MARK Drakeford says Wales is in for a “difficult” January, with “rapid rise” expected in the number of Omicron variant infections.
The latest modelling suggests Omicron cases will peak “towards the second half” of this month and then decline – probably more quickly than previous Covid waves.
Since arriving in the UK at the end of the autumn, Omicron is now the “dominant” form of the virus and is “seeded in all parts of Wales”, the first minister told BBC Radio Wales this morning.
More than 10,000 new cases of Covid were reported in a single day (December 30) last week, and the nation’s positivity rate – the number of tests that return a positive result – is at 37 per cent, a figure Mr Drakeford called “really high”.
“The difficult January that we could see coming is I’m afraid with us, and the protections in place are really necessary to help us all get through the challenging weeks ahead,” he added.
There is some optimism the Omicron wave could fizzle out as quickly as it managed to spread here, as it appears to be doing in South Africa, the nation where the variant was discovered in November. And research suggests people are far less likely to fall seriously ill or require hospital treatment with Omicron, compared to the Delta strain.
Mr Drakeford urged caution against “learning too many direct lessons from South Africa”, but accepted that if the same pattern – of Omicron infections falling as quickly as they rose – were repeated in Wales, then “we’re in for a very challenging few weeks but that we may come out of the other side of it more quickly than we’ve done in previous waves”.
Wales is currently at Alert Level Two, with restrictions mainly aimed at improving safety measures for businesses and public places, rather than closing them down.
The first minister said he believed his government had taken “proportionate measures” at the right time last month, based on the threat of the Omicron wave. This included closing down nightclubs, but Mr Drakeford said this was a move copied across much of Europe, and clubs were generally accepted to be at a “particularly acute” risk of being “super-spreader events”.
But asked whether his government would have preferred a full lockdown during the current wave, the first minister said this would have been impossible without financial support from the UK Government.
England’s approach to Omicron has been less restrictive, as seen on New Year’s Eve when Newport city centre was a comparative ghost town compared to the crowds in Bristol. Boris Johnson’s reluctance to impose further measures in England would make it difficult for any devolved government to win Treasury backing for a lockdown elsewhere.
Mr Drakeford suggested the playing field was not level, in terms of funding any future restrictions.
“We have had this long-standing argument with the Treasury in London, that when English ministers decide that they need to move up the levels, they know they can draw on Treasury money to do so, and we and Scotland and Northern Ireland are not in that same position,” he said. “So we would not be able to move to [Alert] Level Four measures on our own, because level of support you’d need to offer to the Welsh economy in those circumstances is simply beyond what the Welsh Government ourselves are able to mobilise.”