Chief Medical Officer for Wales statement on health protection restrictions easements - 12 March 2021
I have reviewed the proposed amendments to the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) Regulations 2020 and agree that they reflect a cautious, incremental approach to the removal of restrictions.
The numbers of new COVID-19 cases in Wales continues to decrease, with the 7-day average falling below 50 cases/100,000 population for the first time since September and a positivity rate for testing which is now less than 4.5%.
The current lockdown has been effective in driving down infection rates and our aim now should be to maintain community transmission at the lowest achievable levels. Keeping the prevalence of Covid-19 low is an important preventative strategy both for the avoidance of direct harms and to guard against the emergence of new variants. The maintenance of low prevalence requires the slow release of lockdown restrictions; lifting them too early or too quickly will lead to an epidemic resurgence. Our modelling scenarios suggest that overly-rapid relaxation combined with increased transmissibility of the now dominant variant and low public adherence to restrictions could lead to a third wave of virus circulation in late spring (May/June). If we are unable to avoid this scenario then it is likely that, despite the success of our vaccination programme, we would see a return in Wales to a period of high viral transmission with increased hospitalisations and deaths.
UK wide action to prevent importing infection (especially new variants) through international travel is also important. To mitigate public health risks, a suite of border control measures is in place. These require passengers to provide personal and travel details and evidence of a negative coronavirus test before departure to the UK. All travellers are also required to quarantine for a full 10 days upon arrival at a UK port. For arrivals from “red-list” countries (linked to variants of concern), quarantine is at a managed facility near the UK port of entry; for arrivals from other countries, quarantine is at home. Although these measures go some way to protect against the importation of Covid-19 and the introduction of new variants into the UK we should continue to work with other UK Nations to further strengthen our border control arrangements. Continued restrictions on international travel may be warranted if we see case rates begin to increase.
We should continue to use both legislation and advice to ensure that indoor mixing between households does not - increase. The importance of public adherence to this restriction cannot be overemphasised; our modelling shows household mixing to be the single greatest determinant of whether we are likely to experience a substantive third wave. Implementing the personal, procedural, engineering and societal mitigations to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2 virus remains a vital part of our approach, but the new variant, being more transmissible, requires a step change in the rigour of application given the increased risk of spread. Most importantly, our public messaging should explain why continued restrictions on meeting up with family and friends inside our homes, caravan parks and holiday lets, continue to be necessary.
Finally, we should continue to carefully monitor the impact of the proposed easement of restrictions and be willing to intervene again if we see evidence of increasing transmission.
Dr Frank Atherton
Chief Medical Officer
12 March 2021