Straight away let me respond to those who may be tempted to try and criticise me for politicising this crisis to advance a political agenda. You are absolutely right and I do so unashamedly. If nothing else, this crisis has shone a light on everybody’s political choices. Few come out of it looking good, which is one reason they want to close down such discussions. The variations in response, and the success of those responses around the world, are entirely in the hands of political decision makers. Thus, every single decision has to be seen and understood in a political context.
It is the political context that we find ourselves in here in Wales that I want to focus on. It is my contention that the half-baked, halfway house of a devolution arrangement we have here in Wales is no happy compromise and leaves us in the ridiculous situation of not knowing who to hold responsible for successes and failures in, well, just about anything. This is, of course, a highly agreeable state of affairs for the establishment politicians, especially where we have Tories in Westminster and Welsh Labour in Cardiff Bay. Carwyn Jones made a very nice career for himself using the Tories in Westminster as the ready-made excuse for failing to achieve the bare minimum you’d expect from Labour after 20 years of supposed-government; the eradication of poverty and homelessness, substantially less inequality, the restructuring of industry and employment for the 21st century. We can and should still have these aspirations.
The reasons for these failures are pretty simple. Unless they are the goals of the UK government as well, they cannot be achieved until Wales has FULL control over taxation, monetary policy, public expenditure and infrastructure investment. That would take us to at least 90% of full independence. The other 10% would be cultural things like Olympic and Eurovision status, along with aspects of trade and foreign policy- such as, dare I say, EU membership. I don’t want to go into the tiresome debate over whether Wales would be economically viable, if independent, here. Check that out elsewhere if you still need convincing. But I do want to look at how being umbilically tied to Westminster has impacted on the response to Covid-19 here in Wales.
This story needs to start well before the onset of this pandemic. The last pandemic we encountered was the 2009 H1N1 ’Swine flu’ pandemic which saw Wales escape with relatively few confirmed cases, but a higher death rate than the UK average, even if that did amount to just 28 deaths (if just is ever an acceptable word to describe multiple deaths). As a consequence there was a flurry of post-pandemic reviews across the UK and attempts to update pandemic preparedness and response guides. The most recent substantial document I can find from Welsh Government is this one, published in 2014.
I have no inclination to pore over this and dissect it as I’m not even sure it is the most up-to-date pre-Covid-19 advice in Wales. But It is essentially a supplement to UK guidance rather than a stand alone document, as acknowledged on pg 2:
“Further detail on pandemic preparedness and response can be obtained from the UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy. This can be downloaded from the Department of Health website”
It kowtow’s to UK level decision making at many points. Is this a problem? I think so. More on this shortly.
We do know that Theresa May’s UK government undertook a comprehensive review of Britain’s pandemic response capabilities in October 2016; Exercise Cygnus. It involved all major government departments, NHS England , Public Health England and many big local authorities, but I have not yet been able to ascertain whether there was any involvement of any of the devolved administrations. It seems probably not. This showed gaping holes in the government’s Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response (EPRR) plan. Did Welsh Government even see it? Did they emulate it? Did they do anything at this time? Was it even on their radar?
What we see in far too many spheres, but in the current coronavirus crisis in particular, is a tendency for Wales, even where it has theoretical freedom to make its choices in devolved areas like health and education, to hang onto the coat tails of UK decision makers and rarely have the confidence to take the initiative or take a separate path. That is arguably fine so long as Westminster is on the ball and a reliable source of wisdom, but could that ever be expected of any Tory government, let alone one led by Boris Johnson?!!
With this deference comes tardiness. For example, the decision to shield the elderly and vulnerable by instructing them to remain at home for a full 12 weeks minimum led to letters being issued within a week or so in England, but a week to 10 days later in Wales (with thousands being sent to the wrong addresses to exacerbate things). It is not as if Wales doesn’t have its own Chief Medical Officer who could have issued such guidance potentially a lot sooner. But no, we have to wait and see what England is doing and follow suit pretty much to the letter. Our people deserve better surely.
