Coronavirus inquiry backed by Senedd, but on the Welsh Government’s terms and not before the next election


The First Minister recently stated his government’s support for an inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic. Yesterday, the Senedd debated precisely how and when that should happen.

The Motion

The Senedd:

 

  • Calls for an independent, Senedd appointed, judge-led inquiry into the Welsh Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, to be commenced at an appropriate date, when the pandemic is under control, and to be concluded before the next Senedd election.

Questions over Welsh Government’s response to pandemic need answering

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.), said an independent, Senedd-appointed, judge-led inquiry would be a necessary step in getting to the bottom of how the Welsh Government responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The appointment of an independent judge will send a statement that this institution is committed to accountability, and this inquiry quite simply deserves the authority that a senior judge would command. Indeed, when the process gets to the stage where hearings are underway, a QC and their team would have the most appropriate skills to conduct questioning in a fair, inquisitorial manner.”
– Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS

Stressing the need for this work to be completed before the next scheduled Senedd election in May 2021, the public should have the opportunity to hold ministers to account at the ballot box based on the evidence and findings of such an inquiry.

Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns MS (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.), went through some of the specific areas an inquiry could focus on including the Stereophonics concert in Cardiff, how the lockdown worked and whether ambitions and ministerial statements on virus testing matched reality.

Both Russell George MS (Con, Montgomery) and Mark Isherwood MS (Con, North Wales) offered lists of businesses and economic sectors which have been impacted differently in Wales compared to England.

“The Welsh Government decided not to follow some of the most fundamental guidance of WHO. We need to know why, and when do they think the WHO guidance is to be followed and when it isn’t, not in order to be able to point the finger at some point in the future, but to learn lessons now.”
– Rhun ap Iorwerth MS (Plaid, Ynys Môn)

Interim report needed at the very least

Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) noted that governments establish statutory inquiries rather than parliaments, but at the very least there had to be cross-party talks on setting the groundwork for a future inquiry. Given that it would take six months to get a full public inquiry off the ground, at the very least an interim report should be prepared – similarly to the Grenfell Tower inquiry.

Carwyn Jones MS (Lab, Bridgend) later pointed out that it took 16 months to prepare an interim report for Grenfell. The process can’t be rushed; there has to be transparency and “not some kind of rushed kangaroo court”.

Joyce Watson MS (Lab, Mid & West Wales) believed the UK’s lack of preparedness for a global pandemic – with only the US being deemed less prepared by public health experts at John Hopkins University – means any inquiry can’t focus on Wales in isolation when UK Government decisions have had a big impact.

This was echoed by Lynne Neagle MS (Lab, Torfaen), though she believed coronavirus inquiries currently underway by the Senedd’s committees could provide some pointers.

Inquiry necessary, but not yet

Counsel General, Jeremy Miles (Lab, Neath), was unequivocal about the need for an inquiry – but now isn’t the right time.

“Crucial to the issue of timing will be the need to take account of the ongoing crisis management. As we move from summer to winter, we may well be dealing with a further peak and with other winter pressures, and I know that Members will agree that those working on the front line will need, of course, to be able to do their work unimpeded by other pressures.”
– Counsel General, Jeremy Miles

Other key principles the Counsel General believes should underpin any future inquiry include involvement and coordination by all of the UK’s governments and joint agreement on who should lead an inquiry; the Welsh Government aren’t opposed to this being judge-led, in principle.

Vote

The Welsh Government’s amended version of the motion – supporting an inquiry in principle but without a fixed deadline – was approved by 40 votes to 11 with 5 abstentions (BXP and Neil McEvoy).

Like last time, the 30th government vote was assigned to Kirsty Williams.

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