LEE Waters is the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport. He is the MS for Llanelli. We interviewed Mr Waters and asked hime about issues relating to the way in which the Welsh Government were dealing with the pandemic. The interview took place via Zoom on Friday (Jan 15).
There are numerous approaches to the way governments are dealing with the pandemic and subsequent vaccination programmes. Do you believe Welsh Government has the right approach or do you envisage more changes in direction as and when evidence of other approaches succeeding or failing come to light?
“Who can honestly say in the middle of this pandemic that we have everything right? I just don’t think any government can say that. It is an unprecedented situation that we are facing and it is so rapidly changing. I think what we are trying to do, as Welsh Government is to be open and honest and transparent about the decisions we are making. We publish all our evidence. We do a three weekly review. We listen to the Chief Scientific Officer and the Chief Medical Officer. Every time we explain why we made those decisions.
“When we make decisions we try and give people notice of the changes coming so that things don’t come like a thunderclap out of the sky by and large. So I think we are trying to do this sensibly and openly and as cautiously as we can. Everywhere around the World Governments are struggling to know how best to deal with this. They move between different stages of lockdowns. Now of course we are into the latest phase of this around the vaccine and it is extraordinary that within a year we are not only inventing the vaccine but also making sure it is safe and distributing it.
“From Monday every GP surgery in the area will be giving out the Oxford vaccine and supplies and distribution are increasing week on week. By the middle of February we will have vaccinated all over 80-year-olds and frontline staff. That I think is pretty good going. People always want us to go faster people are always frustrated and anxious and there is no shortage of criticism but we are doing the best we can do under exceptionally difficult circumstances.”
There is a debate about placing the homeless on that priority list for vaccination. Where do you stand on that?
“The nature of priority is that if you make one group higher you have to bring one group down. I heard a case made to me in the last week for plumbers, social workers or policemen and a range of others. What we have done is listened to the Joint Immunisation and Vaccination Committee (JVCI). They have done analysis based on who is at most risk of dying and being so severely ill that they have to go to hospital. Let’s make a list based on those people because one of our objectives through this vaccination is to stop the NHS becoming overwhelmed.
“We know that our hospitals and our wards are clogged up with a range of very sick people. People with Covid stay there longer than people without Covid. They get very ill and sadly a great deal of them are dying. The hospitalisation is double what it was first time round. The daily death figures are staggering, again sixty people today. That’s sixty people, sixty families that is a street’s worth of people dying every day from this horrible virus.
“Our priority is to protect the most vulnerable first. Once we have done the most vulnerable first which will probably take us through to the spring; we can have debates about the next lot of categories. The reality of this is that everybody is anxious; everybody wants it as soon as possible. There are all sorts of groups who could make a special case for why they should go in front of another group. We are doing what we have been doing all along. We are listening to the scientists and doctors to do this as transparently as we possibly can.”
How are the politicians in the Senedd coping with the pandemic?
“It is sweet of you to ask. Not many people care about the politicians. I think that everybody in Government both local and central government and in the health service or public service are finding it very difficult. It has been a grind, coming up to a year now. It has been a year of crisis management and it is unrelenting. From a human point of view it is miserable and grim. People didn’t go into these jobs to deal with death and disease and people losing their businesses.
“The thing that weighs heavily on our shoulders is that there are consequences to the decisions we make. People’s lives and people’s livelihoods rest on what we do. Often it is very hard to know what the right or wrong is here. We are not choosing between good options. We are choosing between a bad option and a less bad option. None of them are great options. These are hard and miserable decisions to take. We are doing the best we can and we are being open and honest about the reasons why we make them. We accept that there are going people whatever we do that is going to take a different view and that is inevitable.”
The controls and laws being put in place during the pandemic will be worrying for those who cherish liberty in a democracy. If the situation persists long into 2021 do you fear for the affects it may have on the people of Wales economically, socially and mentally?
“No doubt about it. These are huge retrograde steps we are taking; these are infringements on people’s personal liberties and freedom. These are draconian measures there is no doubt about that. We do not use these powers lightly. I think we are in such an extreme situation where most people accept this as a common sense thing to do and lots of people have been urging us to go further.
We have to be careful about that because this is how the rot sets in. We are conscious about that. I am not entirely sure if we are in the business of trying to save people’s lives what the alternative is.
Demonising of those who do not believe or wish to follow the Covid-19 narrative is becoming commonplace. Communities are becoming reminiscent of the Ceausescu era in Romania with neighbour informing on neighbour. Do you have any concerns over people’s rights to oppose the narrative?
“I think you are overplaying it by comparing us to Ceausescu’s Romania. It is a difficult time and what we don’t want to happen is to see social cohesion falling apart as a result of people turning on each other and there are signs of that happening at the margins. That is very troubling and that is why we are proceeding cautiously.
“We exercise these powers under public health laws and there is a legal test that we have to meet that these are proportional measures. They are based on as much robust evidence as we can marshal. Some of it is imperfect. We have our own lawyers challenging us on whether or not this is a reasonable and proportional response. These are not flippantly exercised. Of course people are going to challenge this, they should. We are a democracy; there are different views.
“We are the first to say that we don’t have a rulebook of how to do this and we can’t say with 100% certainty that we are making the right decisions. We don’t have the time to scrutinise and think through and kick the tyres for every decision we make. We are in a public health emergency. People who refuse to wear masks, people who spread false information or refuse the vaccine I think that goes beyond exercising their own personal liberty and endangering the liberties of others and that is where I think it crosses the line.
There are a small number of people who are deliberately irresponsible and they are putting the lives of others and social cohesion at risk. I do not defend their right to do that, I recognise they are going to do that anyway.
We also asked Lee Waters about issues relating to home schooling, funding for small businesses, his work on transport and the environment and his analysis of his chances at the next Senedd elections. You can listen to the interview in full here.