To what lengths will our Welsh Labour Government go to avoid independent scrutiny of its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wales? Would it join up with its long-term opponents, the Welsh Conservatives, to agree setting up a special committee? You bet it would. Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru are bemused at the news of the rapid establishment of a Senedd Select Committee to scrutinise the Welsh issues not considered by the UK Covid Inquiry. (The motion to set up the committee will be on 9 May, and is certain to be passed).
Only last week, my colleague in Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru expressed our concerns that Wales was not being properly examined within the UK Covid Inquiry, and that the Welsh Government was not meeting the procedural requirements for its full participation and cooperation in that Inquiry. This is problematic because it refuses to hold its own independent inquiry; because it leaves core participants in the UK Inquiry such as ourselves insufficient time to prepare; and because complete lessons must be learned as injury and death from hospital-acquired Covid continue. This latest development does not suggest that lessons have been learned.
Lack of robust scrutiny
The agreement to a Senedd Special Committee by the Welsh Government is an acknowledgement that Wales will not be fully scrutinised in the UK Covid Inquiry. However, the Committee is not an independent inquiry, and we do not accept that it is a feasible alternative to a Wales Covid inquiry. Bereaved families will not be able to participate in the Senedd Committee procedure in the same way as they could in a proper Welsh public inquiry. We will not be able to ask questions.
Such an inquiry risks becoming politicised and will not lead to robust scrutiny of the preparedness for and response to the Covid-19 pandemic in Wales. Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru want Welsh devolved actions during the pandemic to be scrutinised in an independent judge-led inquiry and not by a committee of politicians within the Senedd. Such an approach is like thinking hand washing is an appropriate alternative to clean air measures in preventing the spread of an airborne virus.
The bereaved Welsh families appreciate the efforts of the Welsh Conservatives, Plaid Cymru, and the Welsh Liberal Democrats in calling for a Welsh Covid inquiry. A judge-led inquiry would provide the same independent scrutiny that the bereaved families in Scotland are being afforded. Their Scottish Covid Inquiry is working alongside the UK Covid Inquiry to ensure that there is no overlap and that all devolved matters will be scrutinised. This is what the people of any devolved country would and should expect from their government.
The Welsh Labour Government has consistently blocked a Welsh Covid Inquiry and instead relies entirely on the UK Covid Inquiry to provide scrutiny and indicate where lessons can be learned in Wales. Baroness Hallett, Chair of the UK Inquiry, indicated at the start that Wales would not be fully scrutinised, as it simply isn’t feasible to do so.
During the Wales module of the UK Covid Inquiry, the Chair said: “So whatever happens, we will try to ensure that we cover all the most significant and important issues. I have to emphasise we can’t cover every issue. We cannot cover or call every witness. We are going to have to focus on the most significant and the most important decisions.”
Baroness Hallett added, “The reason for that is that we have to get on with this Inquiry, because if we are going to make a difference, and make all this work – and I’ve no doubt the distress that these kind of proceedings will cause to the bereaved and others who have suffered – then we have to be able to get recommendations to the UK government, the government of Wales, the government in Northern Ireland, and the government in Scotland, and get any recommendations implemented before another pandemic strikes.”
Mark Drakeford has ignored these warnings and continues to block a Wales Covid Inquiry.
An independent Covid Inquiry
Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds MS, on the other hand, has responded to the news of the Senedd Special Committee as follows: “This backroom deal between the Conservatives and Welsh Labour means that those most impacted, the bereaved families, haven’t even been consulted on this plan. Worst of all this now means instead of being an independent inquiry this issue will come before the Senedd, which will inevitably lead to the politicisation of the discussion, which is exactly what we need to avoid.”
Dodds adds: “The Welsh Liberal Democrats will continue to push for an independent inquiry free from any political interference because it is what bereaved families in Wales deserve. And it is what is right for the country in terms of ensuring lessons are learnt for the future.”
Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru urges the Welsh Government to reconsider its stance on a Welsh Covid inquiry and to provide the same level of scrutiny to Welsh actions during the pandemic as is being afforded to Scotland. The bereaved families deserve answers, and a Welsh independent judge-led inquiry is the only way to ensure that those responsible for any failings are held accountable.
We will continue to campaign for a Welsh Covid inquiry until justice is served for the bereaved families in Wales. A Special Committee in the Senedd set up to argue over gaps in the UK Covid Inquiry is not how we expect a mature Government to behave.