Andrew RT Davies is the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and MS for South Wales Central.
As the Omicron variant has spread across the UK, it is right that the British Government and devolved administrations have taken the risks seriously.
We need to closely monitor the rise of variants and ensure we are in a position to respond to them, but in responding we must always prioritise peoples’ freedoms, and we must act proportionally.
For those who haven’t yet done so, I would strongly recommend that readers take a look at Sajid Javid’s article in the Daily Mail from December.
The Health Secretary said, rightly, that curbs on our freedom must be a last resort, and added that the British people expect politicians to do everything they can do avoid them.
We all want to face down this virus and protect public health, but I have concerns about how proportionate some of the measures in Wales have been.
Other variants will inevitably emerge, and indeed only the other day I was reading about a new variant detected in France. That’s what viruses do; they mutate.
But we cannot curtail freedoms whenever another variant emerges, like the Welsh Government has done. There will come a time where our lawmakers must accept that we are going to have to learn to live with COVID.
We must not always reach for the toolbox of restrictions first and in the absence of evidence, and that is, sadly, what we have often seen in Wales. And the model isn’t working. In Wales we have regrettably seen the highest death rate of any of the home nations as well as the highest infection rate. Another approach is needed.
The reason the I am a Conservative is that Conservatives believe in empowering people to make their own decisions and to take personal responsibility for their actions. As we move forward, with jabs in arms and regular tests, we must move to an emphasis on personal responsibility, backed up by strong and consistent public health messaging.
Meanwhile, socialists believe in state control, and we can see this contrast when we compare the language of our Conservative ministers at Westminster to their counterparts in the Welsh Labour administration. While socialists reach for restrictions, we reach for boosters.
We have seen Labour ministers talking about COVID ‘protections’ rather than ‘restrictions’. I believe that you should call a spade a spade, and to take away freedoms is always, in my view, a restriction.
While the British Government has been purchasing vaccines to save lives and returning people’s freedoms, in Wales the Labour administration has been playing politics with the pandemic and trying to rip our Union apart.
We saw a great example of this last month when Welsh Labour politicians behaved like petulant playground children, gloating about the fact they loaned some COVID tests to the UK Government. Tests have been shared among the nations through the pandemic, and in my view that demonstrates the strength of the Union – but not in the eyes of Mark Drakeford.
Former Vaughan Gething, the Health Minister, said “you’re welcome” to Javid on Twitter, without a hint of irony. If the Welsh Government had their way we would still be in the EU and our vaccine rollout would not be anywhere near where it is today.
Constantly, Drakeford and others in the Labour administration in Cardiff Bay have played identity politics with the pandemic, trying constantly to turn every little issue into a Wales v England match in an effort to dog-whistle for nationalists in Wales.
Our freedoms are more important than political point scoring. We saw this point scoring when, in other parts of the UK, the self-isolation period was dropped from ten days to seven days. Welsh Labour’s Health Minister said she would not put in place the same change, only to go back on that just a week later.
We cannot continue with spiralling waiting lists and missed cancer diagnoses. We cannot continue with closed businesses forcing people to turn to the state for support, because we know how much socialists love to have people in the hands of the state. I am very pleased that the Treasury has refused to agree to Drakeford’s request that they finance his anti-science socialist agenda.
Indeed, so strong is the Welsh Labour aversion to private business that his administration have in place a rule under which you can be fined for going into work but can sit in the pub all day and watch television.
Then there is the mental health impact of restrictions. Again and again we have asked people to curtail the attendance for special and once-in-a-lifetime moments like weddings and funerals.
With the incredible arsenal we have to combat the virus, our vaccines, our antivirals and our testing regime, we have the tools to give people confidence that never again will they be forced by the state to miss a chance to welcome a new member of the family or to attend a funeral.
So, going forward, I believe that the devolved administration in Cardiff Bay should be subjecting any future restrictions on our freedoms to three key tests.
Firstly, is there anything we can do first to avoid harsh restrictions? Some measures, such as table service in hospitality businesses, are light-touch changes that reduce spread and do not so badly hurt businesses or freedoms.
Secondly, are the restrictions backed up by science? Restrictions on people’s freedoms must be scientifically proven to work, and vaccine passports are a perfect example of the Welsh Government introducing something that doesn’t work.
Finally, the third test on any new restrictions should be whether or not they are proportionate to the threat or otherwise of any given variant at any given point in time.
If we can shift to a mentality whereby we see restrictions as a last resort, we can begin to meaningfully recover from the pandemic, and rebuild our businesses, our health service and our mental health.