When the Welsh government announced it would introduce a 17-day “firebreak” lockdown, some accused it of being disproportionate in its response to Covid-19. But that’s been nothing compared to the backlash it has received over its ban on retailers selling “non-essential items” during the period. There has been huge confusion over what this term means.

Indeed, the internet has been flooded with photographs and comments from customers who’ve been bewildered by barricaded supermarket aisles, or sealed up bookshelves, which are now deemed “non-essential”. On Twitter, one user even photographed a supermarket where it was possible to buy vodka, but not baby’s clothes.

The extent to which people are confused by the Welsh government’s policy was obvious today when it had to intervene in a Twitter argument about sanitary pads. It was reported that a superstore in Cardiff had closed down an aisle with items deemed “non-essential”, including sanitary products and toothpaste.

One shopper Tweeted to Tesco how dismayed she was about the choice to not sell sanitary pads, to which its social media team sent a (now-deleted Tweet) saying the company had been “told by the Welsh Government not to sell these items”. The Welsh government then Tweeted that Tesco had got the advice wrong.

So what are non-essential items, exactly? They have been broadly described as electric goods, telephones toys, games, garden products and homeware. Some of the things that have been photographed being covered up include:

  • Bedding
  • Kettles
  • Heaters
  • Cards
  • Pillows

Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, has said supermarkets should use their discretion to decide what items are “essential”. But many shoppers will feel that this has happened already – with ridiculous consequences. Choosing what constitutes “non-essential” is clearly not as straightforward as the government thinks.

The Sun, for instance, reports that Asda is selling dog treats, Red Bull, Christmas pudding and Slimfast, but not an umbrella, plunger, hairdryer or dustpan and brush. One Twitter user said that Spar was refusing to sell face masks as they were “non-essential“, and another user found smoke alarms were “non-essential”. There have been questions over whether pumpkins will make the cut over Halloween.

On ITV Wales News, Drakeford defended the policy by saying “I won’t need – I don’t think – to buy clothing over this two weeks and I think many, many people in Wales will be in that position too”, in one of the strangest governmental rebuttals of recent.

Vaughan Gething, the Welsh Health Minister, echoed these sentiments, telling a press briefing that criticism on the halt on non-essential items has “taken away from the reason” why a “firebreaker” lockdown was introduced.

Frankly, it looks like a government that has well and truly got its (non-essential) knickers in a twist.