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LONDON: Britain’s health secretary on Friday defended his decision to order a lockdown across northern England just hours before Muslims were due to start Eid Al-Adha cerebrations.

Matt Hancock said people from different households would be banned from meeting indoors in Greater Manchester, east Lancashire, and parts of West Yorkshire — areas with sizeable Muslim populations — after a spike in cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Hancock announced the move in a tweet after 9 p.m. local time on Thursday evening, less than three hours before the rules were to come into force, sparking a huge social media backlash.]

The government was criticized for imposing the measures with no notice as one of the holiest days and important holidays in Islam was about to begin. Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer called the announcement a “new low for government communications.”

Some social media posts likened the decision to stopping families from meeting up just hours before Christmas Day.

Twitter user @ellepyr said: “My friend just told me she had decorated her house, hired a bouncy castle and prepared a feast for family coming over for Eid Al-Adha. However, due to this last-minute announcement plans are ruined.”

Another social media user said: “How are they announcing this two hours before Eid? Can you imagine at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve they announced that people can’t visit their families’ houses from midnight? Literally would never happen.”

Hancock said he sympathized with the Muslim population in the affected areas, and that his “heart goes out” to them, but justified his decision because the virus “thrives off social contact,” and in order to prevent its spread, people from separate households should not be meeting up.

Further south in England, the city of Leicester was still under a local lockdown but, unlike in that city, the northern lockdown will still allow people to visit bars, restaurants, shops, and places of worship if with people from their own household.

“The evidence shows that the biggest risk in terms of the spread of the virus across this area is household transmission, when people are going to see each other in each other’s homes when they are not in a household together, and also visiting friends and relatives,” Hancock added.

“Actually, we are not seeing as much transmission when people are going to their place of work or retail or other areas.”

Talking to Sky News, Hancock said that “households gathering and not abiding by the social-distancing rules” had led to the decision being made, which had been taken to “keep the country safe.”

One critic of the move within Hancock’s own Conservative Party, MP William Wragg, said: “Greater Manchester is not a homogeneous area. We must always err on the side of caution but to treat 10 boroughs the same is not the right approach.”

According to local figures, 85 percent of new COVID-19 cases recorded in newly locked down places such as the Lancashire towns of Oldham and Blackburn were among the south Asian community.

Mosques in the affected areas were quick to remind worshippers that they were still open for Eid prayers, with safety precautions in place.

“The latest restrictions on gatherings do not apply to public places. We will carry on and perform the Eid Salah and Jummah. Please keep in mind that we have put in safety measures for everyone’s safety so please follow our advice,” the British Muslim Heritage Center in Manchester said in a statement.

“To attend the prayers, you have to be registered. You must wear a mask and bring your own prayer mat and a bag for your shoes. Anyone just turning up without being registered will be turned away.”

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