Two-week ‘firebreak’ lockdown will save lives, First Minister says
A two-week “firebreak” lockdown in Wales will protect the NHS from being overwhelmed by resurgence of coronavirus and save lives, the First Minister has said.
Mark Drakeford appealed to the nation to “come together” and “play our part in a common endeavour” during the latest round of measures to come into force from 6pm Friday.
The restrictions, which will require people to stay at home and non-essential businesses like pubs and shops to be closed, will last until November 9.
The “sharp and deep” lockdown will be brought in to coincide with the school half-term.
The decision follows a report from the Welsh Government’s Tactical Advisory Group (TAG), which said a lockdown would “massively reduce” Covid-19 transmission in Wales and prevent hundreds of deaths.
On Monday, Mr Drakeford said the lockdown was the best chance the country had of regaining control of the virus and avoiding “a much more damaging national lockdown”.
He told the Welsh Government’s Covid-19 press briefing in Cardiff: “The window we have within which we have to act is only a small one. And to be successful, we need everybody’s help.
“Here in Wales, this is the moment to come together – to play our part in a common endeavour. To do everything we can, together, to protect the NHS and to save lives.
“And if we do this, our health service will be able to care for people with coronavirus, and everybody else.”
He added: “Of course this will not be easy. But if we act together, we can succeed.”
Mr Drakeford said the lockdown would be a “short, sharp, shock to turn back the clock, slow down the virus and give us more time”.
Under the lockdown, people will be asked to stay at home and to leave only for a limited list of reasons, including to obtain essential supplies, exercise, to seek or provide care, and to attend school.
People will be encouraged to work from home if possible, with the exception of critical workers.
A document published for the public by TAG on Monday estimates that the R value in Wales is currently estimated to be between 1.1 and 1.4.
Modelling by Swansea University estimates that with an R value of 1.4, there would be 2,500 Covid-19 deaths between October 12 and December 31.
With a two-week lockdown, this estimate falls to 1,540 deaths in the same period – almost 1,000 lower than without any action being taken.
The TAG report warns that Wales is currently tracking to its reasonable worst case scenario of around 18,000 hospitalisations and 6,000 deaths due to Covid-19 over winter.
It recommends a two-phase approach, starting with a “firebreak” to reduce R below 0.9, followed by a new national approach to restrictions in Wales.
“Multiple circuit-breaks might be necessary to maintain low levels of incidents,” the TAG advice says.
There were 4,127 new confirmed cases of coronavirus recorded by Public Health Wales between October 9-15, though the real level of infections is believed to be much higher.
“There are no easy choices in front of us, as the virus spreads rapidly in every part of Wales,” Mr Drakeford said.
“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.”
Mr Drakeford said that “even more extreme measures”, such as an open-ended lockdown, would have to be implemented if action was not taken now.
Under the “firebreak” lockdown, all non-essential retail, leisure, hospitality and tourism businesses will close “just as they had to during the March lockdown”.
Community centres, libraries and recycling centres will also close, while places of worship will also be shut, other than for funerals or wedding ceremonies.
Childcare facilities will stay open, with primary and specialist schools reopening after the half-term break.
Secondary schools will also reopen after half-term for children in years seven and eight, as well as the most vulnerable students.
Pupils will be able to go in to take exams but others will learn from home for an additional week, Mr Drakeford said.
Universities will provide a blend of in-person and online learning, but students will be required to stay at their accommodation.
People will not be able to meet indoors or outdoors with anyone they do not live with, with exceptions for those living alone.
Gatherings are banned, including Halloween and fireworks or Bonfire Night celebrations.
But Mr Drakeford said an exception would be made for Remembrance Sunday on November 8, with small organised events by local authorities and the British Legion allowed to go ahead.
Planned holidays in Wales will also have to be cancelled, with Mr Drakeford saying: “Regrettable as it is, as much as we look forward to welcoming people from outside Wales back to Wales again, this is not the time to do it.”
Businesses affected by the firebreak will be supported with a fund of almost £300 million, which will open next week.
Every business covered by the small business rates relief will receive a £1,000 payment, while small and medium-sized retail, leisure and hospitality businesses that have to close will receive a one-off £5,000 payment.
The Welsh Government said “additional discretionary grants” and support for smaller businesses would also be available.
An £80 million fund announced last week to help businesses develop in the longer term will be increased to £100 million, with £20 million ring-fenced for tourism and hospitality.
Mr Drakeford said he had written to Chancellor Rishi Sunak to ask for Welsh businesses to be given early access to the Job Support Scheme from Friday, ahead of its official launch it on November 1.
But Mr Sunak declined the request by Monday evening, meaning businesses will now have to access both the Job Retention Scheme and the Job Support Scheme at different points during the firebreak period.
Paul Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives, called on the Welsh Government to provide the evidence behind the “firebreak” and to go to the Welsh Parliament to answer questions.
“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,” Mr Davies said.
“The Welsh Government must be clear what actions they are taking during the lockdown to prevent further Wales-wide lockdowns which will have a significant impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.”
Mr Davies said the lockdown was “not proportionate” and would heavily impact businesses in areas with low levels of Covid-19, such as Powys, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion.
Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price said the “firebreak” should now be used to build a “resilient” test and trace system.
Mr Price said: “A firebreak is a last resort and should only be used in an emergency. We are now in an emergency.
“The time the firebreak buys us must be used build up a resilient test, trace and isolate system in Wales, which means we can prevent being in the position we’re currently in where the case numbers have risen to the point where they can overwhelm an already exhausted NHS.”
Following the announcement, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman defended the UK Government’s regional approach despite Labour demanding it introduce its own circuit-break.
“We keep all of our measures under review but the PM 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,” the spokesman said.
On Monday, there were a further 626 cases of Covid-19 diagnosed in Wales, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country to 36,253.
Public Health Wales said one further death had been reported, with the total number of deaths since the beginning of the pandemic rising to 1,712.