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Role of devolved governments in future pandemics ‘likely’ to be part of inquiry, says Welsh Secretary

24 Mar 2021 4 minutes Read
Simon Hart (left) by Chris McAndrew (CC BY 3.0).

The role of devolved governments in any future pandemics is ‘likely” to be part of an inquiry into the Covid-19, according to the Welsh Secretary.

Simon Hart was also asked about reports that Boris Johnson ‘regrets’ letting devolved governments have their own say over lockdown rules, at a media briefing.

The comments follow an opinion poll conducted by YouGov for ITV Wales on the anniversary of the first lockdown, that suggests only 13 per cent of people in Wales prefer England’s approach to the pandemic.

It  showed that 59 per cent preferred the approach taken to the pandemic in Wales compared to over the border.

According to the poll 61 per cent of people in Wales think the Welsh Government has handled the pandemic well, and that compares to 53 per cent who think that the UK Government has handled it badly.

It also showed that 63 per cent of people also supported the latest relaxations of lockdown in Wales.

When asked about whether Boris Johnson ‘regrets’ the devolved governments being able to decide their own Covid-16 rules, Simon Hart told Adrian Masters from ITV that “the arrangements and the relationship between the four nations, I think that’s what an inquiry will reveal.”

In response to the reports, Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts said: “Condescending remarks aside Wales has performed demonstrably better when we have acted independently from Westminster in this pandemic. Just think what we could do with true independence.”

‘Cut out’ 

According to reports in The Sun, the UK Prime Minister was urged by Cabinet Ministers last March to use sweeping civil contingencies powers to cut out the Welsh and Scottish governments from the pandemic response.

Johnson was told he should rely on the doomsday 2004 Civil Contingencies Act which gave Whitehall supreme authority for a “catastrophic emergency”.

It is understood that Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg was particularly vocal at using the sweeping Act rather than writing a new law for Covid that sat alongside the 1984 Public Health Act.

Instead, Johnson used 1980s Public Health laws to respond because health matters are devolved. This meant that Edinburgh and Cardiff were given the chance to go their own way in response.

A Cabinet Minister told the newspaper that it would be done “differently next time” and that “the PM knows that”.

However at the time the decision was made Downing Street was said to be concerned that extreme Civil Contingencies powers would have to be approved by MPs every 30 days, whereas writing a new law gave them emergency control for a whole year.

Johnson created the Coronavirus Act 2020 instead that also gave the police massive powers, suspended elections and paved the way for the furlough scheme.

However Downing Street insiders are said to have been were blindsided by what they see as the fragmented response to the virus across the four nations of the United Kingdom.

There is a frustration that Wales and Scotland have been able to set their own lockdown measures and easing timetables as a result.

‘Infuriated’ 

Whitehall has been infuriated by Scottish First Minister criticism of the UK Government’s response for England.

There is also unhappiness because Nicola Sturgeon’s poll ratings have skyrocketed during the pandemic.

A former aide who has left the UK Government told The Sun: “At the time I think everyone just assumed there would be a joined up response across the whole country and we didn’t really think at the time it would splinter.

“But obviously that turned out to be wrong and was pretty naive.”

A Cabinet Minister said: “I have no doubt that it will be done differently next time. The PM knows that.”

Others around the Cabinet table agree, but another added that “hindsight is a wonderful thing.”

They insisted: “It was bonkers back then so no one is to blame.”

Asked if Mr Johnson had any regrets, Downing Street said that a customised Covid law was needed as their response to the crisis was so broad.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “Without the Coronavirus Act, the most crucial support and interventions such as the furlough scheme and people claiming Statutory Sick Pay and other benefits would not have been able to continue during the pandemic, as well as other public services including virtual court hearings.”

The added: “It has also provided important parliamentary scrutiny”.

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