Thousands of people have signed a petition calling on the Welsh Government to reverse a ban on supermarkets selling non-essential items during the firebreak lockdown in Wales.
First Minister Mark Drakeford said the restriction was a “matter of fairness” as non-essential retail has to close during the two-week period, which began at 6pm on Friday and will last until November 9.
Guidance published by the Welsh Government says certain sections of supermarkets must be “cordoned off or emptied, and closed to the public”.
These include areas selling electrical goods, telephones, clothes, toys and games, garden products and dedicated sections for homewares.
Supplies for the “essential upkeep, maintenance and functioning of the household” – such as batteries, lightbulbs and rubber gloves – can be sold during the lockdown.
Images posted on social media showed aisles selling products such as children’s clothes, greetings cards and books blocked off, with plastic sheeting placed over items to prevent shoppers from accessing them.
A petition calling on the Welsh Government to allow supermarkets to sell non-essential items had received more than 17,000 signatures by Saturday afternoon.
“We do not agree that this is a prudent or rational measure, and will create more harm than good,” the petition states.
“We do not agree for example that parents should be barred from buying clothes for their children during lockdown while out shopping.
“This is disproportionate and cruel and we ask that the decision be reversed immediately.”
But the Welsh Government has doubled down on its approach, saying the rules were “not for the sake of being difficult” but rather an attempt to help “minimise the time we spend outside our homes”.
Supermarkets can keep selling items you can find in other essential shops – such as stationery/greeting cards.
The purpose of selling essential items only during firebreak is to discourage spending more time than necessary in shops and to be fair to retailers who have to close.
— Welsh Government (@WelshGovernment) October 24, 2020
Tweets from the official Government account on Saturday afternoon read: “The purpose of selling essential items only during firebreak is to discourage spending more time than necessary in shops and to be fair to retailers who have to close.
“This is not for the sake of being difficult – we need to do everything we can to minimise the time we spend outside our homes. This will help save lives and protect the NHS.”
They confirmed items found in other essential shops – such as stationery and greetings cards – can still be sold in supermarkets.
Opposition leader Paul Davies has written to the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Parliament calling for members to be recalled to discuss the ban, saying the petition’s popularity is a “clear sign” that people want the rule “scrapped immediately”.
A video posted on social media appeared to show a man ripping down plastic sheeting that was covering clothing aisles in a supermarket.
Mr Drakeford said on Friday that stopping supermarkets from selling non-essential items was “a straightforward matter of fairness” as hundreds of high street businesses had been forced to closed.
He told a press conference in Cardiff that it was also “not the time to be browsing around supermarkets looking for non-essential goods”.
During the two-week lockdown, all leisure and non-essential retail are closed including clothes shops, furniture stores and car dealerships.
The ban was announced in the Welsh Parliament on Thursday following a question to Mr Drakeford from Conservative MS Russell George.
Mr George said it was “unfair” to force independent clothing and hardware retailers to shut while similar goods were on sale in major supermarkets.
In a statement alongside his letter urging a recall of Parliament, Mr Davies said: “It is madness that people have been banned from buying books, bins and baby clothes in local shops.”
He described the lockdown in Wales as “disproportionate, unnecessary and biting our economy hard” and said he would rather see people able to buy items in local shops than “see millions spent at online internet giants”.
Under lockdown rules, people can only leave their home for limited reasons, such as to buy food and medicine, provide care or take exercise, and must work from home where possible.
Leisure, hospitality and tourism businesses are closed, along with community centres, libraries and recycling centres, while places of worship are shut other than for funerals or wedding ceremonies.
On Saturday, Health Minister Vaughan Gething said the firebreak would give people the “best chance” of seeing each other over Christmas.
He told BBC Breakfast that scientists believed it would reduce the R value – the number of people each coronavirus case infects – to below one.
A new set of national measures is expected to be introduced in Wales after November 9.
“We want to be able to get to Christmas with people able to see each other, but we have to look at where we are with the virus, how we’re behaving in Wales, whether we’re able to effectively suppress it after the firebreak,” Mr Gething said.
“This gives us the best chance of doing that, but if I were to tell you what Christmas looks like today then I’d be making it up, I’d be giving people false hope, and that’s absolutely what we should not be doing.”
— Public Health Wales (@PublicHealthW) October 24, 2020
The rate of coronavirus across Wales was 156.8 cases per 100,000 people on Friday, with only one county under the Welsh Government’s threshold for intervention of 50 cases per 100,000.
Economists have estimated that the firebreak could cost the Welsh economy more than £500 million but Mr Gething said it would save the “much greater loss” of more prolonged measures.
On Saturday, a further 1,324 people were reported to have tested positive for coronavirus in Wales, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 41,577.
Public Health Wales said 16 people with Covid-19 had died, with the total number of deaths since the beginning of the pandemic rising to 1,772.