To be fair, the devolved administrations did take some initiative by announcing school closures at a time when Boris Johnson was still dilly-dallying on the issue. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all announced the school closures on Wednesday 18th March, with immediate effect in Northern Ireland and from the end of school on Friday 20th in Wales and Scotland. On 18th March, the official Government advice remained that all educational institutions should remain fully open in England. But with up to a third of staff missing due to illness or self-isolation measures this was untenable and England fell into line by the 20th.
What is not clear in this is who was pushing the school closure agenda in the devolved administrations. It seems implausible that they all took the decision on the same day completely independently. There was clear co-ordination in the announcements.
Knowing what we do of Kirsty Williams (the only Lib Dem AM, made Education Sec in Welsh Government in order to give Welsh labour a workable majority) it seems unlikely that she or anybody in Welsh Government was the prime mover. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland have significantly different educational arrangements than England and Wales. In typical Welsh deference, education in Wales is essentially exactly the same as in England but with a Cwricwlwm Cymraeg addendum bolted on.
On top of this, and probably more significantly, both Scotland and Northern Ireland consistently show more confidence and inclination to diverge from whatever the English do. They don’t even have the same political parties in Northern Ireland, whereas Scotland’s very own SNP has far more presence and resultant confidence, on the back of mass popular support, than Wales’ very own Plaid Cymru can currently dream of having.
Thus, we have a situation whereby the majority in Wales seems to be content with seeing itself as little more than an annex of England, led by an essentially unionist party, unlike their Celtic cousins. It is little wonder, in this context, that doing anything radically different to England seems nigh on impossible and as rare as hen’s teeth.
The renewed radicalism within Welsh Labour since the rise of Corbyn to lead the UK Labour Party has to be acknowledged. The Corbynite group ‘Welsh Labour Grassroots’ wrote to Mark Drakeford (First Minister) on 5th April to raise concerns about responding to the Covid-19 crisis “largely in lock step with the UK Government”, and raising specific concerns over how this has impacted on testing and PPE, lack of clarity in messaging, lack of protection for vulnerable groups, such as private renters, and a failure to address the gaps in income support schemes for the self employed in particular.The also took him to task for closer adherence to UK guidelines and actions than to those advocated by the WHO, where those differ.
Drakeford didn’t rush his reply, taking until 8th of April to respond. He conceded that, while the virus is no respecter of boundaries, it is indeed incumbent on WG “to shape the response in Wales”. He then went to highlight the things Wales’ had chosen to do differently to England, namely:
- Suspending routine work in the NHS sooner than England in oder to get better prepared
- Put into actual law that exercise away from home can only be once a day, along with the 2m distancing rule
- Restricted fines for breaking social distancing rules to £200, instead of the £900 in England
- Different funeral rules
- Quicker to close camping and caravanning sites
While each of these is commendable enough, it amounts to very little if these are the best examples he can come up with. Its resonant of the claims of success for 20 yrs of Welsh labour government in Wales. Lots of tiny gains that help small groups of people (free prescriptions, reduced tuition fees, carrier bag charges and the like), but that add up to no substantial benefit for the entire population.
And these tiny gains need to be set against the various ways the people of Wales have lost out directly due to Welsh Government kowtowing to Westminster. For example, there have been the complex shenanigans of PPE procurement. Drakeford’s letter clearly states that all 4 UK Governments had agreed to pool their purchasing power and share procurement capacity rather than try to compete against one another. Sounds fine in theory. Indeed, imagine if such a collaborative venture was tried across the whole of Europe…. But I won’t digress down that avenue here!! Save to say, this has quickly unravelled as English companies with contracts with Public Health England have taken that to mean they cannot supply Wales and Scotland.
