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Opinion

Wales’ decision to close stadia but not pubs is a reminder that our restrictions are dependent on the UK Treasury’s say-so

21 Dec 2021 5 minutes Read
Mark Drakeford the First Minister of Wales. Picture by the Welsh Government

Ifan Morgan Jones

The Welsh Government’s announcement at midnight that they would be stopping fans from attending sports games over the New Year has been met with some understandable backlash.

The compelling argument against this move is that it simply doesn’t make sense to close the stalls on outdoor stadia while allowing people to continue to congregate indoors in pubs and restaurants. In fact, it could lead to more people congregating indoors to watch their teams playing on the television.

It should be noted of course that this complaint may simply be a matter of the order in which restrictions are being announced. Mark Drakeford said over the weekend that more restrictions for hospitality after Christmas were “inevitable”.

But it also reveals a broader problem with devolution which is that ultimately, political autonomy depends on financial autonomy.

The Welsh Government clearly believe that urgent action is needed to halt the spread of Omicron but the problem is that, at the moment at least, the UK Government do not agree.

Politically weakened by the Christmas party scandals and rebellions by his own backbenchers over Covid passes, Boris Johnson does not have the clout to get any more restrictions through Westminster.

That could of course change if the predicted death toll due to Omicron starts to rise sharply but until it does it does not leave the Welsh Government with much scope to impose new restrictions here.

Any money the Welsh Government gets to spend on measures to mitigate against Covid is its population share of what is spent by the UK Government in England.

The problem here is that if the UK Government doesn’t decide to impose restrictions in England – and dole out the money need to stop businesses going to the wall or unable to pay staff wages – then Wales can’t either.

The Welsh Government can reach down the back of the sofa to afford the £3m to partially bail out stadia and sports teams, but not the billions it would cost for a stricter lockdown.

Gamble

Recent work by the Welsh Governance Centre indicates that people overall prefer the Welsh Government’s handling of lockdown to the UK Government by 50% to 28%.

But in reality, the stricter restrictions in Wales have so far been dependent on money from the UK Treasury – particularly the paying of staff wages on furlough.

I would like to stress that this is a different issue to whether Wales could afford to take this kind of action if it was financially autonomous of the UK Government.

Whether an independent or more financially autonomous Welsh Government would have the economic muscle to respond more forcefully to Omicron is a separate question.

The present reality is that, under the political system that we have, our taxpayer money goes to the Treasury and they’re in charge of doling it out. If they don’t choose to dole it out to the Welsh Government, there’s little they can do.

The end result of this arrangement is, unfortunately, political silly buggers. Not only is it confusing for the public but it also allows the Welsh and UK governments to try and score political points off each other by withholding money or accusing the other of withholding money.

A good example of this came on Sunday when the Treasury announced that it was doubling the Welsh Government’s funding to fight Omicron, a move hailed even by some of Wales’ own cabinet ministers.

However, they later revealed in the small print of that same announcement on Monday that if England did not deem measures to fight Omicron necessary it would ask for the money back.

If you had no money and I gave you a tenner and asked you to buy a Christmas present for yourself then said that if I didn’t like said present (with no way of you knowing) I would ask for the money back, it wouldn’t be much of a gift. In fact, you probably wouldn’t buy anything at all in case you found yourself having to pay money back that you didn’t have.

Under the present arrangements, that’s the situation that the Welsh Government are in. They could bring in harsher restrictions in the hope that the UK Government does eventually announce restrictions of their own – and the money to pay for them – but it’s a big gamble.

The question now is whether, being in this situation, it would be better for the Welsh Government to just continue to emphasise that they can’t afford new restrictions without the UK Government releasing the funds and not attempt to impose uneven and counter-intuitive restrictions based on their affordability at all.

Otherwise, they could be left without any political capital – as well as a lack of financial capital – and this pandemic may have a very long time to run.


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Dai Rob
Dai Rob
6 months ago

WELL SAID!!!

Pete Roberts
Pete Roberts
6 months ago

Given the financial straight jacket, this move does make sense from a public health perspective. If I watch the match in a pub it will be in my community mixing with people I meet every day. If I go to the stadium I will meet people from across Wales. If I’m contagious in the pub and infect 10 people I create a cluster in the community, in the stadium that could be 10 seeding events for clusters anywhere in Wales. If I then stop for a pint on the way, outside the stadium, at half time and on the way… Read more »

John Brooks
John Brooks
6 months ago
Reply to  Pete Roberts

When I go to watch Berriew FC in Ardal Northeast (Tier 3).It is with people from my own community, around 60 of us, outdoors with the perimeter of a whole football pitch to space out. If I go to the pub on the way home I mix with the same people. This is the picture in most of the Welsh pyramid and certainly at Tiers 2&3,

Not everywhere is Cardiff and Swansea. Organised sport is not just the big professional teams and events.

Pete Roberts
Pete Roberts
6 months ago
Reply to  John Brooks

Looks like they have listened to your concerns in today’s announcement

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
6 months ago

In the absence of sensible advice from above. it is a case of everybody look out for each other in Wales, stay in if you have a choice and stay safe.

Jack
Jack
6 months ago

I agree that Wales needs full fiscal autonomy, but this doesn’t give the Welsh government a free pass on decisions over which it does have power.

The inability to close indoor hospitality (even if it isn’t their fault) makes a decision on closing outdoor sporting events very questionable.

Kerry Davies
Kerry Davies
6 months ago
Reply to  Jack

So you are saying that they shouldn’t do what is in their power because some other stuff is not in their power? That’s an argument for letting the virus run amok while doing nothing at all.

Jack
Jack
6 months ago
Reply to  Kerry Davies

I’m saying it should make the right decisions with the power it has.

Closing outdoor venues could just drive people inside, which would be much worse.

j humphrys
j humphrys
6 months ago

Have you psychoanalyzed FM Drakeford?

Llywelyn ein Llyw Nesaf
Llywelyn ein Llyw Nesaf
6 months ago

I have no problem with closing/restricting pubs & restaurants if it will help, BUT the decisions have to be made and publicised well in advance. Restaurants need to know NOW if they will be closed at New Year, because they are already needing to put in some of their orders for delivery next week. Ditto pubs. You can’t just say “close tomorrow” and expect businesses to throw out thousands of pounds worth of food. Or, for that matter, drop heavy hints that they may be closed so that they cut their orders, and are then left without raw materials if… Read more »

Dai Rob
Dai Rob
6 months ago

Gwlad are such an anti Wales party! You should choose your bedfellows more carefully…flirting with Abolish, Reform etc…..
Whilst I agree that there sghould be a Welsh right of cenbtre party to choose from, if they so wish…Gwlad are not that party currently, they need to grow up alot!

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
6 months ago

Look, the Welsh Government is trying its best with one arm tied behind its back – as usual. The UK Gov doesn’t give a toss, all it cares about is keeping power.

Kerry Davies
Kerry Davies
6 months ago

The Westminster government inquiry by MPs found there were 37 additional Covid deaths due to the Liverpool/Atletico match and a further 41 deaths from the Cheltenham Festival.
Who here is prepared to answer for the creation of yet more superspreader events that take lives? As someone who worked in entertainment I would find it impossible to create the legally required risk assessments during this pandemic.

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