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Coronavirus UK: Welsh Assembly shows Labour’s weak approach

For a moment, imagine you live in a country where Labour won the last General Election and is now masterminding a national response to the coronavirus pandemic.

That scenario is certainly in the minds of opponents of Boris Johnson, who have spent the past two months complaining relentlessly about the Government’s handling of this unprecedented crisis.

Sir Keir Starmer sought to make hay on Covid this week, alleging at Prime Minister’s Questions that, among other things, Johnson has been ‘too slow to protect people in care homes’.

His performance was lauded in sections of the media, while on Facebook and Twitter, hard-Left blowhards called for the Prime Minister to be prosecuted for manslaughter. Havant Labour Party even posted doctored photos of Johnson and Michael Gove drenched in blood.

Sir Keir Starmer (pictured) sought to make hay on Covid this week, alleging at Prime Minister’s Questions that, among other things, Johnson has been ‘too slow to protect people in care homes’

A Labour MP, Dawn Butler, made the incendiary claim on television that the ‘disgraceful’ Tory leader is ‘sending people out to catch the virus’.

This was part of a familiar pattern. For months, every perceived government shortcoming, from PPE shortages to testing delays to the Government slogan chosen for public information adverts, has been remorselessly attacked.

That is what happens in a vibrant democracy, you may say.

Yet what Ms Butler, Sir Keir and almost every other Left-wing critic is less keen to explain is what, if anything, Labour would have done differently.

Fortunately, we don’t actually need to ask them. Because to see how Labour is handling a real coronavirus outbreak, you just need to head west on the M4 until you reach Wales.

Here, Sir Keir’s party has been in government since the late 1990s. It has sole charge of the health and social care systems — and is responsible for almost every aspect of the coronavirus response, from running hospitals to securing care homes to testing, tracing and making lockdown rules.

In other words, Labour is running the show. And compared with England’s Conservative administration, it is falling woefully short on almost every measurable front, at times displaying surreal levels of incompetence.

Take testing, now widely accepted as the most crucial way to identify and contain virus outbreaks and save lives.

Over the past week, the English Government carried out between 90,000 and 133,000 tests every day. In Wales, that figure ranged between 956 and 1,421.

To see how Labour is handling a real coronavirus outbreak, you just need to head west on the M4 until you reach Wales

To see how Labour is handling a real coronavirus outbreak, you just need to head west on the M4 until you reach Wales

A Labour MP, Dawn Butler, made the incendiary claim on television that the 'disgraceful' Tory leader is 'sending people out to catch the virus'

A Labour MP, Dawn Butler, made the incendiary claim on television that the ‘disgraceful’ Tory leader is ‘sending people out to catch the virus’

So, two months into this crisis, the Labour government has been delivering no more than 1,421 tests a day — that’s not far off one hundredth of the number of tests England seems able to complete (when, by comparison, Wales has one eighteenth of the population).

Between Monday and Friday, the average number of tests per day in Wales was 1,263. And this hasn’t been an unusually poor week.

In fact, the total number of people that an administration run by Mr Starmer’s party has tested since the pandemic began is 54,584. That’s about half the number being tested in England every day.

What lies behind this failure is a combination of negligence and stupidity.

For example, until very recently, tests carried out in North Wales were being sent on a day-long journey to Cardiff for analysis because Welsh officials refused to use an English ‘mega-lab’ facility in Alderley Park, Cheshire, which was about an hour away.

The numbers comparison is all the more striking when you consider the bullish promises Labour made to the people of Wales about testing when the lockdown had just begun.

On March 21, for example, the party’s Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, set a target of 9,000 tests a day by the end of April — a figure that seems to have been chosen to compete with the 100,000-a-day target set by England’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

The 9,000 target was reiterated by Labour’s first minister, Mark Drakeford, on April 3. He promised the people of Wales that his government would hit 5,000 tests a day by the middle of the month.

Just over a fortnight later, though, the headline-grabbing figure was dropped. With daily tests around the 700 mark, Mr Drakeford conceded on April 20 that targets were being abandoned, blaming circumstances ‘outside our own control’.

What exactly those circumstances were remains unclear.

