ON THE evening of March 23, 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared in a live broadcast from Downing Street to deliver “a very simple instruction – you must stay at home”.

Preceding weeks had brought warnings that restrictions were on their way. People had already been encouraged to stay away from pubs and restaurants, and there were early movements towards firms asking their employees to work from home.

But with the number of coronavirus-linked deaths into double figures in Wales, and passing 300 across the UK, the prime minister’s speech – made one year ago today – confirmed what we were all expecting: we were now in lockdown.

Since then, people in Wales have been subject to stay-at-home rules for a total of 137 days – more than one-third of the year.

Other, more flexible restrictions on movement and meeting people have lasted even longer, and large sectors of the economy – hospitality, retail, travel and tourism – have been closed down for months.

On the anniversary of the first lockdown, and ahead of a national act of remembrance, first minister Mark Drakeford said the pandemic had “turned all our lives upside down”.

The National Wales: First minister Mark Drakeford at a Welsh Government press conference. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA WireFirst minister Mark Drakeford at a Welsh Government press conference. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Mr Drakeford will be taking part in a televised National Coronavirus Commemorative Event this evening, in which the nation will pay its respects to those who have died.

In Wales, at least 207,000 people have been infected with the virus since the start of the pandemic, and the Public Health Wales (PHW) death toll – a conservative estimate – stands at 5,488 people.

“It’s really important we have an opportunity to come together to reflect on the last year and to unite to support each other through this tough time,” the first minister said.

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Asked this week about the Welsh response to the pandemic over the past 12 months, health minister Vaughan Gething said the government had sought to “balance” the economic and social consequences of lockdowns with the “huge harms we’ve seen when coronavirus gets out of control”.

He said ministers had acted in a way that “follows and respects the evidence and the science” throughout the pandemic, when lockdown restrictions have been necessary to stop the NHS being overwhelmed and to prevent more people falling seriously ill, and dying, after catching Covid-19.

Mr Gething said the pandemic had taught government several tough lessons – the need to be flexible, honest, and informed.

Ministers had had to “learn as we go, in a very uncomfortable way” during the early days last spring, when information on the novel virus was scant, and the health service scrambled to prepare itself.

“We really didn’t know a great deal a year ago compared to what we know now,” he added.

The National Wales: Deserted shopping streets in Newtown during the second national lockdown. Picture: Jacob King/PA WireDeserted shopping streets in Newtown during the second national lockdown. Picture: Jacob King/PA Wire

With these lessons has come a flood of information. Bubbles, social-distancing, roadmaps, fire-breaks: our vocabulary has been filled with new and repurposed phrases over the past year.

Ministers’ press conferences and PHW’s daily statistics updates are headline news; chief medical officers and health experts are instantly recognisable, household names.

Mr Gething said the need to make “really uncomfortable choices” and intervene in an “extraordinary” way with people’s lives had underlined “the importance of being straight with people”.

That frankness, he said this week, had kept “overwhelming numbers” of people in Wales supportive of the lockdown measures and the reasoning behind them.

“Without that honesty about the difficult choices we’re grappling with, I don’t think we’d have seen such an overwhelmingly fabulous response from the people of Wales,” Mr Gething told The National at a press conference this week.

Throughout the past year, polls show the public in Wales has been generally more supportive of the Welsh Government’s more cautious lockdown approach than that in England.

Wales was the first part of the UK to close its schools last spring, it opened hospitality later than England in the summer, and was the first nation to implement a short lockdown – the ‘fire-break’ – in the autumn.

The National Wales: Non essential items are blocked off during the 'fire-break' lockdown. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA WireNon essential items are blocked off during the 'fire-break' lockdown. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

This year, the Welsh Government resisted early calls to copy Westminster and publish a detailed, months-long ‘roadmap’ out of the current lockdown.

People’s support dipped towards the end of 2020, however. Pollsters YouGov found a drop in public confidence in the Welsh approach, with the restrictions on alcohol sales splitting opinions. At the time, half of Welsh adults said they thought the booze ban in pubs and restaurants would make no difference in stopping the rise in cases.

The latest YouGov survey on lockdown attitudes show renewed confidence, and found the majority of people in Wales continued to favour the domestic approach to lockdown.

Some 60 per cent of respondents said the Welsh Government was handling coronavirus well, while 33 per cent said it was being handled badly.

Welsh opinions of the UK government were less favourable – 39 per cent saying the approach in England was being handled well, and 55 per cent saying it was being done badly.

The Welsh Conservatives, however, say the approach in Wales should be more definitive and “give confidence to businesses and people”.

Their leader, Andrew RT Davies, said last week his party would have published a ‘roadmap’ – like in England - with “windows of opportunity, showing a clear path to the light at the end the Covid tunnel”.

The National Wales: David Morgan, at the Borough pub in Cardiff, covers beer taps ahead of the ban on alcohol sales in December. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA WireDavid Morgan, at the Borough pub in Cardiff, covers beer taps ahead of the ban on alcohol sales in December. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Mr Gething has disagreed with this approach, saying the people of Wales “welcome and want us to continue to adopt a cautious approach that is driven by the evidence”.

He said the government’s scientific advisers warned that “if we move too quickly we could throw away all of the hard work and the collective sacrifice” made by the public.

The scale of the vaccination effort and falling case numbers now mean there is cause for optimism in Wales and across the UK. But expectations have been tempered in recent days by fears of an expected vaccine shortage later this spring, as well as the looming threat of a third wave of infections in parts of Europe.

Dr Chris Jones, Wales’ deputy chief medical officer, said this month the nation would continue its policy of “considerable caution” despite progress with the vaccine rollout.

The National Wales: Vaccinations under way in Cwmbran. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA WireVaccinations under way in Cwmbran. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Controlling the pandemic was akin to driving a car “with the accelerator stuck to the floor," he said.

The lockdown measures slowed the car down, but “as soon as you relax your foot off the brake, the car will accelerate off again”.

Dr Jones added: “If we relax too much, too quickly, we will see another surge in cases and another wave.”

The vaccination rollout had been “important” but “is not going to provide us with complete protection,” he warned, adding that basic protections like hand-washing, social-distancing and mask use may still be necessary in the longer-term.

The National Coronavirus Commemorative Event, presented by Huw Edwards, will be broadcast at 5.15pm today on BBC One Wales and S4C.

Ifor ap Glyn, the National Poet of Wales, will read a poem written especially for the commemoration, and the Morriston Hospital Emergency Department Choir has recorded a special performance for the event.

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