7. Plaid Cymru Debate: Wales-specific COVID inquiry

– in the Senedd at on 21 February 2024.

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(Translated)

The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Darren Millar.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 5:08, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

Item 7 is next, and that's the Plaid Cymru debate on a Wales-specific COVID inquiry. I call on Mabon ap Gwynfor to move the motion.

(Translated)

Motion NDM8483 Heledd Fychan

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes that Module 2B of the UK Covid Inquiry will hear evidence in Wales between 27 February 2024 and 14 March 2024.

2. Believes that:

a) Module 2B of the UK Covid inquiry: ‘Core political and administrative decision making in Wales’ is insufficient to enable the Welsh Government and other agencies to learn the lessons from the response to the pandemic in Wales;

b) the core participant list for the UK Covid Inquiry hearings does not include the full range of relevant Welsh organisations;

c) the Wales COVID-19 Inquiry Special Purpose Committee cannot assess the full range of matters related to the Welsh Government’s handling of the pandemic;

d) failure to establish a Wales-specific Covid inquiry undermines devolution;

e) a Wales-specific Covid inquiry is a basic right for all who lost loved ones due to Covid.

3. Recognises the importance of the UK Covid Inquiry in identifying how decisions by the UK Government influenced the Covid response in Wales.

4. Regrets that the Welsh Government, unlike the Scottish Government, has not established a nation-specific Covid inquiry to fully examine the actions and decisions of the Welsh Government before, during and after the pandemic.

5. Calls on the Welsh Government to establish a judge-led Wales Covid inquiry.

(Translated)

Motion moved.

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru 5:08, 21 February 2024

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Whether you were a schoolchild forced to adapt to new and unfamiliar methods of learning, a business owner who had to navigate unprecedented convulsions in our economy, an employee placed on furlough schemes, someone whose mental health suffered during the periods of lockdown and the self-isolation, a victim of the debilitating effects of long COVID, or, most importantly of all, a loved one of the 12,500 individuals who have died in Wales as a result of this disease, the coronavirus pandemic touched the lives of every single one of us. It has irrevocably transformed our society, and its legacy will be with us for years to come.

Members will be aware that the public hearings of module 2B of the UK COVID inquiry are due to be held here in Cardiff from the end of this month, when political decision making by this Government will be scrutinised. But while we welcome this renewed focus on Welsh-specific issues, it has been apparent for some time that the scope of the UK inquiry is simply insufficient to cover every element of how the pandemic was handled in Wales. Only a full inquiry for Wales can achieve this, and it is both a democratic and a moral imperative that the Welsh Government heeds the call in today's motion.

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru 5:10, 21 February 2024

When we talk about the limitations of the UK inquiry, we don't seek to demean its work. Rather, we are simply reflecting the practical reality that a finite inquiry of this nature covering four separate nations that dealt with the pandemic in their own way will never be able to analyse every issue in full, something that Heather Hallett, the chair of the UK inquiry, readily acknowledged from the outset. And from the perspective of Wales, this is underlined by the fact that of the hundreds of hours of public hearings that have already taken place, only a single afternoon has so far been devoted to the testimonies of Welsh Government officials and Ministers. 

It's also worth considering the wide range of Welsh organisations that would undoubtedly have valuable insight into the handling of the pandemic, but have nevertheless been denied co-participant status in the UK inquiry, which is primarily due to the inherent constraints of the UK inquiry's scope with respect to Welsh-specific matters. The response to the representation made by the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board for co-participant status, which mentioned that the health board would not receive the degree of focus they initially believed, illustrates this point perfectly.

The Scottish Government, of course, recognised the potential for the UK inquiry to overlook devolved matters early on, and therefore put the interests of the public firmly before their own by establishing the Scottish COVID-19 inquiry. This is what proper accountability and responsible governance looks like. The Welsh Government has since belatedly addressed concerns over gaps in the UK inquiry by creating the special purposes committee, and we await its findings with great interest. But by its very nature, the committee can only perform a reactive role with respect to the course of the UK inquiry, rather than analysing the Welsh dimension of the pandemic in a proactive manner. It may be many years before even a partial verdict of how things were handled in Wales starts to emerge, by which point some, if not all, of the principal decision makers will have departed the political arena. 

