Pubs, restaurants and social bubbles: Why the change and why now?

The First Minister’s surprise announcements on pubs and restaurants and reuniting households will be celebrated, dismissed as being no more than expected, criticised for coming too late, not going far enough or fast enough and described as u-turns.

They’re all those things.

It’s true that both of the changes are entirely consistent with signals given by Mark Drakeford last Friday when he announced the results of the Welsh Government’s latest review of the lockdown regulations, that he was looking for opportunities to move faster and to bring in other measures outside of the three-week review cycle.

However it’s also true that he clearly and firmly resisted loud, public and repeated calls for action in those areas and stated that he wouldn’t be pressurised into any decisions until, and unless, the scientific advice suggested it.

There doesn’t seem to have been a massive shift in the scientific advice, so what’s changed?

In terms of the glimmer of hope for pubs and restaurants, or at least those with beer gardens or large car parks, it’s been clear that ministers have been talking and listening to representatives of the sector a lot over recent weeks.

Inside the Welsh Government I’m told that there’s a recognition of the impact that the lockdown restrictions are having on the industry - which has been clear that it is in many cases ‘hanging on by its fingernails.’ Those businesses have been frustrated at times that that recognition hasn’t been matched by a willingness to act, to see them as part of the solution not part of the problem.

I understand that ministers and officials have been increasingly persuaded by the mitigating safety measures the sector is proposing - essentially operating as outdoors businesses.

Confidence in those safety measures is what’s shifted over the last week although it’s important to say that it’s not quite a done deal. Welsh Government scientific and medical advisers will be working through the weekend to see what can be done.

When it comes to reuniting families or ’social bubbles’ as the jargon goes, the move he’ll announce next week is another recognition of the impact the lockdown is having on people. I understand the issue of childcare has become a persuasive argument: reuniting families can help with the phased return to work over the coming weeks and months.

It's understood ministers and officials have been increasingly persuaded by the mitigating safety measures the sector is proposing - essentially operating as outdoors businesses. Credit: PA Images

Mark Drakeford may have ignored howls of protest from other political parties but he will also have heard the views of his own supporters.

Privately some Labour MSs and MPs have struggled to understand why it’s taken the Welsh Government so long to introduce social bubbles. They - and no doubt Mr Drakeford too - have been inundated with stories of separated families, especially single parents and separated couples, many of whom are working in the NHS and care services. Anecdotally many of them have said they’d have preferred movement on reuniting families to reopening non-essential shops.

Whatever the reasons, the changes are on their way, more changes to come to terms with in the way that our lives are being affected by coronavirus and the decisions politicians are taking in the effort to control the virus.