When the Welsh Government’s cabinet and the nation’s most senior officials met virtually on December 19 there was only one item on the agenda – ‘COVID-19 – response to’.
The pandemic meant they were meeting on teams and the message could not have been more serious.
They were told Prime Minister Boris Johnson was later that day set to announce significant new lockdown measures for London and the South East of England.
Cases were rising quickly and a new more transmissible strain was spreading rapidly.
By the end of the meeting a decision had been made that Wales would go into lockdown at midnight that night – a move that stunned the country on the countdown to Christmas.
Now the minutes of that meeting have been released.
This is what happened…
1.1 The First Minister advised Ministers that earlier that day he had met with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the First Ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser for England, to discuss the very latest information about a new strain of coronavirus.
As a result of this development with the virus, the Prime Minister would be announcing, later that afternoon, significant new measures to control COVID-19 in London, Kent, Essex and the East of England, and changes to arrangements over the Christmas period for the rest of England. Ministers would need to consider the impact on Wales.
1.2 Ministers were reminded that any restrictions relating to COVID-19 would be for the purpose of preventing, protecting against, controlling or providing a public health response to the incidence, spread of infection or contamination. There must be a threat to public health and the restrictions had to be proportionate in what they were intending to achieve.
New strain of virus
1.3 The First Minister invited the Deputy CMO to provide the latest advice in respect of the new strain of the virus and the impact this would have on the NHS.
1.4 While the case rate per 100,000 population for the UK was around 250 per 100,000, London was at 450 cases, which had doubled in one week. Other areas in the Thames Estuary were over 900 cases per 100,000. Cases were rising fastest in younger age groups, 10-14 and 15-19, and this was beginning to manifest in growing rates for the over 60s.
1.5 This rapid growth was driven by a new mutation of the virus. Public Health Wales confirmed early, but robust evidence, suggested the new strain was substantially more transmissible. 60% of new cases in South East England were of the new variant.
It was thought that the disease pathways and outcomes remained in line with existing strains of COVID-19 and there was no evidence to suggest the mutation would respond differently to the vaccines.
1.6 In Wales there was high and increasing incidence in almost all areas, particularly in the south. There were, potentially, 600 cases which may add 0.4 to the R value.
Of the current sample of cases available, the highest proportion of cases testing positive for the new mutation was in North Wales, suggesting a reservoir of cases. This new mutation was possibly 70 per cent more transmissible. It was reported that hospital admissions were running ahead of the Reasonable Worst Case Scenario and there was significant pressure on the social care sector.
Early and robust measures
1.7 There were calls on the Government for early and robust measures from a range of public sector partners.
1.8 The First Minister informed Cabinet that it was likely that the UK Government would move Tier 3 areas in the east and south east of England to an enhanced Tier 4, in effect a full lockdown.
This would be accompanied by strong stay at home messages, which would likely be supported by regulation and the Christmas relaxations would be removed completely. The rest of England would remain in their existing Tiers but with an enhanced stay local message, with a possibility of a reduction in the Christmas household relaxations to Christmas Day only.
1.9 Ministers were advised that the rates per 100,000 in some areas of Wales were higher than in some of the English Tier 3 areas, which were being moved to enhanced Tier 4.
1.10 Given that the mutated virus was present in all parts of Wales, there were concerns about the current travel arrangements, which would enable large numbers of people to continue to move around the UK at Christmas. In addition, household mixing would drive spread of the virus and increase incidence in January.
1.11 Ministers considered the options available within the paper and agreed that whilst there was a need to avoid further disruption to businesses and plans for Christmas, the Government’s overriding duty was to protect lives in Wales.
Alert Level 4
1.12 Cabinet agreed to bring forward the Alert Level 4 restrictions for the whole of Wales, in line with the action being taken in London and the South East of England. These new restrictions would come into effect from midnight that night instead of from December 28. This would require non-essential retail, close contact services, gyms and leisure centres, hospitality and accommodation to close at the end of trading. In addition, stay-at-home restrictions would also come into effect from midnight.
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1.13 Those in holiday accommodation in Wales should make arrangements to leave and return home at the earliest opportunity.
1.14 The government could not expose people to the risk of this new, more virulent strain of coronavirus, so there would be a need to change the current rules for Christmas. The relaxation, which would allow two households to come together to form a Christmas bubble, would now only apply on Christmas Day. However, throughout the Alert Level 4 period, a single person household would be able to join with one other household.
1.15 In terms of financial support for the businesses affected by these changes, there was a further £110 million, which had been announced the previous day. This was in addition to the £160 million Restrictions Business Fund and £180 million targeted hospitality fund. It would be important to ensure that this support was available as quickly as possible to those businesses that needed it.
1.16 The Welsh Government would also pass on any further funding that became available to Wales, as a result of decisions made by the UK government to support businesses in London and the South East during the Tier 4 lockdown period.
1.17 Cabinet noted the First Minister would make an announcement about these changes later that afternoon.
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