Forget the science – it’s politics which has steered the Welsh Government’s u-turns

First Minister Mark Drakeford AM.
First Minister Mark Drakeford. Mark Hawkins / Alamy Stock Photo

Daran Hill

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.

 

Joke

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.

Election

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.

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Jonathan Gammond
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Jonathan Gammond

We shouldn’t be surprised that decisions are based on politics not science. Pretty well everyone who has a science degree has been saying there is no such thing as basing decisions on ‘the science’. Evidence is gathered, theories are tested to destruction or not as the tests prove, conclusions are refined, new theories and solutions are suggested….; it is a continual process and long may it continue, the scientific process that is.

Kerry Davies
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Kerry Davies

The government at Westminster blew the gaffe when they released documents saying that SAGE recommended a course of action “because that was what the public would accept.” That was the point at which you knew the charlatans of behavioural science and the Nudge Unit had taken over.

I will believe that behavioural science is better science than reading entrails when they produce the promised cake-fed unicorns and not a moment sooner.

Simon Gruffydd
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The thesis or this article is correct. The response to Covid-19 is political, not led by science, in many respects it contrary to science. As is now becoming evident, this latest coronavirus is on par with the flu for actual danger to humans, see: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/stanford-study-suggests-coronavirus-might-not-be-as-deadly-as-flu
The public have been scared out of their pants and the government is using this dire situation to clamp down on our basic freedoms and destroy our economy and society at the same time. This will not end well.

Jonathan Edwards
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I am not sure that people will hold Labour in Wales to account when this is over. 2 reasons: (1) holding to account (on the basis of evidence and logic) has become unacceptable in an age of “my truth”. Starmer is one to watch. He can cross-examine. But there aren’t many like him. (2) most people have been sheep over the lock-down in Wales and have chosen group-think over evidence and logic. Too early to tell yet, but I am waiting for the point when we can apply evidence and logic to what really happened in 2020. All those sheep… Read more »

Steve Duggan
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Steve Duggan

Yes I’m sure there is a certain amount of political play going on here, with one eye on next year’s election. However, the Tory UK government has made it easy – total incompetence, while putting profit before lives. Personally, whatever the motive I’m glad the Welsh Parliament is making some sort of stand on this issue as England is breaking lockdown too early and by too far. A second wave and far more deaths are the serious risk.

Jonathan Edwards
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SD – what is your evidence for saying England is coming out of lockdown too early? And – how do you personally assess the risks involved in saving lives, and saving the economy (your future) as well? Have you actually stared the risk in the face?

CapM
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CapM

“Have you stared the risk in the face?” The current risk to health and life is not going to be a one off. Other viruses are and will almost certainly become available. Also we don’t know what the future consequences of this one will be on those who’ve been exposed to it or the consequences of mutations arising from it. There is of course a calculation to be made weighing up reducing harm to a few mostly elderly and poorly at cost to many younger and healthier. However most of the many will sometime in the future also be old… Read more »

Plain citizen
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Plain citizen

Very good article. The summary especially. Proof of the pudding will be in the eating for Welsh Labour.

John Ellis
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John Ellis

In short, as Winston Churchill apparently once said, advisors should be on tap but not on top. Applies to scientific advisors just as much as to any other sort.

Governments make the final call, and rightly so given that the electorate – for good or ill! – has bestowed upon them a mandate to do that, and the advisors, however capable and high-minded, have no such delegated authority.

Wrexhamian
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Wrexhamian

Hang on a minute! “Welsh citizens breaking lockdown”? You know that there were large numbers from outside Wales as well, don’t you?

Chronos
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Chronos

I’ve been observing lockdown since its inception but am a key logistics worker. Just lately I have seen far more traffic, including those with dragons on their plates, who really shouldn’t be on the road right now. That includes those people who look to have died three weeks ago but are still driving about in their Nissans at 17MPH maximum and sitting at green traffic lights for no visible reason or those particularly egomaniacal SUV owners (BMW X3/5 and Nissan Kumquat predominantly, although the Audi Q series is in the ascendancy here) who think their duty is to slow everyone… Read more »