I stated at the start of my contribution that there is both a democratic and a moral case for establishing a full Welsh inquiry. The former cuts to the very heart of the integrity of the devolution settlement. Throughout the pandemic, the Welsh Government asserted its right to do things differently and they were correct to do so. By utilising the devolved powers at their disposal, they adopted a distinctly evidence-based approach to public safety measures, tailored to the particular characteristics of the Welsh population. This, of course, contrasted markedly with the disastrous bluster, inconsistency and recklessness of the Boris Johnson administration, and which earned the First Minister some praise.

But it would be completely disingenuous to pretend that major mistakes were not made here in Wales. The delay in testing residents at care homes springs immediately to mind, and the Welsh people deserve honest and frank explanations as to the circumstances that led to these mistakes. It is completely hypocritical, therefore, to insist on diverging from UK policy to strike a tailored approach to Wales on the one hand, while ducking tailored scrutiny for the consequences of those actions on the other. Moreover, it does the cause of devolution a considerable disservice by creating the impression that this Senedd cannot hold itself accountable for the laws that are passed here.

If we want Welsh devolution to come of age a quarter of a century since its fledgling beginnings, enabling systematic introspection and self-evaluation of the decisions that are made in our national Parliament is surely a prerequisite. But even if the democratic case for a full inquiry does not resonate with all Members here today, then surely you must recognise the strong moral case of listening to the voices of those who suffered the most during the pandemic.

At this point, I'd like to pay tribute to the tireless campaigning of the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru group. Anyone who has seen their meticulous and forensic work will know there are few other voices better qualified to pass judgment on the merits of the UK inquiry. And they have been clear it cannot give them the answers, nor the closure, that they have been seeking for several years. The time to correct this injustice is long overdue. We owe it to the people of Wales, and especially those who lost loved ones, to reflect on the legacy of the pandemic openly and honestly through a full independent inquiry in Wales. That is why I urge Members to support this motion.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 5:15, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

I have selected the amendment to the motion, and I call on Russell George to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Darren Millar

(Translated)

Amendment 1—Darren Millar

Add as new point after point 2 and renumber accordingly:

Recognises that due to the Welsh Government’s refusal to set-up a Welsh Covid inquiry, the Senedd established a special committee to attempt to get answers for the families and friends of those who died during the pandemic.

(Translated)

Amendment 1 moved.

Photo of Russell George Russell George Conservative 5:15, 21 February 2024

Diolch, Deputy Presiding Officer. I move the amendment in the name of my colleague, Darren Millar.

I would like to thank Plaid for bringing forward this debate today, and say and indicate that, as Welsh Conservatives, we’ll be supporting the motion. I would also like to echo Mabon ap Gwynfor’s comments about the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru group, because they have worked tirelessly, at their own cost and expense, in their contributions towards the UK COVID inquiry, and they have campaigned throughout to establish a Wales-specific COVID inquiry. I would like to put on record my thanks to them, not only for their work as I’ve outlined, but also for their work with Members of this Senedd as they support us.

Now, the Welsh Conservatives have of course been calling for an independent Welsh COVID inquiry for years. The First Minister and other members of the Government often said during the course of that pandemic, ‘We are doing things differently in Wales’, and that was the Government’s right. That is the right of the elected Government of the day, to do that in the best interests of the people of Wales as they consider. But they should also accept the scrutiny of the different path and the path that they took.

Devolution was about bringing decisions closer to the people of Wales, so refusing a Wales-specific COVID inquiry ultimately does undermine devolution. Devolution has meant that various Governments over the last 25 years, Labour or Labour led, have been responsible for the Welsh NHS—for 25 years—and consequently have been responsible for the pandemic preparedness as well. The Government, of course, repeatedly refuse a Wales-wide specific inquiry, stating that they believe a UK inquiry is sufficient, despite, of course, the fact that the Scottish Government did decide themselves to bring forward a Scottish-specific COVID inquiry that collaborates with the UK COVID inquiry.

