A Wales-wide easing of lockdown restrictions is unlikely until the end of February at the earliest, the country’s chief medical officer has said.
Dr Frank Atherton warned that headroom for restoring freedoms was “quite limited” despite the reproduction rate of coronavirus shrinking.
The R value for the virus on Wednesday was said to be between 0.7 and 0.9, while figures from Public Health Wales showed that the country’s seven-day case rate stood at 204 cases per 100,000 people, down from 270 cases per 100,000 on Friday.
But Dr Atherton told the Welsh Government’s press briefing that the rate of transmissions was still too high to consider either removing tough lockdown rules or reopening schools.
Asked whether there would be “glimmer of hope” for people in Wales when the current restrictions are reviewed at the end of this week, Dr Atherton said: “I don’t want to pre-empt what the First Minister might announce on Friday but my advice on the headroom for opportunity is quite limited at the moment.
“We do have a 21-day review cycle and towards the end of February we will look again where we are with community transmission, NHS capacity and vaccinations and that will be the time to think about further relaxations.”
Dr Atherton said lessons needed to be learned from both the end of Wales’s firebreak lockdown back in November and the first lockdown last summer.
He said: “What we saw there was (that) even though rates came down quite well, when we released things we released them in a way which allowed the virus to re-establish itself very, very quickly.
“And so as we do get more headroom for releasing these measures, what we need to do is release things very cautiously.”
Dr Atherton said the levels of community transmissions, capacity within the NHS, and the percentage of people who have been vaccinated would all need to be taken into account before reopening schools
But he said getting pupils back into school was “a very high priority” for the Welsh Government and would be “one of the things we aim to do first”.
Dr Rob Orford, the chief scientific adviser for health, told the briefing that the quicker-spreading strain of Covid-19 identified in the south-east of England had now become the “dominant strain” across Wales and present in at least 50% of the country.
“We believe this strain has been driving higher rates of cases seen over the Christmas period and into the new year,” he said.
Scientists were also “closely” monitoring other variants, including those emerging from South Africa and Brazil, Dr Orford said, but said it was not yet clear whether they were more deadly.
He said there had been 10 identified cases of the South African variant which were found in people travelling to Wales from abroad.
Dr Orford warned that the mutations of the virus posed “new challenges” and had the potential to “alter the course of the pandemic”.
“A concern is that a new variant could emerge which won’t respond to treatments and vaccines, putting us back to where we began,” he said.
Public Health Wales said there were a further 537 cases of Covid-19 in Wales, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 189,689, while it reported 49 further deaths, taking the total since the start of the pandemic to 4,610.
A total of 312,305 first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine had now been given, an increase of 22,739 from Tuesday, while 639 second doses were also given, an increase of 96.