A government minister has accused BBC News of treating interviews like a “quiz show” after Boris Johnson got local coronavirus restrictions wrong.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma criticised the “gotcha line of questioning” when asked about the PM’s mistake over rules in the North East.
But a police chief for the area said Mr Johnson’s mistake had “stoked further confusion” for people.
Reports say a ban on households mixing indoors could extend to Merseyside.
‘Check rules online’
On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Sharma was pressed on why – when questioned on Tuesday by Channel 5 – the prime minister was not able to clarify restrictions on social gatherings in north-east England.
Mr Johnson’s confusion came hours after minister Gillian Keegan was also unable to clarify parts of the new rules.
Mr Sharma said there was “an element of slightly ‘gotcha’ about this in terms of this line of questioning”, reminding Today’s Martha Kearney she was on “a flagship programme” and “not a quiz show”.
“If people want to understand the precise restrictions that they have in areas which are more restricted, then they should go on to the [local authority] websites,” he added.
The government’s web pages on coronavirus have links to information from local authorities.
Mr Sharma said the government’s “overall message” was that people should keep to the rule of six, wash their hands, cover their faces and make sure they maintain social distancing.
In the affected areas of north-east England, people will no longer be allowed to mix with anyone outside their own household in any indoor setting – although support bubbles are exempt.
In total, at least 16.6 million people are in local lockdowns in the UK – about one in four people.
The Times reports that officials will decide on Wednesday whether Merseyside will be the latest area to face a ban on households mixing indoors.
And about 500,000 people in four council areas in north Wales are to face local lockdown restrictions from Thursday evening.
Labour shadow health minister Alex Norris criticised Mr Sharma’s comments.
“The prime minister should understand the rules he is asking huge numbers of people to follow. That’s not a gotcha, that’s just basic government competence,” he said.
‘Sensible and practical’
Meanwhile Kim McGuinness, Labour’s police and crime commissioner for Northumbria Police, told Today that Mr Johnson “caused a lot of confusion” when he “misspoke” on Tuesday.
She said following the restrictions was a “big ask” for people and that the government should “be better at communicating in advance of these local restrictions”.
A health psychologist and member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said confusion has become a problem for people trying to follow coronavirus rules.
Prof Lucy Yardley told the BBC: “I think it is a real problem that people are trying to follow top-down rules that are changing all the time and are different in different places and in different organisations.
“We need less rule following and more working together to work out, in your individual situation, what is the best way to minimise the risk to the people around you.”
Prof Yardley said people are following the rules “as far as they think is sensible and practical for them” and are “probably getting it right” by viewing the rules this way.
Mr Sharma urged people – in particular, university students – to follow coronavirus rules.
When asked by BBC Breakfast about a video which appears to show a large group of students having a party at Coventry University, he said: “This has been actually a very, very difficult time for young people and actually, they want to get back to some sense of normality, we can’t just lock people down forever.
“Universities are open, students have gone back, and of course we ask them, just as we ask the rest of the population, to follow the rules, follow the guidance, and act responsibly, and ultimately this is for their own good, and I hope people will do that.”
Mr Sharma added that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was looking into how to make “possible” his commitment that students will be able to go home for Christmas.
The prime minister is expected join the the UK government’s chief medical adviser, Prof Chris Whitty, and the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, at a Downing Street press conference at 5pm.
The UK recorded 7,143 confirmed coronavirus cases on Tuesday, a new high since mass testing began. Deaths recorded within 28 days of a positive test also rose to 71, the highest total since 1 July.
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