Now, at the First Minister’s insistence, he said that the UK inquiry would be sufficient. That’s what he said. The First Minister said the UK inquiry would be sufficient, despite Baroness Hallett’s own admission that there is insufficient time to look at every issue and evaluate the situation in Wales fully. This directly points to 2(c) in the motion today.

(Translated)

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Photo of Russell George Russell George Conservative 5:18, 21 February 2024

Now, there were mistakes made by the Welsh Government. There were mistakes made by the UK Government for England. There were mistakes made in Scotland. There were also right decisions made in Wales, England and Scotland. But that is the point of a public inquiry—to learn from where the mistakes are made and to also be aware and be able to share that good practice when that happens as well. The lead counsel to the UK public inquiry, Hugo Keith KC, has stated that there continue to be significant failings regarding the Welsh Government’s preparedness for the pandemic, citing a lack of resilience in planning and lack of resources and a lack of updating policies. Now, the First Minister has conceded that the Welsh Government was not as prepared as they should have been. Government Ministers like to say, don’t they, ‘We like to do things differently in Wales’, and that is of course true now as well in the way that the Government are dodging scrutiny, and they are dodging scrutiny by not agreeing to a public inquiry.

Now, as Welsh Conservatives, we have only made one amendment to this motion today, and that is to recognise that, due to the Welsh Government’s refusal to set up a Welsh COVID inquiry, the Senedd has established a special committee to attempt to get answers for the families and friends of those who died during the pandemic. But it is still my and the Welsh Conservatives' view that the answers that the bereaved families and the people of Wales deserve are best achieved through a Welsh independent judge-led public inquiry. Diolch, Llywydd.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru 5:20, 21 February 2024

The Senedd has established the Senedd special purpose committee of which I'm a member as an alternative to a Wales-specific COVID inquiry. Our solutions in politics often come in the form of honourable compromises, but, in practice, and as currently constituted, this committee will struggle to have the impact that it needs to. I pay tribute to the work done by the clerks of the committee, who are excellent, and my comments should in no way be interpreted as criticism of my fellow committee members. We are currently exploring ways in which we can strengthen our processes and therefore the end product, but, even with these changes, the committee will remain a poor substitute for what is actually required. 

Now, parliamentary scrutiny has a vitally important role. As parliamentarians, we rightly champion it. But this committee inadvertently risks devaluing it, because we've been given a task without the tools to fulfil it. What are the limitations of a parliamentary as opposed to a public inquiry? Well, firstly, they're one of resources. We simply do not have the teams of lawyers and researchers pouring over the hundreds and thousands of individual pieces of evidence that a public inquiry would be able to command. The second problem is the powers we have to compel witnesses to appear and to demand documents are not as clearly set out as those of an inquiry. It remains to be seen if our committee will be given unfettered access to all of the Welsh evidence submitted to the UK inquiry. Will the Welsh Government want politicians from other parties reading the complete log of text and WhatsApp messages, some of which may have nothing to do with the pandemic? The core participants to the UK inquiry have such access and, as such, are now the best informed people in Wales—far more informed than most of us. 

Procedurally, evidence given to our committee will not be given under oath. Squeezed into a morning here or an afternoon there, we'll have limited time to explore issues in detail with witnesses, with Members allocated just a few minutes each for their allotted area of questioning. Compare and contrast that with questions asked by learned counsel, involving forensic lengthy analysis of documentary records or the testimony of other witnesses. I fear that we'll end up with a process and an end product that will completely lack public confidence. That would be a disaster for the reputation of this institution, and it would be an incredible disservice to the people we are meant to represent. We are at an impasse. The Government has repeatedly refused to establish a public inquiry, and that leaves us with a committee inquiry that, as its most passionate detractors rightly say, is currently unfit for purpose.

But the fact that the Government refuses to establish a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 does not mean that we as a Senedd cannot act. We have the power ourselves to establish a parliamentary commission of inquiry. That is what the House of Commons and House of Lords decided to do jointly in 2012, following the financial crisis, in establishing the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. That commission was established not by Government, but by Parliament. It went beyond a traditional select committee inquiry in that it had non-politician members of the commission, had significantly more resources at its disposal, utilised the parliamentary powers to send for papers and persons in a more systematic way, and enabled counsel to conduct questioning alongside commission members. 

