How the easing of Covid rules on face coverings and self-isolation in Wales could change

There have been hints that rapidly rising case numbers could force ministers to put the brakes on the total removal of legal Covid requirements. Credit: PA Images

First Minister Mark Drakeford and his cabinet have met to decide whether or not to end all the Covid restrictions that are still in place in Wales, or to keep some of them for longer.

There have been hints that rapidly rising case numbers could force ministers to put the brakes on the total removal of legal requirements, such as compulsory mask-wearing in some public places.

But there have also been indications that the Welsh Government is still keen to move to the next phase of its handling of the pandemic, which involves "learning to live with Covid".

You can expect an announcement to come late Thursday night (March 24) or Friday morning. So what are the current plans and how could they change?

The remaining legal restrictions here in Wales are:

  • All adults and children over 11 must wear face coverings unless exempt on public transport, in indoor shops and health care settings

  • If you test positive you must self-isolate for a full 5 days 

  • Businesses, employers and other organisations must carry out a specific coronavirus risk assessment and take reasonable measures to minimise exposure

There is currently set to be no legal requirements on face coverings from Monday. Credit: PA Images

A deeper dive into the restrictions

  • Face-coverings

The timetable as previously announced would mean that from Monday 28 March, there will be no legal requirement to wear face coverings anywhere, although it would remain guidance for crowded places.

In Scotland, face-coverings will continue to be compulsory on public transport and in some indoor settings. 

That could be an option in Wales, but it could also be that ministers decide, say, to lift the general restriction and keep it in place for health and social care settings.

  • Self-isolation

If you test positive for Covid in England, you're no longer legally obliged to self-isolate, although you are advised to do so if you test positive and have symptoms. 

In Wales, it's currently still a legal requirement but the Welsh Government has signalled that it intends to drop that requirement from Monday and replace it with strong guidance. 

Given that free mass testing is being phased out, it seems unlikely that this is one of the restrictions which would continue beyond Monday.

You may have become used to picking up free lateral flow tests from your pharmacist or ordering them online. That will gradually come to an end between now and June to be replaced by targeted testing. 

  • Covid risk assessments for businesses

When social distancing rules were relaxed, businesses and other organisations were instead ordered to carry out specific coronavirus risk assessments.

The longer-term plan is for these to be dropped and for coronavirus to be folded into more general risk assessments. 

But this is certainly one of the restrictions which ministers could look at extending.

Businesses will no longer be expected to carry out stringent Covid risk assessments. Credit: PA Images
  • If not now, when?

Since that first lockdown, the Welsh Government has been legally obliged to review its Covid rules every week. It had seemed that this week would be the last of those three-weekly reviews.

However, if ministers decide to keep some restrictions in place, that would trigger a further three-week period. 

So if there's a decision to keep any of the three legal requirements listed above, they would remain until mid-April. 

  • What next?

Whether or not all legal requirements end next week or in three weeks' time, the long-term approach that the Welsh Government intends to take to the pandemic will change. 

Its plan to live with the virus is:

  • Support and encourage people to maintain behaviours to help reduce transmission of all respiratory infections (such as wearing face-coverings, use social-distancing and self-isolate where necessary) 

  • Vaccination boosters in the spring for elderly and the most vulnerable adults

  • Regular Covid-19 vaccinations from the autumn

  • Test, trace, protect programme gradually moves to a more targeted approach aimed at vulnerable people

  • Adapt public services including using local risk assessments and outbreak control plans

  • Businesses and other employers to build on the elements of infection control they have put in place to protect staff and customers

First Minister Mark Drakeford Credit: PA Images

The advice to all of us will be:

  • Get vaccinated and stay up to date with vaccinations

  • Follow the latest advice on testing and self-isolation

  • Stay at home if you can when you're ill. If you have symptoms but have to leave home, wear a face covering indoors

  • Meet outdoors where possible and ensure good ventilation if indoors

  • Take extra precautions when visiting vulnerable people and avoid meeting them if can if you have symptoms

  • Wash your hands regularly, cover coughs and sneezes and wear face coverings in close contact

The Welsh Government's long-term plan also includes contingency measures to switch quickly back to an emergency response if the situation were to change. 

Medical and scientific experts have repeatedly said that the pandemic is not over, Covid is still with us and could still cause us problems. 

But increased understanding of the virus and the vaccination programme mean that the situation is markedly different to that which faced us all in March 2020.

Politicians keep saying that we have to learn to live with Covid but it's not been clear what that means. Now we'll find out.