The Welsh Government’s ‘stay at home’ plea will be drowned out by Johnson’s media megaphone
Ifan Morgan Jones
I warned on Wednesday that the Welsh Government were in danger of being steamrolled by Boris Johnson’s lockdown easing plan, and today the great ‘roll out’ if not ‘roll over’ began.
In his 7pm televised address Boris Johnson went out of his way to stress that he was keen on an all-UK approach and did not bother to mention when the measures he was discussing applied only to England.
In practice, the actual differences in the rules were small, although potentially very problematic:
- The UK Government is telling people they can travel to exercise, while the Welsh Government insists that people must stay local.
- Boris Johnson made specific mention of schools returning on 1 June – Wales has already ruled this out.
- The Prime Minister also explicitly said that anyone not able to work from home should go back to work. The Welsh Government’s advice remains to stay home if possible.
But this lockdown was always something more psychological than tangible and the big difference between Boris Johnson’s statement and Mark Drakeford’s on Friday was in the emphasis.
The UK Government has abandoned its clear ‘Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’ message for the extremely ambiguous ‘Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives.’
This government has many flaws but the one thing it has been good at is unambiguous messages. One such message ‘Get Brexit Done’ won it a General Election only in December.
The change from red to green – quite literally giving the public a green light – was another not-so-subliminal clue as to what message the UK Government is trying to get across.
This wasn’t an accident. The UK Government knows exactly what it is doing. They are now giving people the psychological cues to ease off the lockdown.
There is no real plan to stop coronavirus spreading so they are not waiting until the virus is contained to lift restrictions.
The idea of “containing local outbreaks” as the Prime Minister said is a joke when the virus is literally everywhere. What has changed is that the NHS now has more capacity.
The strategy is, ultimately, not to overwhelm the NHS and to keep deaths at a manageable, normalised level. Who can even say off the tops of their heads how many hundreds died today?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Greece and New Zealand among many others have offered an alternative path. Instead, we are the USA. This is a political choice.
This all leaves the Welsh Government in a tough position, because it would no doubt if in complete control of the situation make a different political choice.
They know that it isn’t yet safe to end the lockdown. Wales is still conducting no more than 1,000 tests a day, not nearly enough for a comprehensive test and trace program.
There are big questions about whether the virus has even peaked in parts of Wales with both Anglesey and Gwynedd seeing jumps in infections over the last few days.
So the Welsh Government are doing what they can and defiantly sticking to the ‘Stay home. Save lives. Protect the NHS.’ message.
In reality, however, the Welsh Government now finds itself in the position of Seithenyn from the Welsh myth Cantre Gwaelod – trying to hold back a wave of British media coverage that doesn’t apply to Wales, and all after doing nothing for over 20 years to close the gate.
The lockdown is essentially unenforceable if people decide to ignore it – there is only so much the police can do. So if the Welsh Government are unable to effectively communicate to people that the law is different in Wales there is little they can do to stop people flouting it.
This is especially true if people in England are being told they can travel for exercise. Who is going to stop the crowds from flocking to Pen y Fan and Snowdon as they did before stricter measures were introduced in March?
The Welsh Government have to shoulder some of the blame here. They are in this powerless position because the Welsh media has been allowed to wither for 20 years with no apparent interest in saving it.
Labour have themselves actively sown misinformation about what is devolved, such as health, and what isn’t, when it has been politically expedient for them to do so. Only in February of this year Labour MPs and AMs were campaigning against the closure of a Welsh NHS run A&E department.
In the absence of a direct line to the people of Wales, as the First Minister of Scotland has cultivated, the First Minister is left using whatever media access he has in the UK media and tweeting to try and get his message across. But given that as many as 40% of Wales’ population do not know who he is it is questionable whether this will be an effective tactic.
Some punched the air when the Welsh Government was seen to be tweeting at UK media publications correcting their articles, but in truth there is something quite sad in the fact that it has come to this.
The Welsh Education Minister will announce when Welsh schools will reopen, not the UK Government.
— Welsh Government (@WelshGovernment) May 2, 2020
20 years of not getting to grips with the fact that if Wales has a polity it also needs a functioning public sphere has led us to this point.
Boris Johnson knows that he can ignore Wales’ Government on this because ultimately he has the megaphone while Mark Drakeford is left shouting over the noise of the crowd.
After this is over, the question of how to bolster Wales’ media is one that all the parties in the Senedd should be discussing. It is not a nice-to-have, it is a matter of the nation’s health.
We can’t wait for the UK Prime Minister – or the UK media – to recognise and respect our existence. Tweeting feebly at them is a waste of time. The only answer is to build our own solutions to this problem, our own media, here in Wales.