The world will change utterly, even for those of us who make it through alive… But the people who led us into the disaster are still there. *
In our recent round-up of the crisis, we drew attention to a litany of errors from the Welsh Government. We expressed the hope that their handling of the situation would improve, ensuring that we minimise the effects of COVID-19 here in Wales. Equally, we implied that this was unlikely given what we know in particular about our political culture. A further issue we raised was how there had not been the necessary level of questioning of the government or level of scrutiny from the media – suggesting that in other contexts the future of the government and some of its personnel would at least be a talking point.
“Every day we’re reading that nurses and doctors are dying. And that’s definitely become more frightening over the last two weeks,”
“”We all know that the trauma that our staff and patients are going to go through in the next few months is massive. You know it’s gonna last for years – this trauma.”
Anna, Junior Doctor
A week or so further into the crisis, and these three themes have been flung into stark relief. A shift occurred with regard to media scrutiny as Andy Davies, the Channel 4 correspondent for Wales, climbed into the crisis with a vigour and thoroughness we are seldom used to here (witness the plaudits and thanks he has received on Welsh Twitter). The particular story he pursued was the disastrous turn of events which saw a huge ‘handling’ error by the Welsh Government, as the tests it had apparently been guaranteed as a key plank of its strategy slipped from its grasp. What actually occurred between the Welsh Government, the UK Government and the company Roche remains difficult to fully ascertain, but the implication that we were somehow ‘gazumped’ in our efforts to procure these tests demonstrates how precarious our powers are and the deep flaws of the devolution settlement – where politicians and public have apparently come to accept such ‘mishaps’ as run of the mill in our moribund political culture.
“If we’re preparing for war, we’ve got all the money for that. But where’s the preparation for this? I mean, we’ve got nothing. We’re not given [gowns], we’re given pinnies…They’re telling us… the surgical masks will have to do…even if we work around the corona patients.”
“I’ve asked for a test daily, practically begged.”
Becky, Healthcare Assistant
The quality of our government, media scrutiny, and political culture have never been acceptable, and these problems – given so many lives are at stake during this crisis – have now taken on a deep moral import that can no longer be fobbed off as political games or collateral. At the time of writing, 351 people have died due to the disease in Wales, including at least two healthcare workers – precipitating a frustrated and heartfelt response from one of the unions. The distressing and unprecedented nature of what we are facing has also been driven home in the last couple of days with two powerful articles: firstly, Ted Jackson’s allegorical account of government incompetence that attempted to grasp the enormity of the crime against humanity that has been committed in the name of ‘business as usual’; secondly, the Voice’s article bearing witness to the horrors unfolding in our National Health Service with accounts from frontline workers. We, the public of Wales, cannot stand silent on this any longer. Yes, the Tories in Westminster have stood on an ideological and policy platform that has caused everyone in the UK untold harm, but if devolution and a Welsh Labour Government was to mean anything, it had to do everything it could to charter a different course and work as quickly as possible.
“I am in critical care and our PPE is woefully inadequate. I feel like a dead woman walking.”
At the centre of this maelstrom of incompetence, impotence and intrigue has been the Minister of Health himself. Controversy has never been far away from an individual whose most infamous moment was walking away from an ITV Wales’ interview when pressed on the need for a public inquiry into a health board. It is fair to say, given some of the questioning in recent weeks, that a repeat performance remains a possibility. Far more ominous, however, has been the apparent dithering, lack of direction, and willingness to be co-opted by Downing Street – as we detailed in our previous commentary: the fiasco with regards to the rugby and the Stereophonics gigs; the lack of swift action with respect to the influx of visitors to rural Wales; the dire lack of PPE and testing for our frontline health workers. We might ask, where was the instinct of a Welsh, Labour politician, who as a matter of reflex should assume that Tory policy comes with a dire health warning? Should anyone doubt the problems or the strength of feeling they might take a look at the 1200 or so health professionals that have signed an open letter to the government demanding basic protections, dating back to the 20th of March – and some of the heartbreaking testimonies offered. Far more horrifying stories are now beginning to emerge of the reality of the outbreak in our hospitals.
“We need mask fittings. We need testing. We need adequate PPE. I’m a nurse and have two young children. I am putting them and myself at risk not to mention patients if I do not have these three basic things to continue my work throughout this time. I have tried and tried to arrange mask fitting in my own time left numerous messages but no one has got back to me”
Laura, Healthcare Worker
Central to this, and what has become an issue of central importance this week, is the lack of testing for NHS staff – and the wider lack of testing for the public. There is a broader context here that must be acknowledged and that reveals the problem of Welsh Government kowtowing to Westminster, rather than the Minister for Health demonstrating the will and imagination to try and chart a different course. We are told that the ‘herd immunity’ hypothesis has been put to one side, but until we begin targeted testing on an industrial scale, this effectively remains our policy. Without such testing we do not have the data to pursue a more targeted approach aligned with WHO guidelines, simply using the lockdown and social distancing to slow down (but not curtail) the spread of the disease. Even taking into account Public Health England’s deal with Roche their testing will not be ramped up nearly quick enough or widely enough to constitute the adoption of a policy that reflects the recommendations of the WHO. In following England, with a comparably worse start to the crisis and with a testing capacity that is now even more limited due to the loss of the deal, we are, it seems, following the same debunked policy but with an even more forlorn hope of adopting a more humane and rational approach.
“That’s what you’ve come into the profession [to do]… To care for the sick. And they are people that need you the most, and you’re the ones that can help them. You know, that’s what we all realise. And that’s why we are turning up every day to do it.”
In the meantime, we have expert microbiologists in our Universities with the capacity to test now bemoaning being left to ‘tread water’ for three weeks. Pursuing our own production of tests and our own programme now seems to be the minimum we can do in order to halt the spread of the disease. We are in dire straits, with doctors joining forces with others to try to secure another source of PPE. Yet what has been the response from our Minister for Health? No recognition that he has made mistakes, no recognition that he must do better and that we need a dramatic step change; but rather the same old tired, predictable and inexcusable habit of deflecting responsibility onto health boards and some apparently overly concerned health workers alike.
“This is killing our people. We need an honest response now.”
Tanya Palmer, Secretary UNISON Cymru
In 2019, following ‘one of the most critical reports ever published about healthcare in Wales’ on the distressing case of the Cwm Taf maternity services, there were repeated calls for him to resign on the Senedd floor. Given his handling of the crisis, the terrible situation in which we now find ourselves in Wales, we must now repeat this call: Vaughan Gething must resign.
We must also emphasise that ultimately this is not about an individual. His counterpart in Westminster deserves equal, if not far more approbation. But this is Wales, a land where we must surely now adopt the necessary seriousness and willingness to critique our political culture; for unless we draw a line as citizens and electors and demand better, and unless we see political responsibility meaning something real we will all pay dearly – not only during this current crisis, but in perpetuity.
Now is not the time to “get behind” the dear leaders…
out of public life; and out of history.