LONDON (AP) -- Britain's health secretary defended the government's abrupt re-imposition of restrictions on social life across a swath of northern England on Friday, saying it was important to clamp down quickly on new outbreaks of COVID-19.
Matt Hancock said that while it's not the “sort of decision that anybody would want to take,'' the government had no choice.
“It is important to move quickly because the virus spreads and you've got to make sure you do everything you can do keep ahead of it,” he told Sky News.
Under the new restrictions, people from different households in Greater Manchester, England's second largest metropolitan area, have been asked to not meet indoors. The order also applies to the surrounding areas of Lancashire and West Yorkshire counties, affecting more than 4 million people in all.
Hancock said data showed the coronavirus was being spread primarily between households.
He told the BBC that “one of the terrible things about this virus is it thrives on the sort of social contact that makes life worth living.”
Opposition politicians supported the latest move but criticized the government for announcing the restrictions in a tweet from Hancock late Thursday, just two hours before they came into force at midnight.
Labour Party business spokeswoman Lucy Powell said the “bolt out of the blue” approach was “not the way to build confidence and to take people with you and maximize compliance with these steps.”
The affected region has a large Muslim population, and the restrictions coincide with the Eid al-Adha holiday, where many people would normally gather in each other's homes.
The Muslim Council of Britain's secretary general, Harun Khan, sharply criticized the way the announcements were made, saying that for Muslims in the affected areas, “it is like being told they cannot visit family and friends for Christmas on Christmas Eve itself.''
“Failure to communicate makes it difficult for communities across the country to continue working together to minimize the spread of the virus, whilst eroding trust in the ability of authorities to steer our course as we tackle the Covid-19 crisis,'' Khan said. “The UK government has failed to provide clarity on the shockingly short notice and the reasoning behind the new rules.''
The measures are the second batch of regional restrictions imposed to try to curb a second wave of the virus in Britain, following a stricter local lockdown in the central England city of Leicester. The government said restaurants, pubs, shops and hairdressers in Leicester could reopen from Monday, more than a month after they were closed amid a surge in cases.
Britain's official coronavirus death toll stands at just over 46,000, the third-highest total in the world after the United States and Brazil.