Mark Drakeford has been a popular figure throughout the pandemic. The Welsh First Minister’s authoritative grasp of detail and his professorial briefings have helped foster a sense of national confidence that ministers in Cardiff have a better grip on the public health emergency than politicians in Westminster. Today’s Welsh Barometer poll for ITV Cymru reaffirms that view: it shows overwhelming public support for the lockdown restrictions introduced by the Welsh government before Christmas.
This popular support for the Labour government is no small thing to overlook; the Welsh public have embraced devolved politics and feel comfortable diverging from policy set in London. And with a new year comes new opportunities for varying strategies across the UK to combat the virus. But now we are not only managing Covid, but trying to defeat it. Everyone’s hopes – as well as the political capital of our leaders globally – are pinned on the successful roll-out of vaccines.
Its importance was signalled by the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint a minister for vaccine deployment. The scale of the task was also evident from Sir Simon Stevens’ comments to the BBC yesterday; according to the NHS chief, in England 140 people every minute are being given jabs. Although supply is a constant issue across geographies and governments there seems to light at the end of the tunnel, after all.
But tensions are growing in Wales, as the First Minister faces pointed criticism from all sides of the political spectrum that the Welsh roll-out has been slower under his watch compared to the other nations across the UK. Some have gone further, including one GP, who described the situation in doctors' surgeries as ‘shambolic’. The political and public health problems have been mounting for the Welsh Labour government for weeks and improvement looks painfully slow.
From the beginning of the year, political communication has been poor (Mark Drakeford insisted the roll-out was ‘not a sprint’ or a ‘competition’). Worse still, up until last week there was little clarity from the Welsh government on what their vaccine strategy was. There have been lingering questions about access to vaccination centres in rural parts of Wales, whether the government has shown enough urgency to make use of pharmacies to administer jabs, and around the speed of the roll- out itself.
It is this pace of the deployment which is of major concern to opposition politicians (and the general public). Asked why Wales was lagging behind other nations, health minister Vaughan Gething said one reason was the logistical challenges associated with the Pfizer jab – a challenge that isn’t unique to Wales, of course.
Then the First Minister signalled in a press conference on Friday that he was slowing down the delivery of the Pfizer vaccine so it could be spaced out over several weeks. Drakeford doubled-down on his comments on the Today programme this morning – confirming the Welsh government would not use up all of the vaccine stock it has at its disposal. As one North Walian GP put it, these comments make no clinical sense. Indeed, sitting on hundreds of thousands of doses seems absurd to members of the public too, whatever supply issues the UK government are facing.
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) January 18, 2021
"The thing that limits us at the moment is supply"Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford says using all Welsh stocks of the Pfizer vaccine in the first week would leave vaccinators "standing about with nothing to do" and that would be pointless #R4Todayhttps://t.co/G5vJKfNNOz pic.twitter.com/6AQMT7KHq2
Deploying an unprecedented vaccine roll-out on top of the daily issues facing ministers is complex and challenging. The pressure and the stakes are also higher than they have ever been before. But the bigger issue in Wales is that, after weeks of political pressure and damning media reports, the vaccine programme is not as fast or effective as it could be. Things are improving, but too slowly. That’s not good enough for the people of Wales.
Vaccine politics is also present here just as much as anywhere else. Members of the Abolish the Welsh Assembly party have jumped on the slow roll-out as another example of the failure of devolution. Conservatives are pushing for a vaccine minister to be appointed to take charge of the situation. Plaid Cymru, who have been more sympathetic to Welsh Labour throughout the whole crisis, are now fierce in their criticism. Although the First Minister cares little for politicking, this is an election year. His Welsh Labour government cannot afford to face sustained political pressure on the most pivotal issue of 2021.
In that sense, the roll-out is indeed a competition; one against opposition politicians who are vying to unseat Welsh Labour in the Senedd. Yet this is a matter that is way above political tribes or colours: an efficient vaccine programme will be able to save lives and suppress the virus’ spread across the whole of Wales. That is a far more serious and difficult competition against an invisible and deadly opponent, and the one that the Welsh government must rapidly get a grip of, if they are to win.