Who would have thought it? The revolution against the Welsh government started this weekend at a Tesco Extra. A man filmed allegedly removing coverings on non-essential items, there in accordance with Mark Drakeford’s new firebreak lockdown, has now been charged by police. “Since when have clothes been non-essential?” he asked.
This individual protest seemed to capture some of the genuine frustration there is across many parts of Wales over the new rules forbidding the sale of non-essential items in supermarkets. A bottle of vodka? Fine. New bedding? Sorry, no chance. The Welsh government say they are not trying to be difficult, but thousands of the Welsh public seem to think so: a petition calling for Mark Drakeford to reverse his decision is rapidly gathering pace this weekend, with over 45,000 signatures so far.
For a government that has for most of the pandemic called the shots right in the public’s eyes, it’s a worrying juncture. As the editor of Nation has already articulated, the success of the new measures are totally dependent on compliance from the general public. Without widespread support, the strategy falls to pieces. For the first time since March, the First Minister seems to have miscalculated the public reaction to a crucial decision. And with potentially significant public health and political consequences.
But it’s not just growing numbers of the public that are unhappy. Small businesses are worried that they won’t make it through another lockdown, despite the £300 million fund the Welsh government has announced to support them. One commentator described the First Minister’s plans as “war” on Wales’ economy. A little bit dramatic, indeed, but many businesses feel like they have been hung out to dry. After months of restrictions, a firebreak could be the end of many of them.
For what it’s worth, in my view it appears that on balance the Welsh government have done the right thing. The evidence that coronavirus is resurging means that two weeks of sacrifice will be hard but necessary. Parts of south Wales, including Cardiff, have alarmingly high-rates of infections. Several major hospitals are reporting outbreaks of the virus, as well as universities. So, it’s only right we limit the amount of social interaction between groups of people, even though there are clear mistakes and loopholes in the specific policy detail.
There are continuing debates over the long-term effectiveness of lockdowns in the first place. Yet the most recent data shows that Carmarthenshire has seen a drop in infection rates after Llanelli was placed under severe restrictions. Losing liberty to buy items like books in a supermarket (does anyone do that?) will be the price Wales will have to pay if we are to get a grip of the pandemic. Political opponents are there to scrutinise and oppose, of course, although surely they know deep down that a U-turn from the government at this critical juncture would cause confusion and create more damage than the current restrictions.
So, it might be time for the First Minister to hold firm. During the pandemic, he has emerged as the untouchable leader in Cardiff Bay. The polls say Mark Drakeford is our most popular politician, and most likely will remain so if his current policy is effective. He now, however, faces opposition outside even the traditional Conservative circles that criticise his every move. While the First Minister’s last few policy decisions – the travel ban, his Welsh wall, and now the firebreak – have caught the attention of the British public-at-large, he now faces real scrutiny from his own people.
The once Mr. Popular, Boris Johnson, has learned to be extremely unpopular during the pandemic. The difference between him and Mark Drakeford is that the Prime Minister’s poll ratings can be explained by the perception that he is deeply unsuited for his job, and the fact that he has no serious grasp of the situation as it develops. His whack-a-mole strategy in England, for example, has divided the nation like never before. Mark Drakeford, meanwhile, has been viewed favourably for his own cautious strategy; after six months, it just seems that the Welsh people are getting fed up with the pandemic. We all are.
The Welsh have been asked to abide by some of the strictest regulations of most nations across the world. Our nation has it harder than most, and many are unhappy and think this is the wrong approach. Alas, as the Prime Minister would say, Mark Drakeford should not change his strategy due to growing pressure.
The First Minister said yesterday he would review the policy after this weekend. Fine. But if this is indeed the right way to curb the virus’ spread, it is the right thing to do. Being unpopular isn’t nice, but sometimes it’s what helps shape politicians into leaders during crises.