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The Welsh government has mounted a staunch defence of the need for a nationwide lockdown as it announced “sharp and deep” measures despite having the lowest rate of Covid-19 cases of the four UK nations.
The first minister, Mark Drakeford, insisted the two-week “firebreak” – under which schools, shops, pubs and hotels will close and citizens will be told to stay at home – was needed to prevent thousands more deaths and the NHS becoming overwhelmed.
The move means England is the only part of the UK not to bring in a form of national “circuit breaker”, even though it has been advised to do so by experts on the Sage committee, by teachers’ leaders, doctors and by the Labour party.
On Monday 18,804 new lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus were reported in the UK and 80 deaths. The number of people newly admitted to hospital rose to 988, bringing the total received treatment to 5,608 including 592 in ventilator beds. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, warned the Commons of increasing rates of the virus among older people.
But following the Welsh announcement, Boris Johnson’s spokesman defended the UK government’s approach. “We keep all of our measures under review but the prime minister has made very clear that he doesn’t want a return to something like a national lockdown and he believes that our three-tiered approach is the right way forward,” he said.
Last week it emerged that UK ministers had ignored advice from Sage for a country-wide circuit breaker to avoid “catastrophic consequences”.
In Wales, businesses including pubs, hotels, gyms, hairdressers and non-essential shops will have to close from Friday evening and will remain shut until 9 November. People will not be allowed to attend Halloween or Bonfire Night celebrations or travel around or to Wales for the half-term holiday.
While the Labour-led Welsh government insisted children were its priority, many pupils will not immediately return to classrooms after the half-term break. Primary and special schools are to reopen as normal after half-term but secondary schools will reopen after the half-term only for children in years 7 and 8 and for those taking exams. Other pupils will continue their learning from home for one extra week.
College students will study from home in the week commencing 9 November and universities will continue to provide a blend of in-person and online learning.
Ministers made it clear they had acted in light of a paper from the technical advisory group (TAC) which predicted that as many as 6,000 people in Wales could die this winter if no action was taken.
There was dismay from representatives of the hospitality and retail industry, but Drakeford said: “There are no easy choices in front of us. We know that if we do not act now, it will continue to accelerate and there is a very real risk that our NHS would be overwhelmed.”
The first minister said the firebreak would not be extended beyond 9 November, but he did not rule out further measures at a later date. He said he did not expect the number of new Covid cases to come down until after the firebreak.
The temporary lockdown will be used “very purposefully” according to Drakeford, who said he aimed to strengthen the test, trace and protect system and prepare field hospitals. Police will be able to issue fixed-penalty notices or fines to people who flout the rules, but Drakeford said he hoped the lockdown would be self-policed.
Paul Davies, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, strongly criticised the move. He said: “This is not a two-week break to solve the pandemic, it is likely that we will see regular lockdowns across the rest of the year.” He said the lockdown was not proportionate and would badly affect businesses in areas with low levels of Covid-19, such as Powys, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion.
The TAC paper recommended “a two- to three-week hard firebreak to bring R below 1 in order to both lessen the impact and slow the growth of the epidemic in Wales”. It said that for the first time in this second wave of infections, the incidence for Wales was higher than 100 cases per 100,000 people, at 127. The R, or reproduction, number is estimated to be 1-1.4 in Wales, compared with 1.2-1.4 in England, 1.25-1.6 in Scotland and 1.4-1.8 in Northern Ireland.
The paper added: “We are currently tracking to our reasonable worst case (RWC) that projects around 18,000 hospitalisations and 6,000 deaths due to Covid-19 over the winter period. By comparison, since the beginning of the pandemic there have been around 2,600 deaths [in Wales] from Covid-19.”
It said seeding of the virus from “high-incidence” areas in north-west England was taking place across north Wales and as far away as the remote Llŷn peninsula. The paper continued: “Over a fortnight’s break, two weeks of growth could be exchanged for two weeks of decay in transmission, assuming good adherence to measures and no additional increase in contacts before or after the break.
“If this were as strict and well-adhered to as the restrictions in late May, this could put the epidemic back by approximately 28 days or more.”
The Welsh health minister, Vaughan Gething, said that faced with the TAC warning about the number of deaths, ministers had no choice but to act. “That level of harm is not something ministers should contemplate as being acceptable,” he said.
Ministers announced an “enhanced economic resilience fund” of almost £300m to support businesses affected. The government wrote to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to ask for Welsh businesses to be given early access to the job support scheme but was told this was not possible.
Everyone in Wales will be required to stay at home, with some exceptions. Key workers and those for whom working from home is not possible are allowed out, and people will be allowed to leave home to exercise.
Non-essential shops, tourism and hospitality businesses will have to close, except for takeaways, along with community centres, libraries and places of worship, except to hold funerals and weddings.
Gathering with people from other households indoors or outdoors will be banned. There will be an exception for people who live alone, who can continue to join one other household.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Wales to go into national two-week ‘firebreak’ Covid lockdown | UK news