Ten weeks on from the country moving into lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus, the discussion in all parts of the UK is now about how the restrictions get eased in the safest way possible.
We knew at the start of the lockdown that both in terms of economic sustainability and public support for the movement restrictions, the lockdown could only be held in place for a certain amount of time. In general, here in Pembrokeshire people have followed the rules very closely and worked together to make the best of the circumstances.
Opinion polls show that overall British people are very cautious in their views about ending the lockdown. When asked about returning to ‘normal life’, they will express reservations and the need to tread very carefully. They will express high levels of worry about the risks of the virus and a fear about a ‘second spike’.
But when given the opportunity to enjoy something they have not been able to for the last three months, people actually do not behave in accordance with those fears. Just look at the way people have packed onto English beaches or queued at IKEA and Homebase over the last two weekends. Human nature being what it is, people want to exercise freedom and return to the things they enjoyed especially when it involves seeing family members and friends once again.
All this underlines the difficult job that politicians and scientists have in making the best decisions about ending the lockdown. These discussions are happening all across Europe too. Different countries are all doing things slightly differently but generally things are moving in the same direction - people are returning to work, schools are re-opening to some degree, cafes and bars are opening with restrictions on seating, and there is a gradual re-opening of the tourist industry.
Here in Wales, we have some of the toughest rules in place of any country in Europe. Unlike the rest of the UK, the 2 metre social distancing rule has the full force of law behind it in Wales. While a great many businesses have adapted already to this, others face a real headache in making it work as they grapple with the additional legal risk of the ‘new normal’ in Wales.
Another difference in Wales is the new 5 mile rule for seeing another household. Welsh Government have now rowed back on their initial position and are saying it is just a ‘rule of thumb’ and will need discretion in rural areas. Other parts of the UK are leaving it open to flexibility and common sense. People find it odd that you can drive much further in Wales to play golf than to see members of your own family living in another village.
I don’t mind different rules in Wales when there are clear and well understood reasons for it. But creating a new Welsh rule, and then saying it isn’t really a rule, just doesn’t make sense. There is already too much confusion around.
Certainly when it comes to rules affecting businesses, my preference is to see the United Kingdom move out of lockdown as one nation. We have one highly integrated economy and I am afraid if Welsh business is told they will be the last to open up then there is an obvious advantage for competitors in England and Scotland.
For the tourism industry in Wales, this is proving a very challenging period. With Welsh Government looking unlikely to allow any late tourist season, seasonal businesses are facing the prospect of a ‘three winters’ scenario. I raised this point in Parliament this week as I called for financial support to continue for these businesses.
Over the past few weeks I have spoken to an enormous number of Pembrokeshire businesses via phone, email and conference calls, to discuss the impact the virus has had on their operations and the support they have been receiving. All these businesses totally understand the need for strong restrictions at this time to save lives and protect the NHS. But they are also looking ahead and want to play their part in rebuilding the economy when we are finally through the crisis. Ultimately, a strong economy is the only thing that will help us pay for all the different support packages that have been made available and the extra money that has been given to the NHS.
As Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee in Parliament, I’ve been leading an inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on Wales. We’ve been taking evidence from hundreds of businesses and industries across Wales. We will be making recommendations to Welsh and UK governments on how they need to work together on an economic recovery plan for Wales.
This was the focus of a conversation I had with the Prime Minister this week, where I talked about my concerns for jobs in Pembrokeshire and the need for a strong plan to help our local economy grow again when we get through this. We also discussed the importance of Welsh farming and how best to protect high quality food standards in any future trade deals with the EU, USA and other countries. I was pleased to hear the PM’s commitment to protecting our farmers and standards and his overall interest in what is going across Wales.
These continue to be extraordinary times and I will continue to raise the issues that matter most to the people of Pembrokeshire with Ministers in Westminster. Don’t forget to stay up to date with all I’m doing follow my Facebook page @StephenCrabbPembs