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