Welsh government accused of Omicron ‘overreaction’, as case rates unimpacted by costly Covid curbs

The Welsh government has been accused of “overreacting” to the Omicron wave after announcing plans to scrap controversial Covid restrictions introduced on Boxing Day.

Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, denied the move was a U-turn despite data suggesting that the curbs have had little impact on cases and hospitalisations.

Hospitality bosses said the restrictions had cost Welsh pubs around £16,000 each, while senior Conservatives accused Mr Drakeford of causing needless “pain and anguish” to businesses and families.

According to the most recent data, Covid case rates in England and Wales are practically equal despite the extra rules brought in by Mr Drakeford more than two weeks ago.

In the week to January 8, England saw 1,696 new Covid cases per 100,000, only marginally higher than the 1,616 cases per 100,000 seen in Wales over the same period.

Since Boxing Day, Wales has been on alert level two, which includes mask-wearing in all public venues, pubs and restaurants restricted to table service and the rule of six. Nightclubs have also been forced to shut.

However, current data shows falling case numbers and a decline in the number of patients in critical care beds.

At a press conference in Cardiff, Mark Drakeford said Wales “may be turning a corner” as he outlined a plan for returning to alert level zero, with all restrictions on outdoor activities scrapped from January 21. Spectators will be able to return to outdoor sporting events, including the Six Nations rugby, though Covid passes will be required.

If the downward trend continues, then alert level zero will apply to all indoor activities from January 28, with nightclubs allowed to reopen and workers legally permitted to return to the office.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Drakeford denied the move to relax restrictions was a “U-turn”, adding: “Not at all. It’s really the opposite of that.

“What we do in Wales is we follow the science, we follow the data. We make difficult decisions when that is necessary.”

However only last week Mr Drakefored described those calling for the end of restrictions as “fundamentally wrong”, and on Tuesday insisted Wales was “in the teeth of the Omicron storm”, adding that cases were “going up not coming down”.

When new restrictions came into force in Wales on Boxing Day, infections in the two nations were initially identical, at around 1,274 cases per 100,000 people in the previous week.

Despite the new rules Wales saw its case rate surge at a much faster pace, more than doubling to 2,589 cases per 100,00 by January 2.

Cases in Wales have risen almost three times faster than in England

By contrast England’s infection rate grew by just 41 per cent over the same period, and then peaked at a much lower rate of 1,947 per 100,000 on January 4.

Yet while case rates have peaked and are now falling in both nations, they are dropping more sharply in Wales, in a sign the rules may be having some impact.

Over the past week cases have fallen by 38 per cent in Wales, versus 13 per cent in England.

Wales vs England (Covid)

Death rates are also broadly similar between England and Wales – at 2.1 deaths per million for the former and 1.9 for the latter.

Welsh Beer and Pub Association chief executive Emma McLarkin said the rules had cost pubs around £16,000 each in lost sales over the festive period.

Ms McLarkin said: “The indication that we are going back to zero is fantastic, but a lot of damage has been done in that period of closure.

Businesses ‘pushed to brink’

“Every day we trade matters, so I just wish it was happening a bit faster.”

David Chapman, Executive Director of UKHospitality Cymru said: “This is positive and keenly anticipated news following a truly devastating period of restricted hospitality that has wiped out millions of pounds of revenue in weeks.

“Businesses have been pushed to the brink and there has been a palpable collective sigh of relief as today’s news has sunk in.”

Welsh Conservative Senedd leader Andrew RT Davies said:”Despite the detailed scientific evidence from South Africa, Labour ministers clearly overreacted to Omicron, and that has caused significant pain and anguish for families and businesses in Wales.

“Sadly, Labour have left Wales as an outlier in the UK with the strictest restrictions when it comes to sport, outdoor activity and hospitality.”

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “I want to thank everyone for following the rules we have had in place since Boxing Day to help keep Wales safe while the fast-moving Omicron variant has surged through our communities.”

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