'Back to square one' fears for Shropshire border amid surge in Indian variant cases

A pub owner fears a surge in cases of the Indian variant of coronavirus could mean businesses on the English/Welsh border are forced to go "back to square one".

The Horseshoes Inn at Berriew attracts customers from the English side of the border
The Horseshoes Inn at Berriew attracts customers from the English side of the border

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has refused to rule out the possibility of restricting travel across the border from England if it is in the nation's best interests, in the face of rising instances of the new Indian variant.

That possibility would mean a headache for licensees like Darren Ellis-Whitelegg of The Horseshoes Inn near Welshpool – he said a lot of his customers are tourists from the likes of Shrewsbury or Telford.

Data from Public Health England (PHE) shows that cases of the Indian variant have doubled in the UK this week – from 520 to 1,313. Mr Drakeford said that 26 of those cases were in Wales.

One response being considered is bringing forward the date for a second dose of vaccine for eligible groups to increase protection.

Mr Ellis-Whitelegg said that concern is growing among the Welsh pub-owning community.

"This variant hasn't just been found, it's starting to worry a lot of people already.

"Businesses might have to go back into lockdown again. I speak to a couple of other pub owners in a Facebook group, they were all saying that if this starts spreading again they're worried they'll be back in lockdown again by July.

"I hope it doesn't come to that. Then we're back to square one.

"It will be a growing concern across the UK."

The Horseshoes Inn at Berriew attracts customers from the English side of the border

He said that localised restrictions reminiscent of the Government's old Tier system of guidelines could be a preferable alternative to a national lockdown, but that if the border to England is restricted again it may be unrealistic to enforce for pubs and restaurants.

"[Mr Drakeford] could put that rule in again but nobody would follow it. When we had the 'firebreak' lockdown and we were shut for 17 days then we came out of it but England were still in lockdown, there were still a lot of people in England coming over to Wales.

"We had to ask for identification and if they had English addresses we had to ask them to leave and tell them they weren't supposed to be here.

"A lot of traffic that comes through from Welshpool or Powys is holiday traffic. We're on the main route from North Wales to South Wales.

"It's difficult – you have to ask for the identification and you have had people who have been travelling from Shrewsbury or from Telford, they've obviously travelled a long way to get here, and to turn around and say 'sorry, you will have to leave' – they're just going to go somewhere else.

"It's becoming a nightmare."

But he trusts in the ongoing success of the vaccination programme in Wales, and low case numbers compared to England.

"We've had the lowest cases even in the first lockdown. We've beaten this once before, I think we can learn from what we've done twice now and beat it again."

Wales' indoor hospitality and entertainment venues will reopen on Monday under current plans.

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