By the end of this week we are expecting further announcements by the Labour Government in Wales and the British Government on the next stage of the lockdown policy. My party strongly advocated the current suppression strategy and was critical of the initial herd immunity strategy pursued. The high levels of mortality in Wales and the UK indicates that we were right in our position.
In many ways initiating a lockdown policy was the easy part, however we must remember that the lockdown is not a cure for the virus. Its primary purpose is to create the breathing space required to build up capacity in our health systems to deal with the pandemic whilst we wait for a vaccine that could be a long time coming.
We are faced with a virus that is very dangerous for the health of so-called “high-risk” groups, which tend to be the elderly and those with respiratory problems or other health complications. The mortality rate is as high as 10% in those groups if infected. Evidence suggests that as much as 20% of the population are in high risk groups – and we obviously hope that as our scientists learn more about the virus that we can narrow that group down further to identify a core high risk group. However, this will take time, and time is not known as a normal political commodity – especially in times of crisis.
The challenges posed by lifting restrictions will dwarf those of imposing the lockdown in the first place. For my part, I support extending the restrictions simply because we don’t know enough about the virus as of yet. We also certainly don’t have the required testing capacity in Wales (and across the UK), and critically also lack the contact tracing infrastructure to pursue an eradication strategy . However, as I pointed out in a debate on lockdown regulations in the House of Commons this week, the Labour Government in Wales needs to start explaining its policy better, especially the rationale behind lifting any restrictions, if they are to maintain public confidence.
Opposition politicians suffer from a severe disadvantage as we do not receive the expert advice provided to Ministers. This is a serious and unhelpful disadvantage during a pandemic crisis. Scrutiny of decisions is vital in any democracy as it supports transparency and accountability. I would therefore strongly urge the Labour Government in Wales to publish the scientific advice it is using to base its decisions. I also suspect It would before its own good in the long term, and would provide a glowing contrast to the secrecy behind British Government policy.
I have no idea what our national government will announce, however in this week’s debate I emphasised that if the so called “four nation” approach in the UK was to mean anything, then all four government needed to agree policy. Joint decision making between the Welsh, Scottish, Northern Ireland and the Westminster Governments must be the way forward in this pandemic and the future post Brexit British State.
If looking for a good example of policy, look no further than our cousins across the Celtic sea. The Republic of Ireland were way ahead of the British State when it came to banning mass gatherings and introducing the lockdown. Whilst the British Government maintains no restriction on open borders, anyone travelling to the Republic has to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival. It’s amazing what these small independent countries can achieve.
Over the weekend, the Republic of Ireland announced their detailed plans for lifting their lockdown in some detail, and many other Governments across the world are communicating with the same level of transparency and clarity. The Irish Government have set out five phases. Phase 1 commencing on 18 May, will allow outdoor meetings between people from different households. The fifth phase, commencing in August, will allow larger social gatherings and a return to work across all sectors. Schools are not expected to return until the new academic year, and only then in a phased manner.
Regrettably, I will not be holding my breath for anything as comprehensive from the Tories in London and Labour in Wales.