Wales

Drakeford Finally Ends Covid Restrictions in Wales – But Says They Are Really “On Hold”

People in Wales will no longer be legally required to wear face coverings in health and social care services from Monday as the final U.K. legal restriction is lifted. MailOnline has more.

First Minister Mark Drakeford has announced today that the country will end its last remaining coronavirus regulations, which have existed in some form since March 2020.

Wales is currently at alert level zero, with the wearing of face coverings in health and social care settings the only remaining legal requirement.

But the First Minister urged people to keep taking steps to protect their health as the country moves beyond the emergency response to the pandemic.

He repeated the warning the four U.K. Chief Medical Officers issued this week about the risk of new variants…

Wales was the last U.K. nation with Covid restrictions still in place.

Scotland removed its final restrictive laws in April this year while the Scottish Government continues to encourage people to wear face masks at busy indoor spaces.

Meanwhile, England’s remaining Covid restrictions were removed in February as part of the Government’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan.

The move meant requirements to self-isolate after testing positive were dropped a month earlier than planned. 

England Has Had Lower Rate of Covid Deaths Since ‘Freedom Day’ Than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, In Spite of Fewer Restrictions

Raghib Ali, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge and a consultant in acute medicine at the Oxford university hospitals NHS trust, has a piece in the Guardian, of all places, arguing that Boris’s decision to end Coronavirus restrictions in England has been validated.

The first Omicron (BA.1) wave, beginning in December, showed us that it was possible to get over a peak without a lockdown. The second (BA.2) wave from March to April was the first time a wave peaked in England without any government-mandated restrictions, as all legal mandates ended on February 24th.

And because England chose a different path on restrictions to the other home nations (and other western European countries) during the Omicron waves, this provides a very good “natural experiment” to assess how much difference the varying levels of restrictions made. International comparisons do have limitations, but in the absence of better evidence to judge the effectiveness of Covid restrictions, such natural experiments provide a useful guide, especially in comparing the UK home nations, which have similar populations, age structures, climate/seasons, healthcare systems and population-level immunity to Covid.

I should stress that given the uncertainty of the evidence at the time, it was perfectly reasonable for the home nations to choose different paths – and the extra restrictions outside England had widespread public support. But what will perhaps be surprising to many is that England has actually had a similar rate of infection and a lower rate of Covid deaths during the Omicron wave – and since July 19th 2021, England’s “freedom day” – than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, despite having far fewer mandatory restrictions, and none after February 24th. This “natural experiment” shows that having more mandates did not lead to better outcomes.

There was also no significant difference in overall excess mortality across the home nations to the end of 2021. And England’s is now likely to be lower as – somewhat remarkably, given the Omicron wave – excess mortality is negative in England for 2022 so far, with the lowest age-standardised mortality rates (the best comparator to previous years, as it takes population ageing into account) since the series began in 2001.

Worth reading in full.

Welsh Parents Go to War with Welsh Government Over Plans to Teach Three Year-Olds About “Sexual Attraction” and Gender Identity

Four mothers – representing more than 5,000 parents and grandparents – are suing the Welsh Government over a proposal to make Religious and Sex Education (RSE) lessons compulsory. MailOnline has more.

Ministers insist the new curriculum, which will also see themes of religion, sex and gender embedded in day-to-day teaching, is “developmentally appropriate” for children, but campaigners say the topics are “inappropriate” for primary pupils.

Kim Isherwood, 39, who chairs the campaign group Public Child Protection Wales, said: “It’s dangerous and it absolutely infuriates me. I’ve always fought for children’s rights, but they’re removing my right to protect.”

The mother-of-two from Port Talbot added: “This new curriculum is not like the stand-alone RSE lessons that pupils and parents are used to. The new mandatory element also means that every child, aged 3-16, must take part.

“It cannot be avoided by anyone and there are no rights for parents to request information on what will be taught, at what age, or to ask that their child sit out.”

