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Opinion

Will Vaughan Gething’s leadership hopes survive a grilling at the Covid inquiry?

17 Jun 2023 7 minute read
Then Health Minister Vaughan Gething conducting a press conference during the Covid pandemic

Martin Shipton

If Partygate hadn’t happened, would Boris Johnson’s reputation have survived intact?

It’s a pertinent question to ask in the week when public hearings began at the UK-wide Covid Inquiry.

Johnson was brought down by his flagrant breaches of lockdown rules and the lies he told in a ludicrously ill-judged attempt to cover his tracks. Like a mediaeval king surrounded by sycophantic courtiers, he believed himself to be unassailable. He was convinced that the same adoring public that he had seduced into voting for Brexit and had then given him an 80-seat Commons majority would forgive him his little Downing Street parties.

But with large numbers of people mourning lost loved ones, the issue was too serious for Johnson’s usual buffoonery to work and his extraordinary run of luck came to an end.

Yet even without his own personal transgressions, the likelihood is that catastrophic mistakes in the handling of the pandemic would have caught up with him in due course. He delayed the start of the inevitable public inquiry until there was no chance that its outcome would be published before the next general election.

But the inquiry is now underway and while history has already made its mind up about Johnson, other reputations are on the line.

The Welsh Government decided not to commission a Wales-specific Covid inquiry and we are having to make do with a UK-wide one. Anna-Louise Marsh-Rees, the lead spokeswoman for the organisation Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru, which has been granted core participant status, is in no doubt that the Welsh Government, and in particular First Minister Mark Drakeford and former Health (now Economy) Minister Vaughan Gething will have their reputations severely tarnished by what emerges from the inquiry.

Lack of preparedness

The questioning at this early stage of the inquiry will relate to the government’s lack of preparedness for the pandemic.

Ms Marsh-Rees said: “It’s not just lack of preparedness in preparing to respond to a pandemic. It was also a total lack of even thinking about how to prevent it happening in the first place.

“That was their focus – ‘we didn’t know enough to know what we didn’t know’. That’s the usual logic.

Even in response, they didn’t think about a whole system response.

“They treated Covid like flu – but they were unprepared for flu, they were unprepared for a generic virus. But they must have known people were going to die. They hadn’t prepared for dead bodies, to be very crude. They hadn’t prepared for lots of people dying in wards and care homes. They hadn’t got enough body bags, they hadn’t got enough morgue space. They hadn’t thought about funerals and worship and bereavement and mental health. They hadn’t even considered it.

“So even at the very best of what they did, they’d only thought at a very high level about what might hit hospitals. But they hadn’t in any way prepared for what was going to happen.

“Everyone thinks preparedness is just stockpiling some gloves, some pinnies and maybe some respirators at a push. But it isn’t. Not one of them had thought about lockdowns – even the possibility of a lockdown.

“They hadn’t thought about schools being closed and educational requirements. People not being able to work – furloughs. A lack of food and the supply chain impact. And that’s on top of ‘how do we get a vaccine out as quickly as possible’ and the non-pharmaceutical interventions, as we call them.”

Asked how she expected Mr Drakeford and Mr Gething to perform under cross-examination when they make their appearances in a few weeks time, Ms Marsh-Rees said: “They will come out of it badly. I can assure you they will come out of it badly.”

Opening statement

In its opening statement to the inquiry, the Welsh Government sets out how it will defend itself against the allegations of ill-preparedness. The argument is low-key and reads more like mitigation than robust defence. It says: “The pandemic touched the lives of everyone, but none more so than those who lost loved ones.

The bereaved, in particular, are seeking an answer to the question which lies at the heart of this module: were the governments of the UK, including the Welsh Government, adequately prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic?

“The question will not be a straightforward one to answer. There is no established benchmark in this country or elsewhere against which to judge an ‘adequate’ state of preparedness for responding to a public health emergency the scale of which has not been seen for more than a century since the outbreak of “Spanish Flu” in 1918-1919 and which required the mobilisation of the state’s resources and the imposition of limitations on individuals’ rights to an extent not seen in the UK since the Second World War. One of the more complex issues with which the Inquiry will have to grapple is how best and against what standard to judge governments’ responses critically yet fairly at this early stage of its investigation.

“An important (but certainly not the only) element of the answer will be the fact that Covid-19 presented the governments of the UK and across the world with uniquely demanding challenges. The nature of the virus was novel and in its initial stages, there was limited understanding of its science, its pattern of spread and its duration.

“In meeting those challenges, the Welsh Government was able to draw upon its experience of previous pandemics and outbreaks and its preparedness planning (including exercises such as, but not confined to, Cygnus in 2016). Planning, testing and review of those plans provided the foundation for Wales’ response to the pandemic and from which the more dynamic decisions and policies could be made as knowledge and understanding of the virus developed.

“ … In considering whether and, if so, what more could reasonably have been done by the governments of the UK to prepare the country for the pandemic, the inquiry’s investigations will undoubtedly be informed by the very considerable demands placed upon those governments and the civil contingency community by Brexit. It is clear that the work of central government’s Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Board was ‘paused’ due to the significant demands of preparing for the UK’s departure from the EU and, in particular, for the prospect of a ‘No Deal Brexit’.