However, giving evidence in the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) last week, the chief executive of Public Health Wales, Dr Tracey Cooper — who in theory is helping to run Drakeford’s testing system — revealed she was ‘not familiar’ with the 9,000 target figure and had never been made aware of it.

The 9,000 target was reiterated by Labour's first minister, Mark Drakeford, on April 3. He promised the people of Wales that his government would hit 5,000 tests a day by the middle of the month

The 9,000 target was reiterated by Labour’s first minister, Mark Drakeford, on April 3. He promised the people of Wales that his government would hit 5,000 tests a day by the middle of the month

How the existence of the Welsh government’s principal Covid policy goal escaped her attention is anyone’s guess. Given that she earns more than £190,000 a year, we must assume she is not stupid, even if she apparently fails to follow headline news stories involving her own organisation.

This curious inconsistency suggests, at the very least, a breakdown in basic communication between the Welsh government and its senior health officials.

And it raises serious questions about their competence.

One might fairly suppose that, were a Conservative health secretary in Westminster to preside over such a humiliating failure to hit a key target, it would lead the news agenda for days. Inquiries would be ordered and resignations would follow.

In Mr Gething’s shoes, Matt Hancock would be toast.

But this is Wales, effectively a one-party state where a hollowed-out media, reliant on public-sector advertising, has for years failed to hold its government to account properly, and where an entrenched ruling elite are allowed to fail almost with impunity.

As one of the 3.1 million people who live in the Principality, I know its Labour government’s failures are costing lives, especially in the care-home sector that seems to so concern Sir Keir Starmer.

A health worker gestures to a person in a car at the coronavirus (COVID-19) drive-through testing centre at the Cardiff City stadium

A health worker gestures to a person in a car at the coronavirus (COVID-19) drive-through testing centre at the Cardiff City stadium

And while Labour’s Westminster leader spent Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions hectoring the English authorities over care-home policy, criticising decisions made by Downing Street in early March, he seems unaware of the disastrous policies of his Welsh colleagues.

On care homes, the record is as follows: until April 23, Welsh government guidelines meant hospitals were routinely returning patients to homes without allowing them to be given coronavirus tests, apparently because there were too few kits to go around.

Before May 2, the Welsh government wouldn’t allow any residents of care homes to be tested unless they displayed symptoms of the virus, even when other residents in their home were infected.

It took until May 6 for the authorities to allow residents of some care homes where no outbreak had yet been confirmed to be tested.

And to this day, to qualify for testing you must live in a care home for 50 people or more — which means hundreds of smaller homes are still unable to test their staff and patients.

In the first week of May, across the whole of Wales just 16 care-home staff were screened for coronavirus. England, by contrast, was able to extend testing to all care-home residents and staff on April 28.

The Welsh government’s litany of failure has undoubtedly cost lives. More than 1,200 people died in Welsh care homes in April, compared with fewer than 500 in April 2019.

This is a serious worry for Plaid Cymru Senedd Member Delyth Jewell, whose constituency contains the Tregwilym Lodge care home in Newport, Gwent, where 15 of the 73 residents have perished.

‘In this particular home, the outbreak seems to have happened because a resident returned from hospital carrying the virus,’ she tells me. ‘The care home requested a test but were unable to get one, seemingly because the patient wasn’t initially showing symptoms.

‘I am incredibly concerned by what is going on in our care homes. There is a huge shortage of testing capacity and I worry that policy may be being dictated by this fact.’

So bad is the continuing shortage of tests that this week the Department for Work and Pensions was forced to write to staff in Wales, telling them to drive to a testing centre in England if they start to experience symptoms. 

Angela Burns, the Welsh Conservative spokeswoman on health, describes the situation thus: ‘Targets missed time after time, denials that targets existed, and now — embarrassingly — some frontline public sector staff in Wales being told they should go to England for testing, shows the shambles of the administration here.’

In total, 1,641 people are known to have died from coronavirus in Wales before May 1, according to the most up-to-date figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

This is only slightly less than the per capita average for England, even though Wales has a third of the population density of England and does not contain London, where there have been a disproportionate number of deaths because of the city’s status as an international hub.

The Welsh tally is likely to be a significant underestimate, too, because the ONS records only deaths where Covid-19 is mentioned on the death certificate, and in the absence of thorough testing many possible victims may never be formally diagnosed.

