Welsh Covid committee has no 'validity' say campaigners as calls for Wales-only inquiry continue

Anna-Louise Marsh Rees spoke on behalf of the group representing families who lost loved ones. Credit: PA

A Senedd committee that aims to look at some aspects of the way the covid pandemic was handled here in Wales will begin its work today.

Known as the Wales Covid-19 Inquiry Special Purposes Committee, it was set up after a deal between the Welsh Government and the Welsh Conservatives to run alongside the UK Covid-19 inquiry. 

But representatives of bereaved families have said it falls short of a Wales-specific inquiry and it should be replaced by a judge-led review.

That’s something the Conservatives themselves agree with. At the time it was agreed the party’s Senedd leader called it a “halfway house.”

Mark Drakeford appeared before the UK Covid-19 inquiry for the first time last Tuesday. Credit: PA

The Special Purposes Committee will be jointly chaired by a Labour and a Conservative Senedd member, Joyce Watson and Tom Giffard. 

The other four members are Labour’s Vikki Howells and Jack Sargeant, the Conservative Altaf Hussein and Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price. 

Its remit is to monitor progress of the UK Inquiry chaired by Baroness Hallett and when that inquiry publishes reports, to identify if there have been any gaps in its work in relation to Wales in order to launch its own reviews.

The Welsh Government has repeatedly refused to commission an independent Wales-specific inquiry, insisting that Baroness Hallett’s work will cover all the relevant preparation and decision-making. 

Last week she heard evidence for the first time from the First Minister, the former Health Minister and senior Welsh Government officials. 

During the evidence Mark Drakeford acknowledged that Wales was “not as prepared as it could have been” for a pandemic.

He and other witnesses said that the Welsh Government, like other UK Governments, was more prepared for a flu pandemic than a coronavirus outbreak and that much of the attention of officials had been diverted into planning for a no-deal Brexit. 

The group representing families who lost loved ones, the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru, are taking part in the UK Inquiry, the only organisation allowed to be represented in the hearings.

They’ve been insistent that “an independent judge-led Wales Covid-19 public inquiry” is vital and fear that the UK Inquiry won’t scrutinise the Welsh Government in as much detail as a Wales-specific review could. 

They’re not convinced by the Senedd committee either, claiming that it is the First Minister’s “way out” of holding a Wales-specific inquiry. 

Speaking on the group’s behalf, Anna-Louise Marsh-Rees said: “This is a committee of six Senedd Members with no knowledge of the UK Inquiry and no expertise of running anything of this magnitude and significance. They also have no legal powers.

"So in summary not a substitute for a Wales independent judge-led public inquiry in any way.

Vaughan Gething was quizzed about how ready the country was for the Covid-19 pandemic at last week's inquiry. Credit: PA

“To add insult to injury they are now called the Wales Covid Inquiry Committee when it's in no way connected to a Wales Inquiry but named to be purposely confusing.”

She added that “Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru vehemently reject the validity of the Senedd Special Purpose Covid Committee, which has been tasked with identifying gaps in the UK Covid Inquiry. We believe that this committee falls short in several critical areas.”

And she said that “In stark contrast, Scotland has set an exemplary standard for devolved governments by establishing a separate Scottish Covid Inquiry that collaborates with the UK Covid Inquiry.

This joint effort ensures there is no duplication and guarantees thorough scrutiny of Scotland's response.

Importantly, the Scottish Covid Inquiry actively involves bereaved families, offering them a significant role in the proceedings, a level of engagement that the UK Inquiry cannot practically accommodate.

“For Wales, we demand more than a Senedd Committee that operates within the same political arena where Welsh decision making occurs. It is imperative that the inquiry is conducted independently and led by a judge, ensuring transparency, impartiality, and public trust.

Additionally, the current committee's lack of enforcement powers, limited only to producing a report, fails to provide the necessary mechanisms for holding accountable those responsible for any shortcomings identified.”

Speaking ahead of today’s first meeting of the Special Purposes Committee, Welsh Conservative leader Andrew Davies said that, “We will take every opportunity to scrutinise Labour Ministers’ response to the Covid pandemic here in Wales.

"Welsh Conservatives on the Covid Scrutiny Committee will not be found wanting in that regard. It is vital that Labour backbenchers also play their part, as opposed to playing lip service.

“Labour Ministers in the Senedd continue to avoid an independent Welsh Covid inquiry despite the fact that the previous Labour Health Minister admitted that he had not read key pandemic preparedness documents at the UK Covid Inquiry and Wales had the highest Covid death rate in the United Kingdom.

“It is the Welsh Conservative view that the answers that bereaved families and the people of Wales deserve are best achieved through a Welsh independent judge-led public inquiry.”

Plaid Cymru’s committee member Adam Price said that, “Decisions made in Wales should be scrutinised in Wales – and what we’ve seen and heard from the last week of the UK Covid Inquiry has done little to prove otherwise.

“From documents not being read, advice not being taken, and strategies not being updated in more than a decade – what has been uncovered about the Welsh Government’s pandemic preparedness has been alarming.

"And it has barely scratched the surface. In the mere day and a half given for just five of Wales’ key players to give their evidence, there remain more questions than there have been answers.

“Whilst the remit of the Special Purpose Committee is to look at any gaps identified in the UK Covid Inquiry, by definition, it can never complete until after the UK Inquiry has concluded. This could be years away!

“Without a Wales-specific Covid inquiry too many lessons – positive and negative – will remain unlearned and too many questions will go unanswered.

It’s not too late for the Welsh Government to change their minds and open themselves up to full scrutiny by holding a Welsh specific Covid inquiry.”