A year ago, at 6pm on October 23, 2020, Wales' fire-break began.

After months of rising positive cases of coronavirus, the First Minister announced that for 17 days, people should stay at home, all but essential businesses should shut and people had to work from home,

The warning at the time was that if the government didn't do something to stop the rising cases, "even more extreme measures" would be needed, like an open-ended national lockdown.

The relative normality the country had felt back in August was long gone. People took the chance for one last night out.

Find all of Wales' coronavirus news here.

Looking back now, the optimism with which Wales entered the fire-break lockdown, the hope that those limited days of restrictions would be a small price to pay for a "normal" Christmas, seems painfully misguided.

Shelves of home electrical products are taped up in a Tesco store in Penarth after a ban on supermarkets selling non-essential items during Wales' fire-break lockdown was announced by First Minister Mark Drakeford
Shelves of home electrical products are taped up in a Tesco store in Penarth after a ban on supermarkets selling non-essential items during Wales' fire-break lockdown was announced by First Minister Mark Drakeford
Books, which have been classed as non-essential items, sealed off in a Tesco store in Penarth on October 24, 2020

Yet that was the tantalising prospect laid in front of the nation by the Welsh Government as it ordered Wales again, for the first time since March 23, to stay at home; people had to work from home and not anyone they didn't live with either indoors or outdoors and supermarkets were told to only sell "essential items".

After weeks of deliberating, and over a month after the UK's top scientific advisory body (SAGE) published advice calling for a circuit breaker lockdown, the Welsh Government announced their plans for a 'short, sharp' lockdown to halt the spread of the virus.

This was hailed as a way to get the spiralling virus rates under control, give hospitals some breathing room and according to economy minister Ken Skates give business “a clear run at that vitally important” period in the run up to Christmas. The First Minister repeatedly said that the stricter the rules, the fewer days we would have to spend in lockdown.

Wales entered a firebreak lockdown on October 23 2020 and people were once again ordered to stay at home
The strees were once again deserted

People were told that staying home would save lives.

By this point more than two-thirds of Wales’ population had been living under local lockdown rules, the fire-break lockdown offered a way out of this too.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said it had been a "difficult decision" for the Welsh Government cabinet but he expressed the hope that 17 days of restrictions would see Wales through to Christmas. There was even talk about relaxing rules as we got closer to Christmas.

However, ministers pointed out that this was in no way guaranteed. Then-health minister Vaughan Gething said: "This gives us the best chance of doing that, but if I were to tell you what Christmas looks like today then I'd be making it up, I'd be giving people false hope.”

In many ways this was a brave decision. No other part of the UK had taken such measures and the Welsh Government was really going it alone. But in retrospect we now know it did little to curb the spread of the virus.

You can read a full analysis of Wales' slow but inevitable journey into the second wave here.

What went wrong?

The countdown to lockdown

Ultimately, the 17-day plan came too late and was too short. Not to mention was overshadowed by a supermarket controversy which, to an extent, eroded - at least in part - the confidence of a generally supportive Welsh public.

A SAGE paper on September 21 - well before Wales went into its fire-break - made it clear the UK was heading into a second wave and “cases are increasing across the country in all age groups”.

It read: “Not acting now to reduce cases will result in a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences in terms of direct Covid related deaths and the ability of the health service to meet needs.

“As in the first wave, the burden of a large second wave would fall disproportionately on the frailest in our society, but also those on lower incomes and BAME communities.”

First Minister Mark Drakeford speaking at a press conference in Cardiff ahead of Wales entering a two-week "firebreak" lockdown

The advice suggested a package of measures including:

It concluded: “The more rapidly these interventions are put in place the greater the reduction in Covid related deaths and the quicker they can be eased. However, some restrictions will be necessary for a considerable time.

“Infections are now increasing in each of the four nations of the UK. Transmission is changing from localised hotspots to a more generalised epidemic.”

Both the UK and Welsh Government's took too long to go into a circuit breaker lockdown.

The advice of SAGE has guided the response of the UK nations from the beginning of the pandemic and Wales has a representative on SAGE. The advice is then considered by Wales technical advisory cell and all this advice was clearly saying lockdown as soon as possible. It was also clear that the package of measures in Wales' local lockdowns - where pubs and shops remained open - weren't tough enough.

While the Welsh Government acted well before the UK Government, ordering a fire-break on October 23, both governments took too long to go into a circuit breaker lockdown.

However, in many respects the Welsh Government's hands were tied. Chancellor Rishi Sunak declined to extend the furlough scheme for Wales which was due to finish at the end of October which meant no protection for jobs and a risk of economic catastrophe. Only when England entered a circuit breaker weeks later was the furlough scheme extended.

First Minister Mark Drakeford described Wales' fire-break lockdown as a "short, sharp shock to turn back the clock, slow down the virus and buy us more time".

The hope was that such a measure would slow the exponentially increasing spread of coronavirus through our communities which was threatening to engulf hospital wards and cause heart-breaking suffering and loss of life.

Despite ministers insisting it would take several weeks for the full impact of the fire-break lockdown to be visible in the daily infection statistics, because of the length of time it takes for the virus to incubate and symptoms to manifest, early signs that the lockdown has had effect were already being seen.