The guidance includes the notion that pupils explore ‘sexual attraction’ and not just the biology of having sex.

It says: “Learners can explore how relationships, sex, gender, romantic and sexual attraction and personal experiences may shape and inform a person’s identity and individuality… [and] how and why attitudes have changed and are changing including towards gender and sexuality diversity.”

But Lucia Thomas, 41, said: “The very first time I heard anything about sex education coming in for children as young as three, my heart skipped a beat and my stomach churned.

“School is a place to learn about vital biology, learn how to develop relationships with both sexes and to develop respect. But, as parents, we believe what is happening here is the sexualisation of children, not their education.”

The parents have instructed international human rights barrister Paul Diamond to represent them and legal papers have been filed at the High Court in Cardiff.

Worth reading in full.

Wales to Ditch All Remaining Covid Restrictions

Wales could be free of all Covid restrictions by the end of the month under plans expected to be unveiled by its First Minister today. MailOnline has more.

Mark Drakeford is expected to announce Wales will remain at alert level zero for the next three weeks.

But legal requirements could go on March 28th following a review on March 24th, if the public health situation remains stable.

Wales has been among the most cautious of the home nations in keeping coronavirus restrictions in place.

But last night Mr. Drakeford admitted it has reached a “significant moment in this pandemic”, adding: “We can look to the future with growing confidence that the next year will be one in which we have a different relationship with the virus.”

The new approach will see free Covid LFTs phased out with “universal and routine symptomatic and asymptomatic testing and the requirement to self-isolate” replaced by “a more targeted approach aimed at vulnerable people”. This will bring it into line with measures in place in England.

Wales dropped to alert level zero in January after goign to level 2 in the face of the Omicron variant.

Nightclubs have already reopened but Covid passes are required for entry.

The rule of six and social distancing have already gone along with laws covering working from home – but the later “remains important”.

Rules requiring self-isolation after a positive test and face coverings in indoor settings remain in place.

The country’s response to coronavirus will vary depending on whether the country is assessed as being in a ‘Covid Stable’ or ‘Covid Urgent’ state, but it is believed that Covid Stable will be the most likely scenario – with an expectation of waves of infection not large enough to put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

Worth reading in full.

Storm Eunice Doesn’t Change the Fact that the U.K. Has Become Much Less Windy and No Wetter in Recent Years

What a wonderful thing climate change is. A mundane, obvious phrase (of course the climate is changing), promoted well past its paygrade by the unproven suggestion that humans cause all or most of it. And what a splendid excuse it has become for any past failings – and those to come – for public bodies charged with keeping our infrastructure in good working order.

Earlier this week, the Government-sponsored Natural Resources Wales (NRW) cheered up its local population no end by telling them that, “If flooding hasn’t happened to you in the past, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.” This was the message after a series of storms – Ciara, Dennis and Jorge – in February 2020 served as a “stark warning that record-breaking flooding is becoming a harsh new reality for Welsh communities in the future”. NRW chief executive Clare Pillman went on to add: “Climate scientists have underlined that record floods are not anomalous, they are the beginning of a new normal, and the new records will continue to be exceeded, year after year.”

For some inexplicable reason, the “new normal” does not seem to have affected the amount of rain that Wales gets. Variations going back to 1850 are barely noticeable.

Wales is a very wet place. Its geography inevitably leads to heavy precipitation. Low pressure systems and storms racing in from the Atlantic eagerly dump rain over the first hilly warm land they encounter. Over 1,450mm of rain falls annually in Wales, compared with the U.K. average around 1,200mm. Cardiff and Swansea are two of the wettest cities in Britain.

Wales and Scotland Loosen Restrictions – But Very, Very Slowly

Wales abandoned its tough stance on Covid today as its self-isolation period was cut to five days in the face of plummeting reported infections, while Scotland axed work-from-home guidance. MailOnline has more.

