Boris Johnson apologised for “misspeaking” on Tuesday after the UK prime minister struggled to explain regional variations in Britain’s “rule of six” coronavirus regulations.
Speaking to the media after a speech on higher education in south-west England, Mr Johnson gave a muddled response when asked to clarify whether households in the north-East could mix outside — for example in pub gardens — under new local restrictions announced on Monday.
The prime minister said that people in that region should “follow the guidance of local authorities” before admitting that people would find the rules confusing.
He went on to say that for the rest of the country the threshold for gatherings was “six in a home or six in hospitality but as I understand it, not six outside”.
In fact England in early September imposed a “rule of six” banning gatherings of more than half a dozen people both indoors and outdoors. Priti Patel, home secretary, has said that she would report any such gatherings to the police if she saw them.
There are only a handful of exemptions to the rule including grouse shooting and five-a-side football, weddings of up to 15 people and some larger family “bubbles” over the size of six.
In a tweet issued later, Mr Johnson said: “Apologies, I misspoke today”.
The prime minister clarified that in the north-east people could not socialise with other households indoors and should avoid socialising with other households outside.
But he did not apologise for his factual mistake suggesting that the rule of six did not apply outdoors anywhere in England.
The UK’s coronavirus rules have become increasingly hard for the general public to follow as different parts of the country deploy different measures to try and suppress a second wave of infections.
For example Wales is still allowing meetings of up to 30 outdoors where the virus is considered less dangerous while in different parts of England an extra tier of local restrictions have been added in areas with the highest infection rates.
Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour party, said the government needed to “get a grip”. “For the prime minister to not understand his own rules is grossly incompetent,” she said.
The new restrictions in the north-east, announced on Monday, mean 2m people in households in seven council areas of north-east England, including Newcastle and Sunderland, will be barred from mixing indoors and in homes. The restrictions, which come into force on Wednesday, are now a legally enforceable ban.
One reason why the rule of six is controversial in England is because it includes children — in contrast to Wales and Scotland where they are excluded.
The Children’s Commissioner released a report on Tuesday arguing that children younger than 12 should be exempt from the rule and also exempt from restrictions on households mixing.