Over the last few days there has been an apparent divergence between Welsh Government lockdown advice and the UK Government advice.  The UK government has also published a number of new guidelines.  Here we try and make sense of this.

In short, the UK government is pushing for a more aggressive communication strategy on ending lockdown.  All expert advice, comment, and publications were pointing to a phase 1 easing of the lockdown in late May, this would have put the UK on a similar timeline to countries like France and Spain, who were 2-3 weeks ahead of us, and this late May easing of lockdown appears to be the plan Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are sticking to.  The UK government looks to be trying to push the easing of lockdown onto a faster timeline.

The very minor changes to lockdown announced by the UK government on Sunday and Monday do not diverge that greatly from similar measures announced in Wales and Scotland – for example being allowed out for exercising more than once a day.  But the surrounding messaging and tone has diverged and that has led to confusion, with various UK government ministers appearing to announce different opinions on what people can and can’t do which has then required further clarifications and guidelines.  Although the messaging and details have diverged, as a whole the UK is still essentially in a the “stay at home” lockdown period.

The bigger issue of divergence has been the UK government message “actively encouraging people to return to work if you can”, with the devolved governments making it clear this advice does not apply in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. However Boris Johnson in particular has been reluctant to clearly state this advice applies only to England.  It is important to note that the advice “actively encouraging people to return to work” has not been accompanied by any major changes to the lockdown rules in terms of which businesses are permitted to open.  Broadly the restrictions on business activity and schools remain the same throughout the UK, golf courses and garden centres perhaps being the notable exceptions but these differences are cosmetic.

What has really happened is that the communication strategy has diverged.  The government advisors around Boris Johnson are coming off a winning streak of Brexit and the general election, but the political strategy and communication skills that drove those successes will not necessarily resonate with the UK population as a whole, some businesses and individuals will have responded well to the UK governments more accelerated stance, some people will not.  There is a need to communicate clear and consistent details that are understood by everybody and resist the urge to run a political strategy based on messaging to your target voters or core base which is where the UK government will need to be careful.  On the other side, the Welsh government will now likely need to set out more clearly where it agrees or disagrees with the UK government easing plan.

The UK’s 3 step easing plan

The UK government has also published a 3 step plan to easing lockdown which is again slightly different to the approach of the devolved governments, however the details are highly conditional and the UK government looks to have given itself enough wriggle room to allow for the UK and the devolved governments to once more converge and we believe, and hope, this will happen.

Step 1 –  is already in effect in England and does not have any meaningful implications for Wales as far as we can see.

Step 2 – Opening of non-essential retail and some return to school on June 1st at the earliest, along with expanding permitted social contact to include more than one household group.

We believe the timeline for opening non-essential retail and expanding permitted social contact in Wales should tie in with the UK government June 1st target date.

The UK government target for schools reopening on June 1st is considered an ambitious target by many, if that target is met the opening will be very limited and only primary schools years R, 1 and 6 in England at most.  The Welsh government has announced that schools will not open on June 1st, but we’d expect these strategies to converge over the course of June with primary schools reopening but not necessarily full time and with strict measures in place.  Schools in England and Wales will need time to prepare to meet government guidelines and re-open, there are many issues still to be resolved.

Step 3 – “Ambition at this step is to open at least some of the remaining businesses and premises that have been required to close, including personal care (such as hairdressers and beauty salons) hospitality (such as food service providers, pubs and accommodation), public places (such as places of worship) and leisure facilities (like cinemas).” From July 4th at the earliest.

This is a sentence with two major caveats, “at least some” does not mean all hospitality and leisure businesses being allowed to reopen, and July 4th is the earliest date this may or may not happen.

In Wales, if non essential retail opens on June 1st, with some school activity returning in later June, we think it could be mid July before the Welsh government would be comfortable opening other businesses.  This comes back to needing a period of 3 weeks between the different easing measures for governments to be certain there is not a resulting rise in the spread of the virus.

The UK government 3 step plan looks to be trying to push the lockdown easing agenda forward a week or two versus the Welsh Government thinking, however the UK government plan is heavily caveated, allowing Westminster room to fall back in line with the devolved governments, the UK government appears to be giving added weight to the economic arguments whereas the devolved governments are staying more in line with the public health advice.  The HM Treasury announcement of the extending of furlough through to October, with employees being able to return to work part time from August suggests the Treasury see the easing timeline as being longer than the 4th July earliest target date for most businesses to reopen.

The UK Government 3 step plan can be read here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/our-plan-to-rebuild-the-uk-go…

Note that the advice for those who can to work from home is likely to remain in place for a considerable time.

Published Advice on re-opening businesses

On the back of encouraging people who can’t work from home back to work, the UK government has published updated advice for different businesses on how to maintain social distancing.  This is on top of advice already published by the Welsh government:

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19

It is worth noting that the Welsh government has enshrined in law that “businesses must  take all reasonable measures to ensure 2 metre distancing is observed between people in the workplace.”

https://gov.wales/taking-all-reasonable-measures-maintain-physical-dista…

All businesses not currently open should understand the guidance and advice and start planning now for how to reopen their premises.  In general client should consider the following:

  • Maintaining Office Hygiene – potentially increased cleaning rotas and deep cleaning etc
  • Protective Measures – such as gloves, masks, googles, face shields, perspex shields in places like reception desks etc
  • Physical Distancing – mark out physical distancing on premises floors, one way people flow, close shared spaces such as meeting rooms or limit the numbers of people allowed in anyone space
  • High traffic areas – consider extra precaution measures where there is high traffic or surfaces that multiple people might touch e.g. prevent people touching rails and door handles
  • Shift rotas and start and finish times – consider having shift separation so staff are limited to contact with a reduced number of colleagues, stagger start and finish times etc
  • Managing face to face client contact – think about how to protect customers and clients and limit face to face contact and ensure distancing where that isn’tpossible, review payment methods such as contactless card only.

Most importantly make sure you understand and meet any legal and regulatory obligations which are likely to be updated in Wales over the coming weeks and months.