blue – it hasn’t.

“It is about formalising on the record the guidance which we believe people can and should follow in order to make sure we tackle and don’t have more spread of the Indian variant.”

Later Mr Ashworth labelled the day’s confusion a ‘fiasco’

He said: “It has been an utterly chaotic day.

“The guidance says people shouldn’t travel unless it’s essential.

“Well it is half-term next week - should families who have perhaps booked a few days away be expected to cancel their holidays now?”

The Labour MP said he was pleased the guidance was not being enforced but says it could have been handled better by the government.