Mark Rosser is nervous. ‘You’re the second person to call me today. Why are you doing this? Are you checking up on me?’ I’m actually seeing if it’s possible to book a room at his Crown Lodge B&B in Harlech, Gwynedd. The answer, apparently, is no.
‘Are you mad? I’m not even allowed to leave my front door. Don’t you know what’s going on here? Are you living in a cellar? The whole country is shut down. Even if I could let you stay, what would you do here?’
What I’m trying to do is investigate Mark Drakeford’s ‘firebreak’. A week ago the Welsh First Minister summarily plunged his nation back into lockdown for 17 days. Covid was spiralling. The UK Government was failing to act. A ‘short, sharp intervention’ was required to get things under control, he said.
And, in an ominous message to anyone trying to sneak across the border from England, Drakeford warned: ‘I’m afraid they will meet a local population that are fearful, that are anxious and are on the lookout for people who shouldn’t be in those areas. So your difficulties aren’t over by evading the police – there’ll be other checks in the system.’
I’ve decided to take my chances. Jane (she didn’t want to give her real name) runs one of the tiny food shops that stand in the shadow of a deserted and forbidding Harlech Castle, on Wales’s west coast.
CLOSED FOR BUSINESS: A taped-off supermarket aisle, stocking ‘non-essential items’, in Cardiff
If an English tourist arrived at her door, would she shop them to the authorities, I ask. ‘No, I wouldn’t do that,’ she says coolly. ‘But I would ask them why they were here. I’ve been doing it. I know everyone who lives around here. So when somebody comes in I don’t know, I ask them what they’re doing.’
Jane is one 100 per cent behind the Drakeford lockdown. ‘I don’t think of it as a lockdown,’ she says. ‘I call it a ‘lock out’. People are being selfish. They’re told to self-isolate and they don’t. We’re being sensible here in Harlech. And we’ve got a lot of vulnerable people.’
As I head out of Harlech, I pass a police car idling at a junction. The masked officer eyes me suspiciously, and for a moment I think Jane has gone back on her word and turned me in.
But it appears he’s on the look-out for speeding motorists, not covert Englishmen.
The Drakeford lockdown is, in his own words, supposed to provide a ‘reset’. A simple and decisive way of getting the virus that has claimed 1,800 Welsh lives under control. But as soon as you enter the tiny village of Llanymynech, it becomes clear it’s anything but.
I’m standing in the middle of the road that bisects the village. A hundred yards to my left is the Cross Keys pub – it sits in England and is preparing to open. A hundred yards to my right is The Dolphin, which is in Wales. By order of the Labour First Minister, its doors are firmly locked.
A woman sits on a bench in Newport town centre in Wales wearing a face covering on Friday
‘It’s disgusting,’ Sarah Gregory tells me. She helps to run The Dolphin with her sister Dawn and her husband John. Or she did until Drakeford issued his directive.
‘We employ five people and we’ve had to let them go,’ she says. ‘We’ll take them back if we can, but we still haven’t been told what’s happening after it all ends.’
What message would she like to send to Drakeford, I ask. ‘I’d tell him to come down here and look at what he’s doing. See how stupid it all is. People can’t come to us but they can go over the road. They’re not supposed to but they do. Look how close we are.’ Sarah looks despairingly across the border. Like Steve McQueen eyeing Switzerland across the barbed wire.
A few hours later, myself and a few refugees who have temporarily fled the Drakeford tyranny gather in the Cross Keys. Bob (again not his real name) looks at me furtively. ‘I have to be careful,’ he tells me, ‘you could be the police.’ Once I assure him I’m not, he comes clean. ‘Yes, I’m from Wales,’ he admits. ‘I’m trespassing.’
In the nearby village shop, they’ve erected a makeshift sign: ‘Please note that Welsh Covid-19 laws apply here.’ But what those laws actually are is a matter of some dispute.
‘We’re allowed to sell non-essential items,’ Jennifer Bridger tells me, ‘even though it’s discouraged.’ Discouraged by whom? ‘Oh, by the Cardiff Government. Not by us. We welcome all our customers.’
Once again, the bureaucratic madness unleashed by the Drakeford ‘reset’ is fully on display. ‘So I run this shop with my husband and Duncan [the shop assistant],’ Jennifer explains. ‘When I’m serving with my husband, it’s fine, because we’re in a bubble. But Duncan isn’t. So when he’s on, I have to stay here in the kitchen. And we’ve put a till at the end of the counter so he can stay down that end and I can stand up here.’ Presumably they think all this is insane? ‘Oh no,’ Duncan tells me. ‘I back the First Minister.’
A handmade banner attached to a road sign near the village of Cerrigydrudion in north Wales is pictured in March
One of the most confusing and controversial aspects of Drakeford’s ‘firebreak’ has been the non-essential item ban. So in an effort to get to the bottom of it, I head for Bala, which nestles along one of the narrow – and now deserted – roads in Snowdonia National Park. And as I pull up on Bala High Street, the law finally catches up with me. Or more accurately, I catch up with Community Support Officer C0308 and his colleague from the local council who are keeping a vigilant watch.
