The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, is due to set out plans on how the nation will aim to lift its coronavirus lockdown.

The Labour politician will announce on Friday a new framework for easing restrictions and seven questions that need to be addressed to help lead Wales out of the pandemic.

England remains the only nation without proposals to ease restrictions after Scotland’s first leader, Nicola Sturgeon, published a report on Thursday and the first minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, suggested she could lift its restrictions at a different pace to the rest of the UK.

Drakeford’s announcement came as the head of NHS Wales cautioned against any partial lifting of lockdown measures despite “encouraging signs” that the country’s coronavirus outbreak may have peaked.

Dr Andrew Goodall said the number of new confirmed cases in Wales was stabilising and the daily number of deaths was in decline.

Public Health Wales reported 17 new fatalities from coronavirus on Thursday, down from a peak of 38 on 13 April, bringing the total number of deaths in Wales to 641. The number of new cases fell to 234, taking the total to 8,358.

In a televised briefing from Cardiff, Goodall said there had been a drop in the number of coronavirus patients in hospitals and intensive care units. More than half of Wales’s critical care beds and 47% of acute hospital beds were currently free, he said.

“I think these are encouraging signs, now reinforced by a pattern that is stronger over recent days,” he said, adding that experts in Wales “probably didn’t expect to see” such a fall in confirmed cases and deaths at this stage of the pandemic.

However, he cautioned against any early lifting of physical distancing measures and said it was wrong to “assume that everything can return to normal” when the lockdown is next reviewed in a fortnight.

Goodall said: “We have some concerns that we could have a second or possibly even a third peak. Our actions at this stage are intended to make sure that we can keep things stable and improving, but we will need to continue working with the public at large.”

Earlier, Wales’s chief medical officer, Dr Frank Atherton, said the lockdown measures introduced on 23 March were working.

“In the current wave of transmission that we are in, we haven’t just flattened the curve, we’ve completely squashed the curve,” he said. “That’s been done by the lockdown – it means that our transmission within the community is much less and we’re already seeing some plateauing in the kind of figures we look at.”

Dr Andrew Freedman, the head of Cardiff University’s school of medicine, said it was difficult to compare Wales’s experience of coronavirus with that of neighbouring countries due to differences in population size and spread.

However, he said the spread of the disease in Wales may have fallen sooner because it had relatively few cases when the lockdown was introduced. There were 662 confirmed cases of coronavirus in a population of 3 million people when Boris Johnson announced the UK lockdown on 23 March, compared with more than 11,000 cases in England, with a population of 56 million.

With 641 deaths reported as of 5pm on 22 April, the Welsh death rate equates to 20.4 deaths per 100,000 people, around the same as Scotland (20.6 deaths per 100,000) and lower than England, where there were 30 deaths per 100,000 based on the latest NHS England release. In Northern Ireland, the figure of 263 deaths so far works out as 14 deaths per 100,000.

The three smaller nations all experienced their first deaths later than England, which may mean the disease began circulating later, while less urbanisation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may also have been a contributory factor.

“There were predictions that we would have a much higher peak and that our NHS and our [intensive care units] would be overwhelmed, and by and large that hasn’t been the case. The numbers have been a lot lower than some predictions,” said Freedman, who is also a consultant physician in infectious diseases at the University hospital of Wales.

“The lockdown measures were brought in when [Wales] was relatively earlier in the epidemic, we had fewer cases … There were fewer infections, fewer transmissions going on compared to other big cities, where it had already taken off.”

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