THE SENEDD returned from its summer recess on Tuesday (Sept 14) and Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies confronted Mark Drakeford over the question of vaccine passports.
The introduction of ‘vaccine passports’ has been a hot topic of debate for the UK’s different ministries. Those proposing them regard them as an essential public health tool. Those against point out the infringement of civil liberties and bureaucracy involved in their introduction.
FIRST MINISTER SCEPTICAL
It was hard not to feel sympathy for the Conservative leader.
His attempt to get behind the First Minister’s avowed scepticism over vaccine passports bounced off Mark Drakeford.
Mr Drakeford stuck doggedly to the line that, whatever his personal opinion about vaccine passports – he doesn’t like the idea one bit – he would decide on their use with his Cabinet based on up to date scientific and medical advice.
Cabinet government is not the Westminster way.
Unfortunately for Mr Davies, neither is consistent messaging.
On Sunday morning, Health Secretary Sajid Javid appeared on the Andrew Marr Show.
During an interview with Nick Robinson, Mr Javid was clear: there would be no vaccine passports in England.
Alas, by teatime on Tuesday, that policy was in tatters.
CONSERVATIVES PULL RUG
FROM UNDER CONSERVATIVES
Andrew RT Davies spent three questions pointing out the Westminster Government’s ‘clear decision’ against vaccine passports, only to have the rug pulled out from under him.
Events put the mockers on the press release sent out by the Conservatives’ Senedd media team after First Minister’s Questions.
Under the headline ‘First Minister will not give Wales the answers it wants and deserves’, it contained the unfortunate statement: “The Scottish Parliament recently voted to introduce passports, while the British Government has scrapped the plans to bring them in for England, leaving Wales as the only part of Great Britain without a position on certification.”
Andrew RT Davies must be fed up with following party policy only to have it changed without notice.
He can’t say Mark Drakeford didn’t warn him: “If I was in the leader of the opposition’s position, I would probably wait to hear what they actually say on that matter today, in case there is yet another change in their position since the weekend.”
WG NOT GUIDED
BY TORY INFIGHTING
The awkwardness of his position was underlined by an acute comment made by the First Minister when answering his questions.
“Here in Wales, we will not make a decision on the basis of what is convenient for the Conservative Party and the various factions that exist within it,” Mark Drakeford jibed.
He also highlighted Westminster’s tendency to announce policy on the hoof, reporting: “I have lost count of the number of meetings that I have sat through with UK Ministers, in which they have lectured me about the necessity of vaccine certification.
“And when I have raised with them the ethical, the legal, and the practical issues that need to be resolved, I’ve generally been treated as though these were details that ought not to get in the way of this necessary course of action.
“As late as the end of last week, we were being told by UK Ministers that they would be going ahead with vaccine certification in England.”
Perhaps having received a prompt that, even as he spoke, the Health Secretary was busy contradicting him in the Commons, Andrew RT Davies shifted onto more certain ground.
When, he asked, would the Welsh Government commit to a Wales-only Covid inquiry?
Here, the Conservative leader’s footing was far surer than it was on vaccine passports.
And Mark Drakeford wriggled on the hook of having to give a direct answer to a direct question.
Summarising the First Minister’s position, it is difficult to disagree with Andrew RT Davies.
Speaking after First Minister’s Questions, Mr Davies said: “The First Minister suggested on multiple occasions that he might change his mind if the UK remit is not to his liking, despite claiming to the Senedd he’s content with the proposals put down.
“He’s playing a political game which is an insult to grieving families who have lost loved ones in Wales during this crisis.
“As the Welsh Conservatives have always said, a Wales-specific inquiry is essential in delivering justice for those affected by the virus and lockdowns.
“The longer Mark Drakeford goes without confirming an investigation, the more people will ask why.”
THE UK GOVERNMENT’S
‘NEW’ NEW PLANS
On Tuesday evening, the UK Government announced its winter plans.
There are two plans.
Plan A retains the present status quo with some added provisions.
• Booster jabs for the over-50s;
• Vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds; and
• advising the public to be cautious
And while those announcements affect England only, it is hard to believe the Welsh Government will not fall in behind those measures upon which it is not already well ahead of Westminster.
Even while announcing Westminster’s wish to keep on going, Mr Johnson conceded that the numbers for hospitalisations and deaths are worse than they were before the UK entered a series of lockdowns last winter.
Underlying the Prime Minister’s confidence is the undoubted success of vaccinations in preventing the disease, reducing its worst effects, reducing hospitalisations.
Of deaths since the adult vaccination programme rolled out, only 1.2% are of double-vaccinated individuals.
However, Westminster has a Plan B in case things go awry.
• The public would be urged to act more cautiously.
• Compulsory vaccine passports could be used for large events and other settings.
• Face coverings could be compulsory, and their use enforced by law; and
• Guidance on working from home may also be issued.
SNP MP Patricia Gibson summarised the Government’s position: “We were told by the UK Government that vaccine passports were going ahead, then they were not going ahead, then we were told that they were still the first line of defence against a winter wave, and now the latest position is that they are a definite maybe.”
And, as the Health Secretary disclosed in the House of Commons, there is one further weapon in the Government’s armoury.
It’s one whose use will cause upheaval on the Conservative backbenches and potentially harm the Party’s standing with the public.
It was, Mr Javid said, ‘irresponsible’ to rule out further lockdowns.