Covid-19: We need and deserve answers as to why so many people have lost their lives – and that’s why Wales’ public inquiry will be so important – Laura McAllister

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It took Dominic Cummings and Barnard Castle to shatter some steely resolve, diligent obedience and admirable communitarian spirit during Covid lockdown.

Together, Cummings and the Prime Minister have ripped the sticking plaster off a fragile public trust in politicians, exposing a gaping wound. The PM is beholden to a special adviser and, in deciding not to sack him, sacrificed another layer of public compliance to important lockdown restrictions.

Most of us have observed the terms of what has been a horribly difficult lockdown for many, because we believed it was the correct thing to do. We did it not just out of civic and moral duty, but because it gave us all the best chance of avoiding the worst of this deadly virus, of which we knew almost nothing just a few weeks earlier.

Until Cummings’ toe-curling performance in the Downing Street rose garden, most people had kept their heads down, hoping our politicians would act in our best interests while also trying to cope with looming economic hardship, juggling work with children’s lessons, while all the time missing family and friends.

That mood has now changed and we, the public, want some answers. No independent public inquiry can assuage the dreadful sense of grief and loss that many have felt as a consequence of coronavirus, but the personal is always political.

The families of the tens of thousands who’ve lost their lives deserve answers – and not politicians’ answers either from the likes of Matt “that’s a very good question” Hancock.

In Wales, there’s already an in-principle agreement across all political parties that we’ll hold our own independent public inquiry into the way in which the coronavirus crisis has been handled here. It was debated in the Senedd this week. As the newspeak goes, 1,371 Welsh people have died (at the time of writing), but we know the figure is far higher. We need and deserve answers as to why so many people have lost their lives.

Of course, we’ll also be keenly watching a UK-level inquiry, but we could do that through the lens of some early, hard evidence from what’s happened in Wales should we set up our own inquiry now.

For starters, it would reassure the public that we’re on the case (whatever’s going on across the border). We could retain all relevant data, information, correspondence (Zoom and Teams recordings too) and properly capture personal and organisational memory.

Some say starting an inquiry now is a distraction and risks politicising it, given we’re 11 months away from Senedd elections, but the political manoeuvring in the Bay has already started. And, anyway, a key objective of inquiries is accountability.

Holding governments to account includes at the ballot box. Sure, a pandemic doesn’t recognise the electoral calendar and a second wave would hinder its work. But another objective is lesson-learning, so would be of help should another wave hit.

It would also improve decision-making in the future. That’s why work should start while we’re living through the coronavirus and its consequences, benefiting from real-time and fresh memories. And we should aim for an interim report by early 2021.

Critically, it’ll need to assess whether actions taken by the Welsh Government, by the Welsh NHS and Public Health Wales, by our local councils, scientific advisors, the police and others were the “right” ones at the “right” time.

Did they end up being qualitatively better than the equivalent actions taken by the UK (or, in effect, English) Government or the governments of Scotland or Northern Ireland, never mind those in the rest of Europe and the world?

Now, this is categorically not some kind of perverse Covid beauty contest. There is little in the way of a gold standard on the handling of this crisis after all, as nations have different cultures, conditions and measurements and reporting of data. Rather, this is recognition that we operate in a system of multi-level governance.

Holding our own immediate inquiry, while being sensitive to cross-border policy contamination, is doubly important. After all, while Covid has confronted a different devolution regime here, it hasn’t faced an independent Wales or Scotland. The UK Government still sets the tone and the state-level framework and the Welsh Government and our NHS are tied into UK-wide systems, processes and protocols.

It’s hard to deny that Welsh politics has stepped into the spotlight in terms of visibility and news profile here and beyond, but we are still without our own proper public sphere and geography or demography can’t be altered (at least not overnight).

There are many types of commissions and inquiries into disasters, crises and pandemics and they’re no panacea – in fact, they’re something of a curate’s egg in terms of results and impact. Look at Hillsborough, Chilcott, Bloody Sunday – all important inquiries, but attributing blame is more difficult and inherently political. A public inquiry is an aid to truth and accountability, not necessarily a definitive verdict.

According to research by the Institute for Government and Ipsos Mori, the highest levels of public trust for professionals who’ve led inquiries are reserved for medics, teachers, professors and scientists. Only then do judges appear in the list.

I make no comment about who should lead a Welsh inquiry other than to say she/he must have a sharply critical mind and a keen appetite for seeking out forensic truths. We know from the same study that women are rarely appointed as inquiry chairs (there are not many female judges, after all), yet someone with real empathy and a connection with ordinary people who’ve been traumatised by Covid would help to establish the requisite trust and conviction in an inquiry’s capacity to shine a light – just saying!

That person should also help shape its terms of reference, which should be closely scrutinised by the Senedd as a whole. Members of the inquiry should include “ordinary” people, the families of victims and health and other key workers too.

Those daily press briefings have only occasionally got to the answers we all want and need. These are many and detailed so not all can be rehearsed here. But I’m going to have a go at some of the questions we ordinary folk might like to ask if we were members of said inquiry.

So, imagine being back in the pub or cafe and chatting to your friends – what would they want answered? (Aside from “When can we go for a pint again?”.)

