Covid has shown that Wales can do better than Westminster – when it has the freedom to act

Westminster and the Senedd. Picture on the right by Richard Szwejkowski (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Dai Lloyd, Plaid Cymru Senedd Member for South Wales West 

This pandemic means that people from across the world, including here in Wales, are experiencing the implications of unprecedented decisions that are being taken by politicians on their behalf. There is a very direct link between Government decisions announced and people’s lived experience.

The crisis also means that people in Wales, often for the very first time, are realising the extent of the powers afforded to our Senedd and the Welsh Government.

But this crisis has also shown the clear constitutional tensions that exist, and is leading many to question the long-term viability of the current settlement.

Only in good time, following independent public inquiries, will we be able to truly judge the performance of any Government in handling this unprecedented crisis, but it is clear, even at this stage, that a number of events in Wales have started to define it.

Sabotage

During the early stage of the pandemic, with nations from across the world racing to secure sufficient supplies of Covid-19 tests, we were informed that a Welsh Government deal with private company Roche to supply 5,000 daily tests to Wales had collapsed. Why? Because the Westminster Government stepped in and took the tests for itself.

The World Health Organisation advice at this stage was clear – ‘test, test, test’ in order to save lives. The UK Government kicked Welsh Government efforts into touch, to ensure that England got what it needed. Welsh interests were of secondary importance. So much for this ‘United’ Kingdom.

Only a few weeks later we found that Welsh interests were again being relegated, with private suppliers of personal protective equipment being told by the UK Government Agency, Public Health England, that they should limit the distribution of PPE to care homes in England only. Key orders of coronavirus protective masks, gloves and aprons were being refused to care homes in Wales and Scotland. Again, the ‘United’ Kingdom, not quite delivering for all.

Both these instances raise legal, procedural and constitutional questions, which a future public inquiry will no doubt wish to pick up on.

 

Broadcasting and messaging

Lockdown restrictions have clearly diverged in different parts of the UK, but setting aside the merits of each approach, it has become apparent to all that there is a significant issue facing the UK in terms of its broadcasting and wider media.

It cannot be right, as has so often been the case during this pandemic, that UK-wide, English-based, news outlets have the freedom to create such confusing and mixed messaging. When media output really can be the difference between life and death, then it needs to be controlled at the appropriate level. This crisis has proven precisely why there is a need to devolve broadcasting to Wales.

This was typified on May 10th when the Prime Minister made an ‘address to the nation’, where he announced a relaxation of lockdown rules. Not once during the broadcast however did he mention that these rules applied to England only.

Cue the confusion, with Welsh police officers having to deal with unpleasantries from people who felt that they had a right to be at Welsh beauty spots ‘because Boris said we could’. That broadcast, in that format, simply should not have been allowed to air in Wales and should have been clearer in its explanation in England.

A different path

I have been generally supportive of the Welsh Government’s cautious approach to easing lockdown, notwithstanding the recent announcement that schools will be going back unnecessarily early. But generally, it shows that when Wales has the freedom to act, it can make positive choices.

We have shown that we can take a different path, and with Wales’ per capita death rate lower than England’s, and reports of a rising R rate in parts of England, I believe that the different path is justified.

However, not everyone is content with Wales making up its own mind. Indeed, Conservative MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, Daniel Kawczynski, is so enraged that he has called for the Welsh people to be given a fresh referendum on whether there should indeed be a Welsh Parliament.

And all the while, negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal of the EU continue – with Welsh Government becoming increasingly frustrated at being totally ignored by Westminster. Wales is powerless, and a catastrophic no deal exit remains on the horizon, adding to the historic economic shock already suffered as a result of Covid. It is truly shocking.

Unfortunately, under the current constitutional settlement, this type of threat will not go away, so we, the people of Wales, need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.  Are we happy to continue to play second fiddle to our larger political neighbour? Are we happy with the tools that our Welsh Government has at its disposal? Or do we believe that there is a different path?

French philosopher Albert Camus once said that ‘Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better’. Wales can be so much better; but it is becoming ever clearer that only by being a free and independent nation will Wales’ interests top the list in each and every case.

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