Wales entered a full lockdown, as Tier 4 restrictions began at one minute after midnight on Sunday, Dec 20. The Welsh government reimposed these restrictions after the UK coronavirus death toll surpassed 70,000 on Christmas Day.
Mark Drakeford had previously stated that the country would enter a new Tier 4 lockdown for three weeks following Christmas. However, the restrictions were brought forward to Dec 20 following concerns over a new strain of the virus.
The Welsh Labour leader said a “sustained rise in coronavirus” meant that the country would have to move into its highest level of restrictions. His announcement came after a meeting with the first ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as Michael Gove, on the new strain of coronavirus.
This came just before the UK reached a daily record of Covid-19 infections on December 28, when the Government announced 41,385 new lab-confirmed cases.
A further 357 people also died within 28 days of testing positive with the virus.
All non-essential retail, close contact services, gyms and leisure centres and hospitality closed at “end of trading” on Saturday Dec 19. Restrictions over Christmas were also tightened: the five-day relaxation period was scrapped and only two households were permitted to mix on Christmas Day.
Mr Drakeford detailed how the pattern of transmission in London and the South East of England, which has been linked to the new variant, is “remarkably consistent with the rapid acceleration of transmission in Wales” and the high case rates seen in recent weeks. He said the latest evidence suggested that the new strain is “present throughout Wales”.
The First Minister reiterated evidence that while the new strain does not appear to be more severe or have a higher mortality rate, it is 70 per cent more transmissible than the coronavirus.
Mr Drakeford told the Welsh Government briefing the new lockdown would last for an initial three weeks.
“I can’t offer you a prediction of how long this will last. It will last for three weeks in the first instance,” he said.
“I said earlier there was small grounds for optimism given what we saw in the firebreak period and we begin to see the impact upon our health service within 10 days on measures being taken.
“We will need to track that carefully, see where it gets us and review at the end of the three weeks and see whether it is possible to alleviate any of the measures on a regional or a national basis.”
Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething has said people who were previously shielding “should no longer attend work or school outside the home” due to the surge in coronavirus cases in Wales.
Letters confirming the advice from the country’s chief medical officers to clinically-vulnerable people will be “unavoidably delayed” due to the Christmas period, he said.
Mr Gething said in a statement on Dec 22: “This decision has been taken based on number of factors but has been influenced most recently by the significant recent growth in rates of infection, possibly due to the new variant of the coronavirus.
“We have also taken account of the pressures we see on our health service with increasing hospitalisations. This advice will be reviewed on a three-weekly basis aligned to the Welsh Government reviews of alert levels across Wales.”
Health officials in Wales admitted on December 17 that 11,000 positive coronavirus tests haven’t been included in official figures. It means the number of cases recorded in the past week may be twice as high as previously thought.
Details of a four-tier traffic light lockdown system were announced at the Welsh government coronavirus briefing on December 11.
“The plan sets out four alert levels. We are at alert level three. The traffic light is red. The level of risk is very high,” Mark Drakeford said. A full coronavirus control plan was published on December 15.
But amid growing pressure from scientists and a surging case rate, Mr Drakeford met virtually with Michael Gove and the leaders of the devolved administrations on December 15 to discuss the viability of the four-nation “Christmas bubble” plan.
Mr Drakeford told the Welsh Parliament “the choice is a grim one”, noting “In either direction, harm is done… If we seek to prevent people from meeting over Christmas, a different sort of harm will be done to people’s sense of mental health.”
The country reached 1,900 Covid-related hospital admissions for the first time during the pandemic on December 11. The First Minister expressed growing concern that cases could surpass 2,500 by Christmas Day if the current rate continued.
In a further rule change, people required to self-isolate in Wales can do so for 10 days instead of two weeks from Thursday, December 10.
This applies to people who have symptoms, test positive, were in close contact with someone who displays symptoms or tested positive, or people who are returning from a non-exempt country.
What are the latest restrictions?
Full lockdown came into place at 00.01 on Sunday 20 December. The following restrictions now apply:
- Non-essential retail, close contact services such as hairdressers, gyms and hospitality will close
- Stay-at-home restrictions will be in place from midnight
- Only essential travel is allowed
- People must work from home “wherever possible”
- A maximum of two households can form a support bubble and meet indoors or in private gardens on Christmas Day only
- House parties, events and gatherings are unlawful
- Schools using online learning
- Throughout alert level four, a single person household will be able to join with one other household
Will schools close?
All secondary schools and further education colleges in Wales transitioned to online classes on Monday December 14.
A number of counties also closed primary schools early, including Cardiff and Swansea.
Mark Drakeford had initially been committed to keeping schools open for as long as possible, urging parents to continue sending their children until the end of term. On Nov 27, Mr Drakeford said, ”It is important for our children not to miss out further.”
“Parents will know just how important this period the end of term is, especially in primary schools. Children benefit from being with their peers” he added.
Despite this, one school in Caerphilly, St Martin’s School, decided to end their term on December 10, after 68% of parents said they intended to keep their children at home for the last week of term.
Several other schools took the decision to close into their own hands, and the Welsh government felt considerable pressure with the infection rate rising in the lead up to the easing of lockdown over Christmas.
The decision has been criticised by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales as disruptive to education.
Universities will continue to offer both in person and online classes, but students must stay home in their university accommodation under the new rules.
They must stay at home, except for limited purposes such as exercise, and must work from home wherever possible.
What about exams?
Wales’ GCSE, AS and A-level exams due to take place in summer 2021 have been cancelled, Education Minister Kirsty Williams announced on 10 November.
Mrs Williams said it was impossible to guarantee a level playing field because of the impact of coronavirus, so grades will be based on externally set classroom assessments under teacher supervision.
Pupils will be able to go in to take exams but others will learn from home for an additional week, Mr Drakeford said.
“Other children taking examinations will be able to attend, but all other students will continue their learning from home,” he said.
Can I travel to Wales after lockdown?
Non-essential travel is prohibited during level 4 lockdown.
The law banning non-essential travel to England from Wales was lifted at 6pm on Friday 4 December. However, now Wales have re-entered a national lockdown, incoming and outgoing travel is banned.
Previously travel in and out of Wales was only allowed for “essential purposes”, such as education, work or caring responsibilities.
However, the Welsh government still advises caution, in order to help stop the spread of the virus.
Mr Drakeford said, “Coronavirus doesn’t respect borders – we all have a part to play in keeping Wales and the UK safe. Please think carefully about where you are going and what you are doing. This virus thrives wherever we come together with others.”
If you are in tier one or two, the blanket ban on non-essential travel no longer applies, and hotels and self-catering accommodation facilities have reopened once again in lower-risk tiers.
However, you must not travel unless it is essential if you are living in a higher tier.
Will businesses receive support?
A “Restrictions Business Fund” worth £160m will be on offer which will enable around 60,000 hospitality, tourism and leisure businesses which pay non-domestic rates (NDR) to access grants of up to £5,000.
A total of £180 million will also be available from the Economic Resilience Fund. Small and medium sized businesses could receive up to £100,000 in grants and larger businesses could receive up to £150,000.