Top of the UK table for coronavirus deaths and bottom for vaccination rates, Wales is finding the latest surge in infections far trickier than the first.
The devolved government’s approach to containing the pandemic in 2020 with regular lockdowns and an effective locally run tracing system won it plaudits. But first minister Mark Drakeford has come under increasing criticism on two fronts.
In December he delayed a full-scale lockdown even though the new variant was rampaging across England, and appeared to admit this week to conserving stocks of vaccine to prevent a stop-start rollout rather than deploy it as fast as possible.
“I would give [the government] an A- or B+” for their handling of the pandemic, said Ceri Phillips, emeritus professor of health economics at Swansea university. But he said the “umbilical cord” with England meant Wales’s case numbers would inevitably closely track its larger neighbour. And given that the Welsh are older and sicker than the English, higher deaths were sure to follow. “Proportionately more die of flu every year in Wales than England,” he said.
Cases have remained stubbornly high in pockets, including former mining areas of the south Wales valleys and the industrial north-east belt by the English border.
In common with the rest of the UK, deprived communities have been hit hardest. People live close together, often cannot work from home, and cannot afford to self isolate, said Prof Phillips.
Wales’ test and trace system has performed far better than England’s, rarely dipping below a 90 per cent success rate in reaching contacts of positive cases.
The nation of 3.2m people has had its own government in Cardiff since 1999, with responsibility for health, and its different approach — on several occasions banning travellers from England — has raised Mr Drakeford’s profile.
A former lecturer and policy adviser with a strong grasp of detail who has held office since 2018, the pandemic has played to his strengths. But as an anti-independence Labour politician he was initially happy to follow London’s lead, said Richard Wyn Jones, director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.
But as infection rates soared in late March “they realised London didn’t know what it was doing”.
Public support was high until Cardiff called a 17-day “firebreak” lockdown on October 23 when cases were relatively low.
Mr Drakeford was accused of damaging the economy, and the media and Welsh Conservatives attacked the measure. “They got hammered,” Prof Wyn Jones said.
So when it ended, Mr Drakeford took his foot off the brake quickly and the infection rate soared.
He slowly tightened controls from December 4, and announced a national lockdown from December 20 as infection rates reached among the highest in the world.
Hospitals now have more Covid-19 patients than in the first wave peak in April peak, although in the last week numbers have started to fall.
Weekly case rates have fallen from about 650 per 100,000 people before Christmas to 285 per 100,000. The number dying with Covid-19 as a cause hit 5,399 by January 20, 171 per 100,000 people, compared with 145 in England.
The economy is also struggling. Wales has offered small companies proportionally more financial support than anywhere else in the UK. Cardiff says its Economic Resilience Fund has helped more than 13,000 businesses and protected 125,000 jobs.
But unemployment has grown faster than the rest of the UK. Between August and October 2020 it hit 4.6 per cent, up from 3.2 per cent in the same period a year ago while the UK rate rose from 4.2 per cent to 4.9 per cent.
Mr Drakeford’s ratings collapsed in December, with YouGov finding his positive trust score of +22 in mid-November had fallen to -1 a month later. But it remains, in Wales, above that of Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said Prof Wyn Jones. “People are more trusting of devolved politicians than London politicians.”
However, the vaccine rollout could yet hurt Mr Drakeford. As of January 20 Wales had given a first dose to 5.5 per cent of the population, against a UK average of 7.5 per cent.
Despite telling the BBC that the government was releasing stocks slowly to ensure continuous delivery, he told the Financial Times that was not the case. “We are not delaying any jabs,” he said. Wales was “on track” to vaccinate the top four priority groups by the middle of February, matching the other UK nations.
He awarded his administration a B. “Nobody is going to go through this [pandemic] without making a mistake,” he said.
Adam Price, leader of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, said Labour’s record was “mixed” and it should have followed Scotland’s more conservative approach.
But he said: “The pandemic has shone a light on the existence of a Welsh government and Welsh ministers. There is such a level of interest in Welsh politics. People have tuned in in their hundreds of thousands to the televised briefings.”
He predicted turnout for Welsh parliament elections in May will top 50 per cent for the first time after a surge in support for independence.
Some 33 per cent of the population would vote for it in a referendum, up from 23 per cent in December 2019, according to YouGov.
Mr Johnson’s mishandling of the pandemic, hostility to devolution and hard Brexit has alienated Welsh voters, Prof Wyn Jones said. “People feel they are being forced into a choice between the union without devolution or independence.”