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Welsh Government failings laid bare at Covid Inquiry

THE WELSH GOVERNMENT failed to complete a risk assessment for national threats before the Covid pandemic. Two years after restrictions ended, it still hasn’t completed one.
Among several revelations made to the UK-wide Covid Inquiry, the Welsh Government’s lack of preparedness stands out.

WELSH GOVERNMENT KNEW PANDEMIC RISKS

The Welsh Government’s practice of avoiding responsibility for anything resulted in its failure to make a risk assessment for a pandemic, even after the UK Government ran a preparedness exercise. Wales’s approach to the preparedness exercise, Exercise Cygnus, didn’t even assess the threat nationally but depended on reports from four so-called “local resilience forums”.
An influenza epidemic was ranked a Tier One threat to the UK by the Westminster Government. The Welsh Government didn’t list the threat of an epidemic on its corporate risk register, relegating it to a Health and Social Care risk register.
The Welsh Government either has not or cannot provide a copy of that register to the Covid Inquiry.
In later evidence, Mark Drakeford excused the failure to provide a national risk assessment by claiming one was not a practical use of resources, and the Welsh Government relied on Westminster to prepare for a pandemic.
Even more startlingly, Dr Sir Frank Atherton, Wales’s Chief Medical Officer, acknowledged that specific risks relating to a future pandemic – including genetic changes to a virus during one – were known to the Welsh Government years ahead of the pandemic but that no meaningful action was taken in respect of them.

CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER UNDER-RESOURCED

Attempting to negotiate the mangrove thicket of Welsh NHS and Welsh Government organisation, the Counsel to the Inquiry, Hugo Keith KC, highlighted the extent of silo working and lack of connection between different strands of health policy and planning.
His questioning exposed a core issue. The Welsh Government and its various working groups, arms-length bodies, and executive and non-executive agencies did plenty of work on pandemic preparedness. However, the Welsh Government’s organisation was so disjointed and chaotic that it could never be ready to deal with a pandemic threat.
The chronic underfunding of the office of the Chief Medical Officer by the Welsh Government meant that when Covid struck, the key person in the Welsh Government’s response to the crisis could not deal with emails, let alone handle the volume of data coming in.
Even if Dr Sir Frank Atherton’s office had been properly resourced, a lack of ministerial diligence in the years preceding Covid meant the Welsh Government’s eye was off the ball.

GETHING DIDN’T READ KEY INFORMATION

Former Health Minister Vaughan Gething admitted failing to read a key report on pandemic preparedness. He explained that ministers had to prioritise their time. By inference, potential major public health crises and preparing for them were not a priority for him.
His evidence underlined his reputation as a Minister who “does not do the detail”, an observation made to The Herald by several Welsh politicians – some of whom sit on Welsh Government benches – both before and during the pandemic.
Mr Gething told the Inquiry he expected that officials would’ve known about Wales’s pandemic preparedness and the progress – none – made since Exercise Cyngus. He said he expected his officials would have told him about the report’s content, Wales’s preparedness, and any actions needed to improve it.
The evidence from Dr Sir Frank Atherton, given before Mr Gething’s, showed the Welsh Government commissioned work. That implies that Mr Gething was unaware of what was going on in the department for which he was nominally responsible as a Government minister.
His blase attitude extended to his observation that, in any event, Wales was insufficiently prepared for an influenza epidemic and would not have been able to meet the challenges one presented.
Mr Gething appeared to choke up when referring to the number of deaths, the isolation of dying patients with an infectious disease from their families, and the tragedy of families not being able to attend funerals for loved ones. It’s of little comfort, either to him or those affected, that every one of those factors was known to the Welsh Government at some level before the pandemic.
If Mr Gething knew of those assessments, his tears would be hypocritical. If he did not know, his role as Minister for Health was dispensable and redundant. The role could’ve been fulfilled by a civil servant, probably with greater personal accountability.

A FAILURE OF LEADERSHIP

Throughout the pandemic, the Director of the Welsh NHS was Dr Andrew Goodall. Dr Goodall is now the Welsh Government’s top civil servant: Permanent Secretary to the Welsh Government.
Dr Goodall’s evidence began unpromisingly.
He had to be repeatedly pressed about whether the Welsh Government now had a corporate risk register looking at national threats to Wales’s administration and population.
Dr Goodall eventually got around to giving something approaching a direct answer to a simple yes or no question.
“Those arrangements haven’t been endorsed by ministers, but the resilience team have actually been producing a Wales risk register as one of our lessons learnt.”
Counsel for the Inquiry Mr Hugo Keith KC pressed Dr Goodall further: “Has that team made a decision on a piece of paper saying “The time has come to seek ministerial approval for the creation of a risk assessment process for Wales”?”
Dr Goodall finally conceded: “The team has not done that, in line with your wording, so no.”
It’s a remarkably relaxed approach to public health and national planning.
Unhelpfully, Mr Keith produced a Welsh Government document from 2014 setting out the hazards of failing to assess the risks the Welsh Government’s approach posed.
“If we fail to provide leadership to ensure Wales is prepared for and resilient to the full range of national hazards and threats, including pandemic influenza,terrorism, major flooding, severe weather and currently the impact of the fire fighters’ industrial action, then there is a risk to the health and well-being of the citizens of Wales.”
That is what happened.
Mark Drakeford was the Minister for Health when the Welsh Government received that advice. His deputy was Vaughan Gething.

