Westminster was its normal busy self on that chilly day writes Angela Burns.
In January of 2020. I was meeting Matt Hancock in my role as Shadow Minister for Health and towards the end of our discussions he told me of his concerns over a little-known virus called Covid-19 that seemed to be taking grip of a city in China called Wuhan. Coincidentally a city in which I once spent a fascinating few days with local people who were kind-hearted and welcoming and very proud of their city.
13 months on and that unknown virus has destroyed millions of lives, killed almost 2 and a half million people, devastated economies across the world and in its desperate fight for dominance it is throwing out mutations at an increasing rate.
Yet despite the bad news there is every reason to hope. Humankind has responded with determination; we are not prepared to be eradicated from the planet and we fought back with everything at our disposal. The naysayers will state that more should have been done and faster and differently but there was truly no precedent to view, no handbook to read and in my opinion the world picked up the challenge and ran with it. None more so than the United Kingdom.
Our scientists liaised with the best in the world, the team at Oxford developed a vaccine that has become a cornerstone in the battle to rebuild and our Regulators analysed, assessed, trialled, checked, and double checked in record time. The UK Government deliberately sought to spread the risk and placed orders on multiple vaccine developers to ensure a breadth and depth of supply. A policy that has paid dividends and is now enabling an extraordinary logistical deployment to take place.
The vaccine rollout has been phenomenal across the UK and I want to put on record how incredibly impressed I am by the UK’s response to this crisis. There have been some howlers, test, trace & protect was poor in most of the home nations and the Welsh Government’s record on accurate data, numbers of deaths, numbers of those with Covid, the plan to deal with the aftermath of the pandemic, long covid services to name a few areas has been poor and well behind other home nations. But ultimately the UK pulled together where it counted. It funded, developed, ordered, sorted, and delivered hope to millions.
And now we need to Restore, Renew and Rebuild. This is where I have genuine worries and why the upcoming Senedd elections are so important and I want to sound a word of warning to the Welsh Government. Come the election in May, it will not be the vaccine programme that you will be judged on, but your record of government over the last 22 years of devolution.
With a few notable exceptions it is a record that is lacklustre, fiscally wasteful, and increasingly moribund and has resulted in poor outcomes in vital areas such as Education, Health, and the Economy.
A record that has been supported over the years by Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats or both at the same time, which is why I grit my teeth in fury every time one of those parties sanctimoniously bangs on about democratic deficiencies. Gutless and self-serving, power at any price.
These unfortunate alliances and Welsh Labour’s record on Education, Economy and Health is why it is vital that we remind people that the Senedd elections are about more than Covid-19.
Education, the building blocks of our future. A nation which educates well has the future at its feet and anything is possible. It is something I feel passionately about, having two teenage daughters and having shadowed the portfolio for most of the previous Senedd term. Despite the commitment and dedication of so many fine educators’ Wales’ educational outcomes remain poor, some teaching unions still appear to present a roadblock to progressive change and whilst new curriculums are in the process of being introduced, schools are overwhelmed and underfunded.
Targets are continually missed and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA Test), regarded by many experts as a gauge for how well Wales’ education system is performing continues to show Wales as trailing behind the other UK nations. The last available figures from 2019 show that on reading, maths and science Wales was behind the average score for developed nations (OECD) and continues to be the worst performing of the 4 UK nations. And what do we hear from the Minister and her Government colleagues. Phrases such as “we are making progress”, or as we saw in 2017, the abandonment of set targets to monitor achievement. Such abandonment of targets is a regular ploy by this Government, who rightly see targets as being a performance indicator that their failures can be measured against.
Covid has obviously had a devastating impact on children’s education throughout the world but we need to ensure that in our efforts to build back better we do not carry on with the same old approach. Our young people are our future, we need to inspire them and give them the support and the skills to not only live the life they hope for but to play their part in the future of our country.
Economy – The world’s economy has been devastated by the “pause” that the pandemic has brought but let us remember that the welsh economy was on pause before the global devastation.