From the daily figures released by Public Health Wales it appeared as though the peak of the second wave was Thursday, October 29, six days after the day the fire-break lockdown was introduced.

On that day, 1,513 people tested positive for Covid-19 in Wales - one of the highest numbers seen throughout the pandemic. The nation's seven-day infection rate hit 280 cases for every 100,000 people.

On November 9, the date the fire-break ended, Public Health Wales announced that 931 more people have been diagnosed with Covid-19 following a lab test and there had been eight more deaths. Remember, the criteria to enter local lockdowns was initially around 50 cases per 100,000 people.

A number of people have received large fines after breaking coronavirus rules by travelling to west Wales

When fire-break lockdown ended, Wales was recording a rate of around 230 cases per 100,000 people. Therefore while there had been a drop from the 250 per 100,000 when Wales entered into the fire-break - it was still exceptionally high compared to previous thresholds.

In hindsight, we now know this temporary drop in the rate coronavirus was spreading around the country was not to last.

The fire-break did slow the virus. For two weeks, Wales' infection rate fell. There was a consequent fall in hospitalisations and deaths. And yet by November 29, a month after the fire-break began, Wales was back above the level of cases it had been when it went into the fire-break.

If Wales was not safe at 231 cases per 100,000 on October 23 when the fire-break began, why was it safe at 236 cases and rising per 100,000 on November 29 when there were far more lax restrictions and cold weather?

The infamous supermarket controversy

As part of Wales's fire-break lockdown restrictions, supermarkets were prohibited from selling non-essential items - resulting in many blocking off items or specific aisles.

It is safe to say, this caused controversy among the Welsh public and confusion about what was considered 'essential'.

Welsh Government defended the decision saying it would stop people from spending longer than necessary in the supermarket and in turn stifle transmission while also creating a level playing field for smaller shops that had been forced to close.

Tesco were given one day to make the changes
Toys with tape across them in a Cardiff Bay Home Bargains store on October 27, 2020, in Cardiff, Wales. Pressure has mounted on the Welsh Government to reverse the decision to prohibit supermarkets from selling 'non-essential' items

When WalesOnline asked Mark Drakeford how he was going to be defining "essential items" and why school clothes were not included he said: "It is just the wrong way to approach this whole business.

"We are back to the 'how do we get around the rules approach to coronavirus'.

"If we start going about it in that way we will simply not succeed.

"The question I want people to ask themselves in Wales is not 'what can I do and what can't I do' but 'what should I do and what shouldn't I do'. What you shouldn't do is to use the next two weeks to do things that you don't need to do."

Though very small in comparison to delays bringing in restrictions it still proved an unwanted distraction, and arguably went some way in diminishing public support.

More than 24,000 people signed a petition opposing the rule and some supermarkets were seen to be cordoning off items that were in fact allowed such as stationary.

Progress from the fire-break erodes

By the end of the month, any progress made in containing the virus by the fire-break lockdown seemed to be melting away.

The fire-break did slow the virus. For two weeks, Wales' infection rate fell. There was a consequent fall in hospitalisations and deaths. But ultimately, emerging from a lockdown into restrictions - which in hindsight were too lenient - made a resurgence in the virus inevitable.

Pubs were open, gyms were open, schools were open, all shops were open, yet the case rate per 100,000 was 207 and positivity rates were 14%.

On November 9, the first day the fire-break ended, Cardiff city centre was heaving as shoppers made up for lost time ahead of Christmas. Wales now had a higher R rate than England and the number of daily coronavirus cases had again risen to the sky-high number we saw as the fire-break took hold.

There were huge queues outside Primark as the restrictions were lifted

First Minister Mark Drakeford said the R number was back up to 1.4, meaning the virus is growing fast and exponentially in Wales.

On the last day of the month, a further three people died with coronavirus in Wales and more than 800 new positive cases were been confirmed.

The infection rate across Wales as a whole stood at 212 per 100,000 people based on the seven days up to November 26.

In what now seems incredulous, around this time, there were reports of all four governments working together to create a joint approach as to how people could celebrate Christmas - including household mixing.

Reports suggested households might be allowed to mix indoors for a five-day period from Christmas Eve, and that ministers were considering plans to allow three or four households to form bubbles.

What did the Welsh Government say about being slow to lockdown in the second wave?

It bears saying that this was an immensely challenging time and it is easy to judge decisions in hindsight.

When asked by WalesOnline last month about the effectiveness of local lockdowns and the fire-break, a Welsh Government spokesman said: "Our priority throughout the pandemic has been to protect people’s health and keep people safe.

"Every decision we have taken has been based on the expert scientific and public health advice we have received.

"We introduced a 17-day “fire-break” – a form of circuit-breaker – between October 23 and November 8, acting on the clear advice of our scientific advisers at the time.

"This was designed to be a short, sharp shock to help turn back the clock on the progression of the pandemic in Wales during the autumn. The aim was to lower the R rate and ease pressure on the health service. Before we went into the fire-break, local restrictions were in place in most local authority areas in Wales, which had produced mixed results.

"Overall, the time-limited fire-break had a greater impact on the virus than the local restrictions. It has been estimated the fire-break reversed the pandemic by around four weeks."

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