So, my proposal, my suggestion, if this motion this evening fails again because of the Government's continued rejection of a public inquiry, is that a group, maybe of senior backbench Members, drawn from all sides of the Senedd, draw up a proposal for a parliamentary commission of inquiry that goes beyond the narrow terms and limitations of the existing committee. I do not know if such a proposal could command a majority in this Senedd, but it is the minimum necessary to command the confidence of the people we represent.

Photo of Altaf Hussain Altaf Hussain Conservative 5:25, 21 February 2024

As a member of the Wales COVID-19 Inquiry Special Purpose Committee you would expect me to defend our committee, but I cannot. And the special purpose committee is like using a sticking plaster to treat a bad wound. It in no way makes up for the fact that Wales needs an independent judge-led public inquiry into the Welsh Government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There is simply no way that our committee can replace the work of the dedicated public inquiry. Even our task of identifying the gaps left by the UK COVID-19 inquiry is a near impossible feat. Now, I fail to understand what 'gap' means. Gap between what? Normally you have something like a gap between two cars, a fire gap, a gap between two houses, but here I have absolutely nothing, so what I feel about this terminology is whether it is right. 

We don't have access to the vast amount of information provided to core participants of the COVID inquiry. We can't subpoena witnesses, we can't even demand that the First Minister or former health Minister come before us to explain their actions, or lack thereof. All we can do is wait for the UK COVID-19 inquiry to report and try and ascertain what they've missed. How, I don't know. And they will miss things.

Next week the inquiry team will leave London to decamp to a budget hotel on the outskirts of Cardiff to hold public hearings on the actions and decisions taken in Wales in relation to the pandemic. Over the course of just three weeks they will try to distil the years of pre-pandemic planning and examine in detail every decision taken about COVID, the outbreaks and saving lives in Wales. 

It's just not possible to get a handle on such important topics in such a short period of time, but that is what the UK inquiry aims to do. We on this side of the Chamber have long advocated for the need for a dedicated Welsh public inquiry. It is the only way the people of Wales will get answers. It is the only way we can be sure that Wales is prepared to deal with disease X, the next pandemic. All the experts agree that it's not a case of if, but a case of when the next pandemic hits, and, if we have not learned the lessons of COVID, how can we be sure that we have made the right preparations?

Sadly, our Government are more interested in evading scrutiny than ensuring our nation can meet future pandemics head on. Decisions were taken in Wales that had a direct impact upon the course the disease took in Wales, and the Welsh public have the right to demand a detailed examination of those decisions. That is not something that can happen as a sub-module of a wider UK inquiry, nor can it be undertaken by a special committee of the Senedd, however well intentioned.

The Scottish have recognised this and are holding their own inquiry alongside the UK one. Why can't we? What are you afraid of, First Minister? Wales deserves answers. We demand an independent, judge-led public inquiry and I urge colleagues to support the motion. Thank you very much.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 5:29, 21 February 2024

Of course, there needs to be a UK-wide COVID inquiry. And, of course, Wales needs to participate. But, as we've consistently said in support of the COVID bereaved families, there is also a need for a Wales-specific COVID inquiry, just as is taking place in Scotland. Why? Decisions affecting people living in Wales were taken in Wales by Welsh Government Ministers. They were in an unenviable position, having to make significant decisions quickly and in ever-changing circumstances. Some decisions were the right ones, some were the wrong ones, and it's crucial that lessons are learnt so that when the next pandemic arrives we are better prepared as a nation to protect and support as many of our citizens as possible. Avoiding scrutiny, in my view, is not only irresponsible but insulting to all of those who lost loved ones during the pandemic, or whose lives were altered by it. The time allocated to Wales to scrutinise two years of decision making is not adequate.

As Plaid Cymru spokesperson for education, I'd like to focus specifically on the impact the pandemic had on children and young people, and why we need an inquiry that will encompass education. The implications of school closures, disrupted learning, the lack of face-to-face teaching and restrictions on social interaction are unlikely to be fully understood for many years. But it is undisputable that during a period of such significance for personal development, an entire generation in Wales, from primary-age pupils to university students, faced hardships and will inevitably carry that experience with them throughout their future lives.