“Although Brexit-related work undoubtedly provided some benefits in preparing the country for a significant emergency, the scale of those demands and their intensity in the years following the 2016 referendum should not be underestimated. They will form an important, sometimes dominant, feature of the context in which preparedness should be evaluated.”

Structures

What we can glean from this is that while the necessity of setting up structures to manage the risk of a pandemic had been accepted and acted upon, such bodies were not functioning properly and were, in any case, put on hold because of what were seen as the much more important contingency arrangements for Brexit.

There is clearly ample scope for searching questions to be put to Messrs Drakeford and Gething.

What could the political fallout be? Mark Drakeford has already signalled his intention to step down as First Minister well in advance of the next Senedd election in 2026. At this stage of his career his reputational focus will be on securing a legacy based on respect.

For Vaughan Gething the stakes are much higher. Currently seen as the frontrunner in the next Welsh Labour leadership election, he could easily lose support if the evidence that emerges suggests he made bad decisions that had severely negative consequences.


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
10 months ago

So Fat Shanks’ Brexit killed 100’000 plus totally ruined the economy and devalued the pound and in it’s wilful ignorance acre’s of the country were turned into lorry parks and inland custom posts all totally a waste of resources but these headless chickens still control the country…. Not so headless these fraudsters and thieves because we through higher prices will foot the bill. Sunak, Hunt and Handcock deserve to be in the same cell as Fat Shanks for the rest of their lives… As for Mr D and Mr G we know from their refusal and the presence of the… Read more »

Last edited 10 months ago by Mab Meirion
A.Redman
A.Redman
10 months ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

Your action to alleviate a World wide pandemic the likes that had not been experienced for very many years would have been what exactly? Just another keyboard warrior named “hindsight”!

hdavies15
hdavies15
10 months ago
Reply to  A.Redman

Don’t be a complete cnut A.R. There were major exercises carried out during Hunt’s tenure in Health which exposed a complete absence of interest in undertaking any kind of preparatory work. So the risk was known but not quantified, other than to say it was effin’ big, but NO investment was made in contingent facilities like wards, beds and related resources which could have been used to deal with other waiting lists pending a crisis arising. Instead we have ended up with 2 crises – Covid and the enlarged waiting lists for almost every illness imaginable.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
10 months ago

Without the dogged determination of Fat Shanks, Sunak, Martin Reynolds and Simon Case to act as if there was no pandemic and carry on regardless, would even more have lost their lives?… It does illustrate that if you were part of the gang you were somehow immune, or so it seems on the surface with only ‘I’d glad-hand the devil’ Fat Shanks taking the hit for the country… Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about…except for treason, criminal negligence, malfeasance in public office and so many other crimes he is going to get away with. Because they are… Read more »

max wallis
max wallis
10 months ago

Health Minister Vaughan Gething and his CMO Frank Atherton initially took the lead role, He decided mass testing was useless and ended it. He presided over discharging hospital patients into Care-homes, leaving them crying out for PPE (NHS Wales took all available). He repeatedly bluffed he was “following the science”, when Atherton was very slow to set-up the Welsh “Technical Advisory Group” (SAGE-like, but less effective). He and Athgerton in effect were following Westminster. Gething with Atherton in Sept 2021 over-ruled early concerns on vaccinating pregnant women, with assurances it’s “safe and effective” – assurances that are now disproved. What… Read more »

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
10 months ago

If anyone stupid enough to defend this Conservative government over COVID should take a look at the new video released showing over 24 revellers at no’10 drinking excessively crammed together with platters of food on a table in a pose for a photo. As we all know, there were no COVID parties and all rules were followed at all time, said pathological liar Boris Johnson.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
10 months ago

The last few Brexit-Heads are, like the last few butterflies of summer, soon to disappear back up to the thirteenth constellation of the zodiac…the sign of the Unicorn…

Seriously, you sad fools are condemned to wander the Earth, desperate to tell your sorry tale of shameful adoration, ignorance and betrayal. Of cabbage like prophets of sunny uplands and the Elysian fields of Gove’s addled imagination the last of the Furry Freak Brothers and Sisters of Britannia Unhinged to haunt the Palace of Westminster like Quasimodo from his rooftop addict’s monk cell…

wayne
wayne
10 months ago

The truth like cream will always come to the surface. Wanting to Lord it over Wales during the lock down, Drakeford and Gething refused to be scrutinised by the people of Wales. Their Gold Command actions during the lock down will be shown as Scrap Tinplate Management, along way from Gold.

George Thomas
George Thomas
10 months ago

Imo, the UK was unprepared and started too slowly; Wales largely communicated the serious nature to try and allow people’s behaviour to adapt but found it difficult with Boris next door and some moves didn’t seem to make sense – though sometimes the moves weren’t made by the Senedd and instead made by local councils; Scotland’s approach was best overall but difficult to see this clearly as each nation did least worst at different times so many mistakes were made over such a long period. I disagree with saying “I assure you they’ll come out badly,” but recognise this is… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
10 months ago
Reply to  George Thomas

Not according to Call me Dave the liar and cheat…

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