The Covid crisis has demanded urgent thinking and urgent responses as it has unfolded. Policy decisions have been made using science as a basis, but they are still political decisions since scientific data varies and can be interpreted in different ways.
The relaxation of some Covid restrictions in relation to travel and exercise in England but not in Wales is probably the best example so far of a difference in political decisions taken on scientific data.
Sometimes these data sets vary, sometimes they do not. But decisions aren’t just taken on science. And that is the simple truth about policy-making by governments during lockdown: it is always a political decision, even though sometimes the science is cited as the reason. In the vast majority of cases it is not the science that has changed, but the political interpretation of that science.
Similarly, in a fast-moving crisis there is always the opportunity to change or revise policy, and though these alterations are necessary, they are often guided more by political expediency or political urgency than they are by any scientific policy change.
Put bluntly, sometimes governments just know when the weight of opinion is against them and need to change policy. Sometimes u-turns are entirely political.
Therefore Boris Johnson, having been pressed hard by Sir Keir Starmer on Wednesday, changed policy on Thursday to exempt those working in the health and care sectors from paying the health immigration surcharge. It was a political move on a political issue and done because the moral argument of the situation was too significant to resist. Simples.
Such political u-turns aren’t confined to the UK government. Beginning last Saturday, the Welsh Government made a series of strategic policy changes. It is almost as if they had sat down and gone through their long list of policies on Covid response and decided to reverse the ones which were simply no longer defensible.
All of these changes of policy were political decisions. Yes, some might be influenced by science, but in each case they are examples of where the existing policy had to be changed because it simply could not be defended any longer.
First, the testing regime for care homes was altered to expand the range of those tested. This was the second time the Welsh Government had caved in to political pressure on testing policy relating to care homes. They defended themselves by arguing that the science had changed, but the brutal truth is that they simply could not continue with a policy that was not credible.
On the same day the Wales-only key workers portal was abandoned and it was announced the UK-wide one was now to be used. This came weeks after the UK one had come online, and the Welsh one still had not.
The decision had nothing to do with science. It was simply a recognition of the limitations of the Welsh Government’s own IT capabilities (a constant theme throughout this crisis).
The fact that the Daily Mail ran a big splash on Welsh policy failings on the same day, especially pointing to the testing policy failings, was of course total coincidence. The Welsh Government said they had always planned to make two major policy changes that Saturday.
Then on Wednesday evening – not during plenary session, you’ll notice – the level of serious, repeat fines for the Welsh citizens breaking lockdown was increased from £120 to £1920 to bring Wales into line with England. Not only opposition parties in the Senedd but senior police chiefs had all been calling for such a change. They all knew, as did the common-sense public, that £120 is a total joke as a deterrent for breaking the rules.
So, putting on my Michel ap Nostradamus hat, I expect this won’t be the last policy change on fines by the Welsh Government. The basic fine level for the first offence is just £60, discounted to £30 if you go for the special ‘early bird’ offer and pay within two weeks. I predict the discount for criminals policy will come under more scrutiny and will have to be dropped. It is another policy which is simply not publicly defensible when put under the spotlight.
But for now, I think most of the Welsh Government have u-turned themselves to a halt. They have sought to reverse the bad policies and now want the conversation on policy divergence to focus on just one thing: the spread of Covid-19. They sincerely believe that the difference in policy and emphasis over issues around travel and leisure and exercise will show a huge difference in death rates for Wales compared to England.
I’m not going to get into the figures right now (and it’s a bit naïve of anyone to do so while this crisis is ongoing) but this is the battle line Welsh Labour has chosen. Whatever the figures are as the crisis moves onward, hopefully toward a close, they will be discussed everywhere during the next Senedd election campaign.
If those numbers are comparably favourable, Welsh Labour will be pointing to them. If they are not, everyone else will.
It isn’t rocket science.