THE Welsh Government must move slowly and be vigilant as it moves to lift lockdown restrictions in Wales, medical professionals have said.

First Minister Mark Drakeford announced on Friday that children aged between three and seven will return to schools from Monday, with further pupils joining by mid-March if conditions allow.

Lockdown restrictions, which have been in place in Wales since December 20, will also be slightly eased to allow four people from two different households to exercise together.

Mr Drakeford said he hoped that stay-at-home rules would be lifted in three weeks’ time, when the Welsh Government formally reviews the regulations.

Some non-essential shops and personal services such as hairdressers could also reopen from March 15, while self-contained holiday accommodation may be allowed to operate around Easter.

Dr David Bailey, council chair of BMA Cymru Wales, said it welcomed the Welsh Government’s “continued cautious approach” to easing restrictions.

“Whilst there are hugely encouraging signs that we’re successfully tackling the virus with lower case rates and with the progress made on the vaccine rollout, we must continue to move slowly and be vigilant particularly with the threat of new variants,” Dr Bailey said.

“If we can contain the spread of new variants now, there is less opportunity for them to create a new wave of cases which may also make the current vaccine less effective.

“Ultimately, we want to see more people vaccinated to protect our most vulnerable and reduce the pressure on the NHS before we can move forward to ensure there is capacity to treat severe Covid-19 infections, as well as successfully and safely providing non-Covid care to all those who need it.

“Alongside this, we need to ensure rapid rollout of the second dose of the vaccine for all healthcare workers to ensure maximum protection for staff and patients.”

Darren Hughes, director of the Welsh NHS Confederation, said restrictions needed to be lifted “slowly and cautiously”.

The NHS in Wales is coming under “high levels of pressure” and needs capacity to care for people as well as vaccinating the Welsh population as quickly as possible, he said.

“The NHS in Wales recognises how important it is to get children and students back to school, but this needs to be done cautiously to ensure we don’t see an impact on infection rates,” Mr Hughes said.

“We continue to see positive signs that Coronavirus rates are falling in Wales, and we are starting to see a reduction in the number of patients in hospital with Covid.

“As more of the most vulnerable groups receive their vaccinations, we can start to look towards a brighter future.

“We’re grateful to our frontline staff, our partners in the public sector and the Welsh public, who have all worked so hard to drive down the rate of infection.

“We know the restrictions are hard for people and we continue to encourage anyone to come forward for help if you need it, whether that be for your physical or mental health.”

All primary school pupils, as well as those in years 11 and 13 who have exams, could return to classrooms in Wales from March 15 if the public health situation continues to improve.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of teaching union NASUWT, said the situation in terms of transmission of coronavirus remained “incredibly fragile and precarious”.

He said the Welsh Government had not demonstrated that its decision to proceed with a wider return to school for pupils would not undermine the health and safety of staff and pupils, or undermine efforts to control the virus.

“Schools, teachers and parents need to have compelling evidence that this will not be the case. Unless that evidence is clear, an announcement now for a wider reopening of schools is premature,” Dr Roach said.

“In the face of the increased risks posed by new and more transmissible variants of the virus, a much more enhanced package of safety mitigations and measures is required to make schools Covid safe.”

He called for a system of stronger controls, including the increased use of face coverings in schools and rotas to limit occupancy levels.

Dr Roach added that teachers and education staff should be given priority access to Covid-19 vaccines.