Since the emergence of COVID-19 I have generally voted against restrictions. I would also like to see a UK-led approach.
I am only open to considering serious deprivation of liberty when it is to flatten the curve and prevent the NHS being completely overwhelmed. We recall the scenes in Lombardy in the spring and I understand that the prospect of a collapsing health service is more frightening to many than limits on how far they may travel for exercise, for instance.
However, much of the Welsh Government approach to lockdown has been disproportionate and counterproductive in my view.
In the summer, when the infection rate was low, Mark Drakeford kept Wales’ hospitality sector locked down far longer than necessary to ‘flatten the curve’. Many people were also told to ‘shield’ well into August, when there was very little risk of infection, when they would have been much better advised to do this instead in late autumn when infection rates were high.
Among the consequences of this is lockdown fatigue. Another serious consequence was to delay infections from the summer, when the NHS has a greater capacity, into the winter, when NHS capacity is anyhow under greater pressure. Further, people who might otherwise now be immune after catching Covid in the summer, are instead catching, and too often spreading, the new more infectious variant. Government action, even when motivated by good intentions, often has unforeseen negative consequences.
I fear that some of Welsh Government’s response to the virus has also been influenced by a desire to state-build in Wales. Welsh Labour politicians almost gloated about how, in the second lockdown, Wales would supposedly be able to have a shorter ‘firebreak’ than England because Wales had acted sooner.
Soon Wales had the worst infection rate in the UK, and the second worst infection rate in the world. Meanwhile, Welsh Government has been overly defensive in refusing to engage with constructive criticism, calling one Member of the Assembly/Senedd Member ‘disgraceful’ just for asking a question about sporting restrictions.
Welsh Government flexing its muscles to do things differently from England, because it can, has separated Wales from the rest of the UK. It has also left us with both worse health outcomes and greater damage to our economy than the rest of the UK.
We have been handicapped by confusing, mixed messaging caused by having different rules to follow in Wales than in England, while also having to keep up with constant changes. People in Wales should not have to study the devolution settlement or have a law degree in order to determine what rules they are expected to follow. Many people in Wales had never heard of Mark Drakeford before March 2020, and resent that they are told they must obey him rather than the UK Prime Minister.
We must all hope that as the vaccine rollout continues, Welsh Government will improve. However, as of the data released on 7th January Wales has only administered 3% of UK vaccinations, despite Wales having a near 5% share of UK population. If we were part of a UK or at least England and Wales programme, instead of having devolution, we could expect to have a higher than average vaccination rate now as our population is older, given that the UK government is prioritising older people.
Now that there is light at the end of the tunnel thanks to vaccines, some will support a greater degree of restriction because they can see they will end. However, the slow pace of vaccination in Wales, combined with the unnecessary degree of lockdown maintained into the summer, means that Covid fatigue in Wales is growing still more.
As we vaccinate the vulnerable, I hope that, Welsh Government will now support joint measures on a UK basis, so that no Welsh business is disadvantaged and no person in Wales is subject to more restrictions on their freedoms purely because of devolution. That is what a United Kingdom should mean.