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Mark Drakeford has warned that 2,000 cases of a new form of the Delta variant of coronavirus have been identified in Wales, and criticised the UK Government for removing all remaining countries from the red travel list.
At a press conference, the Wales First Minister announced a package of new measures to avoid tighter restrictions as winter approaches.
Mr Drakeford said Wales has the highest rates of coronavirus in the UK, driven by high levels among younger people and transmission between family members.
He said recently discovered mistakes at a laboratory in England, which led to thousands being told their tests were negative, may have also contributed.
The Office for National Statistics estimates that as many as one in 40 people in Wales may have the virus, while there are 820 Covid-19 patients in hospital.
Mr Drakeford said: “We have identified around 2,000 cases of a new and possibly more transmissible form of the Delta variant in Wales.”
He said preliminary investigations had found the variant was about 10% more transmissible, and those affected were about 10% more likely to become seriously ill.
“It could be when those figures are further investigated that new variant could be more transmissible and more serious,” he said.
Mr Drakeford continued: “It doesn’t look as though it will be at the higher end of that impact. But when you have 730 people in every 100,000 falling ill from coronavirus in Wales, 10% of a large number is a large number. And we don’t want that.”
Asked why Wales is strengthening measures when they are being reduced by the UK Government, Mr Drakeford replied: “We regret the decisions the UK Government is making in relation to international travel.”
He said the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) was “almost certain” that a new variant will emerge in the UK, adding: “There is at least a possibility that that variant will turn out to be more resistant to vaccination than the current one we have.
“We have long argued the UK Government shutdown built the defences higher against the importation of new variants of the virus from overseas.”
Mr Drakeford said Wales remains at level zero restrictions, but warned this may change as winter approaches.
Under the new measures announced on Friday, those who live with someone who tests positive must isolate with them until they get a negative PCR test, including children aged five to 17 and people who are fully vaccinated.
Those who test positive must self-isolate for 10 days, and support payments of £750 will continue for people forced to miss work.
The use of Covid-19 vaccination passes in nightclubs and large indoor events is also set to continue, and will be extended to theatres, cinemas and concert halls in two weeks.
Mr Drakeford warned that Covid-19 passports might be extended in the hospitality sector if cases continue to rise.
He also encouraged staff and students in secondary schools to take up the offer of twice-weekly lateral flow tests, and for those who can to work from home.
The legal requirement to wear face coverings in shops will continue, and shopkeepers are being asked to ensure the measures are followed.
The First Minister said Wales had administered 400,000 booster vaccines and urged all those who are eligible to get one.
Shadow health minister Russell George said: “Saving lives and protecting livelihoods is the responsibility of Government, and it’s been clear for some time the way out of the pandemic is the vaccine, not lockdowns or restrictions.
“Focusing on greatly increasing uptake of the booster jab should be the First Minister’s priority.”
He added: “Though I am pleased the extension of vaccine passports will be put to a vote, it should not even get that far given there is little evidence to demonstrate it has been anything more than an ineffective limiting of our liberties that has failed to increase uptake of the vaccine or limit the spread.
“The Labour Government’s actions today has only served to emphasise why we need a Wales-specific Covid inquiry that would force an explanation on both why ministers continue to pursue failed policies and why are they unable to explain the context in which we can live normally again.”