Two-week national lockdown imposed in Wales

By Sian Jones

Lockdown, not lockstep, was the order of the day when Wales’ First Minister, Mark Drakeford, announced a two-week national shutdown in Wales – a policy thus far rejected by Boris Johnson’s Westminster Government. 

Apparently anxious to create a clear dividing line with not just the policies, but the language, of his UK counterpart, Drakeford described this latest measure not as a ‘circuit breaker’, but as a ‘fire-breaker’ – ‘toriad tân’ in Welsh. The ‘stay at home’ message will come back into force. Non-essential retail and the hospitality sector will be closed. People will be forbidden from mixing with others not in their household either in or out of doors. Bonfire Night and Hallowe’en parties are strictly off limits – although Remembrance Sunday can still be observed. Secondary schools will only re-open after half term for those in Years 7 and 8.

There was one bright spot for those living alone: Those in areas already under local lockdown are no longer compelled to form a ‘support bubble’ only with another household within their own local authority boundary. Instead single households can ‘bubble up’ with another household elsewhere in Wales – or even over the border. 

It’s not yet clear what the future status of local lockdowns will be. However, in Q&A, Drakeford hinted at a ‘new regime’ post-lockdown, the details of which could start to be sketched out in announcements later this week. Given Drakeford’s apparent willingness to implement widespread restrictions on personal liberties, it seems likely that some form of ‘lockdown-lite’ will remain in place for weeks, if not months to come  – with only a vaccine providing a ticket to freedom. 

For all his strong poll ratings during the pandemic, this announcement was something of a damage limitation job for Drakeford. He had been forced onto the back foot at the end of last week when the Police Federation briefed that his recently-announced COVID border ban would be impossible to police. He also had to explain why, if final decisions on the lockdown were only being taken last weekend and on Monday morning, the details had already been given some days previously to the Confederation of Passenger Transport – which became apparent from a leaked letter published on a blog over the weekend. 

Small wonder, then, that the First Minister has now dialled down his language on hard core enforcement, talking instead about ‘everyone making a contribution’ and a ‘national effort’.

Much has been made of the strong polling support for lockdown measures.  Some attribute it to Wales’ relatively high proportion of public sector workers, who have – thus far – been largely shielded from the economic pain. 

However, talk to people on the street and opinion is more divided.  This is particularly true amongst business owners who are concerned that this ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ approach will cause long-term economic damage, causing only a temporary suppression rather than an eradication of the virus. Details of the financial support package remain sketchy at the time of writing, with a new scaled-down furlough scheme coming into force from Friday. However, its eligibility criteria are, so far, unclear.

Politics watchers, meanwhile, are wondering what this Wales-only lockdown – and the effective closure of the Welsh border – means for the future of devolution and the union itself. Certainly it will serve further to cement details of the devolution settlement in voters’ minds, allowing the question of Welsh independence to creep up the political agenda. Plaid Cymru, of course, have been calling for a circuit breaker lockdown for some time. Drakeford’s willingness to align himself with Plaid could prove useful should coalition negotiations come into play after next Spring’s Senedd elections. 

Whatever the public health rationale – and there were no charts or significant new data presented in the  First Minister’s press conference – it will be hoped by Welsh Labour advisers that today’s announcement will position Drakeford as ‘the leader who wants to keep you safest’. And, with Westminster picking up a large part of the financial tab, that may not be a bad place to be.