Andrew RT Davies is the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and MS for South Wales Central.
Throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Welsh Government has gone its own way on a number of crucial decisions.
Labour’s First Minister and his cabinet colleagues have consistently stressed that they are responsible for public health decisions in Wales, and that things are done differently here.
Every time the Prime Minister addressed the nation, Mark Drakeford would be at pains to tweet how the announcements would not apply to us in Wales.
To me, to outsiders, and to the public at large, these differences of approach often weren’t grounded in science and were instead simply cosmetic, and were implemented at times just for the sake of it.
However, as the speed of the vaccination rollout provides light at the end of the tunnel (made possible by the British Government’s decision to buy up vaccines early) and restrictions are eased, our attention is turning to how we can learn lessons from the pandemic through a public inquiry into the handling of Covid-19.
Strangely, the Welsh Government is unwilling to go their own way on this issue, instead arguing that their handling of the pandemic should be considered as part of a wider UK inquiry. They want the power but they do not want the scrutiny that comes with power in a democratic society.
There are of course cross-border implications of the way the UK and Welsh governments have handled the pandemic, and it is right that these implications are assessed and lessons learned, but that can be done on a British and a Welsh level.
The fact is decisions taken in Wales have had a dramatic impact on peoples’ lives, from whether they can see their loved ones, how far they can travel, and even what they can buy at their local supermarket. These decisions have had a unique impact on Wales and, regrettably, Wales has the highest Covid-19 death rate of any home nation.
It’s therefore imperative that the measures and slogans that were deployed in Wales are assessed thoroughly, and not left to make up just a footnote in a wider UK inquiry, which is what the First Minister wants to happen.
It may be more convenient for him and his team to have the Welsh Government spin of ‘keeping Wales safe’ as the narrative when we look back at the way they handed the pandemic, but the death rate means that that slogan does not ring true.
There are many successes of the Welsh Government’s handling of the pandemic, and they need to be recognised, but there will also be mistakes and moments where things should have been done differently. These mistakes can become valuable lessons, but only if the Welsh Government allows us to properly analyse them.
During March and April 2020, over 1,000 hospital patients were released into care homes without being tested for the virus. One care home owner near Port Talbot told Wales Online that they were under pressure to take patients from hospitals, even though care homes were concerned about the risk to residents of taking untested patients.
Only in late April did the Welsh Government decide to introduce testing for people being discharged from hospitals into a care setting and only in mid-May could care homes request testing. This was some time after England. These are the kinds of decisions that must be assessed in detail and not lost in a UK-wide inquiry.
We also learned that nearly a quarter of people who’ve died from coronavirus in Wales were infected while in hospital being treated for other conditions. This is despite the Welsh Government telling us in the first lockdown that lessons were being learned from major outbreaks in Welsh hospitals and that measures were being put in place to protect patients and staff. Then, in the second lockdown we saw greater numbers of hospital acquired infections.
Ministers have ducked scrutiny for too long, refusing to make announcements in the Welsh Parliament and instead opting for media briefings, and they are now refusing to have their actions put under the microscope.
There is support across the opposition benches in the Welsh Parliament for a Wales-only inquiry, and on Welsh Labour’s own backbenches. But although when the Welsh Conservatives tabled a motion in the Senedd calling for a Wales-only inquiry, the single Liberal Democrat Member of the Senedd voted against the motion. It is worth remembering that up until this May, a Liberal Democrat served as the Welsh Government’s education minister. Exam fiasco anyone?
There is also support across various charities and organisations from Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation to Medics 4 Mask Up Wales.
In recent days, the First Minister of Scotland announced that there would be a judge-led public inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic. As a result, Wales is now the only nation on British mainland that has a government unwilling to subject itself to proper scrutiny of its actions.
I’ve since written to Drakeford asking him again to commission a Welsh inquiry, and warned that I fear if he does not do so, the Senedd and the Welsh Government will be brought into disrepute. I believe that my calls for a Welsh public inquiry will grow in support. It is only logical that these decisions taken in Wales are scrutinised at a Welsh level. The Welsh Government cannot continue to dodge effective scrutiny in this anti-democratic fashion, making a mockery of the devolved institution they profess to respect.
Ministers in the Welsh Government are always calling for more powers, most recently on policing and criminal justice. How can those calls be taken seriously when the Welsh Government is not prepared to be scrutinised on the big calls they’ve made during the Covid crisis.
Vaughan Gething, who was the Health Minister in Wales until recently, has said that he would have made different choices at different points throughout the pandemic. I think that is an honourable admission, but it does demonstrate that even the Welsh Government don’t think they got everything right over the course of the pandemic. We deserve to know which choices he regrets and how he would have done things differently.
With a Welsh public inquiry we can learn from these mistakes and be better prepared if we ever have to face another situation like this.