Covid: Wales’ stay-at-home rules may end in Marchon February 19, 2021 at 12:13 pm

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Mark Drakeford says he hopes this will be the last three weeks’ of the “stay-at-home” restrictions.

Wales’ first minister hopes the country has entered the last three weeks of the “stay-at-home” requirement.

Mark Drakeford said any lockdown change depends on case rates falling and it was too soon to say if people will be able to travel beyond their local area.

He also said he hoped primary school children aged eight and over may be able to return to school from 15 March, if Covid cases continued to fall.

Talks will begin with non-essential shops about the prospects of reopening.

Mr Drakeford told BBC Radio Wales: “If in three weeks’ time the numbers are still falling, the positivity rate is falling, the R number’s below one, hospital pressures continue to reduce, then I hope we’ll be able to move beyond ‘stay at home’.”

He said it was “too uncertain” to say how far restrictions on movement might be eased, but he suggested a “stay local” arrangement, similar to local lockdowns which were imposed in the autumn, was a possibility.

While Wales’ case rate is at its lowest since September, the government said tight restrictions were still needed to ensure a safe return to school.

The Conservatives called for a “road map to recovery” and for “rough timescales” for reopening some of the hardest-hit sectors.

But Plaid Cymru said a “stay local” message was needed for as long as necessary.

  • From Saturday the number of people who can exercise together outdoors will be increased from two to four, although they must be from a maximum of two households. Exercise must still start and finish at home
  • From 1 March, licensed wedding venues will be able to reopen, in line with current rules for register offices
  • More elite sport athletes will be able to return to training
  • More visits to care homes will be considered

Talks are taking place about reopening tourism in time for Easter, with bed and breakfasts and hotels with room service likely to be prioritised.

People wearing masks

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Friday’s announcement is the latest three-week review of of the coronavirus lockdown imposed in Wales before Christmas.

Children aged between three and seven – those in the foundation phase – are returning to school from Monday.

The next review will look at all primary pupils, and some older students, returning to schools and colleges from 15 March.

That includes years 11 and 13, and students doing similar qualifications in college, returning in a “safe and flexible way”, Education Minister Kirsty Williams said.

She added there could be some “flexibility” for years 12 and year 10, who have been entered for qualifications.

Mr Drakeford said: “We would hope to see all primary aged children back in face-to-face learning in the classroom and those young people who are in secondary school who are preparing for examinations back with their teachers.”

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Sarah Bruton, managing director of Captiva Spa in Caerphilly, said she was “really happy” to hear close contact services may reopen in three weeks.

“But we’ve been down the road before with Mark Drakeford – we’ve learnt the hard way not to hope too much,” she told Radio Wales.

“I don’t think off the back of those statements we can start contacting our clients or preparing our business yet.”

But a caravan park owner said he was “buzzing” at the prospect of an Easter reopening.

Ed Williams, of Bryn Vyrnwy in Llansantffraid, said: “It’s the best news we’ve had all winter.”

Children in a classroom

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Discussions are taking place over allowing non-essential retailers, such as shops and hairdressers, to reopen by the middle of March.

Mr Drakeford warned there would not be a “wholesale” reopening of shops.

But Cardiff University virologist Richard Stanton said he was concerned about the prospect of parts of the retail sector opening in three weeks.

He told BBC Radio 5 Live: “We are seeing the schools reopening fairly soon, we know that is likely to push transmission rates up slightly and I think if you add the opening of non-essential retail onto that as well we might see quite significant increases in the rates of virus transmission.”

Elsewhere in the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said England will exit lockdown “cautiously” – a road map for easing restrictions is expected on Monday.

In Northern Ireland lockdown has been extended to 1 April, while in Scotland most lockdown measures are due to remain in place until the end of February.

There are no plans yet to reopen gyms in Wales.

Mr Drakeford said advice from scientists that the Kent variant of coronavirus made doing so “more challenging”.

Coronavirus case rate graphic

The case rate in Wales was one of the highest in the world for a period in December, but it has been falling since the week before Christmas.

At 83.7 per 100,000 people over seven days, the country now has the lowest rate of the UK nations, just below Scotland.

Flintshire has the highest rate but it is falling there too – and is at its lowest point since early December.

Numbers of confirmed and suspected Covid patients are also at their lowest levels since 28 October.

Wales went into lockdown on 20 December, after a rise in cases blamed partly on a new, more infectious variant of the virus.

The rules – to be reviewed again in three weeks – mean non-essential travel is banned and people are expected to stay home as much as possible.

Pubs and restaurants are closed and most shops are shut.

The Welsh Government said one in three adults in Wales has been vaccinated – latest figures show 822,633 people had been given their first dose in Wales.

Mr Drakeford said on Friday there were examples of a Nigerian variant in Wales, and expressed concerns over versions of the Kent variant found in Bristol and Liverpool.

Speaking to LBC, Mr Drakeford said chief medical officer Frank Atherton had told him he believes a third wave is been “baked into what will happen during this year”.

“We’re talking about how we can act to make sure that that wave doesn’t affect us in the way that we’ve seen over this autumn and winter,” he said.

He said he was “not going to say to anybody” that another lockdown would not be needed.

“Nobody I think sensibly can simply say that there’s no chance at all that we will face difficulties again in the future,” he explained.

Woman in front of shop

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Welsh Conservative Senedd leader Andrew RT Davies said it was a priority to get children back to school.

He called for dates for the return of those in key stage 2 and exam year groups, and said rough timescales “would be beneficial to many in the retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors who are planning their survival”.

He said he would “prefer” a uniform UK-wide approach but added: “Whilst a cautious and prudent approach to coming out of lockdown is sensible, we also need to start to provide a roadmap to recovery for people across Wales.”

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Plaid Cymru’s leader Adam Price warned Wales was “not there quite yet in terms of being ready to relax restrictions on a national level”.

He said: “At every step, action should be driven by data not dates.”

“Travel restrictions should be eased with caution and the sensible approach would be to reintroduce the ‘stay local’ message for as long as necessary,” he added, calling for furlough to be extended for several months after lockdown restrictions end.

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Abolish the Assembly Party leader Richard Suchorzewski called for Mr Drakeford to make changes on the sale of non-essential items in supermarkets and other essential retailers.

“At the very least, he should allow the people of Wales to have the same rights to purchase what he regards as ‘non-essential items’ e.g. jumpers, shoes and underwear, as they are allowed to in English supermarkets,” he said.

While Welsh shops are expected to close aisles selling goods deemed non-essential “if reasonably practicable”, English stores can keep them open.

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