Wales faces a difficult choice on Covid-19 to avoid the worst of both worlds
Ifan Morgan Jones
Slow to lockdown, the UK Government seems to have decided that in England, the pandemic is already over.
No 10 has said that today will be the last of the daily press conferences, after announcing a raft of changes including an easing of the 2m rule and allowing pubs and restaurants to reopen.
These moves don’t seem to be based on the scientific advice, with experts warning that it is too soon to pack people back in this close together. Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems to have taken a gamble that all will be well – an attitude that unfortunately doesn’t seem to have paid off in the US.
In the meantime the Welsh Government are attempting as best they can with the powers available to them to continue with their steady as she goes approach. In practice this has meant keeping an eagle eye on the ‘R’ transmission rate, making one change at a time and then holding back to see whether R goes back above the dreaded 1.
An R rate over 1 means one symptomatic person is infecting more than one other and the number of cases begin growing exponentially, causing a second spike.
And as polls have shown most people in Wales – and even in England – agree that the Welsh Government’s approach is the sensible one. It seems to have paid off, both with the lowest excess death rate and the lower R rate in the UK.
However, while it has served them well so far it leaves the Welsh Government facing the prospect over the next two months or so of being caught in the worst of both worlds.
The Welsh Government have not announced any plans to ease the 2m rule or to allow restaurants or pubs to reopen. The Health Minister Vaughan Gething has said he is waiting to see the scientific evidence that it is safe (advice which may not exist).
But on Friday the Welsh Government did announce that on the 6th of July they would be scrapping the ‘stay local’ rule that is there to keep any coronavirus outbreaks – such as that now seen on Anglesey – confined.
The aim as the First Minister Mark Drakeford explained was to allow the partial reopening of the tourism industry, with any self-contained accommodation allowed to open their doors from the 13th on July onwards.
I’m not sure how tenable this move is in the long term – will communities really accept an influx of visitors from elsewhere in Wales and the UK if they can’t hug their loved ones?
But there is another more serious side effect of doing this which is that it means that Wales is no longer its own self-contained ‘unit’ within the pandemic. However well the Welsh Government do in controlling the rate of infection in Wales, their success or failure is increasingly going to be decided by what happens in England.
If there is a second wave in England, with the five-mile rule scrapped, it will no doubt crash on Wales’ shores as well, particularly in more rural, western areas that have not yet so far seen a large spike in cases.
That raises the prospect that here in Wales we will suffer both the health consequences of England opening up and the financial consequences of not opening our own businesses in the same way.
People from Wales and England will be passing the infection around in England’s no longer socially-distanced pubs, restaurants, hotels and hairdressers and then travelling the breadth of Wales where these businesses remain closed because of the Welsh Government’s continuing restrictions.
Given the UK Government’s unexpected decisions today, it is time the Welsh Government make a choice:
- Prioritise health in Wales by retaining restrictions on movement into and within Wales, until the prospect of a second wave diminishes.
- Accept that we are largely tied to what happens in England anyway and so prioritise the economy by opening up businesses at a similar pace.
The steady as she goes approach has worked so far. But the danger is that by continuing to muddle somewhere in the middle we will get the second wave anyway – but not the economic rebound.
It’s a difficult choice, but by not making it we may well face both the direst health and economic consequences.