This became clear during the first year of the pandemic, when a report by the Children's Commissioner for Wales found that 54 per cent of young people between the ages of 12 and 18 were worried about falling behind with their learning, and 52 per cent were worried about how the pandemic would affect their exam results. Since then, there have been numerous studies showing the ongoing toll of the pandemic on the well-being of young people. A report by the school health research network at Cardiff University has found that almost a quarter of secondary school learners in Wales reported having very high levels of mental health symptoms in the years following COVID-19, and this has been compounded by the fact that waiting times for local primary mental health support services are significantly longer for Welsh children compared to adults, as the Government has consistently been unable to meet its target of providing at least 80 per cent of children and young people with referrals within 28 days.

It's unsurprising, therefore, that the 'Well-being of Wales' report for 2023 revealed a downward trend in the life satisfaction of 11 to 16-year-olds from 2017-18 to 2021-22. Meanwhile, the recent Children in Wales members' survey on the impact and legacy of COVID-19 found that 70 per cent of its members, which include Barnardo's Cymru, Mudiad Meithrin and Early Years Wales, reported challenges to their work in supporting children due to the after-effects of the pandemic. We know that social inequalities have been a recurring theme in this context, with absenteeism being a lingering by-product of the pandemic and disproportionately prevalent amongst the most deprived social groups.

The Welsh Government is often quick to cite the impact of COVID when it comes to explaining its record on issues such as educational attainment, as we saw recently with the education Minister's statement on Wales's disappointing PISA results. I completely appreciate the profoundly disruptive nature of the pandemic in this respect, and that any government would have struggled to manage the ongoing fallout, but there is a glaring hypocrisy at play for this Government to attribute so many of its failings to the impact of COVID and yet resist an inquiry into the specific circumstances by which the pandemic was managed here in Wales.

We owe it to our young people to ensure that their experiences of the pandemic are given a fair hearing, and that's why I firmly believe that this Government's refusal to establish an inquiry for Wales is a dereliction of its duty to them. We should never be afraid of scrutiny. We should never be afraid, as politicians, to admit when we get things wrong; it is inevitable in a time of a pandemic. Avoiding scrutiny is irresponsible. We need to learn lessons and apply them, and I fully support the COVID bereaved families, and I'm sad for them that they have to fight for justice and to be able to have these stories heard and listened to, and lessons learnt.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 5:34, 21 February 2024

Our society is still coming to terms with all that we lost during the COVID pandemic. We are all, in different ways, readjusting; that readjustment will go on for years, I'm sure. So many people, understandably, would rather forget, would rather we moved on—stopped speaking about it. But, don't you see? That betrays the memories of the ones we lost, the people who were so loved, all those we still mourn, the unlucky ones, the ones whose immune systems were compromised, the ones whose safety, whose right to live, was compromised. Let us never forget the casual callousness with which the phrase 'underlying health conditions' took root, as though that set some deaths apart, as though they counted differently. But they counted each the same. Whole lives, complicated and messy and living and true, whether locked in care homes or behind their own four walls, they mattered and counted just the same. When we allowed that phrase to gain such ground, something was taken from us, too. There are still so many unanswered questions that remain.

I tried, and failed, in the spring of 2020, to understand why there was a delay in acknowledging the fact that COVID could be transmitted asymptomatically; why care home residents weren't tested for COVID when leaving hospital. I spoke to care home managers whose residents, they believed, died as a result of that policy. Demanding answers about those decisions should not cause controversy. Like so many devastatingly high numbers of people, I lost a loved one who was living in a care home. So many people died alone and the sense prevails that the uncomfortable truths about their deaths were swept under some carpet. For the bereaved families, it is a nightmare from which they've never awoken because of those unanswered questions: why those changes relating to testing were delayed in Wales, which left so many people vulnerable; why photographs were taken on wards and in morgues, then published, photographs of their dying relatives; and perhaps, most urgently now, why bereavement support for these grieving families is still so patchy across Wales, when the trauma they're suffering shows no sign of relenting.

