By initially following a strategy opposed to the guidance of the World Health Organisation and evidence of what has worked in other countries, the UK government has lost weeks in the fight against COVID-19 — a mistake that is likely to cost lives without urgent and radical steps to tackle the spread of the virus and reduce pressure on the NHS.
Recent measures introduced under mounting public pressure do not go far enough in terms of facilitating the level of social distancing needed or testing and tracing cases of infection. We are only now seeing the beginnings of any serious efforts to provide adequate resources for our NHS and its workers and to protect people from the economic fallout of the crisis. Much more needs to be done.
So far, the Welsh Government has been disappointingly content to go along with the UK Government’s approach, refusing to put further measures in place and declining to question or criticise the UK Government’s reckless and callous ineptitude.
Although limited, the devolved powers that the Welsh Government has at its disposal offer scope for taking significant action to protect people in Wales from the worst of this crisis — a crisis which will badly affect a country with an ageing population and higher than average rates of respiratory illness, and an already desperately overstretched NHS which has very few ICU beds. On top of being medically vulnerable, Wales’ entrenched poverty means that it stands to be disproportionately impacted by the economic impact of the crisis: more than a fifth of the workforce is in insecure employment.
The Welsh Government needs to take this opportunity to fulfil its moral and political duty to the people of Wales. It cannot continue to blindly follow the leadership of Westminster. It must instead take urgent steps to help the population based on the recommendations of the World Health Organisation, as well as radical social action to ameliorate the worst economic effects of the crisis. The Senedd should also refuse to give legislative consent to any measures by the UK Government that unnecessarily curtail civil liberties, workers’ rights and democratic accountability.
Ministers should rapidly review the scope of devolved levers to implement measures such as those we outline below and release the funds required through an exceptional budget in the Senedd. This should involve making full use of its borrowing powers and reserves and the introduction of an emergency wealth tax. Many of these measures will not cost anything, however, and only require political will to implement.
We call on the Welsh Government to take the following actions immediately:
1. Enable more effective social distancing
- Introduce a ban on large gatherings and public events.
- Close all holiday accommodation and ban the use of holiday homes.
- Close all museums, cultural centres and tourist attractions.
- Suspend all face-to-face teaching in universities and colleges.
- Close all shops selling non-essential goods, playgrounds, religious centres, community centres, nurseries and day care facilities.
- Close all public libraries, hubs and leisure centres. Support hubs to provide remote and phone-based support on benefits and housing. Suspend and cancel all library fines and arrange for remote library loans and deliveries.
- Provide funding for local authorities to enhance meals on wheels provision for the elderly, vulnerable and those who are self-isolating. This should also include delivery of food for families with children who qualify for free school meals.
- Work with schools, colleges and universities to facilitate distance learning. Ensure that all children have access to educational resources.
- All non-frontline workers in Welsh public services to be mandated to work from home where possible.
2. Public information
- Roll-out an unprecedented public health campaign on a huge scale, with rolling adverts across all media and in public spaces advising citizens about the risks of coronavirus and how they can protect themselves and others around them. This should include:
- Guidance for everyone on how to practise stronger social distancing effectively and why it is necessary.
- Specific and specialist advice for those who are most at risk and how coronavirus interacts with existing conditions.
- Advice and resources for people on how to deal with the mental health impact of social distancing and anxiety related to the crisis.
3. Help for our NHS
- Immediately requisition private healthcare resources and hospital beds for public use.
- Repurpose empty commercial properties for medical use.
- Urgently supply personal protection equipment for all frontline workers in healthcare and other key professions, including emergency services workers, carers, teachers and support workers.
- Introduce mass testing and tracing for all healthcare and frontline workers and their families.
- Rapidly expand testing and contact tracing of the general population.
- Rapidly recruit and train additional staff for the NHS.
- Immediately end all healthcare charging for non-UK nationals and communicate clearly that nobody will be charged for seeking healthcare.
- Repurpose manufacturing sites to produce ventilators.
- Arrangements for remote prescriptions and delivery of medications.
- Suspend fees for hospital accommodation and staff parking.
A full list of demands by frontline NHS workers is available.
4. Financial security for everyone
- Urgently introduce a temporary basic income for everyone living in Wales to replace lost income and protect people from the economic fallout, in particular the self-employed and those hit by job losses. This must also be extended to people without citizenship and those with no recourse to public funds.
- Pause the collection of student fees and debt.
- Cancel council tax debts.
- Increase funding and expand eligibility for the Discretionary Assistance Fund to provide emergency support.
- Continue Educational Maintenance Allowance payments during school and college closures and remove attendance requirements.
- Suspend utility bills where possible for those affected by the economic fallout.
- Work with food banks to provide additional funding and support with supplies in the face of increased need.
5. Secure housing for all
- Ban all evictions.
- Immediately freeze rents and temporarily cancel rent for those worst affected by the crisis.
- Requisition empty properties and hotels to house homeless and destitute people.
- Suspend council tax.
6. Protection for the vulnerable
- Support coordination and training for local mutual aid networks.
- Instruct all public services that no recourse to public funds conditions (which ban some migrants and refused asylum seekers from accessing public services or support) will no longer be applied.
- Work closely with domestic abuse services to ensure robust protocols are in place to protect those who will now be at increased risk of domestic abuse and allow them to safely and anonymously report.
- Develop and resource mental health services to offer support remotely, with tailored support for those affected by isolation and those with existing mental health conditions.
- Work closely with homelessness services on outreach to protect the homeless population and provide specific guidance to homeless people.
- Work closely with prisons to advise and provide additional resources and funding to protect inmates and staff.
7. Stronger rights for workers
- Work closely with trade unions to secure workers’ rights to paid sick leave and ensure that workers are not unfairly dismissed from their posts for self-isolating.
- Ensure all workers have access to proper PPE and are kept abreast of their rights so that they are not unfairly exploited during the crisis.
- Ensure that trade union organising is not restricted during the crisis.
Do you have further ideas or expertise on ways that the Welsh Government could take a lead in tackling this crisis? Let us know in the comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org
You can add your support to an open letter from healthcare workers to Welsh Government calling for urgent action to protect staff and slow the spread of the virus here