THERE is a sense of optimism in the Welsh coronavirus situation at the moment.
Case rates are falling, the rollout of the country’s vaccination programme is continuing, and there are signs that the number of coronavirus patients in hospital is starting to drop.
The situation has improved to such an extent from where it was before Christmas that first minister Mark Drakeford is now discussing the possibility of easing level four restrictions, which have been in place since December 20.
Indeed, the World Health Organisation has also taken note of the progress.
Dr David Nabarro, special envoy for the global coronavirus response, said the situation across the UK was “looking really good”.
But how did we get to this point after seeing incidence rates across Wales above 600 per 100,000 before Christmas, including peaking at 911.8 in Blaenau Gwent?
Case rates across Gwent and Wales during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
The second wave of the pandemic began in September, after summer of relaxed restrictions and comparatively low case numbers.
Speaking last week, Mr Drakeford said the rules in place during the summer period were an example of what new relaxed rules could look like moving out of alert level four.
Asked what the “new normal” could be in the short term for Wales, he said he wanted to return to the situation seen in July and August of last year.
The first minister said: “We were still social distancing, we were still being asked to wear masks on public transport and in crowded places, but we were able to travel, restaurants were open, and people could go on holiday.”
As summer turned to autumn cases began to rise, and a system of local lockdown was soon introduced.
Authority areas with an incidence rate of greater than 50 per 100,000 residents would be placed under local restrictions, limiting what could be done in the area, as well as travel in and out of it.
Caerphilly borough was the first area to be placed under restrictions on September 8.
In Gwent, that was soon followed by restrictions for Newport and Blaenau Gwent.
Torfaen would follow a week later, but less than a month later the entire country would be in lockdown as the Welsh Government announced its firebreak lockdown.
Introduced on October 23, the firebreak was designed to be a “short, sharp shock” that brought coronavirus rates, which by this point had risen to more than 200 per 100,000 across Wales and almost 400 per 100,000 in Blaenau Gwent, back under control.
While the firebreak initially lowered rates across Gwent and the country as a whole, the fall plateaued as the country moved out of the lockdown in early November, and were soon rising again.
Mark Drakeford said that the firebreak was “successful”, but that coronavirus had returned faster than anticipated.
“The advice and figures we have show the firebreak did what we wanted, and perhaps was even more effective than we had hoped,” he said.
“In the post-firebreak period, as people have mixed, it has come back faster than we anticipated.”
And the first minister accepted that stricter restrictions moving out of the period “might have made a difference”.
However, as the country moved towards Christmas case rates were continuing to grow.
In the final week before Christmas, four of Gwent’s five authority areas had incidence rates in excess of 700 per 100,000, coinciding with the discovery of the new Kent variant.
On December 19, the first minister announced that the country would be re-entering a full lockdown on December 20.
The previous week Mr Drakeford had reaffirmed that a planned five day rule relaxation to allow more mixing at Christmas would go ahead, but may be followed by some extra restrictions after the festive period.
So what changed?
The first minister said evidence had been made available of a new “more aggressive” strain of the virus which was already in circulation in Wales, now known as the Kent variant.
Mr Drakeford said: “We now know that this new strain is significantly more infectious and spreads more quickly than the original one.
“Throughout the public health emergency, we have had to respond quickly to the rapid changes, which have been so typical of coronavirus.
“Today has been one of those days when new information has required an immediate response.”
And so Wales entered level four restrictions, where it has remained since.
However, there are now signs of optimism moving forward, with schools due to open for foundation phase pupils next week, and hospital numbers following case numbers in beginning to fall.
The incidence rate across Wales is now 84 per 100,000, and last week, for the first time since August, all of Gwent’s local authority areas have incidence rates lower than 90 per 100,000, in the week ending February 14.
The situation has improved to such an extent that the Welsh Government are now considering the easing of some restrictions in Wales.
Last week, Mr Drakeford said: “Provided we continue to see levels of infection fall in Wales, that we see the impact on our health service being drained away, and we see our vaccination programme delivering what we hope it will in terms of the protection it will offer to people – if that is the path we are on, then we will be able to safely and cautiously lift the restrictions that are in place.
“That will include the tourism industry, and those aspects of family life which are to all of us at the moment.”
However, he warned that the country would have to remain vigilant of coronavirus for some time to come.
He added: “Coronavirus is going to be with us for months to come. It is going to be a long goodbye.
“Even when it is in the rear view mirror we are going to need to go on being careful about the way we live our daily lives.
“Coronavirus continues to have very unpleasant surprises up its sleeve.
“We in the Welsh Government will remain alert to any of those changes, but we are planning on the basis that things will improve because they have improved so significantly since the start of the new year.”
However, health minister Vaughan Gething stated on Monday that if a “cautious” easing did take place and the situation began to worsen then a return of restrictions was possible.
He said: “We don’t want to see a return to having to introduce more restrictions but I wouldn’t say that we could give a cast iron guarantee that would never happen.
“If, for example, we’d found our way to have a number of restrictions removed but we then saw a significant upswing in the virus – whether its a new variant or otherwise – then we would have a responsibility to act.
“That’s why we all need to continue reminding ourselves that we’ve got (to) this place, with schools about to return next week for some of our youngest children attending, with lower death rates, with lower case rates all across the country.”
And on Friday, Mr Drakeford announced an extension of lockdown restrictions for a further three weeks.
However, he also discussed the possibility that stay at home rules could be lifted at the next review.
He said: “I hope that this will be the last three weeks of the strict, straight, stay-at-home requirement.
“So if in three weeks time the numbers are still falling, the positivity rate is falling, the R number is below one, hospital pressures continue to reduce, then I hope we’ll be able to move beyond stay at home.
“I think it’s just at the moment too uncertain for me to be able to say whether that will be to a stay local arrangement of the sort we had last year, or whether we will be able to go beyond that.
“Of course our aim is to restore freedoms to people as fast as we’re able to do so but always provided it is safe to do so.
“As well as the good things – the vaccination programme, the falling numbers – we’ve also got difficulties as well, we’ve got new variants cropping up, we don’t know the impact that they will have on the circulation of the virus.
“The minute we begin to lift the lockdown, we know the virus will start to circulate again. It’s whether we can do that in a way that keeps it under control and creates more capacity for freedoms to be restored, freedoms for families to meet, freedom to begin the first steps of reopening the tourism sector.
“It’ll all have to be done step-by-step, carefully, and in a way that allows us always to review the evidence from any steps we take to make sure we’re not trying to do too many things too quickly.”