Will The Welsh Firebreak Persuade Boris Johnson To Unite The Disunited Kingdom?

Paul Waugh
·Executive Editor, Politics, HuffPost UK
·5 min read

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It wasn’t on his lectern, but the mantra is back. ‘Stay at home, Save lives, Protect the NHS’ was the message from Wales’ first minister Mark Drakeford today and it was a depressing reminder of just how serious the Covid second wave has now become.

Calling his tough new two weeks of restrictions a “firebreak” was savvy comms on Drakeford’s part. The public will get the urgency and danger of that phrase a lot easier than “circuit break”, which somehow became the buzzword in Whitehall in the past few weeks.

The “sharp and deep” lockdown, which starts on Friday at 6pm, will be brought in to coincide with the school half-term. As Boris Johnson gambles on his own regional tiers approach, Wales will in many ways now be the lab experiment that Keir Starmer needs to make his own case for similar measures in England: Labour-led government (albeit in coalition with the Lib Dems) taking decisive action to save lives.

Drakeford stressed that he was following scientists’ advice (a report from the Welsh Government’s Tactical Advisory Group or TAG said it would “massively reduce” Covid-19 transmission in Wales and prevent a thousand deaths), itself a sharp contrast to Johnson’s own preference for giving more weight to economists’ advice.

There’s no question that the Welsh measures are strict: everyone advised to stay at home unless they do essential work, all pubs and non-essential shops to be closed, all tourism cancelled, no bonfire night or Halloween gatherings. The only major difference from the national lockdown in March was childcare for under-5s will stay open, though most secondary school pupils will be off for a fortnight and primaries for one week.

What was perhaps most fascinating about Drakeford’s press conference was his insistence that this would not transmute into an indefinite lockdown. “It WILL end on November 9,” he said. Crucially, he said the effects of the new firebreak would not be known until weeks after it ended (ie late November), but he was prepared for the evidence to prove him right.

Scotland has already started its own three-week shock treatment. Although not as stringent as a firebreak or circuit break (shall we call it a “windbreak”?), it is aimed at providing a similar short pause in the spread of the virus to help the local NHS prepare better for winter. But on the question of whether some features would continue after the period ends, Nicola Sturgeon conceded today at her own press conference that key curbs would.

“It is not realistic to expect that we will go back to normality - for example, the household restrictions will continue to be in place I think for the foreseeable future, and it may be that we need to have some further restrictions over and above that,” she said. “Foreseeable future” could be just weeks but it could be months.

With Northern Ireland operating its own, milder but longer four-week “circuit break” (pubs and restaurants closed, two households to a total of 10 people allowed to mix), England certainly looks the odd-one-out in the UK’s Covid responses. Should cases plateau or fall faster in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland (and we will know by late November), the pressure on the PM to follow suit will be strong. Except he’ll have missed the half-term school break and would probably have to wait until just before Christmas to avoid greater disruption.

If, as expected, Greater Manchester joins Liverpool region and Lancashire in the “Very High” risk category in coming days, the government’s own short, sharp shock will look like it’s creeping across the country by stealth. Matt Hancock today said talks on the move to the highest tier were ongoing with south Yorkshire, west Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, the north-east and Teesside. If all enter Tier 3, that’s a huge chunk of the UK’s population in a kind of firebreak. Especially when Chris Whitty made plain Tier 3 won’t be enough.

Of course, the question has always been just what should governments do during the firebreak? Drakeford said today he would use the two weeks “purposefully” to get more staff hired for Wales’ local test-and-trace service (which already has better contact rates than England’s) and to build more field hospitals. It felt like he was announcing a ceasefire in a war with the invisible enemy, to give his troops time to resupply with more infantry, more weapons and more medicines.

In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland it may well be that the new measures will help each nation “come together”, in Drakeford’s words. Unity of purpose and clarity of public health messaging are the key assets of a firebreak. The PM’s own English solution - a paradoxically centralised regionalism - often looks more like “divide and rule” than devolution.

Andy Burnham’s resistance movement could be overpowered by No.10 in coming days. But his main political argument could still cause Johnson a problem over the longer term. When London’s cases were rising rapidly in March and the north’s weren’t, the north didn’t say ‘keep us out of it, our rates are lower, our economy is more vulnerable, our jobs more precarious’. Instead it said: ‘we’re all in this together’. Now that the north is suffering, why isn’t the south saying the same?

<strong>First minister Mark Drakeford speaking at a press conference in Cardiff to confirm that the Welsh Government will introduce a "firebreak" lockdown in Wales for two weeks.</strong> (Photo: PA)
First minister Mark Drakeford speaking at a press conference in Cardiff to confirm that the Welsh Government will introduce a "firebreak" lockdown in Wales for two weeks. (Photo: PA)

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.