Every single government and politician since the dawn of time has tried to spin events to make themselves look better. It is guaranteed.
The coronavirus pandemic is, and will remain, one of the most fought-over parts of historical real estate for decades to come.
We already hear well-rehearsed narratives being trotted out in both the UK and Welsh Government press conferences. Sometimes these lines come back to bite them such as Matt Hancock’s claim they had ‘thrown a protective ring’ around care homes in England. But too often these distortions of the past are allowed to slide.
But it is vital that we challenge this rewriting of the narrative because not only does it let our elected representatives off the hook for the failings they have made but it also means we are doomed to repeat them there next time there is a public health emergency (and this is when not if).
There are many occasions during the crisis where the Welsh Government should be applauded for being open and clear about issues. Though it took time we now get regular hyperlocal data on Covid cases as well as regular updates on the situation in care homes. Mark Drakeford especially has repeatedly shown a willingness to explain and provide detailed insight into decision-making.
However there are three key claims that the Welsh Government have often repeated which are, frankly, not accurate.
“Wales never ran out of PPE”
This is a favourite of health minister Vaughan Gething that he has repeated in several press conferences.
The idea that at no point in the crisis did healthcare workers lack for personal protective equipment is completely false.
During March and April I interviewed dozens of healthcare workers who were working in Covid-filled hospitals either with incorrect PPE or none at all. We have written so many stories about health workers who were sent into battle undefended at the very peak of the epidemic.
Just 45 seconds on Google demonstrates the inaccuracy of these claims by the health minister. This story tells of doctors having to buy goggles from a DIY shop. There was the heartbreaking story of Gareth Roberts who was a nurse from Aberdare who died from Covid after being sent to look after Covid patients with “a paper mask, plastic gloves and a pinny”. In Newport the council pleaded with local businesses to provide PPE for their frontline workers. These are just some of the stories.
A survey by the British Medical Association in May last year found that 67% of doctors in Wales did not feel fully protected from Covid-19 in their place of work.
It also found that 27% of doctors had reported shortages of gowns with long sleeves in settings where they are most at risk, caring for the sickest Covid-19 patients. Some 17% of doctors either failed or had not been fit tested for a FFP3 mask. This is a type of mask used when performing highly infectious medical procedures and which if not properly fitted means a healthcare worker remains at significant risk of becoming infected.
Even worse is that 33% of doctors told the BMA they wouldn’t bother to speak up about an issue such as PPE or staffing shortages as they didn’t think anything would be done about it.
For the health minister to proudly declare now that Wales never ran out of PPE is not just wrong – it is an insult to all the people who died because the Welsh Government failed to equip them.
“The NHS was never overwhelmed”
This is another statement which is a favourite in Welsh Government press conferences. This idea that the Welsh NHS was not overwhelmed is a ridiculous thing to claim.
First things first let’s just establish what we mean by overwhelmed. Regularly before Covid-19 we wrote stories every winter about how the health service was being overwhelmed by normal winter pressures. Since we have such a tiny critical care capacity compared to many other similarly well-off nations this is inevitable. As one senior NHS worker told me: “Of course the NHS was overwhelmed by coronavirus – we are overwhelmed every winter.”
In March Mr Gething had to cancel every single non-essential procedure in the health service because of the huge wave of coronavirus cases coming down the road. Bear in mind that “non-essential” includes lots of cancer procedures as well as hip replacements. These had barely got going again when they were again cancelled for the bigger wave in winter. This means there are people all over Wales in serious pain and have been for at least 12 months – all because the NHS can’t treat them at the moment. To suggest to these people that the NHS is not overwhelmed is callous.
At the very least you would expect a functioning health service to be able to treat people who are in serious pain. But they can’t because there has been so much coronavirus. The very act of cancelling these procedures is a demonstration of an overwhelmed health service.
This is in no way to play down the sterling efforts of staff in the NHS itself. They have been incredible. But for a politician to proudly claim the NHS has not been overwhelmed is to ignore the facts before our eyes.
“The Kent variant caused the second lockdown”
There is no doubt that the far more infectious Kent variant has played a key role in the growth of the virus in Wales over the winter. But to suggest, as several politicians have done, that it is simply because of this variant that we are now in lockdown is to ignore both the figures and series of key decisions made by the Welsh Government throughout the autumn.
Firstly cases had been rising relentlessly in Wales since the start of September. The local lockdowns slowed but didn’t stop it. Track, Trace, Protect couldn’t get on top of it. The fire-break put a dent in the growth for a fortnight though a lot of bad feeling was caused by the PR mess that was the ban on supermarkets selling non-essential items. Then, when we emerged from the fire-break, it was into a set of far more lenient rules which allowed four people to meet in hospitality settings.
It was all of these decisions and actions that resulted in us failing to get a handle on the situation – not the new variant. Even close to Christmas, when the full threat posed by the new variant became apparent and we went into a lockdown before Christmas, it still wasn’t the dominant strain in Wales (though it is now).
Yes, the more easily-spread variant has driven infection but to suggest it is the only reason we are still in lockdown and young people haven’t been to school for two months is to let politicians off an enormous hook.