Wales and the pandemic: a view from the frontline

The politics of dealing with the pandemic has played out in a distinctive way in Wales.  Health in the United Kingdom state is devolved along with a number of other services.  The UK Tory government of Boris Johnson, based at Westminster, has responsibility for health in England only; a Labour-led government sits in Wales accountable to an elected Senedd (previously the Welsh Assembly) based in Cardiff.  Other devolved structures exist in Scotland and the six counties of Ireland that are still part of the British state.

Geoff Ryan reports from Wales about the unfolding situation and the recent ‘firebreak’ lockdown.

The Welsh Labour government had a terrible start to dealing with the Covid pandemic. It allowed two Stereophonics concerts to go ahead in mid-March in an indoor venue in Cardiff which were probably more dangerous than the UK government’s much criticised permission for the Cheltenham races, the rugby international at Twickenham and the Liverpool v Atletico Madrid game at Anfield – all of which were held at outdoor venues.

Shortly after the introduction of the coordinated UK-wide lockdown in March things got even worse for Labour when Health Secretary Vaughan Gething forgot to turn off his microphone and was overheard swearing at and abusing one of his Labour colleagues. Nevertheless, despite this the Labour government recovered and was able to get widespread support for its increasingly stronger anti-Covid measures.

Awareness of the differences between the countries was accelerated by reports that care homes in North Wales were having their protective equipment (PPE) diverted to hospitals in England by the UK government initiated procurement scheme. This was given considerable publicity over several nights on Wales Today, the BBC main news programme in Wales.

Welsh Labour government begins to diverge

While initially it nominally followed the overall framework of the UK government, the Welsh government began to diverge, generally implementing stricter measures. For example, people were not allowed to travel more than 5 miles from their home, except for work; and people were encouraged to work from home to a much greater extent than in England. There was some flexibility in this rule, since in country areas people usually live more than five miles from the nearest supermarket but police patrols did stop vehicles and people were fined for what was deemed ‘non-essential’ travel.

In many areas, as in the rest of the UK, community support groups developed to ensure vulnerable people had food, medicines etc. This was particularly important in the early days of the lockdown as many pharmacies had massive queues outside them, food deliveries from supermarkets were virtually impossible to get in under two weeks and ‘click and collect’ schemes often required travelling well outside the 5 mile limit.

Tourist spots overwhelmed

During the late May bank holiday, large numbers of people descended on Snowdon in North Wales and other tourist spots, creating huge traffic tailbacks and parking problems that would have made it impossible for emergency vehicles to get through. This created a lot of publicity in Wales and led to the Welsh government issuing stern warnings about mass gatherings. There was general public support for stronger measures.

The large scale gatherings at tourist spots were not some protest against the Welsh Government’s rules, (unlike the Trafalgar Square demos) rather they partly showed a desire for fun and leisure after several weeks of UK-wide lockdown and partly because of stupidity: not thinking about the consequences of concentrations of large numbers of people in relatively close proximity.

It was at this time that the issue of people coming from England to Welsh tourist spots was first raised. Although many of those involved in the bank holiday gatherings lived in Wales, there were also considerable numbers from England who were often totally unaware that Wales by this time had different rules to England.

Throughout the pandemic the Welsh government has generally taken stricter measures than the UK government for England, has continued them for longer and relaxed rules more slowly. The Welsh government also kept the track and trace system within the public sector rather than use the privatised call centres used in England, though the testing system still relies on the private sector-led ‘Lighthouse lab network’ for processing results.

The recent 17 day ‘firebreak’ that ended on 9 November has largely been supported by the majority of people in Wales, but there has been significant hostility as well. The Welsh Tories, in particular, were very hostile, though they now have to eat their words following Johnson’s introduction of a nearly twice as long a lockdown in England from 2 November. Wales Online has frequent right wing trolls attacking ‘Dripford’, Welsh Labour etc but there are also plenty of supporters of the Welsh government’s measures.

Supermarket goods controversy

One of the main complaints has been about the Welsh government’s ruling that supermarkets can only sell ‘essential’ goods during the firebreak. The supermarkets were not happy about this, claiming (with a certain amount of justification) they were not given sufficient notice to adjust store layouts so they could close off certain sections.  However the supermarkets have, as far as I am aware, cooperated with the policy.

There has been some fairly well publicised opposition to the policy, including one man attempting to shop in Tesco wearing only his underpants and another ripping down the tape a supermarket had used to close off certain goods. The Tories were fairly vocal in opposing the Welsh government’s decisions, both about the firebreak and the restriction on what supermarkets are allowed not sell. This seems to be quite different to the situation in England where it is the small shopkeepers that are most vociferous against lockdown.

