by Jon Coles
ANDREW RT DAVIES, the new and combative Conservative Shadow Health Minister, stepped into new territory for him and the Conservatives in Wales this week.
In recent weeks, the Conservative group in the Senedd has stepped up its attacks on the Welsh Government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting instances where Wales has failed to follow the Westminster Government’s lead on policy decisions.
TURNING A BLIND EYE
With Westminster’s current response to the COVID crisis at sixes-and-sevens, the Shadow Health Minister put in his boot to criticise the Welsh Government for following Westminster’s lead on a contentious policy decision.
In March, the Westminster Government – followed by the UK’s devolved administrations – began discharging hospital patients into care homes. Discharged patients were not tested for coronavirus.
The Herald reported on the scandal at the time. We highlighted instances where care providers, in both Wales and England, were pressurised by health boards and trusts to take untested patients into closed residential settings.
The outcome of that disastrous policy decision was easily predictable. Its likely consequences were well-known – at least by the Westminster Government – at the time it made that decision.
Introducing a virus known to be lethal to vulnerable and elderly patients caused a wave of deaths in care homes across the UK. The virus spread among an isolated and largely defenceless population.
The foreseeable result was a calamity.
Deaths in social care settings spiralled. They remain high even after the first spike of the virus in the general population and its decreasing incidence across the UK.
Wading into the scandal this week, Andrew RT Davies criticised Welsh Government without a moment’s apparent reflection on the wider context of his words.
In a press release, Mr Davies commented: “There can be no excuse for such an ill-thought decision which, of course, will have had a profound impact on some of our most vulnerable in care homes. I cannot comprehend where the government’s thought process was in pushing care homes to accept hospital patients who had not received a COVID-19 test.
“The bullish act by the Welsh Labour-led Government in applying pressure is truly scandalous and as a result, the people of Wales deserve an apology.
“The most pressing question now is to address how many patients were infected after being admitted and then discharged from the hospital. To address people’s serious concerns, this must be a priority for the Welsh Labour-led Government.”
On receipt of the press release, we replied and asked whether Mr Davies wished to extend his tart observations about the discharge of untested hospital patients to include the Westminster Government.
After recent press releases in which the Conservatives have not hesitated to compare Wales unfavourably with England, we believed Mr Davies might reflect and provide a balanced response: possibly to praise the Welsh Government for following Westminster’s lead; possibly to take the chance to even-handedly criticise the Westminster Government’s policy which the Welsh Government followed.
We did not receive a reply.
POLITICISING A PANDEMIC
Over recent weeks, the Conservatives have ramped up partisan rhetoric over the Welsh Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns, managed to navigate a path between scoring political points and attacking the Welsh Government for its multiple early failings in Wales’ response to the virus.
Those failings include setting a testing target, failing to secure the testing kits necessary to meet the target, saying a testing target didn’t exist, announcing a revised testing target, and then abandoning testing targets altogether.
On each of those, Mrs Burns made telling points and held Wales’ Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, to account – often leaving him wriggling on a hook made of his own contradictions and evasions.
Similarly, when Wales entered the strictest phases of lockdown, Paul Davies was able to highlight the enormously disproportionate impact of them on Wales’ rural economy without indulging the fantasy that somehow things were any rosier over the border.
As the Westminster Government began to ease lockdown restrictions in England, and under pressure from both the Westminster Government and Conservatives on either side of Wales’ border with England, the tone of Conservative briefings changed sharply.
Repeated releases from the Conservatives demanded that the Welsh Government lift the lockdown in Wales in step with England. The Welsh Government was accused of ‘dither and delay’, the phrase ‘catch-up Cymru’ began to appear. Fighting talk appeared in the names of shadow ministers who previously expressed themselves cautiously, occasionally critically, and usually constructively.
With one eye on the next round of elections to the Senedd, the Conservatives moved away from consensus and criticism to outright attack.
Having watched the reopening of schools in England unravel into chaos, Conservative attacks on the reopening of Wales’ schools lost step with reality. Now, the Welsh Government was criticised for taking steps that England failed to take to keep schools open there. The desperate floundering of Westminster’s Conservative Education Minister, Gavin Williamson, stood in stark contrast to the determined and unflustered approach of his Welsh counterpart, Kirsty Williams.
Darren Millar, the Senedd Member charged with speaking for the Conservatives on COVID in Wales, began to speak of Wales’ failings – and particularly those of the Welsh Government – for not reopening pubs, restaurants and holiday accommodation. With Wales’ hospitality and tourism industries on their knees, it appeared that approach would serve the Conservatives well.
