More than two weeks into the COVID-19 crisis and the signs are not good in Wales. The NHS Health Board bearing the name of its founder is currently recording higher levels of infection per 100,000 people than London, while the state of Wales as a whole is comparable to the English West Midlands – one of the worst hit regions of England. It should be some comfort to us, however, that we have the Welsh Assembly (soon to be Senedd) under Labour leadership, in order to ensure a robust, truly socialist response to the crisis, in order to protect us from the worst vicissitudes of a feckless Tory government concerned ultimately with the impact on the market. That would be the devolution dividend, after all; this is why so many people were convinced to vote for the Assembly – to protect Wales against the worst excesses of Westminster and to forge a politics more attuned to our needs.
However, it is fair to suggest the events have not gone to script. Indeed it would be remiss of us not to provide a summary of the errors that have unfolded as the Welsh Government has found itself a page behind time and time again. The tone was set by the surreal few days that led up to the eventual cancelling of the Wales v Scotland rugby game, as Vaughan Gething and the WRU conspired to ensure that it would seemingly be the only sporting event kicking off anywhere on the planet. There was as much incredulity as there was outrage and it was called off at the 11th hour, but such had been the outcry about the game that the Stereophonics equally outlandish decision to hold two gigs in Cardiff slipped under the radar, until it was too late. The image of those gigs may well come back to haunt both the band and the government. An equal level of outrage soon occured in holiday destinations across Wales with tourists seeking residence in various sites and accommodation, and a decision only came to pass (despite obvious precedents in other countries) once social unrest was a genuine prospect – and when the UK Government was about to announce its general lockdown anyway.
Much of the hesitancy and dithering was attributed to the apparent ambiguities around law and policy, but even where Boris Johnson’s Tory government have taken the lead, the Welsh Labour government has struggled to follow. We still don’t know, for example, what the guidance or policy is for the construction industry. The ICC was offered to the Government as a private venue to help with this unprecedented health emergency, but a response was not forthcoming. And it is with regard to the NHS, of course, that the response has been found most wanting, where now over a thousand health workers have signed an open letter demanding better. There are disturbing testimonies with regards to the lack of Personal Protective Equipment for frontline workers, while testing among staff is depressingly scarce. The sense that the wheels are falling off has been compounded in the last couple of days as a manufacturing agreement for thousands of tests – a cornerstone of the planned response – has fallen through.
In any normal democracy we might expect this level of ineptitude and uncertainty to bring with it consequences in a crisis. However, such is the lack of a robust, functioning democratic culture in Wales that it seems normal service will prevail – when we desperately need a change. One issue here is the way in which Labour have somewhat adroitly turned any questioning of their mishandling of events into ‘political point scoring’ at a time of crisis. Normally there might be some validity to such a claim but the opposition cannot allow its scrutiny and its pursuit of policy ideas and alternatives to be couched in such a way – for all our sakes. The government needs to be called out and opposition parties must make it clear to the electorate that this is their responsibility – and that the government’s attempt to delegitimise scrutiny is anti-democratic in spirit (Labour’s hero Aneurin Bevan was famous for holding Churchill to account during a war, for heaven’s sake).
Indeed, in a more robust political culture we might well have heard at least some rumblings about a vote of no confidence in the government. This would be a theoretical possibility in the Senedd, but with it working on limited capacity, and with the numbers not stacking up, it is unlikely any individual member is going to take a shot at such a move. More realistically, one might also have expected a few question marks being raised about the future of Vaughan Gething in his role as Minister for Health. Given that he has presided over the lion’s share of errors and delays, one would assume that the possibility of his departure would at least be part of the current debate. One can read between the lines of the coverage from Wales’ political journalists that they are suitably unimpressed by what is fast becoming a defensive, almost entirely unresponsive government, where written questions are demanded and then barely responded to. But as yet the really difficult questions have not been asked. Surely if we in Wales continue as laggards, it’s only a matter of time.
It is vitally important for us in Wales, the ordinary citizens, to start to reflect now on how this crisis is unfolding, and how our politicians are behaving, not least because the way in which it pans out will have long term consequences for democracy in Wales. If things continue as they are, some may ask what the point of the Welsh Assembly is if it cannot do more for its people. It is important in this respect to emphasise it is Welsh politicians, not Welsh healthcare workers, the Welsh working class, nor us the general public that is letting us down. We have the powers to do so much more (as Undod has already clearly shown) and a more bold, robust and socialist government would have used them far more effectively.
It is also becoming abundantly clear that it is too little, and not too much power and responsibility that we’ve had in Wales, and that if we were anything more like a properly independent country, we would have developed the democratic culture, the accountable politicians, and a Parliament capable of a more fitting response. In the next few weeks we hope we are proven wrong, for all our sakes.