The Welsh government argument was that small shops selling electrical goods, clothes etc have to close; therefore, it is unacceptable that supermarkets can continue to sell those goods. In general, I support this argument. Like many people, I prefer to support small, local shops rather than supermarket giants, which where I live largely means Tesco. The Welsh government have allowed supermarkets a certain amount of discretion if, for example, a child has ruined the only clothes they own. Contrary to the press reports the Welsh government had directed that tampons could be sold, after someone complained she had been told she couldn’t buy sanitary products and a supermarket wrongly alleged that those were the rules.  This attracted a lot of negative criticism but in fact the Welsh government were clearly in the right all along.

Cross border traffic

The other issue that has been controversial is the decision of the Labour government to ban people from Covid hotspots in England crossing the border to visit Wales. First Minister Mark Drakeford was accused by the Tories of being a Welsh nationalist and “anti-English” but this hasn’t won the Tories much support. Plaid Cymru, which had been critical of much of the Welsh government’s policies, at times allying with the Tories, has now supported the moves to refuse entry to Wales to people from Covid hotspots and has supported the current firebreak lockdown.

The Labour First Minister, Mark Drakeford, despite being on the left of the Party is undoubtedly a unionist, even if less viscerally so than some of the Labour politicians in my part of Wales for whom Plaid Cymru are Public Enemy Number 1 … 2,3,4 and 5!  Closing the borders, to the extent that is possible, was not an anti-English measure.  It was an attempt to prevent an increase in Covid cases in Wales caused by people with Covid coming from parts of England with very high prevalences of the virus. The nationality of the person was irrelevant; what was relevant was there was a real risk that the virus would spread.  

At the same time there were a number of local restrictions in about a dozen places in Wales, including Cardiff, Swansea and Newport where people were not meant to leave their local area.  After the end of the firebreak on 9 November travel restrictions within Wales will end. People will be able to travel and holiday anywhere within Wales but will only be able to leave the country, particularly to travel to England, for essential reasons. People from England should in theory not be able to visit Wales without good reason, since England is now in lockdown from 5 November to 2 December.

It has just been announced this afternoon by Kirsty Williams, the Liberal Democrat education minister in the Welsh government (in fact the only Lib Dem in the Senedd) that there will be no GCSE, AS and A level exams in Wales next year because of the varying amounts of school time students have missed as a result of the pandemic. Not only were schools shut for almost the entire summer term but since the start of the new term in September thousands of students have had to self isolate as over 2,000 new cases of coronavirus have hit schools in Wales. Exams will be replaced by teacher assessments.

This will avoid the outcry that followed the downgrading of results for large numbers of pupils this summer by Qualifications Wales, results which had to be replaced by teacher assessment in an embarrassing U turn for the government. Today’s announcement means Wales will pursue a different path to England, where GCSE, AS and A level exams will take place and Scotland where Highers are set to be held.

More popluar

Despite its dreadful start the Labour government in Wales has managed to make itself much more popular than the UK government in its handling of the pandemic, though probably not as popular as Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland. The Welsh Tories have now been forced into an about turn by Johnson which rather reduced their room for criticism. 

The comments by the Tory leader of the House of Commons that Wales had elected a “hard left Labour” government and that movement restrictions were what you got if you elected “socialists” will no doubt come back to haunt them after the Tories made an abrupt U-turn to introduce a much longer lockdown and travel restrictions in England (from 5 November).  Plaid Cymru at the moment appears to be going along with Labour after a period of allying with the Tories. How this will play out in the elections to the Senedd in May of next year remains to be seen.  A recent poll – the Welsh Political Barometer – shows increasing support for Labour and it retaining its leading role after a bad performance in the December 2019 general election when Labour lost 6 Westminster seats to the Tories.  The Senedd elections next May will be the first in Wales where 16 and 17 year olds will have the vote.

Support for Welsh independence from the British state has always been a smaller force than that in Scotland, though Socialist Resistance supports such a policy.  An opinion poll in September showed growing levels of support for independence during the pandemic, now up to 32%, its highest level of support ever, and 43% among young people.   Yes Cymru has grown from 2,000 members at the beginning of the year to a current membership of about 14,000 – including 2,000 who joined in the last week alone. It has attracted support not only from Welsh speaking areas of Wales but also English speakers both in Wales and further afield. Yes Cymru supports an independent Wales involving all those who live in Wales, irrespective of their country of origin. It is the opposite of the narrow, xenophobic nationalism found to a significant degree in England.

Particularly encouraging is the polling findings that a majority of Labour voters now support independence, and there is an active “Labour for an Independent Wales” movement.  Undoubtedly this is being fuelled by the practical differences in the response to the pandemic between Wales and the Tory government in England, and the growing independence movement in Scotland.  Also encouraging is the development of a new Welsh movement for independence on a marxist basis, through a community-based new political group in the South Wales valleys called “Valleys Underground” which recently held a successful online discussion meeting on “Socialism and Welsh Nationalism”.   

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