Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has said he wished he could have given “more notice” before bringing forward the country’s lockdown and further cutting back plans to allow families to mix over Christmas.
Mr Drakeford said the decision to impose Wales’s highest level of restrictions, announced just seven hours before they came into force, was “unavoidable” due to how widespread the new strain of coronavirus was across the country.
His announcement on Saturday evening triggered a rush for last-minute shopping before non-essential retailers were forced to close their doors at midnight, leading to long queues outside supermarkets and other retailers.
Coronavirus continues to spread across Wales. And there's a new, more infectious strain spreading more quickly. Moving to alert level 4 will help to slow the spread of the virus and save lives.
It is another challenge we must overcome. But one we will overcome together.
— Mark Drakeford (@fmwales) December 20, 2020
The planned relaxing of restrictions was also further cut back, meaning only two households can currently meet up on Christmas Day itself in Wales.
At Monday’s press briefing, the Welsh Labour leader was joined by Wales’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Chris Jones, who said cases with the new strain had more than doubled in a week.
Mr Drakeford said an urgent meeting with the Scottish and Irish first ministers and UK Cabinet minister Michael Gove on Saturday heard “new and worrying information” about how quickly the new strain was being transmitted.
He said: “During Saturday afternoon the Welsh cabinet met and received further information about the spread of the new variant strain here in Wales, and about the significant pressure it is causing in all parts of the NHS.
“As a result, we took unavoidable and immediate action to bring forward alert level four restrictions and to change the Christmas arrangements because of this incredibly serious turn that the pandemic has taken here in Wales.
“Of course I wish that we had been able to give everyone more notice of these changes. But in light of the information we had in front of us, it was imperative to take swift action to prevent further harm and to save lives.”
When asked why prior to Saturday he planned to delay lockdown until December 28, despite there already being evidence of a surge in the virus and increased pressure on the NHS, Mr Drakeford said: “When you have a better sense of the cause, you have a better sense of what actions you need to take”.
At the end of November, the seven-day coronavirus rate for Wales was 232 cases per 100,000 people but this is now 623 cases per 100,000 and rising.
The high rates led public health directors in the West Midlands on Monday to issue “urgent advice” saying people who travelled from Wales or a Tier 4 area of England should self isolate, turn away Christmas Day visitors and “assume” they have the new Covid-19 variant.
Welsh Government figures show that Cardiff and Vale University Health Board, which includes the country’s largest hospital the University Hospital of Wales, ran out of intensive care beds on Sunday with 41 occupied.
There were just under 1,700 people in Welsh hospitals with coronavirus symptoms a month ago, but there are now more than 2,300.
Mr Drakeford said that critical care units were now “operating beyond their normal capacity”, warning that and NHS and frontline staff were being “stretched to the limit”.
Over the weekend, more than 100 deaths were reported by Public Health Wales.
“Unless we can regain the grip on the spread of coronavirus, we will undoubtedly see more deaths here in Wales,” Mr Drakeford said.
He told the press conference there are more than 600 cases of the new variant in Wales but this is a “almost certainly a significant under-estimation”.
— Public Health Wales (@PublicHealthW) December 21, 2020
This is because only a proportion of the Welsh tests go to the two lighthouse laboratories able to detect it, he said.
Mr Drakeford said the Welsh Government will discuss with trade unions to see if “anything can be done” for people including NHS staff who will be working on Christmas Day so they can mix with another household on another day.
Data from the Office for National Statistics’ coronavirus infection survey shows the new strain of Covid-19 was present in 28% of samples from Wales in the second week of December.
Professor Jones told the briefing the new strain could be causing up to 60% of coronavirus infections in Wales and was now “much more common” across the whole of the country.
But he said it is not believed to cause a more serious illness in patients “at this stage”, and that that it is not believed to affect how Covid-19 vaccines work.