Behind-the-scenes filming has shown how Mark Drakeford came to make key decisions during critical moments of the pandemic which affected the lives of everyone in Wales.
Revealing the disagreements within the Welsh Government about which key steps to take during the second wave of coronavirus in the autumn and winter, it shows Mr Drakeford resisting calls from some of his ministers for a longer fire-break, and health minister Vaughan Gething calling for the maximum possible restrictions at Christmas, given Wales’ high virus rates.
A team at S4C were granted access to Mr Drakeford and his team from September to March for Prif Weinidog mewn Pandemig (First Minister in a Pandemic). They followed as he made decisions on the firebreak lockdown at the end of September and rules around Christmas as cases soared. He is also heard calling Johnson “really, really awful” after a particularly tense meeting.
How the decision on a firebreak lockdown was made
On October 19, 2020, a short, sharp ‘firebreak’ lockdown was announced in Wales in a bid to help regain control of coronavirus. The Welsh Government said the fortnight-long action was needed to save lives and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. But behind-the-scenes discussions show that some MSs felt that it should have been even longer.
Deputy minister for economy and transport, Lee Waters, raised the possibility of having a three-week rather than a two-week firebreak lockdown during a cabinet meeting.
But Mark Drakeford told his colleagues: “I simply don’t think a three-week firebreak is affordable, let alone sustainable in the public mind. You’ve seen what we’ve done has corralled every penny we can find to support businesses over a two-week circuit breaker. A three-week, working week firebreak is a different proposition in terms of its impact on businesses and our ability to be able to support those businesses.”
Reluctance to ‘go it alone’ with Christmas rules
By the end of November, cases in Wales were rising at an “alarming rate” and health minister Vaughan Gething is seen raising his concerns in the documentary. He says: “We’re seeing a rising tide now so I’m genuinely worried about getting to Christmas, we need to do the maximum we can.”
At a meeting with the other four nations to discuss the Christmas restrictions, Mark Drakeford said he felt a four nations approach should be taken and put his case forward that the number of households who could meet up should be reduced from three to two.
But this was not backed by the other nations, with the First Minister saying that “not even Nicola (Sturgeon)” supported the change.
He said: “Nobody came in, not even Nicola came in to say that she supported it. So, I think if we didn’t change the rules we would certainly be changing the message in Wales and that our message would be that only two households should meet up. I’m reluctant to go it alone with the rules.”
After the meeting, Mr Gething made his feelings very clear that he felt Wales was “in the wrong position now”.
“I think for all the difficult choices I’d much rather make a difficult choice to move on household restrictions because of our markedly different position,” he said.
But the First Minister showed reluctance to break away from a four nations approach.
“All the people who want to follow the rules will do that,” he told a meeting with his health minister. “All the people who don’t want to follow the rules won’t do it if we change the rules. I think we can get to the same outcome without having to break a four-nation agreement, unilaterally break it with a lot of confusion I think that will create. I think our strongest card is just to be very clear: only two households should meet over Christmas.”
Mr Gething pointed out that the Welsh Government had “powerful rationale” to make it the rule rather than a message because at the time Wales had the highest rates in the whole of the UK. But Mr Drakeford said: “We have powerful rationale for all the things we do. We don’t take people with us on quite a lot of them.
“We had a very powerful rationale over non-essential retail and an awful lot of people weren’t persuaded at all. I think we will run the risk of losing another lot of public support and public trust for the bigger things that we are doing by telling them that uniquely in Wales you’re not going to be allowed to do something that everybody else in the whole of the UK can do.”
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A subsequent cabinet meeting to discuss changing the advice that only two households should meet up into making it law again showed the very different range of views.
Mr Gething said: “There will be accusations of bad faith, there will be attempts to say Wales are being different for different’s sake, where actually I think we are already different… and at such a high level that I think we need to change the law as well as the guidance.”
Minister for mental health and well-being, Eluned Morgan, said: “I agree with Vaughan. I think if you give an inch they will take a mile. Absolute clarity is needed here and the guidance and regs need to be in the same place.”
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But Jane Hutt MS said she was concerned about moving away from a four nations approach in terms of the message and the cabinet was split down the middle in terms of the numbers on either side of the debate.
Mr Drakeford concluded: “We can’t keep agonising. I’m afraid, hard as this is, here is my reluctant conclusion: we should bring the guidance and the regulations into the same place.” The decision was announced.
In the end those discussions were superseded by the announcement on December 19 that all non-essential shops, gyms and hospitality would have to close as cases began to increase at a fast rate and that the only household bubbles allowed were for single person households joining with one other household. The majority of those level 4 restrictions are still in place today.
Mr Drakeford said: “We have no choice. Things are so bad, we have to do it now. We can’t wait until after Christmas. The numbers will just go so high they are out of control.”
What Mark Drakeford really thinks of Boris
After a conference call with Boris Johnson, the First Minister is seen telling an aide: “Dear me! He really, really is awful.”
It was after a meeting about the new Kent variant being discovered and the decision by some European countries, including France, to close their borders to the UK.
“Imagine that some deadly new variant of the virus had been discovered in France and they were trying to persuade us that there was no need to take any action to stop French lorry drivers from driving across the continent,” Mr Drakeford says.
He said he didn’t need any minutes from the Cobra meeting with Boris, “other than wringing our hands in a sense of despair.”
“They (the UK Government) see the UK through London eyes,” he said.
Speaking about Boris in particular, he said: “We are very different people. He’s studied Latin, as I have. But it’s hard to find anything else that’s common between us as people. The world through Boris Johnson’s eyes is so different to the world that people in Wales see. It’s difficult sometimes to understand where he is coming from and why he’s doing what he’s doing.”
He also said: “I don’t worry about our relationship with the UK Government because they don’t worry about the relationship with us. I do worry about our relationship with Scotland. When you’re trying to work closely with people you don’t want to do things that will create problems for them. At the end of the day, our responsibility is to do things on behalf of and for Wales that are appropriate to us.”
* Prif Weinidog mewn Pandemig is on S4C catch-up.