In the first couple of months of 2020, pre pandemic, GDP fell by 2.4% in Wales. The previous Minister for the Economy had a love of “task and finish groups” which undertook many tasks, but rarely ever concluded. Like so much of Labour Wales, pet projects were pursued in Labour heartlands, never to realise their potential or in the case of the wasted £9.3million Circuit of Wales, never to see the light of day. Despite the current Minister representing North Wales there seems little break from the South Wales, Cardiff Centric approach to job creation, is it any wonder that so few people north or West of the Heads of the Valley road feel that the Welsh Government is representing them?
In the past decade, a billion pounds has been wasted on projects as diverse as enterprise zones, Cardiff airport, the M4 relief road to name a few. There has been a total lack of Capacity, Capability, Sustainability, Objectives, Scrutiny, and the all-important Value for Money.
You only need to look at the Public Account Committee enquiries into Welsh Government investments such as Pinewood studios to see the fast and loose approach that Welsh Government takes to fiscal responsibility and accountability.
Therefore, I was delighted to see my colleague Russell George announce yesterday that under a Welsh Conservative led Welsh Government would re-establish the best aspects of the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) to get Wales on the road to recovery. It is exactly this approach that is needed to promote the value that basing your business in Wales could bring to potential investors. A crucial step forward to building back better.
Finally, let me return to the Health and Social Care Services.
This pandemic has brought to the fore all that which makes our NHS and Social Care services some of the most compassionate and uplifting in the world and we owe it to those who have put their lives on hold and gone those extra miles to transform and rebuild.
Because the pandemic has also exposed the inherent structural weaknesses in our systems; from the chronic underfunding of the Welsh Health Service by Labour when other home nations were piling money into theirs to the poverty of management that has enabled a situation where so many of our Health Boards have been in some form of government intervention for years. Betsie Cadwaladr has now been in special measures longer than any other Health Board in the entire UK. Not a record to treasure!
We are easing out of this pandemic with over half a million, that is one sixth of our population, on a waiting list for treatment. One sixth! That speaks volumes about the health inequalities we currently have in Wales and Labour’s complete failure to effect change.
Before the pandemic there were not enough nurses, hospital doctors, GPs, mental health professionals, physios, occupational therapists, the list goes on. After the pandemic those we do have are shattered and desperately need relief and support. Points made well and frequently by the RCN, the BMA and many of the Royal Colleges.
Primary care has been underinvested for years, their real estate in so many places is totally inadequate and there is precious little support for the Care Sector. There are not have enough residential homes or enough teams in the community and so services lean on unpaid carers and give them little recognition and minimal support. Professional Care staff are underpaid and undervalued yet the work they do is vital to enabling all of us to live our best for as long as possible and where we want to be.
I lay all this firmly at the door of the Welsh Labour Governments of the past 22 years. There has been plenty of money, the simple truth is they do not listen to the right people, they are not brave enough to initiate and support structural reform, they do not look to the horizon and plan, they have not recruited enough staff for the day job let alone crisis requirements, they have not assessed the needs of the population. In short, they have not made a difference.
I am so angry at this paucity of ambition and I know the Welsh Conservatives can make a positive difference to Wales. We have a strong, well-funded and imaginative plan to move forward. We have listened to the experts, we have researched, assessed, and tested our ideas with the public. We have a destination and a roadmap. The Welsh Conservatives are firing on all cylinders unlike the stuttering clapped out Welsh Labour Government.
Judge the Welsh Government not on what has happened over the last few months but judge them on the last 21 years.
A stuttering economy, not prepared or agile enough to embrace the future.
An education system which still lags its UK neighbours and remains below the international comparison with other developed nations.
And a health and care service, which is not given the freedom and resources to flourish by Government.
Wales deserves better and Wales can do better. Now is the opportunity to make the change that we all so desperately need.
Angela Burns MS is the Shadow Minister for Health and Social Care and the Member of the Senedd for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire