When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a UK-wide lockdown to try to stem the rise of coronavirus cases and protect the NHS back in March, it seemed like we were all in this together.
Across the UK there were similar scenes of child-drawn rainbows in windows, busy doctors and nurses covered head to toe in PPE, and empty streets.
But following that initial unified approach, Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland began to divert away from one another.
The rules started to be relaxed, but at different paces, and the four nations have rarely been fully in step with each other since.
This week came the biggest split yet.
While Wales’ local lockdowns have so far mirrored, to an extent, the localised restrictions in other parts of the UK, albeit with differences in the rules applied to those lockdown areas, now the Welsh Government has gone one big step further.
Do you agree with the fire-break lockdown in Wales:
In contrast to England’s plan for a localised tier-based lockdown system, the Welsh Government announced this week that Wales would be introducing a national fire-break to slow the spread of coronavirus.
It means the whole of the country will face the same restrictions, regardless of the incidence rates in particular regions or communities.
Beginning this Friday and running through to November 9:
- People must work from home unless they are critical workers or cannot do their jobs from home.
- All non-essential retail, gyms, leisure centres, bars, restaurants and hospitality must close.
- Community centres, libraries and recycling centres will close.
- All indoor and outdoor gatherings with people you don’t live with are banned.
- Primary schools will reopen after half term but secondaries will shut for all but years seven and eight.
Speaking at a Welsh Government press briefing on Monday, First Minister Mark Drakeford said there were no easy choices in front of Wales as the virus was now spreading rapidly.
Find out about coronavirus cases in your area:
“If we do not act now it will continue to accelerate and there is a very real risk our NHS will be overwhelmed,” he said, adding that critical care units were already full.
“Unless we act the NHS will not be able to look after the increasing number of people who will fall seriously ill in the coming weeks, even with the extra 5,000 beds we have available. And even more people will die.
“If this happens we would have to take even more extreme measures to bring the virus under control – we would be looking at an open-ended national lockdown such as the one we had in March of this year.”
But the news has triggered mixed reactions from many.
This is how the English media reacted to news of the fire-break lockdown planned for Wales:
The New Statesman – Stephen Bush
“The measure is, in part, a wholly sensible economic decision.
“Under the terms of Rishi Sunak’s financial support measures, devolved governments are significantly better off shutting down businesses than trying to help them find ways to stay open. A shut business is eligible for the furlough scheme, albeit at a less generous rate than previously, as well as a variety of grants and loans that are only available to businesses compelled to shut by government action.
“That means that even though it looks as if Covid-19 cases in Wales are beginning to plateau, perhaps partly because the majority of the country has been in a fresh lockdown since the end of September, there is a policy dividend to be had by going for a full lockdown.
“The alternative would be to maintain partial restrictions on trade, similar to England’s tier two restrictions, which place considerable limits on the ability of businesses to operate, but without meaningful financial support. The policy choice between persisting with Wales’s current level of lockdown, with no economic support, or a mild tightening of restrictions, to secure a greater level of support, is a no-brainer.”
Get stories like this straight to your inbox with our newsletters.
The Telegraph – Allison Pearson
“Twp is generally one of my favourite Welsh words. Pronounced somewhere between tup and toop, the closest English translation would be slow or stupid. Neither quite captures the sublime, yokel-dense dimwittedness of twp. I’m sorry to say that my beloved homeland has just reached Peak Twp.
“The First Minister announced that from Friday all of Wales would have a 16-day “firebreak”. Call it Llockdown. This, he insisted, was “the best chance of regaining control of the virus” despite the fact there is no evidence that lockdown works. Infections are merely postponed while the poorest people get poorer. Nevertheless, social bubbles must now be popped, gatherings with anyone from another household are banned. Non-essential retail, including hospitality and hairdressers, only lately back on their feet, will close, in some cases for good.
“According to the First Minister, this was “a short, sharp shock”, which would “turn the tide”. Pause for one moment to consider this towering Snowdonia of twp. Just over three million people live in Wales, 400 of those people were in hospital as confirmed Covid patients and only 32 poor souls are bad enough to be on ventilators. At the height of the pandemic it was over 150. Daily deaths fell to zero for a while and only recently “surged” to five. This is not an out-of-control blaze that demands a firebreak; a few well-targeted sandbags would do.”
The Spectator – James Forsyth
“Wales’s introduction of a two week so-called Covid ‘firebreak’ is the most dramatic divergence between the UK nations yet. The ‘firebreak’, which will see people told to stay home and non-essential retail and hospitality closed, will give us some sense of how effective or not the ‘circuit-break’ that Sage proposed would have been.
“The ‘firebreak’ is strict. People will be banned from meeting people from other households indoors and out, senior years at secondary school will not return to the classroom after half-term, and places of worship will be closed for everything other than funerals.
“The new rules will undoubtedly cause social and economic harms. Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, says the ‘firebreak’ will run from this Friday to Monday 9 November. But one does remember the Varadkar question to the Irish version of Sage: can you give an assurance that 4 weeks will be enough – which the scientists could not answer. The other question is whether this is going to be a stop, start system with another firebreak being necessary later this year.
“If the Welsh ‘firebreak’ does appear to be successful in turning things round, the pressure will grow on Boris Johnson to introduce one in England. But right now, Downing Street is determined to stick to its regional strategy. Though, it would not surprise me if restrictions became even tighter in the worst hit places in Tier 3.”
“How brave of the Labour leader in Wales to volunteer his people for house arrest, joblessness and ruin to test the scientifically dubious theory that a new lockdown may set Covid back all of 28 days.
“We do caution Mark Drakeford that, according to his London bosses, this bleak fortnight he calls a “firebreak” will only work if it is extended and then repeated on and off indefinitely.
“We hope he has also read the small print of the advice he is following, in which Sage said the evidence that further temporary lockdowns would slow the virus was “generally weak” but that they “cannot wait for better-quality evidence”.
“Quite the ringing endorsement!
“Our sympathies to Wales. We hope Boris Johnson continues to resist siren calls for a national lockdown — destroying firms in, say, the Isle of Wight over infections in the North and hammering the final nail in our economy’s coffin.
“It is far easier of course for leaders in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland to impose such measures. The grant money will still flow from the Treasury.
“But if England follows suit, shedding many more jobs and tax receipts with them, that funding will have to be cut.”