The Welsh first minister has strongly criticised the UK government’s quarantine plan, claiming it represents another example of Boris Johnson’s administration doing the “bare minimum” at each stage of the Covid crisis.
Mark Drakeford said he worried that Wales and the rest of the UK could be exposed to new variants from across the globe unless stronger action to tighten the border was taken.
In an interview with the Guardian, Drakeford said: “What ought to happen is the mirror image of what the UK government is doing. The UK government has an approach in which the world can come to the UK apart from a red list of countries who will have to observe quarantine.
“I would have done it the other way round. I would have had the default position that anyone coming into the UK would be expected to quarantine and then you would have had exceptions for countries where you were confident that was not required.”
Drakeford added that all the way through the pandemic the UK government “has done the least it can get away with rather than the most it should.
“When a new variant happens somewhere in the world that is not on the list of 33 countries people will have travelled here and the variant will be here and we will hear again the sound of the stable door being shut after the horse has bolted.”
Drakeford argued there was little the Welsh government could do unilaterally. “If we try to institute a system of that nature for Cardiff airport alone that will simply displace people to travel to an airport across our border. I continue to make the case that a four- or five-nation approach [including Ireland] is needed. We should all build the wall higher to prevent the hard work that people in Wales and elsewhere have done to drive down infection being undermined.”
Drakeford expressed hope that as long as infections continued to fall in Wales restrictions could be eased. “If things continue to improve by Easter we will be restoring freedoms to people that we have had to deny them during lockdown. But there’s a fragility about that. We can’t be certain that things will continue to improve because this has been a virus full of unpleasant surprises.”
The seven-day infection rate in Wales has dropped below 130 per 100,000 people, compared with more than 600 before Christmas when the country went into another lockdown. After a slow start, Wales’s vaccination programme has gathered pace and some pupils will return to primary schools after half-term.
Drakeford said the Welsh government had followed the advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to “go early and go deep” on lockdowns. “At the moment we are seeing the benefits,” he said, adding that it was on course to give first vaccinations to everyone in the top priority groups by the middle of this month.
He said: “There are two things that might get in our way. One might be weather. If we did have a period of very bad weather we are asking relatively old people to leave their homes and go to mass vaccination centres or their own GP. If there is snow or ice inevitably and rightly people don’t want to take those risks.
“The other thing we are not in charge of is supply. But so far the supply arrangements that the UK government is responsible for have held up well.”
Asked about growing concerns at the high death rates in parts of the south Wales valleys, Drakeford said there were a number of reasons, including the topography of the area, with many people living close together.
He also blamed the UK government’s austerity programme. “Coronavirus hit the UK at a point when our public services and people who work in them had felt the impact of that decade,” he said. “There are lots of people in valley communities who work in public services whose wages have been held down, whose bills have gone up and whose resilience to being able to deal with the attack of coronavirus was at a low ebb.”
He added: “Most fundamentally of all, inequality itself is part of the explanation. Britain was the most equal country in Europe in 1976 and the most unequal by the time Mrs [Margaret] Thatcher left office. There is nowhere more than the south Wales valleys that suffered from the deliberate inequalities that the strategy of neoliberal economists. Mrs Thatcher was definitely one of those.
“Those patterns of inequality have been very difficult to turn back. I think you see that play out in the death figures in those communities.”
Asked what he planned to do to address the problem – if Labour remains in power after the May elections – he said: “We talk about building back fairer, not better. There’s a long job of recovery in our health service, in our economy.”
— to www.theguardian.com