Context and liaison first, as this helps assess the distinctive Welsh performance. How well did the four governments of the UK communicate and work together? What actually happened with the Roche testing agreement – was Wales really “gazumped”? Could the confusion over testing and PPE orders have been better explained to us?

Next, what was the rationale for separate systems? Some will be entirely reasonable and strategically correct, others maybe less so, such as the separate website for testing. After all, the other nations were using the same one and eventually we joined it too.

Why was no thought given to the clarity of messaging by the UK Government and the London media, in terms of what applied only in England? I’d be tempted to ask if network journos should be forced to take a module in devolution and multi-level governance (resources provided, of course).

Then there’s preparedness – how ready were our governments for this pandemic? The First Minister has said that the cabinet first discussed coronavirus in late February. Was the work carried out four years ago around Exercise Cygnus – the flu pandemic modelling – used to proper effect and did the Welsh Government act on its findings? Was it even appropriate for things like PPE acquisition, given Cygnus modelled a flu-type pandemic?

Did we get the timing of interventions right and were our public representatives sufficiently agile and responsive thereafter? When exactly did the government attempt to source PPE and PCR tests and was this early enough? Could the consultation with supermarkets around lists of shielded people have been speedier?

The Welsh Government’s biggest success seems to have been managing to stop the NHS being overrun. In halting routine surgery and introducing testing for NHS workers earlier than in England, we were ahead of the game. Why, then, did we get overtaken by England on testing capacity and throughput? Did anyone know what our testing targets actually were? Was the thinking on developing field hospitals right in hindsight?

Fundamentally, have our Welsh policy and governance systems and sub-systems proved up to the job? What happened (again) in Betsi Cadwaladr? Were the original testing procedures too convoluted? Why did local councils need to go through several different organisations just to refer a key worker for a test? On what basis did the Welsh Government decide to drop the testing and tracing policy in mid-March? Has the nation been treated equally? Why was Gwent an early hotspot?

Critically, have the Welsh Government’s lockdown actions helped reduce infections and save lives, or should we have gone into lockdown sooner? What’s our take on the Financial Times’ study that showed Covid death rates are lowest in countries that went into lockdown early, for example, Vietnam – a relatively poor country with a huge population on the border with China. It launched a testing app, went into a mandatory home quarantine remarkably quickly and had no reported deaths. That might be taken with a pinch of salt, but it shouldn’t detract from asking the questions.

So why did it take until the eve of the match (when many Scots had already travelled to Cardiff) to cancel the Wales v Scotland rugby international? Why were the two Stereophonics gigs allowed to take place, with thousands milling around the city centre and crammed into the Motorpoint Arena?

Can you explain what “following the science” actually means? Each UK government and the WHO believes it’s “following the science”, but is it fair to say there’s no infallible, technocratic science that sits outside politics?

The interpretation of scientific advice and implementing it in a democratic society is a political act, not a value-neutral one. Therefore, will you tell us more about the process by which decisions were made after hearing the scientific advice? As a follow-up, has science and over-complicated data provision been used at times to allow decision-makers off the hook?

Critically, were we ever really all in this together? Have vulnerable residents of care homes been horribly betrayed? In England, care home residents and staff could be tested, whether symptomatic or not, from the end of April. Our First Minister saw no value in comprehensive testing for everyone in care homes at that point. Later, the policy changed, based, we were told, on “emerging evidence and scientific advice”? What was that exactly?

How should we respond to the moving but damning testimony from Mario Kreft, chair of Care Forum Wales?

He claimed: “Here we adopted a policy of protecting the NHS at all costs and social care was right at the back of the queue in terms of effort and resources. This is probably the most single monumental safeguarding failure that we have ever had in the UK in regards to vulnerable people. It was a policy that effectively accepted we were going to import the virus into care homes and that the residents and staff were collateral damage. Instead of shielding them, we left them defenceless.”

Such words surely deserve a proper response.

Without a coronavirus vaccine, there is no obvious end in sight, meaning more questions will emerge over time. The jury’s very much still out on all governments’ performances. The efficacy of test, track and trace monitoring will be key as lockdown eases, so we’ll want to know how well that works too.

Despite the concerns of Daniel Kawczynski, an English border MP who believes only big nations have the right to self-determination, our densely-populated border will also test how well the Welsh and English systems can work together. But if the UK Government continues with its progressive relaxation of lockdown, for how long will the Welsh Government be able to resist following England, even if that means ignoring a persistently high rate of infection?

Everyone is concerned that the coming months will resume the impossible pressures on the NHS if there’s a second peak. This means proper lesson-learning takes on even greater significance.

For what it’s worth, my perception at this stage is that an independent inquiry won’t find any major “smoking gun” of Welsh Government incompetence, but who knows – and that’s the point, surely? Poor decision-making or mistaken timings might well be detected, but most of us will have some sympathy and understanding for a government trying to get to grips with something so novel and all-encompassing.

So a call for an immediate inquiry is not about political point-scoring or smoking guns. An inquiry is part of the contract that exists between us, the people, and the politicians we elect. It would be an examination of the preparedness of government for pandemics, of the efficacy of crisis management and the effectiveness of political decision-making.

Notwithstanding the constraints of a UK political and economic framework, facing humanity’s biggest challenge in maybe a century, did our devolved government step up to the plate and meet our needs and expectations?

The answers to these questions have profound implications for us all.



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