From Friday [in Wales] people will be able to end their isolation as long as they have two negative lateral flow tests on days five and six.

Health Minister Eluned Morgan confirmed the changes would come into force from January 28th, the same day the country is expected to complete the move to alert level zero.

It will bring the nation in line with the measures already in place in England and Northern Ireland.

And it comes the day after Nicola Sturgeon drastically softened Scotland’s Covid rules, including ending working from home guidance. …

Scottish First Minister Sturgeon bowed to pressure to axe working from home rules last night as she revealed a ‘phased’ return to the office for millions of Scots. 

She told MSPs the Scottish Government is updating its guidance to take effect from next Monday.  

Ms Sturgeon has said a requirement for two-metre physical distancing in settings where face coverings are exempt is being reduced to one metre.

The change will apply to settings such as religious services and those carrying out receptionist duties.

Updating MSPs at Holyrood yesterday, the First Minister also announced a change affecting organised activities for children.

She said: “From Friday, face coverings will no longer be required for any adult taking part in organised activities when they are directly interacting with children under the age of five.”

The requirement for secondary school pupils to wear face masks will receive “careful consideration”.

Slow progress in the right direction, but still struggling to let go it seems.

Worth reading in full.

No Evidence Tougher Restrictions in Wales and Scotland Have Done Very Much, Scientists Say

The tougher Covid restrictions in Scotland and Wales over winter and throughout the pandemic may not have been worth it as there is no evidence they have “really done very much”, scientists have said. MailOnline has more.

Nicola Sturgeon is still yet to commit to a date for ending work from home guidance, despite England dumping the advice last week, while Mark Drakeford is refusing to lift the highly-controversial ‘rule of six’ for another four days.

Both nations resorted to tougher Covid curbs than England early on in the pandemic, and kept people living under economically-crippling curbs for longer.

But experts told MailOnline they could not see a “huge amount of difference” in the cumulative death rates between England and the rest of the U.K.

And they argued Omicron waves panned out similarly across the home nations, even though Downing St slipped through on relatively few rules. 

This is despite Scotland cancelling New Year’s Eve celebrations and Mr Drakeford accusing England of being a “global outlier” for Boris Johnson’s gamble to adopt no extra measures. Ms Sturgeon said yesterday Scotland’s tougher festive curbs were “worth it”, arguing they kept infection rates below levels south of the border. 

Latest statistics from the Department of Health show England saw the lowest Covid infection rate over the Christmas period, even though it was leading the way until December 23rd.

This is despite No 10 refusing to cave in to demands for lockdown. Instead only ‘Plan B’ was introduced, which saw work from home guidance reimposed, face masks in public places and controversial vaccine passports required for nightclubs and other large indoor venues.

SAGE advisers say the Omicron wave fizzled out on its own because of behavioural changes that led to people being more cautious, as opposed to natural immunity causing the outbreak to peak. …

Scotland was quick to impose tighter curbs in December as the nation reeled over the arrival of the Omicron variant, which policymakers feared would spark a big wave in hospitalisations.

About a week after the first case was confirmed, Scottish health chiefs started advising the public not to attend Christmas parties – unlike their counterparts in England.

And as concern over its spread ramped up, Scots were then told not to gather with more than three households and supermarkets asked to impose a one-way system in an echo of the worst of the pandemic.

Imposing ever harsher curbs, Ms Sturgeon then ordered night clubs to close for three weeks and called off public gatherings for New Year’s Eve.

Wales trod a similar path, bringing in a raft of restrictions on Boxing Day that saw sporting events played behind closed doors, the ‘rule of six’ return in pubs, cinemas and restaurants, and nightclubs shuttered.

Mr Drakeford also brought back the two-metre social distancing rule in public places and offices.

Northern Ireland closed nightclubs from December 26th and even prohibited dancing in pubs and restaurants. They also reimposed table service. 

