Ifan Morgan Jones
The reaction to First Minister Mark Drakeford’s decision to ban residents from high-Covid areas of England from coming to Wales was all too predictable.
The Westminster-based commentariat have been flabbergasted at the very idea, with one newspaper columnist darkly tweeting that even if Wales wants such a ban “they can’t have it”.
Residents from high-Covid areas in Scotland and Northern Ireland will be banned from travelling to Wales too – but one gets the impression that this is far less controversial.
In fact, the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon welcomed the suggestion today as a common-sense move in response to Mark Drakeford’s letter.
And of course, nine-tenths of the Welsh population is currently under local lockdown too, unable to leave their counties, or in the case of Bangor and Llanelli their city and town.
So nothing is being imposed on anyone outside Wales that hasn’t first been imposed on the people of Wales themselves.
But it’s the idea of any kind of different rules for Wales and England that has sent Westminster’s politicians and pundits crazy, with some acting as if the First Minister is erecting his own physical Drakeford’s Dyke between the two countries.
This is nonsense of course as the ban is only on Tier 2 and 3 areas if England, only one of which straddles the Welsh border (and even then only for a few miles).
Secondly, given that no one could travel to Welsh counties already under lockdown anyway, the only parts of Wales on the border that was open for business were Powys and Monmouthshire.
So in terms of actual border restrictions, in practice, this changes almost nothing that wasn’t there before.
This has all escaped the London-based media of course, which have been instead jumped straight to an ‘English banned from Wales!’ narrative.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen such an illogical attitude towards national borders. Take Brexit for example. The UK has been willing to break international law to prevents a border in the Irish sea, but don’t seem at all bothered about one in Kent.
Internal borders it seems are fine. People from Caerphilly not being able to travel to Cardiff is fine. People from Glasgow unable to travel to Aberdeen is fine. People from Liverpool unable to travel to Chester is fine.
But if there is a hint of a Covid border where there actually is a national border, people seem to lose all sense of perspective.
It does reveal the opposition to Drkeford’s new restrictions for what it is, which is ultimately nothing to do with Covid-19. It is rather a deep-seated unease and worry about the future of the UK.
When opponents of different Covid-19 restrictions in Wales accuse Drakeford of nationalism they are in fact just projecting their own concerns onto his.
In doing so they are in danger of missing what is the actual political actual sub-plot to today’s Covid-19 announcement.
If there is a secondary motive beyond simply protecting people’s lives, it isn’t about Wales v England but rather Labour v the Conservatives.
Yesterday UK Labour opposition leader Keir Starmer called on the Prime Minister to diverge from his present course of action in England and heed the advice of SAGE scientific advisors and impose a stricter lockdown, with a ‘circuit breaker’ over half term.
Mark Drakeford is now doing just that: not just imposing stricter Covid-19 restrictions but also openly mulling a ‘circuit-breaker’ of his own.
With the first coronavirus wave the First Minister mostly stuck to the ‘four-nation’ model, apart from a few tweaks such as the five-mile rule.
However perhaps buoyed by opinion polls showing that the public trust the Welsh Government more than the UK Government, he seems ready with the second wave to plough his own furrow.
And in doing so the First Minister is turning Wales into a test case for Labour’s suggested alternative way of handling the pandemic.
Drakeford, of course, has the advantage of not having to raise tax, and so the economic impact of Wales’ lockdown isn’t as much of a concern as it would be for Rishi Sunak at the Treasury.
He knows that the relative successes of the different governments of the UK will ultimately be measured in lives saved or lost.
The secondary political dimension here, is less a nationalistic one between Wales and England and much more likely to be the juxtaposition of a Labour-run nation with a Conservative one.
The problem is that this juxtaposition will only come off if these new restrictions can actually be enforced in any meaningful way.
Post Dominic Cummings, people’s willingness to obey even the current restrictions seems to be rapidly waning. We have reached the point of ‘herd impunity’ as one Twitter user described it.
Unlike early in the pandemic when a total lockdown meant that very few would travel at all, it’s going to be essentially impossible for police to tell which cars should be on the road and which aren’t.
In practice, I imagine that a few people will be made an example of to deter others, but police will be able to do little to stop anyone determined to travel from say, Manchester to Magor, from doing so.
More so than stopping travel, shorter, time-limited and strictly enforced lockdowns would seem to be the way forward. Therefore, while less controversial, a two-week ‘circuit breaker’ total lockdown could end up doing far more good than today’s longer-term announcement.
Otherwise, governments should worry less at this point about imposing stricter Covid-19 rules and more about getting people to obey the ones that are there.
There are reasons to critique today’s announcement therefore, but they have little to do with the issue most of the London-based media have chosen to pick up on.