The threat of future pandemics is rising with the tides of our changing climate. Building resilience and preparedness for our future must begin in earnest now, and establishing a Welsh inquiry would help to set those foundations for our futures' sake. Because, Llywydd, none of this is about appointing blame—who would gain from that? There were things we got right during the pandemic, others we got wrong. If we are to learn from the latter, those wrongs should be acknowledged to make sure that they count for something. It is not about settling scores, or scoring anything; everybody lost, there is no other score. But somehow, amidst the charts and percentage points, the harsh statistics, we must find a solution that allows us to look back on those years, not just through science, but solace, too, a willingness to come together again, because there is still so much to reconcile ourselves to: the choices that were made not just nationally, but personally; the things we missed out on, what we lost.

Llywydd, I checked the definition of 'wisdom' before this debate. One of the definitions is a

'body of knowledge and experience that develops within a specified society or period'.

There is a depth of wisdom we could still acquire—that we must acquire—from those pandemic years. The experiences that knotted us together and kept us apart all at once. The intensity of the calamity we suffered. The cost we are all still counting. It is not retribution or blame we should be seeking, it is wisdom, gleaned though sadness and pain and all the more vital because of it. A shared understanding. A reconciliation to what happened. A stock. A reckoning we can agree upon. An account that would count for more than the sum of all those statistics. An account of what happened that gives credit to every story. Not a charge, but a balance, written in wisdom and reconciled to learning from our past.

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru 5:39, 21 February 2024

There was a time when the pandemic was referred to as the great leveller, a catastrophic event that would transcend social barriers and affect us all equally—if the Prime Minister can get COVID, we can all get COVID. But the experience of the past four years since the initial outbreak has comprehensively demonstrated the fallacy of this notion, and, rather, the impact of the pandemic has served to entrench and exacerbate deep-rooted and intersectional inequalities in our society, especially along the lines of class, race, gender and disability. 

Photo of Sioned Williams Sioned Williams Plaid Cymru 5:40, 21 February 2024

The inequal impact is immediately apparent when the mortality rates in Wales are assessed according to levels of deprivation. Put simply, this means the risk of dying from COVID was over 80 per cent higher in poorer households, compared with the most affluent. This discrepancy was even more pronounced during the peak of the pandemic. So, no, this was no leveller. We know that poverty makes you sick, that poverty kills, and the pandemic demonstrated this quite literally and on a terrible scale.

Mortality rates are only one measure of the pandemic's contribution to widening social inequalities. The impact of the pandemic on mental health outcomes, for example, was disproportionately higher amongst black and minority ethnic people, who were 55 per cent more likely to report problems associated with mental distress compared with white individuals during the first wave of the pandemic. A similar pattern emerges from the perspective of income levels. While the highest income earners in Wales experienced a 6.5 per cent deterioration in their mental health during COVID, the average figure for those in the lowest income quintile was 39 per cent.

People on low incomes or who were already likely to be living in or close to the poverty threshold were also seven times more likely to be working in a sector that was completely shut down during the pandemic, and with approximately 10 per cent of the Welsh workforce, who were more likely to be women or disabled people, not earning enough to qualify for statutory sick pay, the prospect of having to self-isolate for those earners meant a terrible choice of either putting their health at risk or putting their ability to pay their bills at risk. It's also worth remembering that the current cost-of-living crisis, which is being felt hardest by the most disadvantaged sectors of our society, is partially a by-product of the economic disruption and dislocation caused by the pandemic.

As such, establishing a full Welsh inquiry would not only shed light on previous Government actions, it could also provide a platform for an essential public conversation on the ongoing and corrosive impact of inequalities in our society and on the different groups in our society, many of whom suffer intersectional disadvantage. Though we lack Welsh-specific data on this matter, it's clear that the pandemic posed a disproportionate risk to the health of black and minority ethnic people. For example, black men were 2.2 times more likely to die of COVID than white men. Black women were one and a half times more likely to die of COVID than white women.

