First Minister's Covid strategy faces growing Senedd opposition

The Welsh Government's strategy has been questioned. Credit: ITV Wales

The Welsh Government is facing increasing criticism of its handling of coronavirus from opposition parties in the Senedd - a sign that the political consensus seen early on in the outbreak is fraying if not breaking down.

Opponents who had been broadly supportive of Mark Drakeford’s approach, even as they challenged individual measures, are now openly criticising the overall strategy. 

The First Minister has also been rebuked by the Welsh Parliament’s presiding officer for failing to announce this week’s measures there rather than in a recorded video statement. 

Plaid Cymru’s leader Adam Price described the mixture of local lockdowns and Wales-wide measures announced by the First Minister this week as going against the scientific advice given to ministers through the Technical Advice Cell. 

Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price said the measures go against the scientific advice. Credit: Senedd TV

“We cannot half-heartedly address a full-on Covid resurgence in many of our communities and neither can we have a one-size fits all approach."

The Welsh Conservatives too have said the local lockdown system is not suitable. Their health spokesperson, Andrew RT Davies, has called for "hyperlocal lockdowns… so that as little of Wales and its economy as possible is closed.”

Where we have restrictions in place in Wales we should be going further by introducing the temporary or at least earlier closure of pubs – with economic sector specific support. And in these areas, the selling of alcohol should also be restricted earlier such as 6 or 7pm.

Adam Price MS, Plaid Cymru leader

The Brexit Party in the Senedd has long been a critic of restrictive measures. Its leader Mark Reckless said that “Is your strategy not to continue keeping the economy—and society to greater or lesser extent—locked down indefinitely, suppressing the virus, ostensibly, completely different from what we were told when we first went into lockdown, that it was to protect capacity in the NHS?”

The First Minister has also been criticised for not making this week’s announcement to Senedd members first even though the Welsh parliament was still sitting. 

He was brought to the chamber on Wednesday to make an emergency statement before which the Llywydd, Elin Jones, said “I remind everyone that it's the expectation of Senedd Members and myself as the Llywydd that statements of this significance should be made at the earliest possible opportunity to the Senedd, on all occasions.”

That followed an argument the previous day. By Tuesday afternoon it had been widely reported that the First Minister would announce Wales-wide measures following discussions with the Prime Minister and the First Ministers of other devolved governments.

The Plenary meeting has been done virtually since the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year. Credit: Senedd TV.

At 5.30pm, in response to a point of order from Adam Price, Elin Jones said that ‘there had been discussions’ with the Welsh Government about making a statement or answering an urgent question but that she had been assured that the decisions hadn’t been finalised and wouldn’t be until close to the planned 8pm TV address.

“I'm given to understand from the Government that the exact final decisions are yet to have been made and aren't likely to be made until a little before 8 o'clock tonight, when the First Minister will make a statement to the nation on the media. Therefore, as the statement isn't ready and the relevant decisions haven't yet been made, they won't be available to be made here in the Senedd this evening.”

That explains her restrained but clear rebuke on Wednesday.

Following that the Welsh Conservatives called for an apology for what he described as “a deplorable act” which saw some of the announcements being trailed in media outlets half an hour after the Llywydd’s Tuesday statement. 

Health spokesperson Andrew RT Davies said “I bitterly regret that you weren't in a position to make this statement yesterday before your tv broadcast, like the other First Ministers and Prime Minister across the UK who spoke to their respective Parliaments. And I hope that you will apologise for that discourtesy, because the BBC were putting up a story at 6 o'clock, despite Members being told at 5.30 p.m., that no decision had been taken by the Government, and told just before 8 o'clock.”

Andrew RT Davies criticised Mark Drakeford for answering questions via video Credit: Senedd TV

The Plaid Cymru leader also described it as “unacceptable” and said that he was told by a journalist what the announcements would be “within minutes of leaving the Chamber.”

“As well as being disrespectful to you, Llywydd, it undermines this institution and our roles as elected Members, it prevents proper democratic scrutiny and it's corrosive of trust. And if the First Minister wants to contradict me, perhaps he can tell us when he recorded the pre-recorded message then later relayed to the nation.”

Brexit Party leader Mark Reckless said the First Minister had made a choice to bypass the Senedd.

You preferred instead to give that pre-recorded interview, saying pretty much what you've just said now, pretty much what you could have said to the Senedd yesterday.

Mark Reckless MS, Brexit Party leader

Mark Drakeford didn’t apologise and said that the Wednesday statement was the earliest possible and that  he “could not guarantee that all the necessary decisions would have been made in time to make such a statement while the Senedd was still in session yesterday.”

He added that Welsh ministers had been “more available to this Senedd than any other Parliament in the United Kingdom has been able to question Ministers that are responsible to those different democratic forums.”

Both the Welsh Conservative leader, Paul Davies, and Adam Price are given regular briefings by the First Minister and individual ministers. At the start of the pandemic they were invited to join a cabinet committee but I understand that arrangement hasn’t continued. 

They’ve been critical of individual measures but broadly supportive of the overall strategy. That seems to have changed in the last week. 

The change might be partly explained by politics. After all next year’s Welsh Parliamentary election is in May and that will come around very quickly.