As the easing of lockdown in parts of England has unravelled, however, Mr Millar has gone noticeably quiet as Wales continues to lift restrictions now re-imposed in significant areas of England’s north-west.
The Prime Minister’s warnings of the risks of a second wave of the virus should focus Conservatives in Wales’ attention on what preparations the Welsh Government is making to head-off that eventuality or at least ease its impact if or when it arrives. Instead, Andrew RT Davies is fighting four-month-old battles seeking headlines.
CONSERVATIVES NOT ALONE
One of the features of the crisis has been how Plaid Cymru has used it to propel its own message for an independent Wales – or at least a Welsh legislature with far stronger powers than the current arrangements.
‘Westminster doesn’t work for Wales’ is how Plaid has pitched its message. Its fire is concentrated on the shambolic approach of the Westminster Government’s response to the crisis. The Prime Minister’s endless capacity to make up policy on the hoof when caught out or tell outright lies when questioned about details has given Plaid Cymru ample opportunity to illuminate the gap between Westminster’s rhetoric and reality.
The Westminster Government’s hectoring approach to the UK’s devolved administrations, which includes gazumping the Welsh Government on a deal for testing kits with pharmaceutical giant Roche, and its constant inconstancy and inconsistency has also allowed Plaid to deploy
its choir of voices demanding more autonomy – preferably independence – for Wales.
When attacking the Welsh Government, however, Plaid has taken a different approach to the Welsh Conservatives. It has clamoured to keep restrictions in place – for example on schools – and for existing restrictions to be strengthened and reinforced – for example on face coverings, a policy on which it is eerily close to the Conservatives’.
However, Plaid – and the Conservatives – have fallen well short of saying what they would have done differently in the same situation and what they would do now to improve things during the continuing COVID age.
ONE EYE ON THE ELECTION
By the time next May comes around, both of Wales’ principal opposition parties need to set out defined messages that are both less negative and more grounded in current reality if either is to shift Labour from power in Cardiff Bay.
For the Conservatives, the challenge is finding a voice for Wales which is not an echo of Westminster. The events of recent weeks demonstrate that efforts to reform the Conservatives in Wales to forge a distinct identity from the UK party are likely to be seed falling on stony ground. Darren Millar is Boris Johnson’s representative on Earth and Simon Hart his rock. A more constructive approach from the Conservatives is, therefore, highly unlikely.
For Plaid Cymru, the challenge is moving beyond dreams of jam tomorrow in favour of policies for today. Plaid need to focus less on what Westminster isn’t doing for Wales but what Plaid CAN deliver for the whole of Wales and not just its existing voters. Plaid’s problem is systemic. It lacks resources and, while it well-organised in pockets of Wales outside ‘Y Fro’, it has not found the key to unlock monoglot Anglophone voters in sufficient numbers across Wales.
As for Labour in Wales, all it can promise is more of the same. It’s been in power for over twenty years and it isn’t likely to change a formula that’s kept it in power for so long. And, when it comes to the economy, Labour can point out that the big levers are held by the Exchequer in London.
The Conservatives and Labour have the advantage of a large electoral base across most of Wales. If they can energise those voters to turn up and vote next May in anything like the numbers they did in the General Election, Plaid will have to watch out for a massive squeeze on their far smaller electoral base
Covid-19 restriction relaxations in Wales brought forward
THE WELSH GOVERNMENT will be accelerating elements of its programme to relax Covid-19 restrictions as cases of new infections continue to fall across Wales, the First Minister today announced.
People will be able to form an extended household, visit the gym or take part in organised outdoor activities a week earlier than planned, as the public health situation – and vaccination rates – continue to improve.
The First Minister last week set out a detailed timetable for moving Wales firmly into alert level three. But some of these measures will now be introduced sooner than planned as cases have fallen markedly from 37 cases per 100,000 people to fewer than 21 per 100,000 this week.
The pressure on hospitals also continues to ease. Confirmed cases in hospital beds continue to reduce, and now stands at 89. This is 26% lower than last Thursday and is the lowest position since 22 September 2020.
The planned opening date for organised outdoor activities and outdoor wedding receptions will be moved forward to Monday 26 April from 3 May.
And, from Monday 3 May, a week earlier than previously signalled, gyms, leisure centres and fitness facilities will be able to reopen for individual or one-to-one training. Extended households will also be allowed again, enabling two households to meet and have contact indoors.
First Minister, Mark Drakeford said:
“The public health situation in Wales continues to improve thanks to everything you are doing to help us control this awful virus. Cases of the virus are falling and our incredible vaccination programme continues to go from strength to strength.
“Last week, we set out our programme to further re-open the economy and relax the restrictions we have lived with for so long, as part of our careful, step-by-step approach to keeping everyone safe. This week, because of the improvements we continue to see, we can bring forward some of our plans.
“This is only possible because of the efforts everyone is making to protect themselves and their loved ones.”
From Monday 12 April, the following relaxations will go ahead:
- The full return of children to schools for face-to-face education, all post-16 learners will return to further education and training centres, and university campus’ will be able to open for blended face-to-face/online learning for all students;
- All remaining shops will reopen, completing the phased reopening of non-essential retail;
- All remaining close contact services will open, including mobile services;
- Travel restrictions on traveling into and out of Wales will be lifted. However, restrictions on travel to countries outside the Common Travel Area without a reasonable excuse, remain in place. The Common Travel Area means the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland;
- Wedding ‘show-arounds’ by appointment are allowed;
- Restrictions on political canvassing are removed, subject to canvassers doing so safely.
- Further easements to restrictions in the coming weeks will be subject to the public health situation remaining favourable. These will be confirmed at the next three-weekly review of the coronavirus regulations on 22 April.
On Monday 26 April:
- Outdoor attractions, including funfairs and theme parks, would be allowed to reopen;
- Outdoor hospitality can resume, including at cafes, pubs and restaurants. Indoor hospitality will remain closed except for takeaways;
- Organised outdoor activities for up to 30 people can again take place (previously Monday 3 May);
- Weddings receptions can take place outdoors for up to 30 people (previously Monday 3 May).
On Monday 3 May (previously Monday 10 May):
- Gyms, leisure centres and fitness facilities can reopen. This will include individual or one-to-one training but not exercise classes;
Extended household will again allow two households to meet and have contact indoors.
- As set out in the revised Coronavirus Control Plan, a small number of outdoor pilot events of between 200 and 1,000 people are also being planned.
Ceredigion MS and MP call on Welsh Government to support agricultural shows
ELIN JONES MS and Ben Lake MP have called on the Welsh Government to provide financial support to all agricultural shows to see them through to 2022
A number of shows up and down the county were forced to cancel last year, starving farming communities of annual chances to meet acquaintances, denying traders a vital market and rural charities of fundraising activities and ultimately causing significant losses to the rural economy.
About seven million people attend agricultural and county shows across the UK every year, and numbers were growing before the pandemic, according to the Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations (ASAO), the voice of the agricultural show industry.
In 2019, agricultural shows across the UK generated £128.6m of income, the ASAO figures show. But the mass cancellation of physical shows last year led to a £36.5m loss, while the impact on the wider economy was an estimated loss of £810m.
Some agriculture show organisers in Ceredigion have already announced cancellations of their 2021 events. These include: Aberystwyth County Show, Lampeter Stallion Show, Barley Saturday, and Llanilar Show.
With the possibility of further show cancellations this year, Elin Jones MS and Ben Lake MP have called on the Welsh Government to provide financial support to all agricultural shows to see them through to 2022.
Elin Jones MS said: “For many farming families in Ceredigion, the agricultural show season is the highlight of the year. Every agricultural show plays an important part in promoting our nation’s rural sector, in addition to the rich array of traditions and history associated with rural Wales.
“Whilst virtual agricultural shows went some way to filling the void left by the cancellations in 2020, nothing replaces the buzz of live outdoor shows. They give opportunities for communities to come together and provide a vital hub for the farming and rural community to meet, socialise and conduct business.”
Ben Lake MP added: “Agricultural shows and societies are a crucial feature of the annual calendar for most rural communities, showcasing the heritage of key elements of farming and rural life in Ceredigion.
“With the possibility of further show cancellations in 2021, we believe it is timely for the Welsh Government to consider providing a one-off grant payment to all agricultural shows to ensure that they are able to see this pandemic through.”
16 and 17 year old’s urged to register to vote in this year’s Senedd Elections
ELIN JONES, Ceredigion’s Member of the Senedd, has urged everyone who will be 16 years old by or on the 6th of May – Senedd Election Day – to register to vote. This is the first time 16 and 17 years olds will be able to vote in a national election in Wales.
Speaking directly to young people in Ceredigion, Elin said: “One of my proudest achievements from the last Senedd has been helping to pass the law that has extended the vote to 16 and 17 year olds.
“This is the biggest change in voting rights in Wales for many, many years.
“So many aspects of young people’s lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic, so it’s completely right that you have the democratic right to express your opinions on how things have been run.
“We now have a fixed date for the election, providing the Covid situation doesn’t change. So if you will be 16 years old or older by the 6th of May, then make sure you register to vote. Your voice counts, and I hope that you will use it.”
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