Health and Social Care

Liberty cannot be a victim of COVID-19

When the Coronavirus crisis began, I think we all would have hoped that a year later we would not be enduring a third lockdown writes Nick Evans.

We could do with a little more of that hope now, because even with the four most vulnerable groups in Wales having been protected by their first dose of the vaccine, there is still no clear plan from the Welsh Labour Government as to when we shall have liberty and freedom returned to us. 

And people need hope. I spoke to a gentleman in Abergavenny last week who was quite emotional as he told me he missed the social contact with his regimental association after his wife had passed away. People tell me of difficulty sleeping, short tempers and a sense of hopelessness and these are all manifestations of the impact that the removal of self-determination is having on our psyche. 

We cannot ignore this, it is simply storing up problems for the future. The Welsh Government urgently need to broaden their criteria for understanding the harm that the pandemic, and the response to it, is causing to our society. R-numbers and death rates should of course still feature, but we must start tracking other indicators so that we can consider the long- term impact that curtailed liberty is having on citizens’ mental and physical health, wealth and happiness and strike that critical balance that will allow us to return to life as normal. 

We must also not subscribe to the notion that the return to normality is a treat, to be bestowed upon us in terms set out by Labour ministers. Seeing friends in a pub, sending our children to soft play, buying books in a shop of our choosing are rights which are ours as citizens and they should be returned to us as possible, and without the need to show papers to prove our entitlement. 

In the cold light of day, we need to fully understand the impact that the pandemic and the response to it has had on Wales’ economy, communities and young people. Firstly, so we can mitigate those impacts, and secondly so that we can learn lessons for the future. The way to do that is through an independent inquiry, backed up by academic research. This will give us the fullest understanding of the costs to society that have been brought about by this crisis and the response to it. The inquiry must compare and contrast with other parts of the UK that have followed different paths and show what has worked, and what has not. For transparency and to build public trust, this data and analysis must be published. 

This is essential, because when considering how to deal with a future crisis, that response must be informed by evidence and experience. Ministers must be presented with empirical data of the short-term efficacy versus longer term consequences of such wide-ranging restrictions. The public and those charged with scrutinising ministers should rightly expect to be satisfied that any curtailment of their liberty is proportionate and time limited. Similar measures in future need to be properly debated, and in good time, because cursory and token scrutiny of such wide-ranging and potentially long-term actions undermines public trust and is anti- democratic. To put it frankly; doing this again must be a last resort.

Yes, these have been unprecedented times, which have necessitated unprecedented policy, but when the consequence of those policies is overhearing your three-year-old daughter say that she thinks her family don’t like her anymore because she’s not allowed to see them, we must not allow this to become another ‘normal’ and accepted policy approach. If the data proves that lockdowns, industry closures or social distancing were not effective, they should be consigned to the history books. If they did work, we need to fully understand the risks, the costs and the benefits and only deploy them if there is no other option. That will give us all hope for the future.

Nick Evans is a political and communications advisor and local councillor. He is also on the Welsh Conservative South Wales East regional list.

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