A full public inquiry may eventually establish the exact toll, assuming the Welsh government allows one to happen.

On the western side of Offa’s Dyke, several other aspects of Labour’s response to the pandemic have also been chaotic.

For example, at the start of lockdown, the Welsh NHS advised people who thought they might be affected by Covid to call 111. But it turned out that no 111 service exists for residents of much of North Wales, as local health boards have failed to set one up.

Downing Street’s successful GoodSAM scheme, which recruited some 750,000 NHS volunteers, was not properly embraced by the Welsh government, apparently because it was run from England. As a result, far fewer volunteers were registered in Wales.

A general view at the coronavirus (COVID-19) drive-through testing centre at the Cardiff City stadium

A general view at the coronavirus (COVID-19) drive-through testing centre at the Cardiff City stadium

As lockdown began, vulnerable people in Wales had great difficulty obtaining supermarket delivery slots, as the Labour government took weeks to provide retailers with their names and addresses. Many were forced to leave their homes to shop for necessities.

To compound matters, the online form needed for people to register as vulnerable would not accept applications from Wales. And those who were blind or had impaired vision, who were allowed to register in England, were barred from doing so in Wales.

There were also delays in sending out ‘shielding letters’ in Wales, advising 80,000 people with pre-existing conditions to isolate.

When they were eventually posted, 16,000 went to the wrong addresses. Then in early May, the blundering administration realised 21,000 more potential recipients had not yet been identified.

As a result, only 10 per cent of Welsh respondents in a survey by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation received a shielding letter, compared with 17 per cent across the rest of the UK.

Finally, there is the thorny topic of PPE.

While the English Government has been continually criticised over PPE provision in care homes and hospitals, the acute shortages affecting Wales appear not to concern Labour critics of Boris Johnson (or, come to that, the makers of Panorama).

This week, however, PPE was at the centre of a political scandal in Cardiff Bay after Mark Drakeford, the Labour First Minister, revealed in a letter that his administration’s pandemic stockpile had from 2016 onwards failed to contain a single protective gown.

That confession directly contradicted testimony given by Health Minister Vaughan Gething, who on March 28 was asked whether the stockpile contained gowns, visors, swabs and body bags. He stated: ‘All of those items were available in our pandemic stock.’

Gething and Drakeford can’t both have been correct. And this isn’t the only time this week that their public statements on Covid been called into question.

On Monday, the Welsh government was forced to issue a formal correction to a statement made by the First Minister at his daily press conference, when he claimed his government’s lockdown rules allow people to socialise with someone from outside their household ‘provided they observe social distancing’.

Mr Drakeford declared: ‘We always said that two people can interact in that way. And if you did, as I did, go on my bicycle to my allotment through one of the major fields in Cardiff, then you see people doing that all the time.’

In fact, he was completely wrong. Lockdown rules in Wales do not allow such behaviour.

Yet more embarrassment for Labour ensued when photographs emerged of Mr Gething and his family eating chips at a picnic table in a park near his home — again in contravention of the rules.

The images were taken on Saturday, when his own government’s lockdown guidelines specifically prohibited ‘going for a walk and then having a picnic or spending a prolonged period on a park bench’.

When Mr Gething returned to work on Monday, the guidelines suddenly changed and his department stated that henceforth ‘going for a walk and stopping to have something to eat, or sit in a park, for example, is intended to be permitted’.

The Welsh government has denied changing the rules to suit its Health Minister’s personal circumstances, seeming to take the view that Mr Gething and Mr Drakeford are beyond criticism.

Asked to defend its record on PPE, its failure to hit testing targets and Labour’s handling of the entire coronavirus crisis, a spokesman told me: ‘This is a collection of old stories to which we’ve already provided a full response.’

Critics are not persuaded. ‘Wales currently has the worst transmission rates and the worst testing regime in the UK,’ is how Andrew R.T. Davies, former leader of the Welsh Conservatives, puts it.

‘Labour have singularly failed to get a grip. They have changed policy on the hoof, they haven’t got a proper testing system working and they are failing on almost every front.

‘To see Keir Starmer trying to criticise Boris Johnson’s policy on care homes when his own party is responsible for this — well, the hypocrisy is breathtaking.’

Or, as the ancient proverb has it: Physician, heal thyself.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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