First Minister Mark Drakeford and former Health Minister Vaughan Gething to face Covid-19 Inquiry

It will be the first time that Mark Drakeford and Vaughan Gething have appeared before the UK Covid-19 inquiry.  Credit: PA

The First Minister and Wales' former Health minister will be quizzed about how ready the country was for the Covid-19 pandemic.

It will be the first time that Mark Drakeford and Vaughan Gething have appeared before the UK Covid-19 inquiry.

The inquiry is looking at preparedness and decision-making by all four of the UK's governments in the run up to 2020 and during the outbreak. 

The Labour Welsh Government has refused to hold a separate Wales-only inquiry, insisting that its decisions were made in a UK context.

The Covid inquiry examines the UK's response to and impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. Credit: PA

However the Scottish Government, which is also taking part in the UK inquiry, has commissioned a Scotland-specific review.

Yesterday the inquiry panel took evidence from the two most senior medics in Wales at the time, the Chief Medical Officer Sir Frank Atherton and the former Chief Executive of NHS Wales, Dr. Andrew Goodall.

Emails between Sir Frank and other public health officials in Wales from 2019, seen by the inquiry, showed the chief medical officer thought Wales was “not adequately prepared” for an outbreak of high-consequence diseases.

He said his concerns started when two people from west Wales became low-risk contacts of an Mpox – formerly known as monkeypox – patient.

Sir Frank’s responses were described as “fluffy, casual, and indecisive” and said there was “zero accountability and zero responsibility”.

Plans at the time were that high-consequence infectious disease patients would be transferred to London or Newcastle as Wales did not have the specialist facilities required, he added, but that he tried to change that.

It also heard that mask wearing, mass diagnostic testing and quarantining were “prematurely dismissed” to deal with non-flu pandemics.

Sir Frank said his office had been under-resourced when coronavirus emerged and described “drowning in a sea of information” at the beginning of the pandemic.

“We couldn’t even manage emails,” he added.

Lockdown rules in Wales often differed to those elsewhere in the UK. Credit: PA Images

However, he denied there was “insufficient focus or attention” on pandemic preparedness and claimed that “on an official level there was quite a lot of work going on around preparedness”.

Anna-Louise Marsh-Rees, from the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru campaign group, told PA news agency: “All I can say is, our loved ones did not stand a chance. We thought it was going to be bad today, but the lack of preparation is just beyond our worst fears.”

She described Sir Frank’s responses as “fluffy, casual, and indecisive” and said there was “zero accountability and zero responsibility”.

“Frank also said that the NHS Wales couldn’t cope with two cases of monkeypox. So there was absolutely no chance when something like coronavirus came along.

“They should really just hang their heads in shame and, as I say again, my dad did not stand a chance.”

Mask wearing, mass diagnostic testing and quarantining for non-flu pandemics were “prematurely dismissed”, the Inquiry heard. Credit: PA Images

Sir Frank acknowledged that the idea of a non-flu pandemic hadn't been taken as seriously as it should have been before 2020.

He told the panel that "with the benefit of hindsight we could and should have paid more attention to the 'what if' questions – 'what if the virus was so different?'

“At the time, I think it’s fair to say that those measures had been considered and somewhat prematurely dismissed.”

Mark Drakeford's government has been criticism for not holding a Welsh Inquiry by opposition parties and bereaved families in Wales. Credit: PA Images.

On Tuesday morningThe former Chief Executive of NHS Wales  acknowledged that Wales' pandemic planning was focussed on a flu outbreak rather than a respiratory illness. 

Dr Goodall said that meant that planning measures didn't include measures to contain the spread, such as lockdowns and social distancing.

Instead, he said "There was a strong focus on being able to use in a pandemic flu context treatments and antivirals and to deploy those and that was unavailable to us with the coronavirus pandemic."

A group representing families who lost loved ones during the pandemic is taking part in the inquiry as "core participants" which means their barrister can cross-examine witnesses including the First Minister.

In a statement, Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru said that "we will be closely scrutinising their words to see how what they say compares to our individual and collective lived experiences.

"We are the only ‘non-state’ core participant representing Wales in this module, and despite our own grief, we have had to become knowledgeable in a range of highly complex matters.

"From the intricacies of Welsh Government structures to virology and legal processes, we have delved into every aspect of the pandemic response. It is our duty to ensure that the truth will not remain hidden, and we stand proud of the expertise we have gained."

The other main political parties have been making the point about the lack of a Wales-specific inquiry. 

Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies said that he hopes Mr Drakeford and Mr Gething will "answer in full"  the questions they face.

He added that, "throughout the pandemic, the Labour-run Welsh Government diverged from the rest of the UK, leading to Wales having the highest Covid death rate in the whole UK.

Mr Drakeford frequently claimed that Wales took a "cautious approach" to lifting lockdown rules. Credit: PA Images.

"Yet Labour ministers in the Senedd continue to dodge accountability at every turn, with Mark Drakeford refusing to answer questions put to him in the Chamber.

"We need an independent Welsh Covid Inquiry to deliver proper scrutiny of the Welsh Government’s handling of the pandemic.

  • "The Labour Welsh Government must take ownership of their decisions"

Meanwhile Plaid Cymru’s Health and Care spokesperson, Mabon ap Gwynfor, said that while he welcomed the fact that Mark Drakeford and Vaughan Gething were giving evidence, "it remains the case that this inquiry will not adequately cover the decisions made in Wales during the pandemic in enough depth.

“Long after the First Minister’s day in front of the UK Inquiry, questions will remain unanswered in Wales.

“Plaid Cymru has been clear since the early days of the pandemic, along with campaigners for bereaved families in Wales, that the decisions made in Wales - good and bad - should be scrutinised in Wales by a Wales-specific inquiry.

"The Labour Welsh Government must take ownership of their decisions.

“The Labour Welsh Government can still change their minds and give the bereaved families what they deserve – a full Welsh Covid inquiry, so we can really learn how to prepare ourselves for the next pandemic.”

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