Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Different circumstances require different responses

Whether the decision to prioritise England for PPE was a deliberate act of sabotage or just another example of the UK Government’s incompetence is still unclear. I always tend to support the cock-up theory of history in preference to the conspiracy theory.  In this case, it is entirely possible that whoever told the companies concerned that Wales and Scotland had their own processes for acquiring equipment either genuinely believed that to be true or simply didn’t bother to check. And although the antipathy of the present UK Government towards devolution becomes daily more obvious, even a hardened old cynic like me finds it hard to believe that they would deliberately sacrifice people in Wales and Scotland in order to save more lives in England. It may be some time before we know the whole truth, however.
What we do know is that the London government is increasingly intolerant of any decisions taken in Cardiff or Edinburgh which in any way differ from the ‘central’ position, even down to the rather petty question of the naming of field hospitals, where the English NHS decided to call them all Nightingale Hospitals and the UK Government simply assumed that Wales and Scotland would fall into line. English ministers were also unhappy at Scotland ‘jumping the gun’ and closing schools before England did so.  And there is clear annoyance at any suggestion that Wales and Scotland might take different decisions on the length of the lockdown and the way in which it is lifted. But in this last case, the desire for a centrally taken decision which the ‘subordinate’ administrations accept without question is potentially extremely dangerous.
I’ve seen some graphs and statistics pointing out that the death rate in Wales, for instance, is currently lower than that in England.  Factually, that is indisputable, but care is needed in interpreting such a statistic.  Some have drawn an inference that Wales might have got something right where England got it wrong, but that looks to me to be unwarranted at this stage, however much some of us would like to believe that Wales is doing better than England.  We know that the virus spreads rapidly, but it does not spread equally quickly in all areas.  We’ve seen, for example, how it seemed to travel from north to south in Italy and from east to west in France. An alternative explanation for the situation in Wales might be simply that Wales is behind the UK curve, just as the UK is behind the Italian curve.  It could imply that, purely by accident, a ‘late’ lockdown decision for England just happened to be much timelier in those parts of the UK, like Wales, which were at an earlier stage in the pandemic. 
That would also have other implications, though: treating ‘the UK’ as a single entity when it comes to judging the success of the lockdown could also be a mistake. We’ve suffered for years with economic policy being decided on the basis of what’s right for London and the South-East; deciding to relax the lockdown on the same basis could directly lead to more infections and deaths in those parts of the UK which are a week or two behind London.
In this situation, retaining the option of doing things differently, or on a different timescale in Wales (or even treating parts of Wales differently) is not just a matter of respecting devolution – it’s potentially a matter of life and death.  Doing things differently will undoubtedly further annoy Johnson and his Cabinet in London given their obsession with central control and uniformity, but Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon will be doing absolutely the right thing if they reserve the right to make their own judgements based on the needs of their respective nations. That doesn’t guarantee that they’ll get it right, of course; but the validity of their decisions should be judged on the eventual outcomes in Wales and Scotland, not on whether they meekly follow London.


dafis said...

Spot on there John. Regional experience ( to use UK centralist parlance) should be used rather than lumping into one cloudy National(UK)picture. It would mightily peev our 2ND home and caravan visitors if Boris eased lockdown in England yet Drakeford insisted on keeping things under wraps here in Wales. That would put our resolve to the test though I fancy there might be plenty of willingness here to treat any tourist invasion to some good old Fishguard 1797 style responses.

Anonymous said...

I really can't wait for Scotland and Wales to start to do 'things differently'. We've all seen the disastrous effects 'do things differently' has done for education in both territories, same for local government and the NHS and now you want to 'do something differently' with this Covid virus business. Well, bring it on, devolution has been shown to be a busted flush, and this would surely be the death nail it needs.

As for Wales doing better than England on the death rates, you really do make me laugh. Strip London out and then review again. Sometimes you find it convenient to include London as part of your ramblings on all things England, at other times you don't. This is one of those times when you shouldn't include it!

It's time we had a new referendum on Welsh devolution, surely we can all agree on this!

John Dixon said...

