10 February 2022

Wales must learn to live with the virus too


‘Reckless’ and ‘cavalier’.

This is how the Welsh Conservatives’ are being characterised by Labour and Plaid Cymru members for saying that it’s time to follow England’s example and learn to live with coronavirus.

There has been a lot of criticism directed at those who have said we are reaching the point where the country needs to properly find an accommodation with coronavirus – not live with it, as Mark Drakeford suggested we were doing just before Christmas, by still having numerous restrictions in place.

These, usually left-wing, doomsayers seem to forget that the United Kingdom has one of the most successful vaccine procurement and rollout programmes in the world. They also seem to forget that we were told vaccines are the route out of restrictions.

And they are: vaccines work and the booster jab showed its resilience against the Omicron variant, which the Labour government in Cardiff Bay responded to with economically cruel and clinically unnecessary restrictions. Conservatives successfully pushed hard against these, and they were removed.

There are concerns about the waning of vaccine effectiveness. But if this concerns ministers, why don’t they move fast to establish a regularised programme of annual or biannual jabs for the most vulnerable demographics, already in place for the flu? This is all the more sensible given the approach of Covid-19’s endemic stage.

What can’t happen is that Wales stays in Alert Level 0. Last Friday, Wales re-entered this for the first time since before Christmas. Although this may sound like no restrictions – or protections as Labour have started calling them – there are still ways we are not as free as we were two years ago.

These limits exist across four lines: mask mandates, business restrictions, vaccine passports, and self-isolation.

The Welsh Conservatives are not anti-mask. Indeed, we long supported their use in indoor public settings like supermarkets through the pandemic, and forced a U-turn from the Labour Government which previously said evidence in favour of them was ‘quite weak’.

However, we have reached the point where they should now be a matter of personal responsibility. Private businesses would be welcome to have a requirement – it would be their choice.

But when it comes to the life-chances of children, it’s those calling for continued Covid measures in schools who are being ‘reckless’ and ‘cavalier’. Evidence shows facemasks do little to protect young people from transmission in the classroom but the quality of learning and, thus, learners suffer.

Again, teachers and pupils should be free to wear a mask if they so wish – and improved ventilation is being rolled out across Welsh schools – but the Welsh Government should not demand our younger generation adopt a known barrier to education to stop spreading a disease against which most people are fully vaccinated.

The remaining restriction on businesses is a risk assessment in relation to Covid. However, with Covid soon to become endemic, this seems illogical. Also, businesses would be compelled to act on these risk assessments, to the detriment of many who have compact premises like country pubs. Again, entrepreneurs should be allowed to choose whether to include Covid in their assessments, as many might not judge it to be a risk in itself.

But, most of all, they need to be free of the constant threat of restrictions and lockdowns whenever a hypothetical variant is spoken about. This is no way to run an economy and Wales can never move on as it stands without change. Just ask the Welsh hospitality business that traded a third down compared to England in the four weeks since Boxing Day.

Another burden on business are vaccine passports. Much has been written about these – including by me – but suffice to say this coercive, ineffective, and pointless measure still has no proof that it works and is one of the worst ill-informed policies of the devolved era. They are not a route out of restrictions, they are a restriction. Every day they stay in place is an insult to liberal democracy.

Finally, Wales – eventually – followed England in reducing the self-isolation period to five days (with two negative tests). This shows positive progress but if we are serious about living with the virus, that means no mandatory, legal requirement to isolate for those with Covid. Of course, if someone is actually ill, then they should stay at home like if they were too sick to work, but the status quo cannot continue forever. This is inevitable and a matter of when, not if.

That’s why we’re calling on the Labour Government for the immediate removal of vaccine passports, all remaining business restrictions, and mandatory face masks in schools. The date to scrap all Covid laws should also be announced imminently.

We have not gone through the last two years, losing loved ones – to both the virus and lockdowns – waited to be vaccinated three times, and limited our lives and livelihoods only for government ministers to say ‘not yet’ when we ask for the return of our freedoms now that there’s no real need for them to be withheld any longer.

If we can’t live with the virus now or soon, we never will.

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Russell George MS is Wales’ Shadow Health Minister.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.