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Lockdown: North Wales Tories accused of encouraging rule breaking

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
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image captionConwy was among the areas put into lockdown

The first minister has accused political rivals in north Wales of encouraging people not to abide by lockdown laws imposed last week.

Mark Drakeford told the Senedd that a statement signed by Conservative MSs and MPs in the region objecting to travel restrictions was a "disgrace".

The group had claimed the restrictions in Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire and Wrexham were disproportionate.

Tory MS Darren Millar accused Mr Drakeford of an "absolute fabrication".

Later, lockdown laws for Cardiff, Swansea and three other south Wales counties failed to win the support of opposition parties in a Senedd vote.

The backing of Labour members keeps the lockdowns in place, but the Conservatives said ministers had not justified the need for county-wide restrictions and the Brexit Party also opposed the regulations while Plaid Cymru abstained.

Under the restrictions in north Wales and elsewhere people are not able to leave or enter the areas without a "reasonable excuse", such as work or education.

Also on Tuesday:

  • The first minister said people who flout Covid-19 rules by holding house parties could face bigger fines.
  • Advisers to the Welsh Government have also said that the transmission rate of the virus, the R rate, in Wales is now between 1.3 and 1.6.

What did the first minister say?

Mr Drakeford's comments in the Senedd came after he explained the Welsh Government's threshold for taking local action - 50 cases per 100,000 people over seven days.

He said his government was "disgracefully" criticised by Conservatives, "when we took action in north Wales, because we hadn't yet reached those 50 thresholds".

"It was absolutely obvious to anybody who studied the figures that north Wales was on its way to that threshold and sadly today is well past it."

Later Brexit Party group leader Mark Reckless cautioned the first minister against "describing people as disgraceful" because they "take a different view to coronavirus restrictions than you have".

Mr Drakeford doubled down on his criticism in response.

image captionMark Drakeford, pictured in an earlier video, said the statement was "disgraceful".

Mr Drakeford said: "The letter that was published… was an encouragement to people in north Wales not to abide by the law that is passed here in Wales."

He claimed it encouraged others to think the restrictions "were unnecessary and unjustified".

"None of that was true, and it undermines the willingness of other people who want to make sure they are making their contribution from making that as well."

'Claptrap and cobblers'

Darren Millar, Tory MS for Clwyd West, accused the first minister of "claptrap and cobblers" over a statement he signed criticising the north Wales lockdowns.

In an angry contribution to a debate on restrictions elsewhere, Mr Millar said that in "no way whatsoever did any member of the Conservative Party encourage people to break the law, and to disregard those coronavirus restrictions".

He said it was an "absolute fabrication" that had been "thrown arbitrarily onto the floor of the chamber". He asked for the first minister to apologise and "take back".

The Secretary of State for Wales Simon Hart has said he thinks it is "a bit odd that the first minister is almost suggesting people shouldn't be able to express a view."

What did the Conservative statement say?

In a joint statement, the group of Conservative MPs and MSs wrote: "We accept that Covid-19 infection rates have generally risen across north Wales during September - although they remain significantly lower than those within local lockdown areas elsewhere.

"It is understood that raised case numbers largely relate to household transmission, as well as an element within the hospitality and healthcare sectors. There is very limited evidence that either travel or tourism is driving raised infection rates.

"For this reason, travel restrictions have not generally been introduced for local lockdowns in England.

"Bearing this in mind, we believe that the Welsh Government's proposed "within county" travel restrictions are disproportionate."

They "strongly urged" the Welsh Government to reconsider.

BBC Wales was told north Wales Conservatives are unhappy that the first minister responded to their concerns in the Senedd chamber, rather than to them directly.

image captionCould police be given powers to impose larger fines on house parties?

Conwy objection to lockdown

Last week Sam Rowlands, Conservative leader of Conwy Council, said the lockdown measures in his county would "help reduce the spread of the virus in Conwy", while calling for more help for tourism businesses.

On Tuesday Mr Rowlands issued a letter to the first minister calling for travel restrictions in his county to be lifted.

"As I shared with you, it is clear that there is no evidence which points to the movement of people in North Wales as a major contributing factor for the increase in cases of Covid-19.

"Therefore, this restriction does not appear to be based on any evidence and seems completely disproportionate to the reality of the situation."

He added that travel restrictions do not "take into consideration the natural cross border necessity of life in North Wales".

Conwy is one of 15 counties in Wales now in lockdown, together with the town of Llanelli.

Senedd vote

The Welsh Government has powers to place restrictions on hotspot areas, with Senedd members getting a chance to vote on them after they come into force.

Lockdowns on Wales' two biggest cities, together with Neath Port Talbot, Vale of Glamorgan and Torfaen, were approved with the support of Labour MSs on Tuesday.

But the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru only voted for restrictions in Llanelli, saying ministers had not provided enough evidence to rule out smaller lockdowns in other parts of south Wales.

Tory health spokesman Andrew RT Davies said: "The data is there and has been used, so you have to question why the minister is not using it, but is hell-bent on shutting down whole counties, which will lead to local economies being even more adversely affected."

Health Minister Vaughan Gething said the Conservatives had taken a "serious step" by deciding to vote down the regulations.

"We all have role to play in keeping Wales safe," he said.

"These regulations are necessary to our continued efforts to tackle this unfinished pandemic."

Ministers were also told an influential group of Senedd members will start looking at the reasons given for any further local lockdowns.

Legislation Committee chairman Mick Antoniw said: "In the future the committee intends to consider the extent to which the explanatory memoranda include evidence about why certain areas are placed in lockdown and the reasons for that urgency."

Possible larger fines for house parties

Earlier, during First Minister's Questions Mark Drakeford was asked whether the Welsh Government would place larger penalties on rule breakers.

He told the Senedd that ministers were considering whether the regime "needs to be adapted to address specific issues such as the holding of house parties".

Parties have been blamed for helping spread the disease in hotspot areas.

Breaking restrictions leads to a £60 fixed penalty for a first offence. It doubles for repeat offences to a maximum of £1,920.

Independent MS Caroline Jones said current fines were too low and it was "high time we crack down on rule breakers".

R rate report 'sobering reading'

The latest report of the Welsh Government's Technical Advisory Cell (TAC) has put the R rate - which describes how much the virus is reproducing - between 1.3 and 1.6.

An R rate of 1 estimates that every person with the virus transmits it to one other person.

Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price told the Senedd the report made "sobering reading."

Mark Drakeford said it should be a "real warning" to those who think the Welsh Government is imposing restrictions unnecessarily on Wales.

The report said the transmission rate of the virus is "likely" to be growing, though there "may still be high degrees of variability, for example, in a localised outbreak".

TAC also warn that unless the R rate is brought back below 1, infection incidence and hospital admissions "may exceed scenario planning levels".

The group points to a recent ONS study which suggests that, during the week of 18-24 September, approximately 1 in every 500 people in Wales may have had coronavirus - equating to around 6,400 people.

But there are signs, says the report, that things might be "levelling off" - with evidence of reduced travel and greater adherence to rules like wearing face coverings and not meeting people indoors.

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