Yet again the Welsh leader is using the virus for political purposes
Mark Drakeford set out yesterday the new set of coronavirus restrictions he will be imposing on Wales on Boxing Day.
The First Minister already grabbed headlines by announcing cash fines for people caught working from the office without justification whilst leaving the pubs open. After Christmas, it will apparently be legal to mingle in the bar of a football stadium but not on the terraces.
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Such surreal notes are becoming Welsh Labour’s signature style. Who can forget when they ordered supermarkets to cordon off ‘non-essential’ isles, even while staying open to sell food?
People were already in-store; the virus-suppressing benefits of the move were surely close to zero. But it supposedly prevented the big shops from enjoying an unfair advantage over small businesses peddling non-essential goods (except that these were shut, and thus not in competition anyway).
Then there was the period early in the pandemic when residents in North Wales were forced to take an hours-long round trip to the Principality’s only testing centre — which was in Cardiff, naturally — because their leaders didn’t want to reach an agreement with health authorities in England.
Older citizens might remember being forced to wait several weeks for the Welsh Government to organise emergency food deliveries, which Westminster had already sorted out, because they insisted on opting out of the London scheme.
Their younger compatriots might instead recall trying to sign up to the national volunteering scheme, only to find once again that Welsh ministers had opted out of it. A Welsh equivalent was eventually set up, but plenty of man-hours in those early days were squandered to no purpose.
Over the course of the pandemic, it feels like every government in the country has at one point or another been held up as the exemplar.
But any side-by-side comparison must take into account that Wales has much lower population density and lacks major infection vectors such as a hub airport. When the Welsh Government did take decisive unilateral action, such as the much-touted ‘circuit breaker’ last year, the results were unimpressive.
None of this means the Welsh Government got everything wrong; their Westminster counterparts certainly haven’t got everything right, by any stretch of the imagination.
But the growing litany of bizarre decisions reflects the sad reality that combating Covid-19, like so much else in devolved policy, seems about being seen to wield powers and do things differently from England.
The result has been an incoherent overall response which has undermined, rather than reinforced, national cohesion in the face of the crisis — as this ugly front page from the Western Mail illustrates.
All of this, of course, despite the fact that the Treasury controls all the financial levers that make lockdown possible in the first place.
Devolution could have served as a ‘policy lab’; different bits of the country trying different things, and then all adopting the best approach.
Instead, devocrats do everything they can to resist systematic cross-border comparisons of policy outcomes. A good look at their records explains why.