Wales’s two-household limit for mixing during Christmas will be made into law, the Welsh Government has said.
The decision came just hours after First Minister Mark Drakeford announced during a press conference that lowering the amount of homes that can form a Christmas bubble from three to two was guidance rather than a requirement.
On Wednesday morning, the UK’s four nations had agreed not to amend the rules for the relaxed period between December 23 and 27, before Cardiff Bay’s U-turn later in the evening.
Mr Drakeford had earlier said while the joint UK approach would still allow up to three homes to form a bubble, the coronavirus crisis in Wales is “so serious” that people should not take up the full allowance.
But hours after Mr Drakeford’s announcement, a Welsh Government spokesman said country’s guidance would instead be made into law to make it “easier” for the public to understand.
The spokesman told the PA news agency: “Ministers decided this afternoon that we will be amending the regulations in Wales. So for December 23 to 27 the restriction on two households meeting will be part of Welsh law.
“It makes it easier, so we don’t have the position where the law says one thing and the guidance says something else.”
The spokesman said the law would also allow for an additional person living alone to join with a two-household bubble.
At Wednesday’s Welsh Government briefing, Mr Drakeford said: “The fewer people we mix with in our homes, the less chance we have of catching or spreading the virus.”
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.”
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.
The prevalence of the virus in Wales has reached the point where we must now move to alert level 4.
Non-essential retail will close on Christmas Eve, hospitality will close from 6pm on Christmas Day and household mixing and travel restrictions will tighten from December 28.
— Mark Drakeford (@fmwales) December 16, 2020
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”.
The Welsh Labour leader also announced that the “sustained rise in coronavirus” means the country will go into its third full lockdown from December 28.
One in five people in Wales are testing positive for the virus, he said, while more than 2,100 people, equivalent to five full hospitals, were in hospital with symptoms, and a record 98 people were in intensive care with the virus.
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.
The restrictions mean non-essential shops will be shut for the traditional Boxing Day sales.
Mr Drakeford said Wales’s move into the fourth and highest level of restrictions 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”.
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.
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 parts 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 rethink, whilst also having to deal with the confusion in the mixed messages from the Welsh Government.”