Social distancing could remain ‘into the rest of this year’, Mark Drakeford says
Social distancing restrictions could remain in place for the rest of 2021 in Wales Mark Drakeford has said.
The First Minister said the two-metre rule is likely to remain “part of people’s response” to Covid-19 for as long as the virus persists, but whether it could become mere advice depended on a continued improving of conditions.
On Friday, Mr Drakeford told BBC Radio Wales he would not lift all restrictions on June 21 even if they were in England, saying Wales would stick to its “careful, cautious” approach complemented by the lowest Covid-19 figures in the UK and the best first dose vaccination figures in the world.
Later at a press briefing, he said social distancing rules remained “one of the strongest defences that we have” against the virus, and that he had been “very struck” by people continuing to be careful about creating space for others.
As part of a personal repertoire of things that every one of us can do to keep ourselves and others safe, I think they will remain part of people’s response to this public health crisis for as long as coronavirus persists
“I’m not certain myself that there is a huge thirst for people to give up some of the safeguards that we are all able to contribute in the way that we behave in our lives,” Mr Drakeford said.
“I think they will remain part of the repertoire, here in Wales, during the rest of the summer, maybe into the rest of this year.
“Whether we will be able to move from them being mandatory to just things that we advise people about and ask people to do in their own lives, I think that will depend upon whether we continue to see improvements in the position here in Wales.
“But as part of a personal repertoire of things that every one of us can do to keep ourselves and others safe, I think they will remain part of people’s response to this public health crisis for as long as coronavirus persists.”
Welsh Conservative health spokesperson Russell George said it was “concerning” that Mr Drakeford had suggested social distancing could stay.
“The vaccine rollout, secured by the UK Government, is doing its job in protecting people and the NHS,” he said.
“But after 15 months of lockdowns and restrictions people need hope that the vaccines will be accompanied with a very welcome light at the end of the tunnel.
“The First Minister’s words today have pulled that hope from people who are desperate to get back to normality.
“The current two-metre social distancing rules are hampering businesses and where the science and data allows we should see that reduced down to one metre as soon as we can.”
Mr Drakeford also told the briefing he would not set a threshold for vaccination which the country would need to meet before all restrictions are lifted, but said Wales’ “remarkably strong” figures proved its programme was working and included 59% of people aged 18-29 receiving their first jab.
The Welsh Government said more than 85% of the population has had one dose of the vaccine in Wales and 45% has had both.
Mr Drakeford also said that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s (MHRA) approval of the use of the Pfizer vaccine in 12 to 15-year-olds meant children could receive jabs “in the remaining part of this summer term” or when schools return in the autumn.
Earlier, the First Minister told the PA news agency the outcome of Wales’ next review of restrictions depended on whether growing cases of the Indian variant leads to increased pressure on the NHS.
He warned that preliminary evidence showed the variant, of which there are 97 cases in Wales including a cluster in Conwy in north-west Wales, could be leading to greater levels of hospital admissions primarily among young, unvaccinated people.
“But if that doesn’t turn out to be the case, then beyond these three weeks we will be able to move forward further and to do more to continue to lift restrictions in Wales,” Mr Drakeford said.
Outdoor events with up to 10,000 people sitting – or 4,000 people standing – will be able to resume in Wales from Monday while groups of up to 30 people can meet outdoors and extended households can expand to include a third.
But Wales has paused plans to increase the numbers of people able to meet indoors or attend indoor events while it waits for more evidence about the effect of the variant, with a decision on whether to proceed to be made before June 21.
Wales’ seven-day infection rate is eight per 100,000 people in the week up to May 30.
Public Health Wales said on Friday there were 71 new cases of Covid-19 in Wales, taking the total in the country since the start of the pandemic to 212,999, while another day of zero Covid-related deaths means the total remains at 5,569.