Friday, 4 June 2021

Are Welsh Tories demanding that more of us should die?


It’s a stark question, but a valid one, given yesterday’s call by the party for the whole of Wales to be moved into Alert Level 1 immediately. It’s in contrast with the continued caution being shown by Mark Drakeford, who is slowing down the unlocking process so that more people can be vaccinated, given the potential impact of the new variant. None of us knows with certainty what the impact of either strategy will be, but experience to date – and all the scientific evidence – indicates that the risk of hospitalisations and deaths will be lower the more people have been vaccinated before the lockdown restrictions are removed.

The underlying question is about how many hospitalisations, deaths, and instances of long Covid are considered ‘acceptable’. Very few people would argue that the whole economy should be shut down for a year to avoid a single death, but equally few would argue against a short shutdown if it would prevent millions of deaths. Neither of those extremes is realistic in the current scenario, but we don’t know exactly where we are in between the two. The best probability, according to the experts, is that an unchecked third wave involving a more infectious and more serious variant could result in a number of deaths in the thousands or tens of thousands, and the more restrictions in place and the greater the number of people who have been vaccinated when it happens, the lower the death toll will be. Governments and opposition politicians are faced with a very simple question – what number is considered ‘acceptable’ when balanced against the costs of maintaining restrictions.

There is no ‘right’ answer to that question, it’s all about making a judgement call. And I don’t envy those who have been placed in the position of having to make it. What’s missing, though is a degree of honesty about the fact that they are making such a call. Governments are taking decisions which literally mean the difference between life and death for thousands, even if they can’t identify who will die and who will live. Underlying those decisions is an opinion about how many deaths they are prepared to tolerate. It’s a number which they don’t actually know themselves, although they have a reasonable idea of the likely ranges associated with different courses of action and different scenarios. It follows that any politicians arguing for faster removal of restrictions are effectively stating that they are prepared to see a higher number of deaths than those arguing that restrictions should be eased more slowly.

So, to answer the headline question – yes, the Tories are indeed calling for more Welsh people to die of Covid. We don’t know how many more (it could be a handful, it could be thousands); we merely know that the number would be higher if the government implemented the Tory proposal. That doesn’t necessarily make the Tories ‘wrong’, however. If the difference in outcome between the policy being followed by Drakeford and that advocated by the Tories were to be provably small, the public (with the probable exception of those who end up dead or in hospital as a result) might even support their position. But presenting it as a case of giving people back their ‘freedom’ without spelling out the health consequences is simply dishonest. The public at large – i.e. those with whose lives they wish to take chances – surely deserve to be told the likely consequences with greater clarity. We deserve an adult conversation rather than populism.

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