DRAKEFORD: WE RELIED ON WESTMINSTER TO PREPARE FOR A PANDEMIC IN WALES

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First Minister Mark Drakeford told the Inquiry the Welsh Government focused on the risks of a no-deal Brexit above any other known risks.
He said when he met his first Cabinet as First Minister, his Government was “already turning its sights very firmly to a danger that was right in front of you.”
He described it as a “matter of disappointment” that a review of civil contingency structures, planned for 2018, did not take place until this year.
Or, putting it another way, as Dr Andrew Goodall did, the Welsh Government is “looking to produce one”.
Mr Drakeford blamed the Westminster Government for not providing Cardiff Bay with more resources to handle the extra responsibilities Labour sought for the devolved administration. He also admitted that the Welsh Government did not plan more thoroughly for a pandemic because, Micawber-like, it expected something to turn up from Westminster.
That statement casts the Welsh Government’s response to the pandemic in a curious and contradictory light. During the pandemic, Welsh ministers took pains to highlight Wales’s separateness from England while claiming to follow the same scientific advice the UK Government got. The intellectual disconnect between “before” and “during” is striking. Either the Welsh Government did not have the resources to respond to the pandemic, in which case trying to secure its own PPE during the pandemic was a political stunt, or it knew it could rely on the UK Government to bail it out for its failure to prepare. Neither Mr Drakeford nor his ministers can have it both ways. Either “the Welsh way” of dealing with the pandemic was a political stunt or the Welsh Government had all the powers it needed and chose not to prepare for a pandemic deliberately or by omission.
The First Minister’s evidence also ran contrary to evidence already given by its Chief Medical Officer.
Mark Drakeford told the Inquiry the Welsh Government knew the pandemic’s impact would be unequal. He then said it was “difficult to anticipate in advance of that pandemic where those inequalities would most fall”.
However, in his evidence to the Inquiry, Dr Sir Frank Atherton already confirmed that a key planning document, prepared while Mr Drakeford was Health Minister, set out the groups of “vulnerable people” most likely to be affected by a pandemic.
Either Mr Drakeford failed to read that document, or civil servants in his department thought it too unimportant to bother him. In either case, the issue highlights the axiom that if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.
And that was a common thread throughout all the evidence given to the Inquiry by the people who could – and should – have been on top of Wales’s pandemic preparedness.
The best that can be said of Mr Drakeford’s evidence and that of Mr Gething is that they admitted their complacency and that of the Welsh Government with disarming honesty.
That’s of scant comfort to the families of the bereaved.

GETHING COPS THE FLAK

Welsh Conservative Shadow Health Minister Russell George MS said: “Vaughan Gething’s questioning at the UK Covid Inquiry was very telling.
“He admitted that he hadn’t read several key documents, including the UK influenza pandemic preparedness strategy, until needing to do so to prepare for the Inquiry.
“He was also unable to identify pandemic influenza as a ‘tier 1 risk’ even today and did not seek any evidence into the hazard of pandemic influenza, despite stating that he may have done had he read one of the documents.
“The fact that he described himself as a layman, having no experience or knowledge of pandemic preparedness despite being Health Minister for four years, will not hold water with the public.
“Likewise, given his failure to answer basic questions, the people of Wales will be shocked to hear him state that preparedness would have been improved if he had spent more time reading and making himself aware of the difficulties.”
Plaid Cymru spokesperson for health and care, Mabon ap Gwynfor MS, said: “It is clear from the evidence heard to date that the pandemic planning in Wales was seriously inadequate, and there was much Welsh Government could and should have done to enable us to be better prepared.
“World experts warned of an influenza-style pandemic – even Hollywood made a film about it! If Hollywood knew about it, then I would expect Welsh Government to have read anything that would have helped them better prepare for a global pandemic. The Exercise Cygnus Report – with ‘Pandemic Influenza’ on the front cover- is an example.
“Plaid Cymru has been clear since the early days of the pandemic that the decisions made in Wales should be scrutinised in Wales. The fact we’re barely scratching the surface in this UK Covid Inquiry points again to the fact that we deserve our own, Wales-specific Covid inquiry.”
Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru were even less impressed by Mr Gething.
“He was clueless.
“The Inquiry Legal Team were openly mocking him, and he was totally unaware.
“We were there. He made the room stink of blind arrogance, and the bereaved families in attendance felt another boot of indifference in their sides.
“We heard a lot of devastating tales of unpreparedness, but his was delivered with a cold, calculating and narcissistic approach.”.

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