For centuries, its proximity to the border made Wrexham in north Wales a focus of tension and conflict. From Monday, the town’s geographical position means a very 2020 set of challenges will face the authorities and business people.
The 17-day Covid Welsh “firebreak” ends and the town’s shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants will be permitted to reopen.
By then, the month-long lockdown in England – just five miles away – will be four days old and some English residents may be ready to illegally skip across the border to shop and have a drink or meal out.
“It’s bound to happen,” said Matt McHale, who runs the La Baguette sandwich shop close to the train station. “The border is so close. Chester is only 25 minutes away and Liverpool isn’t very far. I don’t see how the police will be able to stop people crossing.”
Mark Finlay, the operations manager for pubs and bars including the Fat Boar in Wrexham, said they would be asking people for ID and turning them away if they were not supposed to be in Wales.
“We’ll be asking the question ‘Are you from Wales?’ and giving them a form to put their name and address on. If they are prepared to lie to have a drink of beer, more fool them.”
Finlay reckons staff will be able to spot incomers. “We know our regulars. Chester isn’t that far away but they are quite different people.”
The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, said this week the different timings of the two versions of lockdown for Wales and England meant the border was probably the hardest it had been for hundreds of years – but he feared English residents might use Welsh hospitality businesses to “escape” the regime they are living under.
He flagged up Wrexham, the largest town in north Wales. “Think of Wrexham and Chester, just a few miles apart,” he said. “If pubs are closed in Chester [as they were as of Thursday], what impact will that have on people trying to travel to Wales?”
The Welsh economy minister, Ken Skates, suggested the different regimes could be a boom time for places such as Wrexham, pointing out that Welsh residents would not be crossing the border to shop.
“Hospitality businesses, non-essential retail in Wales will have a captive market,” he said. “That is something they surely will be able to celebrate for four weeks during which their equivalents in England are in lockdown.”
If that does happen, it will be a huge relief to businesses in the town. Colin Turnbull, a taxi driver, said it had been almost impossible to make a living during the firebreak. “We’ve been taking perhaps a tenth of our normal fares,” he said.
People are still allowed to travel into Wales from England and vice versa for essential reasons, such as work and education. Turnbull said he would not be quizzing passengers about their reasons for being in Wrexham. “That’s not our job,” he said. “We aren’t the police.”
Andy Gallanders, who runs the Bank Street Social coffee shop, said he thought people were getting tired of lockdown and would cross the border.
But it was not a one-way problem, he said. During the Wales firebreak he knew of people who went from Wrexham to Chester for a night out when English pubs and restaurants were still open.
“I believe we’ll see the reverse now with people coming over from Chester. The onus seems to be on owners and operators to police it, which is very difficult. People won’t stop coming just because Drakeford says they shouldn’t.”
Wayne Price, the chair of the town forum, said he expected the first days post-firebreak could be quiet – but it would build.
He said he expected people would defy the regulations and travel from England – and it would be hard for the ban to be enforced.
“We’re a border town. We have Welsh, English, Portuguese, Polish people living here, a beautiful hotchpotch of different cultures. You can’t always tell if someone is from Liverpool or Wrexham.”
North Wales police will not be setting up roadblocks on the border. There are too many crossing places even if it was inclined to do so. But there will be more patrols on the strategic routes in and out and officers on foot in town centres.
The police and crime commissioner for north Wales, Arfon Jones, said officers would use the “four E’s” – engage, educate, encourage – and as a last-resort enforce. He urged people not to cross the border for a drink or shopping trip.
“If police do come across someone who has travelled to a place like Wrexham for a drink when they shouldn’t, they will take action. People shouldn’t come on shopping trips.
“We’re trying to stop the spread of a deadly virus. People need to take personal responsibility. Wait until the lockdown in England ends. There will still be time for Christmas shopping then.”
— to www.theguardian.com