The First Minister has outlined how Wales is going to begin reopening after a strict lockdown that has been in effect since before Christmas.
With young children going back to school next week and more people being able to meet outdoors from today, there are at least some green shoots of normality emerging. Mark Drakeford outlined the tentative next steps for those parts of Welsh life that could see an easing of restrictions.
Like most announcements of this type there was the caveat that all of this was very dependent on the state of the virus in Wales. And there were some very firm statements on some things that wouldn’t be changing any time soon. The future is particularly hazy because, although Wales has come out of lockdown before, this is the first time restrictions will be lifted when the more easily spread Kent variant is the most common in the country.
But here’s what we can say about how the time frame is looking in Wales for the next two months.
Happening now: exercise and back to school
From Saturday, 20 February, four people from two different households will be able to meet outdoors for socially distanced local exercise. This doesn’t apply to private gardens and you will not be able to drive to places to exercise — Mark Drakeford set out the reasons for this, which you can read here.
On Monday, primary school pupils in the Foundation Phase years (aged three to seven) will begin to return to the classroom.
Speaking at the Welsh Government press conference, Mr Drakeford said: “I am very grateful to everyone who has been involved in this work to prepare for the return of face-to-face learning.”
However, a teaching union said yesterday that schools should not reopen on Monday, saying “it’s not safe” and “teachers could die” — you can read more on that here.
The First Minister added that Sport Wales will also now be making arrangements for the most talented athletes to resume training and playing.
In the next three weeks: weddings and care homes
It will now be another three weeks until the rules are reviewed again but there are a couple of measures that will be reviewed in the meantime.
In his announcement Mr Drakeford said he would be looking to review the guidance on care home visits, which will be a big boost for many families who have not been able to see loved ones: “With more people living and working in older people’s care homes being vaccinated we will look again at our guidance for care home visiting.”
We also know that from March 1, the law will be changed to allow licensed wedding venues, such as visitor attractions and hotels, to re-open but only to perform wedding and civil partnership ceremonies. Wedding receptions or other social gatherings after the ceremony will continue to be prohibited.
Friday, March 12: Stay at home lifted and businesses reopened
This will be the next review of the rules that the Welsh Government has to conduct by law. The big change that could be announced then, if restrictions stay low, is the lifting of stay at home restrictions.
Speaking at Friday’s Welsh Government briefing, Mr Drakeford said this was dependent on “if we continue to see improvements to the public health situation here, and we don’t see a further wave of infections caused by any of the new variants circulating in the UK”.
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People in Wales have been told to “stay at home” with all non-essential travel banned since December 20 – other than a temporary lifting of rules on December 25.
With the lifting of restrictions comes other options including opening non-essential retail and close contact services like hairdressers.
“If we can lift the stay at home requirement, then we will also look at whether we can start to re-open some non-essential retail and close-contact services, such as hairdressing,” said Mr Drakeford.
Lifting restrictions around non-essential retail and close contact services includes:
- Hairdressers and barbers
- Sports and massage therapists
- Dress fitters
- Fashion designers.
Though the lifting of the above is likely to be done in a staggered way.
Earlier on Friday, he announced that the Welsh Government will consider whether all primary pupils and some older students can return to schools and colleges from 15 March, if the coronavirus situation continues to improve.
The First Minister said: “ If the situation continues to improve over the next three weeks, our aim is for all primary school children to return to face-to-face learning from March 15. We also want to get some older learners – such years 11 and 13 in schools and those doing qualifications in colleges – back on a blended learning basis, if the conditions are right.”
The next three weekly reviews after March 12 would be on April 3, just one day before Easter.
The First Minister said that, if cases are still going in the right direction, there could be a limited reopening of some parts of the tourism industry. He said the partial re-opening of tourism would include B&Bs and hotels with room service as long as they are self-contained.
“For the three-week cycle after March 12 we will have further discussions with the tourism sector about what may be possible if the public health situation allows,” he said.
“I met the tourism taskforce yesterday and we talked about a phased reopening starting with self-contained accommodation.”
If places like caravans were to reopen it would likely mean that travel across Wales would now be allowed.
No date yet: gyms, cafes, pubs and restaurants
The future is far more uncertain for these industries.
Mark Drakeford has ruled out gyms being opened at the next review in March but said there is a chance of reopening in April saying that it was uncertainty over the new Kent variant that made him hesitant to re-open gyms at this point. The fitness industry has responded angrily, and devastated gym owners have spoken out, accusing him of “misrepresentation” — you can read more on that here.
“We have had this further advice from our Technical Advisory Group,” he said. “Their anxiety is that the Kent variant, which is so much more transmissible, and so much more infectious than the original form of coronavirus, may make gyms particularly vulnerable to be places where the virus is spread.
“So I don’t anticipate we will see gyms reopening, certainly not in the next three weeks. But more evidence will accumulate in the weeks ahead as we allow more things to happen and understand if this will allow the virus to come back at a quick rate. If it doesn’t, the TAC will revisit its advice and we will know what needs to be done. The advice is we have to be precautionary so we can not put that at the front of the queue.”
It is a similar story for pubs, cafes and restaurants with the first Minister indicating that they will not be considered at the next three weekly review. He also suggested that there may not be an opening in time for Easter. You can read his clear message to the industry here.
When asked what he would say to the people running and working in those businesses during the Welsh Government briefing on Friday, Mr Drakeford said: “What the sector has said to us is that they wanted to know where they stand. When I met with the tourism industry taskforce on Thursday, there were a number of representatives of the hospitality trade. I explained to them that they are not likely to see a re-opening at either of the next two three-week reviews.
“A lot will happen in that six weeks and we will learn a great deal about the impact on the circulation on the virus of reopening schools and any other measures. Providing things continue to improve, then hospitality will come on to the agenda of things we will be able to consider next.”