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Reliable approach to easing lockdown best for economy, First Minister says

Mark Drakeford said unlocking ‘too much too soon’ would ultimately lead to a clampdown on freedoms for a second time (Ben Birchall/PA)

A “reliable and predictable” route out of lockdown is the best approach for the Welsh economy, the First Minister has said.

Mark Drakeford said unlocking “too much too soon” would ultimately lead to a clampdown on freedoms for a second time, if coronavirus started circulating across the country again.

On Monday Mr Drakeford defended his government’s conservative easing of measures compared with England, despite signs the virus is declining faster in Wales, after critics said his approach could worsen the economic impact of Covid-19.

It came as Public Health Wales said a further four people had died after testing positive for the virus, taking its total number of deaths to 1,448, while the total number of cases increased by 62 to 14,804.

Responding to the suggestion that the risk to public health and the economy were being balanced, Mr Drakeford told the daily press briefing in Cardiff: “I have never seen the needs of health and the needs of the economy as being opposite sides of the scales, where to do the right thing by one is to do harm to the other.

“I am with those very many economists who argue that a reliable move out of lockdown in which we do not take the risk of coronavirus circulating again is the best for the economy as well.

“Nothing would be worse for the economy than a stop-start approach in which we do too much too soon, lead to coronavirus in rapid circulation and a clampdown on everything for a second time.

“Much better for the economy that we take a reliable and predictable path out of coronavirus that safeguards people’s health and is good for the economy as well.

“Those two things have always got to be together.”

An announcement on what will be relaxed next in Wales will be made on Friday, which is expected to include reopening non-essential shops and relaxing restrictions on more outdoor activities.

But Plaid Cymru’s Helen Mary Jones urged the Welsh Government to give more guidance to employers who faced economic damage if restrictions continued, while the Welsh Conservatives’ Darren Millar MS said businesses faced going “bust” if prevented from reopening after the next review.

Mr Drakeford also defended his government’s decision to stick with the two-metre social distancing rule, despite concerns from businesses who say their ability to trade will be curbed with it in place.

A UK Government review is currently looking into whether the rule can be reduced in England, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak saying a shorter distance could have an “enormous impact” on the ability of businesses to make profit.

“The advice from Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies ) has been that the two-metre rule remains an essential safeguard.

“As you halve the distance that people can be together you double the risk coronavirus will spread between them,” Mr Drakeford said.

“We will follow the review very carefully of course. If the scientific advice changes, then we will change our policy in Wales.”

When asked if there was a chance Wales could reduce the distance without the change being endorsed by Wales’ chief medical officer, Frank Atherton, Mr Drakeford said he “could not be categorical about that”.

He added: “The scientific advice is, in the end, one strand of everything we have to weigh up.

“But for me it is a very important strand, and I certainly wouldn’t be saying today that we would in any way likely depart from it.”

Mr Drakeford told the press conference that contact with the UK Government had come to a “stop”, with almost three weeks having passed since he last spoke to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

There had been no discussions with UK ministers, with the exception of Welsh Secretary Simon Hart, since then, he said, though there had been contact between officials.

“In terms of what I have wanted to see, that regular reliable rhythm of meetings with UK ministers, and the stop-start arrangements we’ve had, I’m afraid we’ve been in a stop part of that cycle for more than two weeks,” he said.

Mr Drakeford also said he was “very unattracted” to the idea of putting a ban on people from England entering Wales in future if the difference between the countries’ current R numbers remained the same or worsened across the border.

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