In the looking glass world of the global pandemic the most unlikely people are making history. Who could have predicted that it would be Mark Drakeford, Welsh First Minister and genial former professor of social policy, who would be the first leader of a devolved nation to shut up the borders? This, after all, is a mild-mannered Labour politician, not some foam-flecked nationalist.
Viewed in that context, the Welsh travel ban is not actually as dramatic a move as it seems. After all, restrictions are already in place between different parts of England. Regional administrations of all ideological stripes accept that preventing travel between Covid hotspots is necessary to contain the infection, taking this one step further seems a reasonable enough public health policy, not xenophobia.
In fact, Drakeford has continually stressed his desire throughout the pandemic for a “four nations” approach to tackling Covid. The fraying of inter-governmental consensus in recent months has been facilitated in large part by the Westminster Government’s reluctance to engage with their devolved counterparts. The First Minister had twice written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson asking for him to stop people from travelling out of English Covid hotspots – with no response. In those circumstances, who can blame him for pursuing a ban?
Opponents of the ban have lurched into clumsy lines of attack. The ex-Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns, framed the move as little more than chauvinistic nationalism. Yet this overlooks the fact these kind of measures have strong popular support. A recent YouGov poll found that nearly two-thirds of respondents from Wales (63%) “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the idea of a “circuit breaker” lockdown, for instance. Cairns’s comments give the impression that centre-right critics do not believe Wales can or should exercise self-government – that just plays directly into Plaid’s hands.
The problem with the policy is not the optics, but the practicalities. The Welsh Police Federation has already said that enforcement will be nigh on impossible, while questions have been raised about the effectiveness of fixed penalty notices. Half the notices already issued have gone unpaid, suggesting they’re not much of a deterrent.
The longer term significance of this moment remains to be seen. For many Welsh voters, attitudes to the travel ban are still shaped by their view of Wales’ relationship with Westminster. One thing is clear, though: Covid has given rise to a more assertive Welsh Government – something that looks set to endure beyond the pandemic.
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