Drakeford has been encouraging tough enforcement of the lockdown, with roadblocks, fines and the use of number-plate recognition technology. But in Bala they’re adopting a more softly-softly approach. ‘It’s about information, not enforcement,’ I’m told. ‘We wouldn’t just issue a ticket. We’d explain the rules first.’
Apparently most English tourists have already made good their escape – taking their spending power with them.
‘All the campsites packed up days ago.’ And what if someone does try to sneak in? ‘Oh, that’s OK. We know all the locals. So they’d stick out like a sore thumb.’
It’s only 4pm and already the few independent food outlets are beginning to close their shutters. But the local Spar is open, and people seem to be going about their daily shop quite normally.
I’d seen reports of angry protests over items being placed on the banned list. But if sanitary products aren’t an essential item in Mark Drakeford’s Wales, a werewolf Halloween mask is.
I’m not expecting to find Halloween celebrations in Merthyr Tydfil. As I wind my way across the Brecon Beacons a series of yellow Cadwch Yn Ddiogel (Stay Safe) signs remind me I’m heading towards the Welsh Covid ground zero. In the past week, the infection rate here has jumped to 523.8 per 100,000 people, the highest in the country. As I walk up the virtually deserted main shopping street, I realise I’m in a town that has become fearful of, and exhausted by, coronavirus.
Maria Rees runs a barber shop. ‘Local people are worried,’ she tells me, ‘and I lost a family friend to it.’ She says she understands the lockdown, but is finding the second wave, and accompanying ‘firebreak’, especially hard. ‘We were slowly starting to open up again. We were starting to come back.’
Around the corner in the Green Refill sandwich shop, Sian Bullen refuses to be cowed. ‘I’m not scared,’ she tells me. ‘I’m young and I’m fit and we’re very careful to follow all the rules here.’
But she admits others are scared. ‘There’s been a big drop in the number of people coming in. Merthyr has got it quite bad.’
Drakeford would welcome the desolation that has descended across Merthyr and the rest of Wales. It’s testimony to the effectiveness of his ‘reset’ – or at least to people’s willingness to abide by its draconian regulations. And if that is the case, then Cardiff Bay represents his crowning achievement. The waterfront is home to Drakeford’s office in Ty Hywel – the Welsh Assembly building – as well as a £2.4 billion regeneration project that was meant to transform the capital. Today it’s a ghost town. The shops are closed. The theatre and concert hall stand dark. Roald Dahl Plass, the public space named after the Cardiff-born author, is deserted.
The only significant sign of life is the lone police car parked outside the First Minister’s building. And even that is empty. It’s as if a giant invisible hand has reached down and snatched all living things away.
Which in a sense is what has happened. The charitable interpretation is that Drakeford is simply trying to keep his country safe. A more accurate one is that he’s just another petty bureaucrat who has let the power the Covid crisis has gifted him go to his head. But the result is still the same.
Wales is literally the land of my father. He was born and brought up in Bridgend – in a proud and brave and passionate nation. A nation that is slowly being suffocated. Partly by a virus. But also by the ego and narrow- mindedness of one man. People here may not be directly embracing Drakeford’s vigilantism, or encouragement to inform on outsiders. But they are following his edict to be afraid.
I’ve toured Donald Trump’s South. I’ve reported from Corbynite bastions, English Defence League heartlands and Ukip strongholds. And I’ve never encountered such suspicion and paranoia as I have during my few days in Drakeford’s Wales. Jane’s question, ‘Why are you here?’, has not always been asked so bluntly or directly. But it’s been said countless times with the eyes.
Perhaps the Drakeford fire-break might work. It could well act as the short, sharp corrective Covid needs. And then what? One day, Covid will be gone. But what will it leave behind? The fear. The suspicion. The feeling of dread when someone unknown arrives at the door. Is that going to disappear when coronavirus does?
Just before I leave Llanymynech, Bob the Trespasser approaches me. ‘You’ve caused a bit of a stir,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to understand when you come from outside, word gets around a village like this. People want to know what you’re up to.’
It might have started in Wales, but it won’t end here. Boris is set to announce England will be forced to endure its own four-week ‘circuit-break’ incarceration. It will probably be given a different name to pretend he hasn’t been compelled to bow to Sir Keir Starmer’s demands. And it will fool no one.
Because the truth is, despite the Prime Minister’s Churchillian words about ‘defeating Covid’, we’re still no closer to beating the virus than we were at the start of the year. Doctors, scientists, politicians – none of them really has a clue how to balance saving life with living life.
But as I drive back across Mark Drakeford’s border into Free Shropshire, there’s one thing I’m certain of. We will not turn the tide of coronavirus by turning upon ourselves.
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