Ifan Morgan Jones
Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford seems to be playing a game of lockdown hokey-cokey, telling the Guardian that he foresees that Wales could lift restrictions before England, and then informing us via BBC Radio 4 this morning that he’d rather the entire UK come out of the lockdown hand-in-hand.
Of course, perhaps the First Minister could claim that his approach is entirely consistent – he would rather the UK leaves the lockdown at the same time but is also prepared for Wales to go it alone.
Unfortunately, as in everything else in Welsh politics, there’s a danger that this becomes a battle about constitutional preferences not how best to deal with the pandemic, with some wanting Wales to do its own thing for the sake of it and the others begrudging any suggestion that Wales make a success of doing things differently.
Predictably, the Conservatives are taking the latter approach and putting pressure on the Welsh Government to abandon any thought of acting alone. Conservative AM Andrew RT Davies was this morning tweeting derisively that the First Minister had realised that doing things differently to the UK Government “could not work”.
However, the call to follow the UK Government’s approach in England in all things plainly doesn’t make sense. As the BBC’s Policy Editor Lewis Goodall pointed out, England is in a uniquely “bad place” among not just the UK’s nations but European ones as well.
PM says international comparisons are “bedevilled with difficulty”
Indeed it’s v difficult. But one measure is more clear cut overall excess deaths. Obviously there’s a long way to go, things can change. But England at the moment is in a v bad place. pic.twitter.com/MS3BowkjZO
— Lewis Goodall (@lewis_goodall) April 30, 2020
Not only would it be negligent to unquestionably mimic the approach of the country with the worst outcomes in Europe, but it’s plain that Wales just isn’t England. We are simply in a different place in the lifetime of the pandemic.
This isn’t a Welsh nationalist point either, as I’ll go further: A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to Wales won’t do the trick either. How can the same approach make sense in Ceredigion, which has seen only 36 cases, and Cardiff which has 1,668? Due to our west-east transport infrastructure, the virus has also spread at a different speed and from a different direction across the coast of the north of Wales.
Having said that, it’s clear that Wales and England have had a lot in common when dealing with the first stages of this pandemic. But that’s because both governments were in the same hole. Neither had a plan, a test and trace programme in place, and both were extremely low on PPE.
Hard questions need to be asked about why the lockdown wasn’t implemented sooner (another suggestion that following UK Government advice isn’t necessarily the best option). But in reality, much of this catastrophe was inevitable when the first case of coronavirus arrived on our shores.
Neither government was prepared, and it’s essentially all been a mad scramble to get the infrastructure and supplies in place to make the kind of response that is necessary – i.e. the South Korea, test and trace response – possible. Although that horse may well have already bolted.
However, once we’re past these early months of scrambling to catch up and the infrastructure is in place, getting out of the lockdown is going to need a much more local response than getting into it. Population density and numbers of infections are all going to have to play a part in decision making.
The UK Government seems to be coming around to this way of thinking. According to a report by James Forsyth in the Spectator:
“I understand that the hope in government is that their new method will allow them to take a highly localised approach. So, for example, if Bristol became a virus hotspot, testing could begin on a large scale and an army of contact-tracers could be deployed. Until the outbreak was contained, schools and non-essential retail in Bristol could be closed while the rest of the country continued as normal.”
Whether Wales and England come out of the lockdown together, therefore, seems to me rather a moot point. From ‘Môn to Mynwy’ we are going to need a different approach, let alone from Llandudno to London.
Any pressure to do things differently in the name of flag-waving, Unionist or otherwise, or calls of ‘better together’ need to be resisted. Ultimately, a pandemic is no respecter of borders. It’s managed the leap from bat to pangolin to human so its host’s constitutional preferences aren’t going to perturb it. Our response needs to keep that in mind.