”As for Wales doing better than England on the death rates, you really do make me laugh. Strip London out and then review again.” It really would help if you could be bothered to read and understand what has been written before allowing your prejudices and preconceptions to overcome you. I specifically made the point that not all areas (even within Wales) are moving at the same rate, and therefore that not all parts should be treated the same, and for clarity I’ll add here that if that applies to Wales it also applies to England, but even more so. And I also made the point that such differences as exist are due less to different policies being pursued than to different rates of progress of the virus – not only did I make no claim that Wales was doing better, I pointed out that such a simplistic conclusion is unwarranted. What should be driving policy on ending or easing lockdown restrictions is the actual situation with the spread of the virus, and that will be different in different parts of the country (and that applies whether we consider the ‘country’ to be Wales, England, or the UK as a whole). Is that really so hard to grasp? The difference is that in Wales we do have a local administration which is empowered to take decisions specifically responding to Welsh needs rather than being driven by what is happening in one part of England – sadly, most of England is not so lucky. Those parts which need a different response to that which is sensible in London will find their needs overridden and ignored. The centralist approach of treating the whole of any territory as a unit which must only move together is potentially a very dangerous one, and I have never argued that devolution of the power to act should stop at any particular boundary line.

”We've all seen the disastrous effects 'do things differently' has done for education in both territories, same for local government and the NHS” Statements that you can only make by doing precisely what you incorrectly accused me of doing, namely comparing ‘whole of England’ outcomes with ‘whole of Wales’ outcomes. As an example, in the real world which I inhabit, there are schools in Wales which do better than most schools in England, and there are schools in England which do worse than most schools in Wales if we use a simple comparison of exam results (a measure which in any event raises many other questions which I’ll not go into here). Demographics and relative levels of affluence are just two of the factors which mean that simplistic overall comparisons based on national averages are invalid, and I make that point not to defend the current Welsh government and its policies but merely to emphasise that your statement is effectively based on the sort of assumption that considers apples to be the same as oranges. That’s not to say that Wales doesn’t have some problems with education and health – but comparing averages shouldn’t blind you to the fact that England also has some very serious challenges which a comparison of overall averages brushes over.

”It's time we had a new referendum on Welsh devolution, surely we can all agree on this!” Actually, and this may come as a surprise to you, no it isn’t something on which we can all agree. When or whether there will be a further referendum on devolution depends on when or whether there will be a majority of elected representatives arguing for such a proposition. At the moment (and for the same reason) it’s as far off as a referendum on independence. Just like me (the same rules apply to both of us here) you need to convince people first. But I don’t really expect an English nationalist like yourself to consider that the views of people in Wales do or should count for anything. After all, you’ve made it pretty clear previously that you think we’re all too stupid and uneducated to make any decisions ourselves.

dafis said...

Anon should read closely some of the sentiments being expressed by folk in places like Cumbria and Cornwall. Indeed look closely at the range of Covid experience at regional levels and then dig further into the experiences within large metropolitan areas compared with the less densely cramped areas of England. Instead of carping about the limited freedom offered by devolution in Wales and Scotland he/she should be pressing for greater powers for the nations and some real separation of powers for the regions of England.

Anonymous said...

Dafis, I'm a great believer in regional power and stimulating competition between competing regions in the public sector. This would help to improve the NHS, local government, state education, air, roads and rail transport, environmental concerns and so on.

Devolution got it entirely wrong, we've just been allowed to get poorer and poorer and our kids thicker and thicker (educationally and health wise). What we surely do not need in Wales is a Welshman or Welshwoman telling us how to do things for the better. How the hell would she or he know?

We need to look to our closest neighbour and ask for help. Or we can ask the Irish or the Scots for help if we think they are in a better position to offer it. For we really do need help, it's as plain as day!

John Dixon said...


Thank you for intentionally reminding us, yet again, how stupid all Welsh people are, and unintentionally reminding us how dangerous English nationalism and exceptionalism can be. It must be hard for you, having to continually remind we Welsh how incapable we are and how superior everyone else is, but in future, please find somewhere else to do it. I prefer not to censor comments on this blog, but I'm prepared to make an exception in your case. If you want to seriously engage with the issues under discussion, you'll still be welcome, but future sweeping assertions about the inferior Welsh will be treated with the 'respect' which they deserve.