Ifan Morgan Jones
A time will come in the next few weeks when attempts are made by the UK Government to lift some aspects of the lockdown for the sake of the economy.
The Welsh Government must resist these efforts in Wales and stick to the lockdown at least until we are confident that we are past the worst of the pandemic here.
Figures inside the UK Government are now briefing that primary schools and non-essential shops could reopen as early as the beginning of next month.
According to the Daily Telegraph (whose columnists have been lobbying to lift the lockdown from its very beginning) ‘sources’ are warning that “the Government risks causing permanent damage to the economy if the lockdown goes on too long”.
It’s clear why some in the UK Government are very keen to reopen the economy as quickly as possible after the government’s Office of Budgetary Responsibility suggested GDP would crash 35% this quarter.
However while a case could be made that London has now begun to ‘flatten the curve’ of the pandemic it is clear that it is only getting started elsewhere, including many parts of Wales.
When the lockdown was first announced, for the first time perhaps it could be said that Wales was lucky that we’re often run with London in mind. Because the pandemic was at its worst in London, many parts in Wales was able to lockdown earlier – still too late but before the numbers began to grow exponentially.
However this dynamic would be reversed if the lockdown was raised too early in Wales because London has now passed its peak rate of deaths.
Yesterday saw 60 deaths in Wales, the largest number announced on a single day so far. While this may be in part influenced by a backlog of deaths to record over the long weekend there isn’t the evidence yet that Wales has reached its own peak in this pandemic.
Both health and education are a devolved matter in Wales, meaning that ministers have a great degree of power in deciding on whether to continue physical distancing measures on this side of Offa’s Dyke.
So far the Welsh Government has largely moved in lockstep with the UK Government on the lockdown, usually announcing measures just before or at the same time as 10 Dowing Street.
However the Welsh Government has demonstated some willingness to act independently from London. Last week they announced a lockdown extension before 10 Dowrning Street.
In defending the move after criticism from Whitehall, Mark Drakeford said: “We will do the right thing for Wales at the time that it is right for Wales and we won’t be doing that by looking over our shoulders at what others are doing.”
And if they did resist calls to lift the lockdown in Wales for the time being, the Welsh Government would be acting in line with public opinion.
According to a YouGov/ITV poll conducted last week, with ‘don’t knows’ removed 55% in Wales wanted to lockdown tightened and 39% kept as it is. Only 6% though it was a good idea to relax the lockdown.
A one size fits all approach to the pandemic will not work. The virus does not move in an ordely fashion around the country infecting everyone equally.
What we have seen so far are much worse outbreaks in some, usually dense and urban areas, while the spread of cases elsewhere have been significantly slower.
The UK is already on course for the highest number of deaths in Europe and that is no doubt a result of the delay before locking down as well as less stringent lockdown measures compared with Spain and Italy.
We must not make the same mistake coming down the other side of the ‘peak’ and often up too soon, sending the number of deaths higher once again – and doing even greater damage to the economy, if that is he primary consideration.
A one sized fits all, London-led approach does not suit the UK and it will not suit Wales either. London is not the rest of the UK, and this has never been so true as in a viral pandemic.
The people of Wales have voted twice for our own government to control our health system for a very good reason – so that when a situation does arise when our health would benefit from a different approach to London, we can act differently.
No starker example of that could be found than this pandemic, public opinion couldn’t be clearer, and so it’s time for the Welsh Government to demonstrate what it’s for.