After almost two months of being in comparatively similar lockdowns, the nations of the UK are beginning the process of reopening.
As we saw last summer, this is a process fraught with difficulty. This time around Mark Drakeford will have to balance competing pressures, opposition party criticism, a need to keep the virus in retreat, new variants, a withdrawal of furlough, a Senedd election and a vaccination roll-out.
All of these issues interplay to present the Welsh Government with an incredibly difficult set of calculations over the coming months.
How much detail should they give on the reopening?
Last Friday the Welsh Government set out what it plans to reopen over the next two lockdown review periods which cover six weeks. It was fairly clear about what was happening in the next three weeks. Children aged 3-7 would go back to school initially, four people could meet outside and non-religious venues could host weddings. There was a commitment to review the rules on care home visits but no more detail than that.
At the next three-week review all primary children will go back to school as will year 11 and 13 (though this will be blended learning). After this things get a little hazy. The cabinet has committed to reviewing the stay at home rules in three weeks but there is no detail on what form that will take. Will the five mile rule return for instance?
Non-essential retail is also likely to reopen but the First Minister has also indicated that this will be a phased return.
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At Easter we know there is likely to be a limited reopening of tourism with self contained accommodation opening but no more than that. Education Minister Kirsty Williams suggested that all remaining pupils may go back to school but this is still not set in stone. Gyms, cafes, pubs and restaurants are all totally in the dark about when they will be allowed to reopen (much to their fury).
Contrast this with England where all children will be back at school on March 8 with care home visits allowed from that date. On March 29 outdoor sport is likely to reopen and on April 12 all shops and gyms will follow suit. Outdoor hospitality is also likely to be allowed from that date. Come May 17 groups of 30 are set to be able to meet outside, six people would be allowed to meet indoors and hospitality can open inside. On June 21, all restrictions will then be lifted provided the number of infections falls as expected.
This is not to say that the Welsh Government will necessarily move slower than England, just that they are not even close when it comes to committing to a time table.
This is clearly Mark Drakeford’s preference. He has spoken extensively about not wanting to give people false hope. But there is likely to be significant pressure from opposition parties and the public to offer more clarity.
The First Minister will have to balance the signficant pressures on him with uncertainties about the new variants and his desire to wait to see the impact of foundation year pupils on transmission rates before making any further commitments.
What is happening in England can not be ignored
Though the First Minister has a very high level of autonomy when it comes to dictating the lockdown rules he is not operating in the vacuum. What is happening across the border has a direct impact here in Wales both directly, and indirectly.
In an indirect sense decisions in England help drive pressure on the Welsh Government. For instance hospitality businesses across the border now know exactly when they will be opening. They can therefore start planning. Equivalent businesses in Wales can not. This same issue of not having enough notice was a frequent criticism last summer as well. Gyms are in the same situation as hospitality.
The Welsh Government also have to balance pressure from the public. Parents of children in year seven, eight and nine, those who are desperate to visit family far afield, those who want a pint – they can now look across at England and see that things are being done differently. This adds to the pressure.
To add to the First Minister’s balancing act there is a huge percentage of the Welsh public who are far more worried about lockdown being lifted too quickly than they are about it going to fast. These are all conflicting interests that the Welsh Government needs to balance.
However the decisions by the UK Government will have a far more direct effect on how the First Minister lifts the lockdown because of the furlough scheme.
Wales does not have the financial firepower to continue the furlough scheme without support from the UK Treasury. But Chancellor Rishi Sunak already showed last autumn that he wants to end the furlough scheme as soon as he is able to. If all of England reopens history suggests that he will start to lift the support safeguarding many jobs. Mark Drakeford may then be forced to mirror the changes in England or facing the lost of thousands of jobs. This is made worse by the fact that Wales is more dependent on the furlough schemes than other UK nations.
Another direct way that the lockdown rules in England will affect Wales is along the border. After the December 19 lockdown, the north of Wales continued to see rapid growth in cases from much longer than the south. The First Minister indicated that it was believed this was because the north only saw sustained falls in cases when England had also gone into lockdown – such are the close links between North Wales and the north west of England. If England is reopening, any change in transmission rates will also affect Wales because of the close working and family ties people have across the border.
Add in to all of these decisions the fact we don’t know how the vaccines will affect infection rates and the upcoming election – the First Minister has a lot to juggle as we emerge from lockdown.