By Lowri Pitcher
As of April 23, there were 8,358 cumulative cases of COVID-19 in Wales with the level of infection increasing by about 200 daily. While much of what we see as the Government’s response to the virus seems to be a directive of Number 10, much of Wales’ actions to curb the impact of the virus is indeed the decision of the Welsh Government.
Each of the UK’s devolved administrations have a variety of powers when it comes to their response to this crisis. However, thus far each of the devolved administrations have cooperated closely with Westminster and the nations’ first ministers have benn present at numerous official high-level and COBRA meetings. This has led to a coordinated UK-wide response and in Wales we have seen the introduction of new measures in line with measures introduced in England. These measures, announced by the prime minister, impact sectors from social care, education and health, despite each of these sectors being devolved in Wales.
Similarly, each of the devolved administrations worked closely with Westminster to draft the Coronavirus Act 2020 which gained Royal Assent on March 25. This law provides both the UK Government and the devolved governments with emergency powers to increase the health and social care workforce, ease the burden on the NHS and slow the spread of the virus by introducing stringent social distancing measures.
Additionally, Wales has its own Chief Medical Officer, Dr Frank Atherton, and Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Peter Halligan, who work with Prof Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance to provide coordinated advice to the UK Government.
Is Wales responding differently to the rest of the UK?
So far, Wales has acted mostly in concordance with England and the rest of the UK, although there are some important differences between the laws implemented in both Wales and England which should be noted.
Firstly, while fines for leaving your house without a “reasonable excuse”,, can reach £960 in England, the same is not true for people breaking the law in Wales. Here, as in England, fines start at £60 (reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days). However, while in England the fine will double in value each time an individual is convicted (up to a maximum of £960), in Wales individuals will be charged £120 the second or subsequent times they are charged and risk being arrested if they repeatedly refuse to comply with the rules.
Additionally, while the regulations in England do not mention how many times individuals are allowed to leave their houses each day to exercise, the Welsh regulations do. The Welsh set of rules stipulates that members of the public may only go outside for exercise once a day, and when doing so should remain at least 2 meters apart from people of different households at all times. However, the Welsh Government announced on Friday that rules would be relaxed to allow people with disabilities and particular health problems to leave their houses to exercise more than once a day. In a bid to decrease the risk of contamination for those exercising, popular public spaces such as Cardiff’s Roath Park have seen a one-way systems introduced, expected to remain in place until at least April 26.
Building upon the initial stay-at-home measures, the Welsh Government also announced a new law which entered into force on Tuesday, April 7 whereby “All businesses will have to take all reasonable measures to ensure the 2m rule is maintained between people on their premises whenever work is being carried out.” Businesses that do not follow the law face a £60 fine (reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days) for their first breach of the law and £120 for second and subsequent offences. However, Drakeford acknowledged that “It’s not an absolute ban on people not being able to be within two metres of one another,” but businesses should do everything possible to follow the distancing guidelines if possible and that workers who feel unsafe could report this to the police or local council, as both authorities have the powers to impose fines.
More so, given that education is a devolved matter, on April 22 Wales became the first country in the UK to guarantee funding and guidance for the provision of free school meals until schools re-open or until the end of August. Welsh Education Minister, Kirsty Williams announced that the Welsh Government will make available £33 million to assist local authorities to provide free school meals and that each eligible child will receive the equivalent of £19.50 a week.
On Saturday April 25, stricter measures regarding people’s ability to travel were implemented. The technical change means that people will not be allowed to remain away from their homes. This is intended to curb the number of people travelling to second or holiday homes in Wales as has been seen in West Wales recently. The change in regulation is also expected to decrease the number of people travelling far from home, to picturesque locations, in order to exercise.
The new rules also set out that businesses offering a “click and collect” service will be allowed to open provided they can observe the social distancing rules, although more detail on this will be released by the Welsh Government.
Finally, although no decisions have been made yet, the Welsh Government also possesses the ability to decide when the lockdown in Wales will come to an end, even if this decision goes against the rest of the UK’s exit strategy.
On Friday, April 17, Drakeford announced that Wales would act alongside England in extending the lockdown first announced on March 23, by at least another three weeks, until at least the second week of May. During a press conference, he said: “I know that the last 3 weeks have been very difficult for many people…While we have seen some positive signs in the data, it is still too early to change course in dealing with this deadly virus.”
“ It is still too early to change course in dealing with this deadly virus”
But, the First Minister of Wales has not ruled out extending the current lockdown for longer than in other parts of the UK should it be deemed necessary. He claimed: “I will be reluctant to move to a geographical set of distinctions because I think they’d bring complexity with them. But if the evidence was, and if the advice from the medical experts, was that we needed to do things differently and that was right for Wales, then of course that is what we would do.”
The Welsh Government’s decision to enact policies which are mostly in line with that of Westminster has come under criticism from some. In mid-April, Momentum’s sister organisation, Welsh Labour Grassroots, wrote to Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, criticising the Assembly for working “largely in lock-step with the UK Government.”
While raising concerns over the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the scale of testing undertaken in Wales, the organisation warned that “if Wales does not develop a response that goes above and beyond the UK government’s strategy, we not only risk raising questions about the value of devolution and a Welsh Labour government but risk the well-being and lives of potentially tens of thousands of people.”
In response, Drakeford acknowledged the concerns raised by the organisation but defended his government’s response, claiming that “If you’ve got one simple message that applies everywhere in the United Kingdom, even where circumstances are not identical, that really helps people to understand what is being asked of them.”
For now, despite having the ability to respond in a divergent manner, it seems that the Senedd will remain in close contact with Westminster. This will prove useful in providing one clear message and set of instructions to the public during a period where clear communication will be paramount to establishing an effective response to COVID-19.