People in Wales should limit mixing over Christmas to just two households ahead of the country entering another lockdown, First Minister Mark Drakeford has said.
While a joint UK approach will still allow up to three homes to form a Christmas bubble between December 23 and 27, Mr Drakeford said the coronavirus crisis in Wales is “so serious” that people should not take up the full allowance.
The Welsh Labour leader made the announcement on Wednesday after saying the “sustained rise in coronavirus” means the country will also go into its third lockdown from December 28.
All non-essential retail will close on the evening of Christmas Eve and all hospitality from 6pm on Christmas Day, but restrictions for household mixing will only come in after the five days of relaxed measures at Christmas.
Announcing that Wales will retain the agreed UK approach to Christmas bubbles, Mr Drakeford told the Welsh Government’s press briefing: “Here in Wales, the position is that only two households should come together to form an exclusive Christmas bubble during the five-day period.
“The fewer people we mix with in our homes, the less chance we have of catching or spreading the virus.”
Mr Drakeford said Wales’s own guidance, which diverges from that given by each of the other three UK nations, is a reflection of “how serious things are in Wales”.
He said joint UK-wide advice about Christmas will be published later but added that a “shorter Christmas is a safer Christmas”.
Mr Drakeford denied that the different messages across the UK are “confusing”, saying: “You have to recognise that the position is different in parts of the United Kingdom as it has been through the whole of the coronavirus experience.
“We face a particularly challenging moment as we go into those five days of Christmas.”
Don't invite coronavirus into your home this Christmas.
Coronavirus cases are rising sharply again in Wales.
To save lives now, don't mix with other people.
Don’t put yourself and your family at risk for the sake of tradition. pic.twitter.com/8xn7Qx6iKo
— Welsh Government (@WelshGovernment) December 14, 2020
Mr Drakeford said he “cannot simply set aside” messages he has received from people explaining to him the impact that cancelling the relaxed period will have on their lives, despite NHS staff warning that going ahead with it will put further strain on an already overstretched health service.
A YouGov poll on Tuesday showed that a majority of the UK public would accept the relaxed period being scrapped.
But Mr Drakeford said: “Those mental health harms are equally as real.”
He claimed that the NHS “was coping” with the recent surge in cases and would continue to do so if the relaxed period put further strain on the system, despite reports of ambulances carrying patients having to queue outside hospitals and doctors saying their wards were nearing capacity.
When challenged, Mr Drakeford said the NHS “is coping because it continues to see, to admit and to treat the people who come to its door”, before suggesting it wasn’t necessarily “able to do it in the way it would wish to do it”.
Responding to the announcement, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Senedd, Paul Davies, said: “The Welsh Government has clearly lost control of the pandemic in Wales, where we now need a fire blanket not a firebreak to put out the flames of infection that are raging in some part of Wales.
“Over the last few weeks families would have been making the tough calls as to who they need to cut out from their Christmas, now having to re-think, whilst also having to deal with the confusion in the mixed messages from the Welsh Government with guidance saying one thing, and regulations saying something else.”
Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price said: “Given the mixed messaging from the Prime Minister and Westminster, the Welsh Government need to change the rules not just the guidance on household mixing at Christmas. Otherwise, it’s simply a recipe for confusion and poor adherence to the new policy.”
Mr Drakeford said Wales’s move into the fourth and highest level of restrictions, which would in effect be another lockdown, by December 28 would last for an initial three weeks before being reviewed.
He said it is possible that some of the measures could be alleviated “on a regional or a national basis”.
Announcing the move into tougher restrictions, the First Minister said: “Many of you will have seen the warnings from senior clinicians about the huge impact coronavirus is having on the whole of our health service.
“The situation we are facing is extremely serious. We must move to alert level four and tighten the restrictions to control the spread of coronavirus and save lives.”
As well as all non-essential retail, close contact services and all leisure and fitness centres will also close at the end of trading on Christmas Eve, followed by all hospitality premises from 6pm on Christmas Day.
On December 28 the tighter restrictions will restrict household mixing, staying-at-home rules, holiday accommodation and travel.