Welsh Government made a mistake in stopping supermarkets from selling non-essential items – Will Hayward

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The Welsh Government has decided that during the 17 day fire-break lockdown, supermarkets are not allowed to sell “non essential items” such as clothing. I think this is a mistake

Visit a Welsh supermarket today and you will be greeted by the bizarre image of electric razors and clothing being blocked off or wrapped in plastic to indicate it is not allowed to be sold.

In my view, banning the sale of non-essential items in supermarkets was the wrong decision because it has alienated people who were otherwise supportive of the fire-break lockdown. I am going to attempt to use this article to explain my rationale behind this view.

Before we go any further let us first establish that this is not a criticism of the fire-break lockdown itself. The consensus of the scientific experts advising the Welsh Government is that a short term lockdown was needed and I am not arguing against that advice. I am simply arguing that the Welsh Government implementation of that advice has been muddled and is in parts self defeating.

First things first we need to look at the justification that First Minister Mark Drakeford gave for banning the sale of non-essential items in supermarkets.

In the first lockdown, if a retailer sold some essential items, customers were able to pick up non-essential items while there. The rationale for banning the practice this time is, according to the Welsh Government, two fold.

The first reason is a matter of fairness. They deem that it is not fair on smaller retailers to be penalised when larger retailers are able to remain open because of their scale and the fact they sell both essential and non-essential items. This is understandable and I get it (though it does little to combat the unfairness that almost every item can be bought in about 30 seconds via online retailers).

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The other reason is because the aim of the fire-break lockdown is to reduce the lines of transmission to a bare minimum. The logic being that if people are able to buy non-essential items in supermarkets, they will spend longer in stores browsing, and therefore the virus is more likely to spread. This also makes sense (though the evidence does suggest that the vast majority of cases come from mixing in homes not buying a scented candle in the middle row of Aldi).

So there are two fairly justifiable reasons for the Welsh Government’s policy – so why is it wrong?

There are several reasons but to me by far the biggest is the entirely predictable way that people have reacted to it. The optics of not letting a parent buy new school trousers for their child but allowing them to buy that child a pet fish or rabbit is quite confusing. Allowing people to go to Tesco to buy as much booze as they want but telling them they are not allowed to buy a book three aisles over will seem to many people ridiculous. The fact I could buy a disposable razor but not an electric one will naturally leave people perplexed.



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The only way that these lockdowns can work is by public consent. You can have all the fines you like but the fact is, the police are stretched anyway and this will only work if the public are all on board. This is why Dominic Cummings’ rule breaking was so damaging, it broke the spell.

Polls suggest that most people are right behind the fire-break lockdown. But introducing this rule on non-essential items which many people, rightly or wrongly, see as totally nonsensical, it risks alienating the very people the Welsh Government need to get behind the wider measures. And what is more frustrating is, most people are in principle fully behind the fire-break.

The ban on selling non-essential items has quickly become a distraction from the real problem – spiralling coronavirus rates. But as I said, the public’s response was entirely predictable.

What is most concerning about the Welsh Government’s stance is they don’t seem to have anticipated this reaction at all. In the press conference on Friday the First Minister, who is normally very adept at explaining the reasons behind his decisions, appeared slightly annoyed and flustered when he was asked to explain the criteria around what makes an item essential.

He said it “is just the wrong way to approach this whole business”. At one point, when asked about what people should do if they really needed an item on the non-essential list, he said: “People are very inventive, they have friends, they have neighbours, who are in a Welsh context we know often very willing to help.”

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The idea that it is preferable for people to interact with their friends and neighbours to source an item, when interaction between households is widely accepted to be the principal mode of transmission, rather than going to a supermarket is not ideal. This all gives the impression that the Welsh Government didn’t really realise the reaction there would be to their rules. This is odd because from the beginning of the crisis they seem to have been generally more on the pulse of public opinion than Boris Johnson in Westminster.

Now don’t get me wrong, the Welsh Government have an unenviable hard task ahead of them. They are having to make quick decisions, under immense time pressure, and every decision, good or bad, will leave someone worse off. However this decision on non-essential retail is undermining the widely supported fire-break. We have seen since the summer how it only takes a small percentage of people to stop following the rules for it all to go to hell.

This was an unnecessary own goal.



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