Welsh Government accused of ‘hiding behind’ UK only public inquiry – as Minister promises it will ‘look separately at what happened in Wales’
An attempt to force a Wales-specific inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic failed yesterday after a vote in the Senedd.
Welsh Labour effectively voted down the motion, with the Health Minister offering assurances that a UK wide public inquiry will commence in spring of next year and “will look separately at what happened in Wales” as part of the process.
To propose that the Senedd:
Calls for an independent public inquiry into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wales.
The motion was presented by Shadow Minister for Health Russell George MS, who said: ” It’s been a year since the Welsh Conservatives first called for an independent public inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic in Wales, and for over a year, the Welsh Government have resisted that request, but that request has not only come from us as Welsh Conservatives, it’s come from others across this Senedd and this request has also come from health professionals and health bodies throughout Wales as well.”
“From April 2020, the First Minister has made it clear that different decisions would be made if it was in the interests of Wales and this is a mantra that the First Minister’s made several times; he keeps repeating this statement, yet he and the Government here are not willing for there to be a Wales-wide specific inquiry; they are simply happy that there’s a footnote or some chapters in a UK-wide inquiry, which is unlikely to go into any kind of detail into the Welsh Government’s role in any kind of depth.”
“The Welsh Government must answer some serious questions on hospital-acquired COVID-19 infections during the pandemic and show that lessons have indeed been learnt. We’ve heard lessons have been learnt, but a public inquiry can demonstrate that. We know that 1,806 people, that’s roughly one in four people, who died from COVID-19 probably or definitely caught COVID-19 from hospital wards. Wales has the highest death toll of the whole of the UK nations with a rate of 249.5 deaths per 100,000 people. The Welsh Government throughout reports of ward-to-ward transmissions has said lessons are going to be learned, but I look at this, and I look at what the health Minister said last week, that these deaths would be investigated, well, we haven’t had any detail yet. Who is going to carry out the investigations? How will the investigations be conducted?
“A public inquiry will get to the bottom and give families the answers that they might want, and I would expect them to want.”
Plaid Cymru’s Siân Gwenllian MS said, “For a year now, Plaid Cymru has also been calling for a public inquiry that is specific to Wales. That would give a unique opportunity to assess and learn lessons from the way in which the Government has handled the pandemic, but, rather than that, the Government has decided to have one Welsh chapter in a UK-wide inquiry.”
“Nearly 6,000 people have died in the wake of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. There are immeasurable levels of illness, not to mention the chronic disability associated with long COVID. As well as that, six months of education days were lost, and there have been far-reaching economic consequences and increasing strain on our health services. That all tells us that we need an inquiry, and that we need a Wales-specific inquiry, and we need that because, very simply, this crisis has happened in an area that is devolved.”
“We’ve been able to chart our own course during the pandemic because health is a devolved area, and so it makes perfect sense that we scrutinise in detail the unique actions that have been taken in Wales, because this is an area devolved to us, and we have the opportunity to have created our own response. Time and time again the First Minister has emphasised that we have a Welsh response to the pandemic here, and so the microscope should be on our response here in Wales. It’s not the same thing as the response in other parts of the UK.”
North Wales MS Mark Isherwood addressed the chamber, “The Welsh Government’s handling of the pandemic has failed many north Wales businesses, and I say this not as a party political soundbite but because I have been inundated by desperate businesses telling me this. The economic damage wrought by the pandemic has caused the worst recession in the UK for 300 years. In response, the UK Government have provided over £400 billion of support to protect jobs and businesses, with the Welsh Government receiving its full share.”
“Each time the Welsh Government has announced financial support to help businesses survive the pandemic, it has excluded small bed-and-breakfast businesses. On each occasion, I’ve been contacted by despairing small B&B businesses unable to understand why this vital part of local tourism economies has been denied support. On each occasion, I’ve raised this with the Welsh Government to zero effect.”
“Since the May election, I’ve continued to receive e-mails from many other struggling north Wales businesses condemning the Welsh Government’s lack of financial support throughout the pandemic for them, stating, for example, that the Welsh Government had stabbed them in the back and that the Welsh Government grant announcement was a ‘slap in the face’.”
The Minister for Health and Social Services, Eluned Morgan responded to the calls explaining why the Welsh Labour Government were supporting a UK inquiry, “The Government entirely agrees that it’s important that there should be an impartial and appropriate inquiry held into the way in which we have dealt with the pandemic. We do need to gather and sift evidence in a systematic way, listening carefully to the stories of those who saw their lives overturned in such a dramatic and cruel way during this difficult period. We need to analyse what was done well and those things that weren’t done as well, and I know that many have listed some of those today. And we need to recommend to Governments, and to society more generally, what we can learn from our experiences of the pandemic, so that we can be ready to face similar challenges in the future. However, we will be voting against this motion.”
“The First Minister has already informed the Senedd that he agrees with the UK Prime Minister that a public inquiry that he said that he would commence in spring of next year should deal with the UK as a whole. As part of that, it will look separately at what happened in Wales. We believe—and this is the belief of the UK Prime Minister too, it appears—that this is the best possible arrangement for Wales.”
“Holding a separate Welsh inquiry, as is suggested, would either lead to duplication of much of the work done by a UK-wide inquiry, or an England-only inquiry, or it would mean that important aspects of the pandemic that should be taken into account wouldn’t be part of a Welsh inquiry. The agreement, therefore, between the First Minister and UK Prime Minister to hold a UK-wide inquiry ensures that particular attention must be paid to Wales as part of this inquiry.”
“Of course, there are many decisions yet to be taken about the inquiry. We will need to define its purpose very carefully in order to ensure that it considers the right issues. We will need to decide on the remit of the work.”
“I think that the breadth of that inquiry is something that is still there to be influenced.”
Vale of Clwyd MS Gareth Davies wrapped up the debate, “While we started out with a co-ordinated approach, it wasn’t long before Welsh Ministers decided to go their own way. The First Minister derided the UK Government’s proposals on face masks, and he told the Welsh public in early 2020 that there was no need to conduct widescale testing in our care homes. The UK Government rolled out asymptomatic testing in care homes, yet the First Minister said there was no value in that approach. I believe it is as a result of this decision and the systematic failure of the Welsh Government to roll out wider community testing that, sadly, we have nearly 2,000 care home residents who died from COVID.”
“They took decisions that differed from other home nations, decisions that undoubtedly led to us having the highest death rate of any home nation. They can’t now hide behind a UK-wide approach by calling for a UK-only public inquiry. The people of Wales who lost loved ones to the COVID virus deserve answers, they deserve to know whether the actions of the Welsh Government Ministers contributed to the deaths of their family members, friends and colleagues. We can only provide those answers with an independent public inquiry, an inquiry for Wales, held here in Wales.”
The motion failed 27 votes for, 29 votes against.
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