The coronavirus epidemic is the moment for Welsh devolution to prove its worth
Ifan Morgan Jones
An article by the Political Editor of the Sunday Times this morning confirms what many had suspected, which is that the UK Government misjudged their early response to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Tim Shipman’s article, at the end of February political strategist Dominic Cummings’ approach was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.
Apparently this all changed on March 12 – the day before Wales v Scotland was called off – when the government realised that it would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths, and they quickly changed to an approach which shut down mass gatherings and pubs and cafes.
Although this is described in the article as a ‘Damascene conversion’ it’s still worth asking to what extent the UK Government is taking all measures at their disposal to tackle the crisis.
Their approach currently is a half-way house between mitigation and the kind of suppression strategy we have seen in France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere.
Essentially they are asking people to stay at home but not enforcing that by any legal means, leading to scenes as witnessed on Snowdon yesterday when hundreds of tourists descended on the mountain.
There has also been a failure in communicating their message to the public. £46m was spent on the Get Ready for Brexit campaign but we have seen no similar effort to get the message over about the lift-saving steps people can take to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
As a result, and looking at the projections for the future spread of coronavirus in the UK, it is probably too late to avoid becoming another Italy.
The question now may not be how we avoid hundreds of deaths a day in April but how we avoid thousands a day in May, when the infection is expected to reach its peak.
The revelation that the UK Government got its response to coronavirus wrong is an important reminder to the Welsh Government that Number 10 and Whitehall are not infallible.
The Welsh Government can act on their own if there is a clear and obvious need to do so, as they should have done on the issue of Wales v Scotland.
So far the Welsh Government has moved in lockstep with the UK Government on moves such as banning mass gatherings and closing pubs.
However, given that health is devolved to Wales, and that the Coronavirus Bill making its way through the House of Commons will give Welsh ministers sweeping new powers, there is no reason why they cannot move more quickly on some issues.
There are a number of areas where the Welsh Government have already done excellent work:
- Announcing that the £350m Grange University Hospital in Cwmbran will open next month, a year earlier than planned.
- Bringing final year medical students, nurses and midwives into paid roles in the NHS.
- Screening frontline NHS staff in Wales for coronavirus to help the health service cope with the outbreak.
- Cancelling planned surgery last week in order to free up capacity to deal with coronavirus.
One obvious other issue on which they could quickly deviate from the UK Government’s approach is to close caravan parks, campsites and Air BnBs to visitors from outside the area.
I don’t blame anyone that wants to sit out the pandemic in rural Wales. I would want to do the same, particularly with the kids’ psychological and physical health in mind.
However with GPs, AMs and MPs from across the west of Wales united in calling for reistrictions in order not to put too much pressure on already struggling health boards, the Welsh Government should act quickly.
This is not a nationalist issue or an England v Wales issue as some have tried to paint it – it would be the same if large numbers of people from Cardiff or Newport were decamping to rural areas in order to flee the coronavirus.
Norway have already banned people moving to second homes in rural areas and the issue has also raised its head in Cornwall, Spain, Italy and France.
In order to avoid a massive strain on already patchy rural health services, the Welsh Government should implement these changes ASAP.
Beyond this, once the Coronavirus Bill is passed the Welsh Government should act quickly to implement the kind of stringent lockdown seen in other countries.
The UK Government has already said that it wants to avoid such “draconian” measures but the Welsh Government can and should come to a different conclusion.
A short term lockdown now is essential in order to give the NHS the time to prepare itself for the spike in coronavirus cases over the next few months.
Luckily despite sadly already suffering 12 deaths, much of Wales overall seems to be around two weeks behind in epicentre of the UK outbreak in London.
It can use that time not just to implement stricter measures but also to ensure that they are still in place when London has already gotten over the worst.
They could also invest in the kind of public information campaign that is needed in order to get the message out to everyone in Wales regarding what kind of behaviour is needed to stop the spread of the virus, and why it helps.
The fact that devolution exists reflects the fact that Wales is politically and demographically different from other parts of the UK.
Few here would agree that the our first priority should be to “protect the economy and and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.
The Welsh Government doesn’t have to follow the UK Government’s lead – we can do things differently if we see fit. That is ultimately what devolution is for, and this is the moment when it can prove its worth.