The following article titled 'Mark Drakeford's Covid response has turned Wales into a beacon of despair' appeared in the Telegraph here:
Labour cannot get away from its record delivering the worst health system in the UK, a care homes catastrophe and economic disaster
First Minister Mark Drakeford has described himself as a "21st-century socialist" and wants to be "a beacon of hope in a darkening world". Yet the Welsh Government has cast Wales under the UK’s toughest coronavirus restrictions when what is needed is bold, punchy and optimistic leadership.
Under Drakeford and his Health Secretary Vaughan Gething, Welsh Government has reached peak surreal. Drakeford contradicted his own government’s advice by cycling to his allotment. Officials have intervened to correct his confusing statements. And Gething was photographed eating a takeaway in Cardiff Bay before guidelines were quickly changed in what became known as “Chipgate”.
Their woeful mishandling of the pandemic raises serious questions over the performance of the administrative state in Wales. The Information Commissioner is investigating the data breach of 13,000 shielding letters being sent to the wrong addresses. This happened more than once. While the Welsh Government’s testing response has been lamentable with one missed target after another.
From 2016, the Welsh Government’s pandemic stockpile lacked protective gowns. The Senedd’s health committee heard how inconsistent guidance over the wearing of PPE has led to “misunderstood information being actioned” that placed staff in danger. And hospital transmissions are still occurring in almost every part of Wales.
The crisis in Welsh care homes is little short of a disaster. The Older People’s Commissioner for Wales and the Equality and Human Rights Commission Wales raises “significant concerns” about “inappropriate blanketing healthcare decisions” such as “do not attempt to resuscitate” notices and a failure to test residents and staff. The Royal College of Nursing Wales director expressed her “increasing frustration” to Drakeford over unclear testing processes.
Mandatory tests were not introduced until the end of April, two weeks after England and a month after SAGE recognised the risk of transmission into care home settings due to pressure to clear hospital beds and poor testing capacity. Drakeford says his government’s lockdown is about comparatively greater safety. Yet the most recent SPI-M estimate shows the reproduction number for Wales increasing and the ONS’s Infection Survey shows five of England’s nine regions have the same or a lower percentage testing positive for coronavirus notwithstanding ten English cities being larger than Cardiff.
The Welsh Government’s ‘slate curtain’ lockdown is slowly rolling up, although Drakeford told the Senedd on Thursday “relaxing the lockdown may already have reached its limits”. Yet clear red water between Cardiff Bay and Westminster has had serious economic consequences.
The Welsh Government’s slower lockdown exit gives less weight to workplace productivity that Prime Minister Johnson has pointed out is a “very important consideration”. Shops, pubs (outdoors) and holiday accommodation reopened a week later in Wales than across the border. Outdoor sports resumed over a month later than in England. Wales was last to end the five-mile travel limit.
Monday was the first day that swimming pools, indoor gyms, and leisure centres can reopen. It is also the first day that people can eat indoors in pubs, restaurants and cafes. Though it is not possible to attend indoor wedding receptions or visit Wales’ national museums. According to Economic Intelligence Wales, Drakeford’s great pause has left Wales with the highest rise in business dissolutions.
The refusal to consider mitigating measures to relax two-metres social distancing makes reopening unviable for businesses in those sectors suppressed by Welsh Government miserablism. The Welsh Government promotes flights from its nationalised Cardiff Airport to overseas visitor destinations while it flattens Wales’ visitor economy. As a result Wales’ inward tourism revenues are collapsing.
The North Wales Tourism chief says many thousand of jobs could be lost because “we are four weeks behind England”. It is a signal tragedy that nearly two million pints have been poured down Welsh drains. Covid support is poorly run. Shadow culture secretary and Cardiff MP Jo Stevens says the UK Government’s arts support package was “too little too late” while Drakeford’s government skims six million off the £59 million allocated to Wales by the Treasury.
Barely over half of the £500 million Economic Resilience Fund has been allocated. And little over a third of the Third Sector Response Fund’s £24m has been allotted. This is unsurprising given the Welsh Government draws heavily on political careerists who lack private sector experience. Economy minister Ken Skates even exhumed the lump of labour fallacy to suggest a shorter working week to save jobs. His deputy economy minister has previously said “we don’t really know what we’re doing on the economy”.
The appointment of Gordon Brown to Drakeford’s advisory group on the recovery will inspire few. The ‘radical socialist traditions’ that inspire Wales’ Prif Weinidog and the metro-centric outlook of modern Welsh Labour are one set of factors driving Wales’ slower lockdown exit. A party of ‘High status city dwellers’ will have remote working and even the five-mile travel ban easier to endure.
The lockdown left’s belief that the gentleman in Cathays Park really does know better was channeled by Gething when he declined to rule out quarantining English tourists arriving in Wales. And Wales’ lockdown rules have resulted in Dyfed Powys Police issuing more lockdown fines than any other constabulary in Britain.
Political differentiation is the other factor. Devolution’s de-alignment of power from accountability allows Welsh Labour to differentiate when they want and blame Westminster when they choose. Sturgeon and Drakeford typecast Boris Johnson as the Prime Minister of England. In reality he is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom while they are First Ministers of devolved administrations.
The Cardiff-centric Welsh media’s cheerleading has given Drakeford an easy ride. His Government’s weekly press conferences continue long after the UK Government stopped theirs. Some have noticed a bizarre campaign to jollify ‘Drake’ (a former sociology lecturer), turning his comments about his favourite cheeses and photographs of him eating chips into pervasive memes.
Soft-balling aside, the next nine months of Welsh Government will be about reconstruction, hard truths and tough decisions. Reviving Wales’ private sector requires leaders for whom reality has touched the side and whose instinctive favour of enterprise not statist politicians in Chateau Cathays.
Perversely the Welsh Labour Government’s higher profile through Covid also means they will own their record of running the worst health system in the UK that in the last four years has seen medical negligence claims worth over a quarter of a billion pounds.
Drakeford has announced his intention to step down as First Minister after May’s Senedd elections that he is determined will not be preceded by Wales’ ‘independent’ Covid inquiry.
Whatever form it eventually takes, Wales will soon have the chance to pass judgement on the economic consequences of Mark Drakeford.
Matt Smith is a Conservative who stood for Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. He was a policy analyst at Vote Leave. He has written about Welsh politics for The Telegraph, Conhome, BrexitCentral, CAPX, GlobalVisionUK, Institute of Welsh Affairs and Gwydir. Read more about Welsh politics at www.mattsmith.org.uk/news.