Confusion prevails on Wales-England border over conflicting lockdown rules

Welsh homes face full lockdown while neighbours are under little restriction

Wales is braced to enter a two-week “firebreak” lockdown tonight in an attempt to protect the country’s NHS from being overwhelmed by the resurgence of coronavirus.

The Welsh Government has said the “sharp and deep” lockdown, brought in to coincide with half-term holidays, could be enough to avoid a longer and “much more damaging national lockdown” in the months ahead.

Under the measures, which will last 17 days until November 9, people will be asked to stay at home and to leave only for a limited number of reasons, including exercise, buying essential supplies, or to seek or provide care.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said supermarkets would only be able to sell “essential” items during the firebreak to ensure a “level playing field” for retailers forced to shut. They will not be allowed to sell things such as clothing or hardware.

The new restrictions have caused confusion, not least in towns on the border with England, where such a lockdown has not been imposed.

The ancient frontier between the two countries has long been barely perceptible in many places. In the town of Knighton, Powys, a small footbridge divides the two UK nations unceremoniously.

But since coronavirus hit Britain this year and led governments in London and the Welsh capital Cardiff to impose different rules, the boundary has become far more tangible.

"It didn't matter before, it was irrelevant," Nick Johns, Knighton's mayor, said of the border.

The small town of 3,000 inhabitants sits nestled in a valley 260 kilometres from London and 81 miles (130km) from Cardiff.

Its centre is in Wales, however, across the River Teme in the English county Shropshire, where the town's station is situated and a smaller number of residents live, people will still be able to move around freely.

It is not the first time restrictions have differed. For nearly a week, Wales has banned people from Covid-19 hotspots in England crossing the border.

"It is a bit of a minefield with the rules," conceded Mr Johns, who said residents had nonetheless been "really good" at complying.

Confusion has also stretched into the interpretation of rules, as demonstrated by Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething’s TV interview with Kay Burley on Sky News.

Mr Gething was challenged by the presenter over what else was essential, a hairdryer for example.

“Food and drink are items that we had through the first period of the pandemic, they are available everywhere,” Mr Gething said.

When Ms Burley continued, “Trust me, my hair dryer is essential”, Mr Gething responded: “No it isn’t, Kay.”

Ms Burley said: “Of course it is. Look at the state of your hair compared to mine. I have to dry my hair, you can towel dry yours.”

epa08767434 Shoppers in Oxford Street hours before a firebreak lockdown is due to come into force in Swansea, Wales, Britain, 23 October 2020. Wales is due to enter a 17-days firebreak lockdown starting 23 October 6 pm to curb the spread of the pandemic coronavirus.  EPA/ASHLEY CROWDEN

Britain has been the worst-hit country in Europe from the virus, with more than 44,000 dead and cases surging again after a summer lull.

Devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have adopted more stringent rules than the UK government in England.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has stuck with more localised lockdowns, targeting areas with the highest infection numbers.

The approach has left some grumbling in Knighton, particularly retailers who find themselves dealing with confused customers.

"They don't seem to work together, the UK should be the UK," said Chris Branford, who runs a teashop in the town, referring to the governments in London and Cardiff. "It's very difficult for businesses," she added, between taking the temperatures of arriving customers.

Ian Ross, who runs a rally-driving experience company in nearby Worcestershire in England but lives in Wales, echoed the criticism.

"It's not as clear as I think it should be. I think everybody should be under the same umbrella, all the rules should be the same for everyone," he said.

Knighton's residents, or the majority who live on the Welsh side, must comply with the new restrictions despite the town having fewer virus cases per head than big cities like Swansea and Cardiff.

One local, Douglas Rumble, who lives on the English side of the town, said: "What's the point of acting as four different individual countries? We might be different from the rest of the world, but we're an island and we got to act as one."

Business owners in Welshpool, also on the border, have questioned the necessity for the two-week lockdown, saying they were effectively being lumped in larger cities such as Cardiff and Swansea.

Terri-Ann Ratledge, landlady of The Grapes pub, said she felt “victimised”.

“We’re being tarred with the same brush and the same restrictions as what the big cities are,” she said.

I think everybody should be under the same umbrella really, all the rules should be the same for everyone

Tammy Weaver, owner of wedding services firm TMS Events in Four Crosses, Montgomeryshire, described 2020 as a “wipe out” for her business.

“We don’t really see light at the end of the tunnel because of the implications of the restrictions both in England and in Wales,” she said.

Ms Weaver also criticised the decision to impose the circuit-breaker for the whole of Wales.

“We feel a bit confused and upset by the decision … Montgomeryshire is a safe area and everybody is abiding by the rules,” she said.