Leaders shifted blame, pointed the finger, and undermined good policy
No sooner had the Government set out its latest plans for ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19 than Mark Drakeford popped up to remind everyone that none of it applied in Wales.
There was no corresponding tweet from Nicola Sturgeon, but perhaps that isn’t surprising. Whereas her Welsh counterpart can boast of an “amazing vaccination programme”, she presides over six out of Europe’s ten ‘Covid hotspots’.
Early successes mean little if they cannot be sustained. At the start of the pandemic Nicola Sturgeon enjoyed soaring ratings, but has seen them slump since. Drakeford has gone the other way, defying polls which predicted a historically bad election for Welsh Labour to comfortably secure another term in office.
This is likely in no small part because Wales’ very successful vaccine rollout — built off the back of the UK’s purchasing efforts —has helped to occlude Drakeford’s earlier failures.
It was weeks behind on masks, and delayed introducing measures such as a volunteer app or emergency supermarket deliveries for the vulnerable rather than signing up to existing programmes set up by London.
The obsession with internal ‘North-South’ solutions led to the ludicrous situation wherein people in North Wales were forced to drives for hours to attend testing centres in Cardiff — as no arrangements were made for access to English centres much closer by.
So the coronavirus has highlighted, in a way even Brexit did not, the extent to which two decades of devolution has fractured the United Kingdom, with both Drakeford and Sturgeon throwing up borders across Great Britain as efforts to forge a ‘four-nation’ approach floundered.
A key concern for any future inquiry into the UK’s handling of the pandemic will be the extent to which devolutionary measures may have hindered our response. Of course, there will be some difficulty in proving this — each nation’s experience of Covid-19 has been shaped by a huge number of variables, of which government policy is only part.
Wales, for example, is a peripheral region with a low-density population, no international transport hubs, and a smaller proportion of vaccine-hesitant ethnic minority voters — all factors which helped to dampen the impact of the virus.
However, one can’t simply write off the Welsh Government’s successes on that basis, because Scotland enjoys some of the same advantages and is seeing cases surge. Sturgeon’s decision to ban Scots from visiting Manchester (but not parts of Scotland where rates were higher) looked like a ham-fisted attempt to stoke up nationalist tensions, rather than the actions of a serious stateswoman.
All this poses a danger for the Government. I have written before about how the devolved governments exploit (and indeed create) confusion about outcomes to shift blame and demand more power. If the Prime Minister isn’t careful, a UK-wide inquiry that doesn’t also focus in detail on the performance of each administration could become a festival of finger-pointing which Westminster loses.
Good data and careful study are necessary to ensure that we both learn the best lessons from the pandemic and that all our governments are held properly accountable for their performance.