Why a ‘for Wales see England’ public inquiry into Covid-19 isn’t good enough
John Williams, Emeritus Professor of Law, Aberystwyth University
On the 15th December 2021, the Senedd debated the need for a Wales-only public inquiry into Covid-19.
Welsh Government opposed the motion arguing that a United Kingdom-wide inquiry was the best option as the response in Wales was inextricably linked to UK policy and advice.
The motion was defeated on the required casting vote of Y Llywydd. It was supported by Conservative and Plaid Cymru members. No Labour member spoke in the debate other than Eluned Morgan, the Minister for Health and Social Services.
Welsh government committed to a public inquiry early in the pandemic. This was interpreted by some as being a Wales-only inquiry. However, this was not the government’s intention. Wales would be part of the wider UK inquiry.
Representations have been made to Welsh Government. The Older People’s Commissioner emphasised that a Welsh inquiry will ensure an understanding of the devolution settlement, as well as the cultural and political distinctiveness of Wales.
The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru argue that decisions taken in Wales affecting people in Wales should be scrutinised in Wales. Several third sector organisations argued the case for a Wales-only inquiry.
The government has remained resolute.
A United Kingdom inquiry
In May 2021 Prime Minister Johnson pledged to hold an independent inquiry ‘at the appropriate time’. He appointed the chair of the inquiry, retired Court of Appeal judge Baroness Heather Hallett, on the same day as the Senedd debate. The appointment was welcomed by the First Minister who had been consulted. Johnson reassured Drakeford that the investigation will be ‘visible and properly accessible to the people of Wales’, whatever that means.
Johnson has given a ‘series of commitments’ including the involvement of the devolved nations ‘on the principle that its remit is UK wide so far as possible’- something less than copper-bottomed.
Nicola Sturgeon announced in August 2021 a Scotland-only inquiry to be chaired by Lady Poole, a senator of the Court of Justice of Scotland. Scotland recognises a role for a UK-wide inquiry and the Deputy First Minister stressed that Lady Poole would coordinate with Baroness Hallett’s inquiry.
In Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission argues that areas falling within Stormont’s remit should be subject to an ‘independent process that is human rights compliant.’ The Commissioner for Older People Northern Ireland has also argued for a separate inquiry.
Devolution and Covid-19
Covid-19 was an unprecedented challenge to Welsh Government and public authorities. Although policing, international borders and benefits are non-devolved, many areas of public service are devolved. Health and social care are central. However, public health, education, transport, leisure, and economic development also featured prominently in the response.
Welsh Government adopted an approach that did not slavishly follow the Westminster model, although relied on much of the same scientific advice. A Wales focussed approach enabled public services to respond to the needs of Wales, and its geography, culture, language and politics. It was the correct thing to do.
That the devolved nations had such powers was acknowledged in the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Westminster legislation) which recognised Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland could make their own decisions within their devolution settlements.
The pandemic required decisions to be made quickly and be adaptable to meet the mutations and spread of the virus. Understandably, mistakes were made despite the best efforts of those in charge. Wales must learn from those mistakes.
In the Senedd, members identified areas of concern. The use of facemasks, discharge into care homes, test and trace, hospital-acquired infections, unused field hospitals, and the five-mile rule are some of the issues that require scrutiny.
In addition, the impact on business, delayed cancer and other diagnoses and treatment, and public health planning are critical areas.
A Wales-only inquiry
It is difficult to understand the rationale of the decision to reject a Welsh inquiry. Eluned Morgan in the Senedd spoke of the importance of looking at all aspects together across the UK.
But this holistic analysis may be better achieved by collectively learning from four independent nation-based reports rather than the unwieldy remit of looking across borders. A UK wide inquiry is made more difficult by the different political complexions of the four governments.
Welsh Government’s response provides succour to the idea that Wales cannot go it alone, even in devolved matters. Decisions made in Wales and for Wales should be reviewed within Wales.
As with Scotland, any Welsh inquiry would work with the UK-wide one on non-devolved matters. Delyth Jewell MS said the Senedd debate should not be an ‘ugly exercise in point scoring’; it is probably true to say it was not. Nor should any Welsh inquiry be an inquisition. It would identify the good, the not so good, and the bad so Wales is better prepared next time.
Many people in Wales died, often without seeing family. Others suffered from the ravages of Covid-19, directly and indirectly. Staff in NHS Cymru, social services and many other public services endured dangerous and demanding working conditions. Lives have been disrupted.
Justice dictates that people’s legitimate concerns, grievances, and their need for evidence-based justifications are reviewed within the nation where decisions were made and not in a chapter(s) of an Anglocentric inquiry.
‘For Wales see England’ is not good enough.