UK Covid-19 Inquiry turns its focus to Wales

Published 27/02/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

The arrival of Module 2B of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry to Wales this week marks a crucial moment for public understanding of the Welsh pandemic response. It will look into critical aspects of governance and decision-making surrounding the Welsh Government’s handling of the pandemic.

Module 2 (Understanding governance and decision-making processes), which commenced on 31 August 2022, is split into parts, with 2B specifically focusing on Wales. This article sets out the focus of this module and serves as a reminder of the wealth of Senedd reports published at the time of the pandemic.

Understanding Governance and Decision-Making Processes

Module 2B of the Inquiry will focus on the Welsh Government's decision-making during the Covid-19 pandemic from early January 2020 to May 2022, covering the period until the lifting of remaining restrictions in Wales. It will scrutinise the actions of key governmental figures, including the First Minister and Welsh Ministers, particularly during the initial national lockdown from January to March 2020.

Module 2B provides an opportunity to gain insights into the core political and administrative governance structures that influenced decision-making during the pandemic. It will scrutinise the effectiveness of UK Government decision-making, the performance of political and civil service entities, and the dynamics of relationships between the UK government, devolved administrations, and local and voluntary sectors.

The inquiry will assess the initial response to the pandemic, shedding light on the strategies employed by authorities to mitigate its impact. By examining decision-making processes concerning non-pharmaceutical measures, (i.e. public health interventions aimed at controlling the spread of Covid-19 that do not involve the use of pharmaceuticals or vaccines. These measures include strategies such as social distancing, wearing masks, hand hygiene, quarantine, isolation, travel restrictions, and lockdowns). Module 2B aims to uncover the factors that influenced their implementation.

Other key areas of examination include access to medical and scientific expertise, public health communications, the enactment and enforcement of coronavirus legislation and regulations, and the impact of funding on decision-making processes. Top of Form

Module 2B holds particular significance for Wales as it focuses specifically on the Welsh perspective. Public hearings will be held in Cardiff from 27 February to 14 March, providing an opportunity for Welsh stakeholders to voice their experiences and concerns.

A separate Wales inquiry

During the preliminary hearing, Baroness Hallett (Chair of the Inquiry) assured the public that the Inquiry is committed to thoroughly investigating all issues of concern to the people of Wales. She emphasised that the localised approach adopted by the Inquiry will ensure that Welsh voices are heard, and that the distinct challenges encountered by Wales are given due consideration.

Baroness Hallett said she understood the “strength of feelings” on calls for a separate Wales inquiry but asserted her impartiality on the matter.

The Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru group, which has campaigned for a separate inquiry into the Welsh government's handling of the pandemic has been recognised as a “core-participant” in the UK investigation (an individual or entity directly involved in, or significantly affected by, the events under investigation and granted certain rights and responsibilities within the inquiry process). The Welsh government and other key agencies involved in key pandemic decisions and their consequences also have core participant status.

Wales Covid-19 Special Purpose Committee

Unlike Scotland, Wales does not have a separate inquiry. A Wales Covid-19 Special Purpose Committee has been set up by the Senedd (agreed between the Welsh Government and the Welsh Conservatives). It will review the reports from each stage of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry and recommend to the Senedd, via a motion, any gaps identified in the preparedness and response of the Welsh Government and other Welsh public bodies, which warrant further investigation.

Senedd Committees have the power to call individuals, government officials and Ministers to ensure accountability and request documents to gather evidence on specific issues. They conduct public hearings where witnesses give evidence, enabling Members to ask questions and gain insights. Additionally, they publish reports outlining their findings and recommendations, which Ministers must respond to.

The Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru group continues to call for a Wales-only inquiry. They insist the Special Purpose Committee should be replaced by a judge-led review.

But the Welsh Government has repeatedly refused to commission an independent inquiry, insisting that the UK inquiry will cover all the relevant preparation and decision-making.

In a Senedd debate last week, 27 Members (comprising of Plaid Cymru, Welsh Conservative and Welsh Liberal Democratic Members) backed calls for a Wales-specific Inquiry. However, the motion was rejected.

Access to Senedd Reports

The knowledge acquired from Module 2B is aimed at shaping future policy decisions, both within Wales and throughout the UK. Welsh policymakers can utilise these lessons to customise responses according to Wales' unique needs, ensuring a more effective and efficient approach to crisis management.

Furthermore, the Welsh public can access a wealth of Senedd reports published at the time of the pandemic. These reports provide detailed insights into various aspects of the Welsh Government's response to the crisis, offering valuable information for those interested in understanding the decision-making processes and outcomes.

Access to these reports enhances transparency and ensures that the public has access to reliable information about the government's actions:

Module 2B's arrival in Wales presents a unique opportunity for the public to gain insights into the governance and decision-making processes surrounding the Welsh Government’s response to the pandemic. It is imperative that the Welsh public remains engaged and informed, as their voices are essential in shaping the path forward in future pandemic planning.

Article by Sarah Hatherley, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament