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Fears have been raised of a “hard border” between Wales and England as the two countries prepare to follow different lockdown restrictions.
On Sunday evening, prime minister Boris Johnson told an audience of almost 30m people across the UK that the public were – from Wednesday – free to travel as far as they liked to exercise.
This represents a departure from the previous message, that all exercise must be carried out close to home, and means people are now able to drive to rural beauty spots such as the Lake District to enjoy the fresh air – something that had previously been repeatedly warned against.
The PM’s message did not distinguish between rules for England and rules for the UK in general. In fact, it appeared at points to do the opposite.
He said: “I believe that as prime minister of the United Kingdom – Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, there is a strong resolve to defeat this together.
“And today a general consensus on what we could do.”
As it turns out, that the reality of the consensus isn’t as firm as the PM’s message suggested. Ministers from Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have all rejected the government’s new “stay alert, control the virus, save lives” slogan, instead opting to continue to follow the “stay at home” advice.”
Immediately after Johnson’s address, Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford released his own video message stating that advice for Wales had not changed.
On Monday morning, the Welsh government’s counsel general Jeremy Miles told the BBC that rules “do not permit people to get in their car and drive to destinations in Wales”.
So no, the entire population of the UK isn’t free to travel wherever they like to exercise, and in Wales that means people cannot travel “a significant distance” from home.
“That also means people getting in their cars in England,” Miles added, saying police in Wales “absolutely have the power to fine” people for making non-essential journeys or not exercising near their home.
South Wales Police Federation chair Steve Treharne also told the BBC that driving from England into Wales “still becomes an offence”.
With different guidelines in either nation, there are fears that increased policing could effectively form a “hard border” between the two nations as Wales seeks to protect its population.
HuffPost UK has contacted the Welsh government and Wales’ four police forces – North Wales Police, Gwent Police, Dyfed-Powys Police, and South Wales Police – for details on whether and how the border will be policed and respective restrictions maintained.
As of Monday evening, no further information had been offered.
But without specific guidelines for each country being broadcast by the prime minister himself, there are concerns that many could flout the rules – either intentionally or without realising that rules over the border in Wales are different from those in England.
Charlotte Hunt, 30, lives close to Llandudno, near Snowdonia National Park. She told HuffPost UK she and her partner hadn’t heard about the difference in strategy between Wales and England until they had specifically looked up new cases of the virus in their area to check the latest number of infections.
“We’d seen Scotland’s view on social media, but the Welsh strategy wasn’t very well shared,” she explained.
“Our friends in England hadn’t realised that Wales has a different strategy until we spoke to them.”
Despite living just a few miles from the edge of the national park, Charlotte explained they had stayed within 3km of their home for the duration of the lockdown but were now worried that more people from outside the area would travel to visit local beauty spots.
She said: “I think people will travel to Snowdonia from within Wales and outside. People were being stopped from as far as London on their way to hike in the mountains just a couple of weeks ago.
“We still have a fairly low number of cases in north Wales, but this is increasing. It’s worrying that people could spread the virus from London, Manchester, Liverpool, et cetera.
“Our hospitals aren’t as big and we have a high number of people living rurally, which could put a huge strain on the ambulances.
“We’re also concerned about the volunteer rescue services, who have members trying to shield. If we get an influx of hikers we always have more callouts, which puts a huge strain on the volunteers and risks giving them the virus.”
Jessica Philips, 25, moved home to Ammanford, at the edge of the Brecon Beacons, a week before start of lockdown, and says she had already heard of two English families travelling to the area.
She said: “It’s frightening because local services are already stretched.
“It’s also frustrating because Wales is hugely underfunded compared to England, yet it’s our hospitals and frontline staff who will have to cope with the impact of the virus.”
Jessica also explained that a lack of education around how devolved powers work means that local rules may be disregarded in favour of the PM’s address, which was watched by almost 30m people on Sunday evening.
“I think it doesn’t help that there isn’t enough education around devolved power in Wales,” Jessica added.
“A lot of people take Boris Johnson’s word as gospel when it’s the Welsh government’s decision to ease or lift lockdown.
“I worry that local people will think that these new rules also apply to them and will start socialising normally which could have catastrophic consequences.”
The concerns about a split in policy aren’t just increasing fears of a flood of visitors to Welsh beauty spots, but also risks creating very real complications for commuters who usually travel back and forth over the border on a daily basis.
Harriet Protheroe-Soltani, 26, lives in Cardiff and in normal times would travel by train each day to work at a trade union in Bristol.
“I’m very lucky – I work for a responsible employer and they’ve told me to work from home indefinitely,” she explains.
“If I wasn’t in that position I wouldn’t have a clue what to do. I don’t drive, so I would be forced to get on the train and put my safety at risk – it’s not as though I can just jump on my bike and cycle over to Bristol every day.
“I think the Welsh and Scottish governments have been really clear. The confusion has come from the prime minister’s statement. There was no recognition that the devolved nations were taking different approaches.”
Less than a day after Johnson’s statement, Harriet said she was seeing an outpouring of support from friends and acquaintances online for an enforced border between Wales and England.
“It’s quite worrying actually – I’ve been seeing a lot of people who I know are really calm and reasonable being quite extreme about calling for some sort of temporary hard border,” she said.
“There is definitely a real worry that people from England will travel to Wales for a day out and put a strain on the health service.
“I don’t want it to happen, but I think there is the potential for this divide in policy to cause real hostility.”
There are also fears that increased pressure could be put on devolved governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by Westminster to adopt the new rules, especially as the fate of the furlough scheme which has supported millions of workers across the UK is revealed.
“I think the Welsh government is absolutely right to stick with the ‘stay at home’ message,” said 44-year-old Rachel Garrick, who lives in Caldicot in Monmouthshire and would usually commute into Bristol for work.
“My concern is that Westminster will just ramp up the pressure on devolved nations to follow the same guidelines as in England, when I don’t think it’s safe to do so.
“I usually get the train, but I don’t feel like I could if I had to stop working from home so I would drive.
“Are the police then going to stop every car heading over the border from Wales into England? Are my husband and I going to end up in a position where we’re having to justify returning to our home country?”
A Welsh government spokesperson could only point HuffPost UK towards Johnson’s speech on Sunday, in which he said: “We will try to ensure [people in England] get that message that rules in Wales are different. The police’s approach has always been to educate people, advise them and only use fines when they feel people fail to observe the rules here. It won’t be a matter of being fined immediately, they will be told what they are doing is not consistent with the law.”