I wrote this last month for The Article
No Welsh Government since the creation of the then National Assembly for Wales in 1999 has had to cope with the scale of a challenge like Covid-19. Paradoxically, no other issue has established the realities of devolution more clearly in the public mind, either in Wales or the UK as a whole. The announcement today (Monday) of a 17-day firebreak lasting from 6.00pm Friday until 9 November hardly came as a shock. The Welsh Government has been consulting with its social partners over recent days and clear indications were given to the public that a ‘firebreak’ lockdown was imminent. Organisations as disparate as the CBI and the teaching unions have welcomed the degree of engagement over the nature of the lockdown.
What a contrast this shows with the stand-off between the Johnson government and local politicians elsewhere in England, particularly in the North-West.
Today’s announcement has some similarities with the full lockdown in March, in that
- We will have to stay at home except for very limited reasons, such as exercise
- We must work from home where they can
- We cannot meet other people from outside our household either indoors or outdoors
- Non-essential shops will shut. Eating places and pubs will close except for delivery or takeaways
- Hotels, hairdressers and beauticians will have to shut
However, primary school children and those in years 7 and 8 in secondary will return to school after the half-term break and nurseries will stay open. Adults who live alone and single parents will be able to join with one other household from anywhere in Wales for support. A new £300 million support fund for business is being opened. All small businesses getting the small business rate relief will receive a £1000 payment. One-off payments of up to £5000 will be paid to small businesses that have to close. Professional sport will continue. Services to mark Remembrance Sunday, which falls during the lockdown period, will be permitted. The First Minister said at no time than now was it more appropriate to remember the sacrifices made.
The First Minister, Mark Drakeford, made it clear today that the lockdown period would be used ‘purposefully’ to recruit more contact-tracers and to catch up on outstanding contacts who need to be traced. Over the weekend, the Welsh Government revealed that Welsh contact tracers had reached 85% of all cases and 89% of contacts of cases. Wales has a highly successful decentralised contact-tracing system run with cooperation between local authorities, local health boards and Public Health Wales. It’s a complete contrast to the centralized English system which has combined public health resources and outsourced – and hugely expensive – private sector operations.
The biggest problem the Welsh system has suffered is the delays in processing testing through the UK Government’s Lighthouse Labs.
The Welsh Government’s objective is – in the absence of a vaccine – to reduce the number of infections, hospitalisations and ultimately deaths from Covid-19.
The Welsh firebreak has led the UK news bulletins today, another sign that the difference devolution makes is being widely noted. With the announcement of further Covid-19 restrictions on 22 September, BBC Wales figures showed that more people in Wales (525,000) tuned in to the broadcast from the First Minister (525,000) than to the one given that day by the Prime Minister (482,000).
The most recent opinion polling shows clear public support for the stance taken by the Welsh Government. There has been a substantial decline in Boris Johnson’s popularity in Wales since April. The First Minister has a plus-35% rating for his Government’s handling of the pandemic: the Prime Minister has a minus-22% rating for the way his government has handled it. In April, Welsh opinion was supportive of the UK government’s handling than the Welsh Government’s: by June, that had reversed. And, as Professor Roger Awan-Scully of the Wales Governance Centre has written ‘There have been precious few positives to come out of the Covid-19 crisis, but for Welsh Labour it has at least provided a means for Mark Drakeford to become much better known with the Welsh public than he was during his first twelve months in the role of First Minister.’
Last week, the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, derided the Welsh Government’s decision to restrict movements into Wales from Covid hotspots elsewhere in the UK, with the jibe that ‘that’s what you get when you vote for socialists’. With a successful contact-tracing programme, consistent public support, and a carefully-reasoned approach clearly delivered, the Welsh Government will be heading into next year’s Senedd elections with some optimism. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s words may end up on a few posters.