Andrew RT Davies
The coronavirus crisis has proved incredibly difficult and challenging for governments across the United Kingdom. The pandemic has tested ministers beyond recognition and there’s been success and failure in equal measure.
As politicians we must accept this virus is not going away. As a nation, we must learn to live with it, learn new behaviours to reduce the risk, but accept that for most people it does not develop into a serious debilitating illness.
Nevertheless, cases are on the rise and areas such as Rhondda Cynon Taf and Caerphilly have been placed into ‘local lockdown’ by the Welsh Labour Government.
With this backdrop we returned to the Senedd last week where we saw Welsh Labour’s health minister, Vaughan Gething, forced into making a series of staggering admissions.
Firstly, we had news of a serious data breach involving the mistaken publication of personally identifiable data of over 18,000 residents who have tested positive for Covid-19.
‘Minister for excuses’ Gething admitted he’d sat on this information for two weeks but inexplicably had not informed his boss and Wales’s First Minister, Mark Drakeford, who claimed he had only found out following Monday’s press statement!
And to think Drakeford had the temerity to call out the Prime Minister for not making a phone-call when he can’t even get his own health minister to communicate with him! Wales deserves better.
The data breach was quickly followed by the announcement of lockdown in RCT and an assertion by Gething that one coronavirus cluster in the county was associated to a visit to Doncaster Racecourse.
This drew a fierce response from the racecourse, which was adamant that no such visit had taken place. A hasty clarification followed from Welsh Government officials but by then, the damage had been done.
At a time of a public health crisis it is imperative ministers provide accurate information and the Welsh Government is failing in this duty. To date, we are still waiting to hear an apology from lacklustre Labour ministers and until its processes are strengthened it would be wise to reconsider its policy of public naming and shaming “offending parties”.
Lastly, Gething told us that the waiting list backlog, which was sizable prior to lockdown – and has got significantly worse during that period – would take the whole of the next term of the Senedd/Assembly (whatever you want to call it!) to address.
That’s unacceptable and is itself another pandemic, but this time one of delayed diagnoses and postponed operations, which could end up costing many more lives than those sadly lost to coronavirus.
This damning lack of ambition or acceptance of the catastrophic nature of this problem from Labour ministers is reflective of an administration that is complacent after two decades in power in Cardiff Bay.
There’s no excuse, particularly when there are solutions available to defuse this public health time bomb. Welsh Conservatives have called for the activation of “Covid-light” hospitals and implementation of pathways to work through the backlog of delayed elective operations.
According to Audit Wales, thousands of people in Wales are now “parked” on waiting lists and at the end of May around 148,000 patients had been waiting over six months, which has more than doubled since January.
In the Betsi Cadwaladr health board area of north Wales – under direct Welsh Labour Government control and in special measures for over five years – the number of patients waiting over a year has doubled from 7,758 in February to over 15,000 at the end of June. That’s troubling.
And between March and April there were 21,200 fewer surgical and midwifery admissions, and 16,000 fewer urgent referrals for suspected cancer compared to the same time last year. The prospect of what’s coming down the line is frightening.
Top surgeons say Covid-light hospitals can be delivered with patients screened before admission to make sure they are clear of the virus, and staff tested regularly.
Currently, it’s down to individual health boards to plan and manage elective operations, which could see a deadly postcode lottery and wild divergence of treatment across Wales.
The pandemic has reinforced the hard work, bravery, and ingenuity of our healthcare staff but they need to be supported in the long-term by innovative and dynamic leadership from Cardiff Bay.
The Welsh Labour Government must get a grip of the situation and avoid reverting back to the failed “business as usual” approach, and that must start with an immediate public information campaign to reinforce that our NHS is reopen and ready to treat.
Given the backlog challenge, Welsh Conservatives also want to see a ‘patient guarantee’ introduced for the next Senedd term to ensure patients could seek and receive treatment wherever possible. This must be a priority.
And let’s be clear, shutting everything down once again on a blanket basis is unsustainable. It’s kicking the can down the road.
Lockdowns must be smart, hyper-local and based on detailed data broken down by wards in local authority areas, otherwise we will see an array of unintended consequences such as increased deaths from cancer and conditions linked with economic hardship such as suicide.
Ironically, it was Labour’s Member of Parliament for the Rhondda who said we need a stiletto and not a sledgehammer approach to tackling the virus. He was right and Labour ministers in Cardiff Bay must listen.
We need to show people there is a way forward, support our heroic frontline staff, get the NHS back up and running, and ensure the cure is not worse than the disease.
Andrew RT Davies MS
Shadow Minister for Health in the Senedd
Conservative MS for South Wales Central