As we enter the seventh week of lockdown there is increasing discussion and speculation from politicians and commentators on how and when to ease the lockdown restrictions that have so radically altered our everyday lives.
Governments across the UK are wrestling with these decisions, worrying about long-term damage to the economy and the population’s wellbeing, while being acutely aware of the potential danger of encouraging any premature relaxation of the current measures. The devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all, rightly, stressed the crucial role they have in making and implementing these decisions in their own nations.
Here in Wales this has added another layer of uncertainty in the public mind following last week’s apparently contradictory statements from the Welsh Government. At the start of the week, First Minister Mark Drakeford announced that Wales could ease the lockdown earlier than England. However, on Friday (1 May), the First Minister informed BBC Radio 4 listeners that he would rather the entire UK come out of the lockdown together. While it was correct for Mark Drakeford to highlight Wales’ ability to make its own decisions, any inconsistencies both within the Welsh Government’s approach and between that of the four nations risks prolonging the pandemic and further endangering public health.
Across all governments the response to this crisis must be led by the science. The virus does not recognise borders and different approaches would be confusing and difficult to enforce, particularly in border areas.
There is a case to be made for different responses in different areas as many places across the UK are all at different stages of the pandemic. This is as true within Wales itself as it is between the four nations. The situation in Cardiff is not the same as in Aberystwyth; rural Wales is very different from our city centres. A strong case could be made for Anglesey to be allowed to ease restrictions earlier, though attempts at a localised response could cause confusion within populations and be difficult to implement efficiently.
Lifting restrictions at any level should only be considered when the World Health Organisation (WHO) criteria for this have been met. Crucially, this means the ability to ‘detect, trace and isolate every case and track every contact’. Worryingly, this is not one of the ‘Five Conditions for Exit’ announced by the UK Government, and here in Wales the Government is under increasing pressure due to its poor performance on testing to date. Any attempt to lift the lockdown before these criteria can be met would be criminally negligent.
In the face of this unprecedented challenge a consistent and transparent response from all four nations is crucial. This response can not simply be a top down order from Westminster. The current confusion has shown the need for the devolved administrations to be engaged and involved in making these critical decisions.
The current crisis has highlighted the severe faults and fragilities in our current systems and its impact on the most precarious in our society. It has also shown how vulnerable and ill-prepared we are to tackle the challenges and threats of the ongoing and ever constant climate emergency.
The response to both the current health crisis and the climate crisis highlights the need for decision-making powers to rest at the most appropriate level while recognising that global problems need global solutions, which requires cooperation across borders and across all levels of government, from local to national.
Anthony Slaughter is leader of the Wales Green Party.