'Welcome to the bleak midwinter' Tougher rules mean tough decisions for the Welsh Government, writes Adrian Masters

Wales currently has some of the least restrictive coronavirus rules in the whole of the UK, after finishing a 17-day firebreak on November 9. Credit: PA Images

Talks are set to continue over the weekend as government ministers discuss exactly what the new restrictions in the run-up to Christmas will look like in Wales.

While the regulations around social gatherings will be relaxed for five days over the festive period, tougher measures will be introduced for some businesses and industries before then.

Any new measures will be Wales-wide, unlike the tier system in England.

However the new, imminent rules for Wales could be similar to the toughest restrictions set to come into force over the border in England next Wednesday.

That means hospitality businesses could be forced to close early or to shut completely and only provide takeaway and delivery.

During Friday's press conference, the First Minister confirmed there will be new restrictions on pubs, bars and restaurants in Wales in the run-up to Christmas.

He told journalists that the details of the new hospitality rules will be finalised over the weekend and will come into effect from next Friday.

The Secretary of State for Wales, Simon Hart, has written a letter to the First Minister, urging him to consider adopting a "regionally-differentiated, tiered approach" - like in England.

He argues that a tiered system in Wales would "target restrictions more precisely...and result in better implementation of UK Government support packages".

As there has every time a significant set of restrictions are about to be introduced, there’s speculation and pressure on the Welsh Government and much of it stems from concerns about rules imposed in England. 

Mark Drakeford’s cabinet met twice on Thursday, unusual in itself in normal times, but then these are not normal times. 

The First Minister has been clear that he will look to introduce a new set of restrictions, to come into force at some stage next week that will match or at least be similar to the new rules in England. 

The (relatively) good news is that shops - both essential and non-essential - will remain open as will schools, gyms and those offering services such as hairdressing. 

The bad news is that, just as in England, it’s likely to be the hospitality sector - pubs, restaurants, cafes, hotels - which will be most badly hit. 

In England, depending on which tier they come under, they have to close unless they can serve a substantial meal along with drinks (in tier 2) or close altogether in tier 3 unless they can offer delivery or takeaway.

Ministers are fully aware of how serious this decision is and how badly the hospitality sector could be hit by it. I understand ministers are also looking at one of Scotland’s restrictions which requires hospitality venues to close at 6pm.

They’ll keep talking through the weekend and although there’s no confirmation yet, I would assume there’d be an announcement on Monday with whatever new restrictions are decided upon coming into force at the end of next week.

If more restrictions are put on hospitality businesses, it would mean they miss out on valuable December, Christmas trade. Credit: PA Images
  • Analysis continued:

In the meantime, there’s no shortage of advice for the cabinet. 

The Welsh Secretary has written to the First Minister welcoming his comments suggesting there should be a ‘common UK-wide approach’ and urging him to consider adopting a tiered system, despite the controversy over its introduction in England and the threat of rebellion from a large number of Conservative MPs. 

His fellow Conservative, the party’s health spokesperson in the Senedd, Andrew RT Davies also urged against a one-size fits all approach when he tweeted:

"There would be no justification in putting all of Wales into a set of Tier 3 restrictions. This would be completely unnecessary in many areas of the country and would have huge ramifications. I do hope the First Minister thinks again.”

There’s no good outcome to this decision, but a decision there has to be. All four governments have agreed to allow a limited amount of household mixing over Christmas.

And the cost of that decision is tough restrictions from now until then. 

Welcome to the bleak midwinter. 

In Wales, non-essential shops and businesses are currently open. That would not change if the new rules are similar to England's tier three. Credit: PA Images

Current rules mean that people in Wales are asked to stay out of each other’s homes, except in very limited circumstances, and to limit the times they leave their home, and the distance they travel.

A 17-day fire-break lockdown in Wales ended on November 9 and First Minister Mark Drakeford said that the restrictions had succeeded in bringing down national coronavirus rates.

Welsh Government had previously stated that the aim of the fire-break period was to ensure no further tough restrictions were needed before Christmas. However, this was before Christmas relaxations had been decided.

All four governments of the UK have agreed on a common approach to the festive season, where three households are allowed to mix over five days as part of a 'Christmas bubble'.

Looking ahead to the festive period, Mr Drakeford said people should "think carefully" about who they meet and how far they travel over Christmas and use the temporary relaxation of restrictions "sensibly and responsibly".