For comparison, England only went as far as ‘Plan B’ – which included making face masks compulsory in indoor public places and bringing in vaccine passports for larger venues. No10 also pivoted back to advising people to work from home wherever possible.

But ministers never went as far as calling off New Year’s Eve celebrations, or bringing back tighter Covid curbs such as the ‘rule of six’, despite calls from some quarters. 

Despite evidence that the curbs had made little difference on the trajectory of the Omicron wave, some scientists said they still appeared to be worth it.

Professor Gary McLean, an immunologist at London Metropolitan University, said: “I do think it was worth it, based on the unknown factor of Omicron. It’s too easy to look back with hindsight and say England got it right.

“There was too much unknown about Omicron at the time the measures were put in place… I think England got lucky.”

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, said: “It is difficult to see any evidence that tougher restrictions in Scotland actually had an impact over and above what we were seeing in England.”

In another sign tougher restrictions were not needed, England’s cumulative Covid death rate – the total number of fatalities per 100,000 people – still trails behind that of Wales.

This is despite Wales for instance imposing a circuit-breaker lockdown in late October and bringing in the five-mile rule asking people not to travel further than this distance from their home.

Scotland has also been tougher with its Covid restrictions, keeping face masks in place on public transport for weeks longer than England, while Northern Ireland took the longest to start easing the third lockdown.

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Reading University, said: “The different restrictions between the nations have not made a huge amount of difference (in terms of Covid deaths). 

“They are all in the same ball park of deaths per capita. It does not suggest that tougher restrictions that Wales or Scotland have put in place have really done very much.”

Disappointing that SAGE is still refusing to recognise that surges naturally peak and decline owing to the development of (variant and season specific) herd immunity, rather than “behaviour change”. This is why their modelling is always wrong: they make poor assumptions and don’t learn from what actually happens. As for Professor McLean’s “England got lucky” – what is that supposed to mean, and would Prof. McLean care to point to the area of immunology this hypothesis falls under?

Worth reading in full.

Wales Would “Not Rule Out” Recruiting Unvaccinated NHS Workers Sacked in England Over Vaccine Mandate

Well that was unexpected. Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford – who has consistently erred on the side of totalitarian when responding to the pandemic – has said he would “not rule out” recruiting NHS workers from England who leave their jobs due to its mandatory vaccination policy. The BBC has the story.

Vaccines are not compulsory for NHS staff in Wales.

Mr Drakeford said a “vast majority” of care sector staff had also taken the “protections that vaccination offers”.

When asked if he would take on NHS staff from England, Mr Drakeford told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House: “We wouldn’t rule it out but it would depend on what anybody said in an interview when they were applying for a job.

“We’re not going to make vaccinations mandatory in our NHS,” he said.

“We haven’t in our social care services because we have succeeded by persuasion by getting the vast majority of people who work in our services to do the right thing and take up the protections that vaccination offers.”

NHS staff in England must have a first jab by February 3rd and be fully vaccinated by April 1st to continue in frontline roles.

The U.K.’s Department of Health said there were no plans to delay and it was “the right thing to do to protect patients”.

Mr Drakeford said: “I don’t expect us to go looking for people who have not been vaccinated but, if people apply, then they would be interviewed in the normal way.

“We’d look to see what lay behind their decision.

“We wouldn’t rule them out but we certainly won’t be going out there looking for them.”

Come on Boris, when you’re being outflanked on freedom by Mark Drakeford you know you’ve gone wrong somewhere.

Worth reading in full.

U.K. Government Has “Abandoned the Science”, says Wales First Minister – as He Sets Course For ‘Alert Level Zero’ Which Keeps Masks and Vaccine Passports

The U.K. Government is more interested in distracting people from its issues than Covid and has “long abandoned any sense of following the science”, First Minister Mark Drakeford has said, as he confirmed further easing of rules in Wales. The BBC has more.

Mr Drakeford told BBC Breakfast: “We’ve always taken a different approach in Wales, one that does things step-by-step in line with the science.

“We’re a Government that doesn’t need to grab headlines to distract attention from the difficulties that we would be in if we were in the same position as the Government in England.”

Wales is currently in a three-week process of removing most of its Covid rules, with fans now allowed to return to sports stadiums and pubs and restaurants allowed to operate outdoors without the rule of six or social distancing.

But even when Wales reaches alert level zero, some measures will remain, such as face masks in shops and hospitality venues, Covid passes for nightclubs and large events and self-isolation rules.

In England, however, all Plan B measures will end on Thursday, including mandatory face masks and Covid passes.

Referring to the No 10 parties scandal, Mr Drakeford added: “I don’t think there’s any doubt at all that the U.K. Government has long abandoned any sense that it is following the science. It is a Government desperately in difficulties of its own making and is forever on the lookout for a headline which will distract people’s attention from the awful mess that it finds itself in.”

Welsh Secretary Simon Hart said: “The First Minister’s comments are an uncalled for and opportunistic insult towards medical advisers and the public.”

Russell George, the Conservative MS for Monmouthshire, asked why, if Mr. Drakeford is “so confident that he’s getting things right in Wales”, he is “running away from a Wales-specific public inquiry”, noting that: “We’ve got the worse Covid death rates of any of the U.K. nations.”

The fact that ‘Alert Level Zero’ in Wales still involves the Plan B measures – vaccine passports and mask mandate – that England is now lifting, plus the Plan A measure of self-isolation that Boris has signalled he will shortly repeal, tells you everything you need to know about Mark Drakeford’s idea of ‘The Science’. Does he ever intend to remove these measures? If so he hasn’t said – and he’ll clearly need to think up a new name for his alert levels when he does.

Worth reading in full.

Mark Drakeford Vows to Keep Draconian Restrictions in Place as U.K.’s Daily Covid Cases Fall For Second Day in a Row

Mark Drakeford dismissed the evidence showing the worst of the Omicron wave has passed and vowed to keep tough restrictions in place in Wales for the foreseeable future. He attacked Boris Johnson for being too weak to introduce the Covid measures his scientific advisors have recommended and said England was an “outlier” among the four nations of the United Kingdom – the only one not to take action to protect its citizens. MailOnline has more.

Mark Drakeford launched an astonishing tirade at Boris Johnson over Covid restrictions today as he vowed to ignore clear evidence that the worst of the Omicron wave has passed in order to keep tough restrictions in place in Wales.

The First Minister branded England an international “outlier” in resisting tighter curbs and accused the PM of overseeing a ‘politically paralysed’ administration that had tied his hands.

It came as he used a press conference to insist that Wales’s tough Covid restrictions on bars and mass events must stay in place due to an Omicron “storm” breaking over the nation.

As the rest of the U.K. eases restrictions he warned of “a difficult month ahead”, despite admitting that the variant may not be as severe as previous waves.

But then, in a rant at Mr Johnson, he added: “In England, we have a Government that is politically paralysed, with a Prime Minister who is unable to secure an agreement through his Cabinet to take the actions that his advisers have been telling him ought to have been taken.

“And even if he could get his Cabinet to address them, he can’t get his MPs to agree them.

“The outlier here is not Wales. Wales is taking action, as is Scotland, as is Northern Ireland, and as are countries right across Europe, and right across the globe.

“The one country that stands out as not taking action to protect its population is England.”

But his outburst came as a senior disease expert said a surge in the number of severe Omicron cases and deaths is unlikely to be seen in the current wave.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, Chairman of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, University of Cambridge, said: “The big severing is between really severe outcomes and that there’s still no sign of a serious increase in intensive care, and ventilation, and in deaths.

“We would have expected to see that by now in London and elsewhere – so that is the really reassuring thing.

“I think we can guarantee that over this wave, as we endure the next few weeks, what we’re not going to see is a big surge in very severe outcomes.”

Worth reading in full.