Covid: What will happen if Wales moves to Alert Level Zero in August?

Wales could soon see the closest return to normality since the pandemic began. Credit: PA Images

Almost all coronavirus restrictions in Wales could be lifted next month, the First Minister has said.

If infection rates then remain stable and even more people are vaccinated, Wales could move to 'Alert Level Zero' on 7 August.

Mark Drakeford said this means life in Wales "will have returned very substantially to how it was before the coronavirus pandemic began."

But he added: "Here in Wales, we will not abandon all those measures which have done so much to keep us all safe."

So what would a move to Alert Level Zero look like for people in Wales?

Nightclubs in Wales have been closed throughout the pandemic. Credit: PA Images
  • Meeting indoors

A move to Level Zero will mean no limit on the number of people who can meet indoors, including in private homes, in public places or at events.

Event organisers will continue to carry out coronavirus risk assessments as a legal requirement.

  • Night-time economy

All businesses and premises, including nightclubs and adult entertainment venues, will be able to reopen when Wales moves to Level Zero.

They are among the few businesses that have been forced to close for the entirety of the Covid crisis.

Face coverings will remain mandatory in most indoor settings in Wales. Credit: PA Images
  • Face coverings

Face coverings will remain a legal requirement indoors in public places, such as on public transport, in shops and when accessing healthcare.

But this rule is being relaxed for indoor hospitality settings, such as restaurants, on the grounds that people are not required to wear one for the majority of the time spent there.

Wearing face coverings in the classroom will also no longer be recommended from September.

Mark Drakeford confirmed that the Welsh Government will keep the requirement to wear face coverings under review.

His comments echoed those of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who said the use of face coverings in Scotland will remain mandatory "for as long as necessary".

However, in England, the legal requirement to wear a face covering in shops, public transport and other enclosed spaces will end on 19 July.

  • Social distancing

Under a move to Level Zero, social distancing will no longer be a legal requirement indoors or outdoors.

But it will remain something that businesses and premises can put in place as a safety measure, subject to a risk assessment.

People in Wales will be advised to continue to work from home wherever possible. Credit: PA Images
  • Working from home

People should continue to work from home where possible after 7 August, the Welsh Government has said.

For those in the workplace, employers must continue to carry out a specific coronavirus risk assessment and take all reasonable measures to minimise the risk of exposure to coronavirus, such as physical distancing and improved ventilation.

By contrast, employees over the border have been advised they can plan to return to the workplace after 19 July.

  • Self-isolation

If you feel unwell, you must self-isolate and get a Covid test, as has always been the case.

Going forward, the Welsh Government said: "It is our intention to remove the requirement for people who are fully vaccinated to self-isolate if they are a close contact of someone who has tested positive, and we will discuss with partners putting additional safeguards in place for people who work in health and social care settings.

"We are also having further discussions with stakeholders on the requirements for children and young people who are contacts to self-isolate."

Travelling abroad is strongly advised against. Credit: Pexels
  • International travel

The Welsh Government says: "Our strong advice continues to be that people should avoid all non-essential international travel."

But people who have been fully vaccinated in the UK will no longer need to self-isolate if they are returning from an amber list country, in line with the position in England and Scotland, which come into effect on 19 July.

However, Mark Drakeford said he "much regretted" the decision by the UK Government to remove the self-isolation requirement, calling it "the removal of a defence" against the risks of Covid.

But he added that because the vast majority of international travel to and from Wales is via England, it was "untenable" not to do the same.

Mark Drakeford said we still need to take steps to protect ourselves, even with fewer restrictions. Credit: PA Images
  • Analysis: Political Editor Adrian Masters on Mark Drakeford's 'cautious' approach

“Here in Wales,” the First Minister said on Wednesday, “we will not abandon all those measures that have done so much to keep us all safe.”

That single sentence encapsulates Mark Drakeford’s and the Welsh Government’s approach, which has crystallised over the last year and a half of coping with the pandemic. 

And it’s an approach that ministers in Cardiff Bay believe is backed by the majority of people in Wales, whatever the more vocal opponents to restrictions say.

It’s an approach, too, that is widely shared by the medical, scientific and public health officials who spend all their time studying all the data and trying to develop the best advice for ministers.

What’s clear is that there is a high number of cases of Covid currently. With the very high level of testing that is taking place, officials are confident that the figures now accurately reflect the level of transmission in the community - perhaps for the first time in the pandemic.

Much has been said about how the link between case numbers and serious illness or death has been “weakened” by vaccination, allowing for governments to ease restrictions even at a time when the virus is spreading.

Public health officials are nervously watching the daily data to see that that situation continues, with some privately acknowledging that there is no real indication yet of what the trajectory of Covid deaths is.

There are also clear risks of living with high case numbers: more deaths, more people catching long Covid, more people suffering from government interventions (which is why some people are reportedly deleting the track-and-trace app) and a higher possibility that a variant emerges which is resistant to vaccines completely.

At the same time, the ministers who are making the decisions have to think about the other harms restrictions cause - economic, mental or on children’s education.

When it comes to striking that balance, health officials privately acknowledge that there is no perfect outcome. What ministers at all levels are trying to do is find that 'sweet spot' between encouraging good behaviour and limiting the social harms caused by restrictions.

The big worry is the winter. Public health officials are preparing for a 'bounce-back' of flu and other respiratory infections - but candidly they don’t know exactly what might happen; whether or not those other illnesses will bounce back bigger because of our lack of exposure to them.

And that means that the authorities don’t yet know if the NHS will cope or be overwhelmed.

The hope is in the successful vaccination programme and a planned booster programme, which should counter any waning of immunity from first and second doses.

The other big hope - and uncertainty - is how people will act. Scientific modeling of the possible outcomes is based on a range of ways of behaving, from the high levels of adherence seen during last autumn’s Welsh 'firebreak' lockdown to the poor levels of adherence seen just before Christmas.

What keeps those studying the data and advising ministers optimistic are signs that we are changing our behaviour in ways that will limit the spread of the virus - keeping our distance, washing our hands, all the things we’ve become used to.

It’s easy to notice those who break the rules, who crowd outside pubs and refuse to wear face coverings. But mobility data has shown that in recent months there has been little change to the amount of traveling we are all doing even at a time when restrictions are easing (and even if it sometimes seems the roads are busier!)

Those looking for ways of living with this virus are clinging to this - they see permanent changes in behaviour as the key and they fear that the wrong words or decisions that lead to events which then send the wrong message could scupper the development of those permanent changes.

And that’s the advice that is convincing Mark Drakeford and his ministers to avoid over-promising in the coming weeks and months and to stick with the cautious approach.

They hope that that approach will lead to permanent changes in the way that we behave which in the longer term will make lockdowns and laws less necessary.