COVID inquiry chair vows to ‘do utmost’ to probe Wales decisions

Politics

The UK COVID inquiry has begun its first hearing in Wales, looking at the decisions taken by the Welsh government during the pandemic.

For the next few weeks, the inquiry will sit at the Mercure Hotel in Cardiff.

The inquiry will spend until 14 March hearing evidence for Module 2B – core decision-making in Wales.

But some people who lost family members during the pandemic have told Sky News they want to see a separate Wales-specific COVID inquiry, as is the case in Scotland.

Read more: The families in Wales who want answers on COVID decisions

Responding to those calls, chair of the inquiry Baroness Heather Hallett said that “everyone knows [it] is not a decision for me”.

“I can promise, however, that the UK inquiry will do its utmost to investigate and analyse fully and fairly the most significant issues that concern the people of Wales,” she said.

More on Covid

The Welsh government has previously argued that decisions taken in Wales should be considered within a UK context.

Baroness Hallett said it was “probably appropriate that we begin these hearings in Wales in a week that includes St David’s Day but also includes the National Day of Reflection on Sunday, when we remember those who lost their lives during the pandemic”.

As the hearing got under way on Tuesday, a 20-minute impact film, with contributors speaking in both English and Welsh, was played.

Baroness Hallett described it as “extremely moving” and “it reminds us all why we are here”.

The opening statements are taking place on Tuesday, with the evidence set to start on Wednesday.

Lead counsel to the inquiry, Tom Poole KC, said the module would primarily focus on the decisions taken by the Welsh government, but would also include “an analysis of inter-governmental structures and relations between the four governments of the UK”.

Image:
Baroness Heather Hallett

‘Adding confusion’

The inquiry heard Welsh Labour decided not to hold its conference in Llandudno in-person, due to the emerging threat of the virus.

Mr Poole said Labour Senedd member, Lee Waters, said in a WhatsApp message: “I do think that it’s an odd signal to send that we’re cancelling conference, but allowing 70,000 to gather in Cardiff on Saturday”.

The message was in reference to the Six Nations match between Wales and Scotland due to be held in Principality Stadium on 14 March 2020.

It was called off by the Welsh Rugby Union on 13 March, but not before 20,000 Scottish rugby fans had travelled to the Welsh capital, the inquiry heard.

On 24 April, then Wales secretary, Simon Hart, wrote to the Welsh government saying its framework for recovery – which outlined how restrictions would be eased – “did not mention the UK government once”.

Mr Hart stated that “unless the evidence being relied on by the Welsh government to diverge from a UK-wide plan is explained, then the Welsh government will be guilty of adding confusion to an already challenging period of recovery”.

‘Treasury for England’

The successor to the coronavirus job retention scheme was due to start on 1 November 2020.

The Welsh government asked the Chancellor for the plan to start earlier in Wales after it announced a firebreak lockdown in the country.

Mark Drakeford, in written evidence to the inquiry, described the rejection of that request as “one of the most misguided decisions of the whole pandemic”.

Mr Drakeford said the impact of that decision was that the Treasury was “in effect acting as a Treasury for England, not a Treasury for the UK”.

Mr Poole told the inquiry that this is denied by the UK government, including by the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was the Chancellor at the time.

It was confirmed on Tuesday that outgoing first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, will be called to give evidence, as well as former health minister, Vaughan Gething, and senior government officials.

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