Wales can look forward to “more positive days and weeks ahead” following signs that the worst of the second wave of coronavirus has passed, the country’s First Minister has said.
Mark Drakeford said the improving public health situation opened up the possibility of restoring “other freedoms” at next week’s review of restrictions to go alongside the return to schools for all primary pupils.
He also suggested the Welsh hospitality sector, including pubs and restaurants, could reopen at a similar time to other UK countries later in the spring.
On Monday, the Welsh Labour leader pointed to signs that the worst of the second wave had now passed, including more than 100,000 people – more than 3% of the country – having received two doses of the vaccine.
The seven-day incidence rate of coronavirus across Wales has fallen to 64 cases per 100,000 people, with the rate below 100 cases per 100,000 people in every part of the country.
And its R rate remains below 1, with the total number of coronavirus-related patients in hospital below 1,500.
Mr Drakeford told the Welsh Government’s press briefing in Cardiff the figures showed a “rapid decline in the circulation of the virus here in Wales”.
“All of these are encouraging signs that the worst of the second wave is hopefully behind us and we can look forward together with confidence to more positive days and weeks ahead of us,” Mr Drakeford said.
But the First Minister said despite the promising figures “people are dying still, every day” because of the virus, as he asked for reflection for those who have passed away across the country as it marked St David’s Day.
Asked if the improving picture had created additional headroom to send children back to school sooner or ease restrictions further, Mr Drakeford said it was a “balancing act” between restoring freedoms and protecting public health.
But he added: “On Friday of next week I hope to be standing here still with things improving, still with headroom to do more, bringing more children back to school, thinking what other freedoms we can restore.”
Mr Drakeford said he would provide a return date for hospitality venues “as soon as the public health position is safe enough for us to do so”, and that when one is given “it will be a reliable date, and one that people will be able to act on”.
But he said the timetable for doing so would “not be very different” to elsewhere in the UK, with Boris Johnson having announced businesses in England could offer outdoor service from April 12 at the earliest and indoor service from May 17.
Mr Drakeford said the Welsh Government’s priorities over the next round of reviews were schools and the reopening of some non-essential retail, followed by the reopening of self-contained accommodation for the Easter period.
“Those will be the major milestones in the next two reviews. And if all of that is done safely, and if the numbers in Wales continue to improve, then we will look for the reopening of other sectors, and that will of course include hospitality,” he said.
“If we do that, then in practical terms, the timetable will not be very different in Wales to anywhere else. But the public health protection of people will have to be our first concern.”
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