Opinion

The Welsh Government need to clear up questions around holding back vaccines as soon as possible

18 Jan 2021 5 minutes Read
Mark Drakeford. Picture by CPMR – Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Ifan Morgan Jones

Who knows if we’ll have a Senedd election in May – they look increasingly likely to be pushed back to Autumn, as will Scotland’s national election and the English local elections.

But whenever they are held it’s certain that the Welsh Government’s handling of Covid-19 will be the defining feature that makes the difference between success and failure for Welsh Labour.

Specifically, vaccination targets. If the Welsh Government can do a good job of the vaccine rollout, it will be considered a job well done and some earlier missteps forgotten about.

Start to miss their targets or fall chronically behind the other nations and it will be a slow drip-drop of weekly negative news articles all the way to polling day.

Inconsistency

I think that the coverage of the Welsh Government’s handling of Covid-19 been a little unfair, in that they only seem to attract UK media comment when they do badly compared to England.

For instance, much was made last month that the 7-day new case rate in Wales was the highest in the UK, with Wales compared negatively in the press with how England was doing.

Today the case rate in England and NI outstrips Wales and Scotland by a significant margin, yet we don’t see these headlines reversed.

So, there’s an inconsistency here where England is always the standard other nations must reach but is never compared with anyone else, with Wales ignored when it’s doing comparatively well.

This might, in turn, distort public understanding and give the impression that Wales is being very badly served rather than the reality which is that daily snapshots of figures don’t actually tell you that much out of context.

But however unfair you might think this is on the Welsh Government, the fact is that they need to do well with the vaccine rollout or their failures will be noted – by UK as well as Welsh media – and they will pay an electoral price.

This is a huge reversal of the last 20 years when they could largely operate under the media radar and not be noticed, whatever they did.

 

Argument

In that context, Mark Drakeford’s interview on Radio 4’s Today Programme was a bit of a car crash and could be a turning point in perceptions of their handling of the crisis if they don’t mop up fast.

In the interview, he attempted to justify the decision to hang on to the Pfizer vaccine which is in limited supply and use it across the next two weeks rather than all at once

“There would be no point and certainly it would be logistically damaging to use up all our vaccines in the first week and have our vaccinators standing around with nothing to do,” he said.

Now, there may be a good reason not to use the vaccine all at once but this certainly isn’t it.

It is an unsatisfactory answer. The vaccine isn’t a tinned food that you need to make last in case you starve.

And if staff standing around with nothing to do is a side effect of an awful lot more people walking around with some protection from Covid-19, I think most people would consider that a good trade-off.

A better argument might be that they’re holding the Pfizer vaccine back so that everyone can have a second dose. But it’s not an argument I’ve heard anyone from the Welsh Government make.

Litmus test

The bizarre element of this story is that the Welsh Government have turned something that isn’t their fault – slow delivery of the vaccine, which is handled by the UK Government – into something that is.

And as a result, they will be roundly – and perhaps rightly – criticised for this by the Conservative Party, the party in charge of delivering a share of vaccines to them in the first place.

There is no need here to go into the terrible human cost of Covid-19, and the urgent need to get as many vaccines in as many arms as soon as possible. That is the much bigger, overriding concern.

But it’s worth also noting that Covid-19 pandemic has been a defining turning point for devolution. One at which much of the population that wasn’t aware of the Welsh Government and Welsh Parliament have woken up to their existence like never before.

This goes beyond the survival of political institutions and to the kind of country that Welsh Labour tell us they want to create, and their ability to create it.

And success and failure in handling the Covid-19 pandemic is quickly becoming seen as a litmus test for that vision, with ramifications for people’s lives beyond this year or next.

These may be the most important months, politically, in 21st Century Welsh history.

In that context, the First Minister can’t afford car crash interviews on the Today programme.

If they haven’t woken up to the damage it could do already, they urgently need to deal with public – and media – confusion around this issue before it corrodes public perceptions of their entire Covid-19 response.

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