Lockdown measures in Wales could be reintroduced after current restrictions are lifted, health minister Vaughan Gething has said.
Mr Gething told a press conference in Cardiff that ministers would have a responsibility to act if there was a “significant upswing” in Covid-19 cases.
Coronavirus restrictions in Wales are formally reviewed every three weeks, with the cabinet due to decide on Thursday and First Minister Mark Drakeford expected to announce any changes this Friday.
The seven-day incidence rate in Wales has fallen to below 100 cases per 100,000 people for the first time in “many, many months”, while the test positivity rate is now under 10%.
— Public Health Wales (@PublicHealthW) February 15, 2021
Mr Gething said ministers were considering how they could give families “a bit more flexibility after such a long lockdown”.
But he told reporters that the “majority of headroom” created by the improved situation in Wales would be used to return children aged seven and under to face-to-face teaching from February 22.
“What we want to do is make choices based on the best available data and information, to see case rates driven as low as possible, and then to have a cautious exit out of the current lockdown that we’re in,” Mr Gething said.
“But if we make cautious steps outwards then it will still very much feel like a form of lockdown for most people because we’re not going to be returning straightway to what we thought of as our normal lives just over a year ago.
“We don’t want to see a return to having to introduce more restrictions but I wouldn’t say that we could give a cast iron guarantee that would never happen.
“If, for example, we’d found our way to have a number of restrictions removed but we then saw a significant upswing in the virus – whether its a new variant or otherwise – then we would have a responsibility to act.
“That’s why we all need to continue reminding ourselves that we’ve got (to) this place, with schools about to return next week for some of our youngest children attending, with lower death rates, with lower case rates all across the country.”
Level 4 restrictions – a national lockdown – were introduced in Wales on December 20, with people told to stay at home apart from essential reasons.
Mr Gething said a “phased and flexible plan” had been developed with local education authorities and unions to enable children in the foundation stage to return to school from next Monday.
“We’re looking to see if there are other small things we can do and the reason we’re saying small things is we’re trying to manage people’s expectations,” he said.
“We’re not suddenly going to have a wide-scale opening of all the measures and lots of mixing between different households.”
Ministers will use information from the country’s chief medical officer, scientific advisers, as well as data about transmission rates and NHS capacity, before making a decision on whether any restrictions can be eased.
First Minister Mark Drakeford previously said “cautious” talks are ongoing with the tourism and hospitality industries in Wales about reopening in time for Easter.
Wales must be “very careful” about coming out of lockdown due to the presence of new and more infectious strains of Covid-19 in the UK, Mr Gething said.
The Kent variant is the most dominant strain of the virus in Wales and cases of a mutated version of that strain have been identified close to the border, in Bristol and Liverpool.
In total, 13 cases of the South African variant have been detected in Wales – with all but two of these having links to international travel.
“It remains important we all work together to get the levels of coronavirus in our communities as low as we possible can,” Mr Gething said.
“The best way of reducing the likelihood of new variants emerging is to keep new infections low.”
Almost 785,000 people in Wales have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, the equivalent of one in four people in the country.
The Welsh Government hit its target of offering vaccinations to everyone in the top four priority groups by mid-February early and is now planning to offer the jab to all those in groups five to nine by the end of April.
A “temporary slowdown” of vaccine supply across the UK, expected over the next two weeks, has been factored into these plans and will not delay any second-dose appointments, Mr Gething confirmed.
On Monday, Public Health Wales reported a further 363 cases of coronavirus in Wales, taking the number of confirmed cases to 199,518.
Another 16 deaths were recorded, bringing the total in the country since the start of the pandemic to 5,137.