The situation with the all important testing capabilities is an even worse case. I happen to be good friends with a senior academic, who actually trains the biomedical scientists who perform these sorts of testing services in the NHS. Some of his students will be employed on vaccine development programmes and others in other medical fields relevant to this crisis. He had this to tell me just a few days ago:
“As soon as this happened I contacted the WG and also colleagues in my university. Next thing I knew they had taken our testing capabilities to Milton Keynes to set up a super testing facility. I know the testing method inside out. I offered my services and signed up to an online standby service but I’ve heard nothing.”
“Wales always follows England. As an academic in two welsh universities for 30 years I can say that Wales has never made independent decisions and has always followed England’s lead. So, nothing new and I’m not surprised we are following their lead.”
Add this to the Roche debacle, whereby Public Health England was effectively allowed to gazump Welsh Government’s order for 5,000 Covid-19 tests per day. This led to Whitehall effectively taking control of test procurement across the whole UK and dishing them out pro-rata. However, this looks like being pro-rata by population, not pro-rata by need, and Wales has had more than its ‘fair share’ of cases for most of the crisis. Thus, Wales is not likely to be well-served by this arrangement, especially since the transfer of University testing equipment appears to have happened across all academic institutions in Wales, leaving Wales as the only UK nation without a large testing facility.
Thus, having given up all control for testing in Wales, it is little wonder that Welsh Government has had no option but to abandon all pretence at being able to even work towards a testing target. That is entirely in Westminster’s hands now. So now we have to put up with Wale’s Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, trying to spin this as not a problem as he reckons we don’t need to be testing right now!!
As if that wasn’t confidence sapping enough, he then went on to say that Welsh Government were working with those well-known biomedical experts at Amazon to produce a coronavirus testing web-portal! Priority will no doubt go to those with Amazon Prime accounts! This probably also explains the nauseating Amazon adverts currently running where Amazon tries to pretend it is a lovely caring company that cherishes it workers, rather than arguably the worst employer on the planet. Not a good look for a Labour Party association.
The current constitutional arrangements have not freed Wales anywhere near enough to achieve its potential. Beyond this, it also ties us too often and too closely to an English establishment and all its shortcomings.
Covid-19 has shown the extent to which the Welsh Labour Government is happy to be beholden to Westminster. It is a relationship that has served it well, giving it excuses for its own conservatism and lack of radicalism.
Wales needs its own resources to do its own due diligence in these circumstances so that it could emulate other small independent countries like New Zealand and Iceland, rather than follow meekly the path trodden from Westminster. In the current context it would have given us the potential to save hundreds of lives to date and thousands more yet to come.
The neoliberal sociopathy of a deeply Conservative England really ought to be anathema to the people of Wales, built as it is on richly diverse working class communities. The NHS was, after all, born in Wales through Nye Bevan. It was Tredegar Medical Aid Society that gave Bevan the model and inspiration for the entire NHS.
Thankfully we have just about sufficient devolution currently to mean that we can sidestep Boris Johnson’s megalomaniacal moves to take over at the running of the NHS in England and hasten its dismantling and privatisation. But without the freedom and control of resources from full independence, the Welsh NHS will continue to be strangled from afar.
A common mantra emerging from this crisis across the world is that there can be no return to normal, as what we had as ‘normal’ was very much the essence of the problem. Such a crisis has enabled everyone (well, all those that will look up and see at least) to see the full evil of disaster capitalism – which is not really any different than everyday capitalism in that it promotes the welfare of capital and capitalist elites above the needs of the common people. It will no doubt lead to the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich since, well, the last global disaster (the banking crash of 2008) via the con that was ‘austerity’.
Wales needs to wake up and smell the coffee. It can stay meek and subservient and remain grateful for the crumbs tossed its way from the top table. Or it can boldly take control of its own destiny; develop the bountiful natural and human resources to create ample sustainable wealth and security for all people living here. Many argue that we don’t have the visionaries or the talent to pull this off in Wales. I find that deeply insulting. I know it is not so. And where does such pessimistic resignation lead us? Into the arms, or even the nooses held by the arms of ‘visionaries’ of the calibre of Johnson and Cummings. I rest my case.