Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Being used as the stakes in a high-risk gamble


Whilst in theory the Welsh Government has the power to determine what steps should be taken to minimise Covid risks, in practice the scope for divergence from England is limited by the tight control of the purse strings being retained in London, the long and porous nature of the border, and the shared media which inevitably highlights what is happening in England and can lead to a degree of confusion when the rules differ. Despite that, the Welsh Government has tried to maintain a safer environment in Wales than that pertaining in England, and has succeeded, by and large, in keeping most of the population on board with its decisions.

It has been clear since the emergence of the latest variant that the desire of Wales (and Scotland) to take stronger action that England is still strong, with the First Ministers of both countries openly demanding tougher action, a demand which Johnson has rejected outright. It isn’t just non-Tory politicians who are expressing their concern – just yesterday, Johnson slapped down the head of the UK Health Security Agency for her entirely sensible advice that people should try and avoid unnecessary socialising. The PM, apparently, is all in favour of unnecessary socialising whatever the risk. Today, senior doctors and NHS leaders have warned that the government needs to take stronger action on a precautionary basis, describing it as “bizarre” to wait until a spike happens before acting.

Whilst the government is entirely correct to emphasise that advisors advise and ministers decide, a decision not to act in the face of such strong advice from so many experts indicates that the government has decided to take a gamble. How much of a gamble remains to be seen. It may be that they end up being lucky: the new variant could turn out to be less of a problem than some think likely. If that happens, they will retrospectively claim that they took the right decisions, ignoring the degree to which luck plays a part; if things are as bad as others fear, the gamble will cost thousands of premature deaths. None of us – not even the most knowledgeable experts – have enough information at present even to make a reliable guess as to the outcome; only time will tell. Johnson might get away with it this time – that would be a good outcome in the short term, but might also simply encourage even more recklessness in the future.

What is clear is that the UK government is being less than honest with the population. Their rejection of the suggestion that all arrivals into the UK should self-isolate until after a second negative test on day 8 (as put forward by Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon) was on the basis that it would have a detrimental impact on the travel industry, which demonstrates that impacting one particular industry sector is a more important consideration for Johnson than hospitalisations and deaths, let alone increased pressure on the NHS. Presenting sound and sensible public health actions as being ‘restrictions’ on ‘liberty’ not only presses the right buttons with the Tory party’s increasingly influential extremists, but also encourages the public to overlook the fact that our lives are the stake in Johnson’s massive gamble, a gamble which puts profit ahead of people. And, to return to where this post started, as long as Wales is tied to England, no matter how much the Welsh Government might huff and puff, Welsh lives are part of that stake as well.

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