Why England’s announcement of no new restrictions will have a huge impact on Wales – and widen a political rift
Ifan Morgan Jones
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s announcement that there will be no new Covid restrictions in England this side of the New Year will have a big impact on Wales, too.
Even though health is devolved, ultimately it is the UK Treasury that hand out the cash to pay for those health measures. And restrictions are expensive because you need to compensate those businesses impacted by them to mitigate against huge economic harm.
England’s decision not to impose restrictions means that the UK Treasury likely won’t be releasing any extra funding. That in turn, will mean Wales won’t be able to afford to impose further restrictions, either.
The Welsh Government are probably now already out of pocket after announcing over £100m for businesses and sports teams last week, in order to soften the blow of restrictions on hospitality and large outdoor events.
England won’t be following suit any time soon, and that will also no doubt lead to more political friction with the governments of Wales and Scotland.
All four parts of the UK will have seen the same scientific Covid advice. Johnson met with his top advisors this morning. But it is probably the advice he was getting from his backbenchers – i.e. that they’d rather be shot of him than accept new restrictions – that held the greatest sway.
Ultimately the balance between freedoms and restrictions – between allowing some to die so that others have greater freedom in their lives – is a political and philosophical question, not a scientific one.
And this is how the pandemic was always likely to end up. Even if the danger from Covid remained roughly constant, people’s readiness to put their lives on hold for it was never going to be.
And at Westminster at least one senses that there just isn’t the political will for the sort of restrictions seen previously to continue, even on seasonal cycles.
But that choice opens up a fundamental political rift with Wales and Scotland that goes beyond political point-scoring.
So far there have been differences between the nations on the scope of restrictions, but on the need for restrictions, they have been broadly united. The decision today – unless there is a quick U-turn in the new year – changes that.
Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon believe that deeper restrictions are still needed to save lives. Boris Johnson does not, or at least less than he cares about his popularity with his own mutinous backbenchers.
Much now depends on whether Omicron is as bad as feared or as ‘mild’ as hoped. We could get lucky and the pre-emptive restrictions in Wales and Scotland may turn out not to have been needed.
But from a Welsh perspective, it seems destined to drive a further wedge between Whitehall and the administration of Mark Drakeford if he has to spend his last few years as First Minister overseeing a public health calamity while not being able to do much about it.
One long term political impact is that it will no doubt focus minds in Wales, and Welsh Labour in particular, on the fact that without financial autonomy there is no real political autonomy.
At the moment it feels as if the UK is tied to a rack and all the big political questions of the day – Brexit, the pandemic, and others – are slowly cranking up the pressure to pull the nation-state apart.
This pandemic has some time left to run. If Omicron and subsequent variants are as serious as the worst that can be feared and a politically paralysed Boris Johnson does now allow the ‘bodies to pile high’, that strain could increase again to the point where something snaps.