There was some uproar (and hilarity) regarding Health Minister Vaughan Gething’s swearing about a colleague at yesterday’s virtual Senedd. The reactions on the other ministers’ faces said it all.
Given the usual lack of coverage of the Senedd in the UK media, perhaps the answer is for a minister to drop the f-bomb in each session.
However what seems to have been lost in all the coverage is what Gething was swearing about, which is a question from fellow Labour AM Jenny Rathbone.
The question was about testing, and specifically about expanding testing beyond care workers and care homes and other places to find out how many people have Covid-19.
The World Health Organisation and seemingly every public health expert in the UK and across the globe, has stressed the importance of testing, contact tracing and isolating.
Yesterday Matt Hancock announced plans to increase daily testing capacity in England from 40,000 a day to 50,000 a day. However, the UK as a whole is falling far behind in the global testing league table.
Despite passing the peak of this first wave the work of converting stadia and conference centres into hospitals continues unabated. Why is that? Does it mean the UK government is still pursuing the ‘herd immunity’ strategy after all?
We know there is already pressure from Tory backbenchers to get the economy going once again, and there are anecdotal reports from around Wales of a steady increase in human activity.
Given that the lockdown has worked to ‘flatten the curve’ it would seem foolish to lift the lockdown too early only to exacerbate the problems we face leading to a second wave hitting later this summer.
Unfortunately, the Health Minister’s own contradictory answers have done little to clarify which strategy the Welsh Government is pursuing: is it the aggressive programme of testing and isolating those with the virus to stop its spread? Or do they accept that the virus will spread throughout society and the best we can hope for is, in reality, to slow its spread so that the NHS does not become overloaded?
On March 29th Vaughan Gething appeared on BBC Wales and said we’d be testing about 5,000 people a day “in about two to three weeks” but it’s now almost a month later and we’re still testing fewer than 1,000 people a day.
At first, the low testing rates seemed to be the result of a mistake: The Welsh Government had been excited to announce they had secured a deal with the Swiss Pharmaceutical company, Roche, to increase the testing capacity of Wales to 5,000 a day by mid-April. The bad news came a few days later when it transpired that Westminster had apparently gazumped us. All testing logistics was to go through London.
Indeed the company involved, Roche, a Swiss pharmaceutical company, said the deal never existed. Vaughan Gething insisted it did. Leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price, called it a “national scandal”.
Clearly something went wrong. But still despite the setback, Gething promised they were speaking to other companies and Wales would be testing 5,000 a day by mid-April, and 9,000 a day by the end of May.
Fair enough, I thought, if they were shafted on deadline day, at least they’re trying to find a new deal.
However, what we’ve seen since then is an increase in the capacity to test increase but the actual number of tests carried out remain low.
As of writing, Wales has carried out 28,904 tests. By the end of last week, Iceland, with a population of less than 400,000 people, had already carried out more than 40,000 tests. Ireland, a little bigger than Wales, had carried out more than 90,000 tests.
In Wales, we’ve had the capacity to test 1,300 people a day, yet most days we’re testing fewer than 1,000 people. Indeed, on Easter Monday the testing centre for key workers at Cardiff City Stadium was closed.
This week, there was another twist in the drama. Vaughan Gething announced: “that at this point in time we don’t need to be running 5,000 tests a day in Wales across the country” because the lockdown was having such a “significant impact” on flattening the curve.
But how do they know that there are fewer cases if they’re not testing for them? This essentially amounts to saying they’ve decided that they don’t need to count the number of cases because not counting them suggests there aren’t as many as they thought.
But in the same set of quotes, two paragraphs later he said that “we need to expand our testing programme because we need to do that if we’re going to come out of this lockdown”.
Well, which is it? Either we don’t need as many tests or we need to ramp them up significantly.
There are two options here and neither are good: Either the Health Minister is confused or is trying to confuse.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives in Wales are attempting to score political points by blaming the Labour Welsh Government for the lack of testing, while UK Labour are attacking the Conservative Westminster Government for the same thing.
This isn’t the time for political point-scoring. There are lives at stake. At least almost 20,000 have been officially reported to have died in the UK – with the Financial Times suggesting this number is actually double, when you factor in lag-time to report deaths, care home deaths and other deaths at home. Now is not the time to shy away from hard questions and political responsibility. These are testing times.
The public, who have on-the-whole behaved admirably so far in respecting the lockdown, deserve complete openness about what the strategy is here and where were are all going with this.
And this gets to the heart of why so many were taken aback by Vaughan Gething’s angry reaction during the Senedd plenary.
It wasn’t the swearing that bothered people. It was the fact that a perfectly legitimate question on a matter of such public interest was met with such a hostile response.
It was both revealing and disturbing. Is he the right person for the job?