And as the 'Locked out' report so powerfully showed us, 68 per cent of deaths from COVID-19 were among disabled people in Wales. The report illustrates how social factors, including discrimination, poor housing, poverty, employment status, institutionalisation, lack of PPE, poor and patchy services, inaccessible and confusing public information and personal circumstances significantly contributed to this figure. The report called on the Welsh Government to establish a national inquiry into factors affecting the deaths of different groups during the pandemic, including disabled people, as well as calling for the UK Government to launch a wider four-nations inquiry. It was never seen as an either/or, and it isn't an either/or. The report called for a Wales-based inquiry not only to review the evidence and recommendations of the report and others like it, but also to be capable of developing legally enforceable actions and remedies, because it was shameful what happened, and it must not be allowed to happen again.

So, how can we ensure that? Well, by the Government doing everything in its power to learn those bitter lessons—as Delyth Jewell said, what was done right, what was done wrong—because the Government has a duty to do so, a duty to those who lost their lives, a duty to those who lost their loved ones. There was so much talk of building back better. The levels of intersectional inequality we are seeing in Wales demand that we try to do so, but without a comprehensive Welsh inquiry, we do not have the full knowledge we need to be able to do so.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour

(Translated)

Llywydd, the Welsh Government has shown a clear commitment to the process of scrutinising and learning lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. When the UK COVID-19 inquiry hearings come to Wales next week for module 2B, it is natural that there will be more focus on the actions and decisions taken by the Welsh Government. This will be a challenging time again for everyone who lost a loved one or who was otherwise affected by the pandemic. Llywydd, I want to take this opportunity to extend my sympathy to everyone who is still mourning the loss of a relative or friend.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour 5:46, 21 February 2024

Llywydd, while the inquiry will be sitting in Wales for the next couple of weeks, it is important that we do not view these hearings as the only time events in Wales will be closely examined during the course of this inquiry. It is incorrect to assume that the information seen and heard during this time is the only material about Wales that the chair will be considering. The chair has been very clear in the current hearings for module 2 that she will be taking into account the full range of material provided, including all the written statements and documentary evidence, before drawing any conclusions. The Welsh Government has submitted many thousands of documents and in excess of 70 statements for module 2B alone. We have made and we will continue to make contributions to the evidence gathered for all the inquiry's work in all the modules.

I'll now turn to the matter of core participant status. It is for the chair of the inquiry to determine, based on a very specific set of criteria, which has been published, who should be a core participant. Having core participant status or not does not affect the chair's ability to request written information, or hear evidence from any person or organisation. The chair has requested evidence from those in Wales who are not core participants in module 2B, and as we saw during the first module, we can expect material to be submitted by individuals or organisations from across Wales, far beyond those on the core participant list.

The inquiry has also been proactive in taking views of bereaved families and the public into consideration right from the start. It held a four-week public consultation over its terms of reference and met more than 150 bereaved families from across the UK and representatives from many sectors. The chair's first stop during this process was Wales. The inquiry has established the Every Story Matters project to gather people's personal experience, and whilst touring the UK last year, the inquiry visited Wrexham and Ruthin in November.

Llywydd, the UK COVID-19 inquiry is an inquiry for Wales, as much as it is an inquiry for England or any other UK nation. As a Government, we are clear that participation in a UK-wide inquiry is the right approach and the most effective way to ensure full and proper scrutiny of actions and experiences here in Wales during the pandemic in a way that will allow us to learn important lessons for the future.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 5:49, 21 February 2024

I don't think we're arguing against participation in the UK inquiry in any way; of course we should be. What we're arguing for is parity. Why do you think Scotland are doing this? Is it pointless that they're doing it? Do you think that they're wasting their time or do you see that there is value in what they're doing in Scotland? We're simply asking for parity. Because surely they can't look at all the issues through this UK-wide inquiry, because they're looking at UK decisions, mainly. Bereaved families want to have their voices heard. There's not that opportunity in the UK-wide inquiry in the same way as is happening in Scotland.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour

I've been following the progress of the Scottish inquiry up to October 2022, when the chair and four counsel resigned from the Scottish inquiry. It is obviously a matter for the Scottish Government in terms of the explanation as to their inquiry and their priorities. I remain to be convinced that it will add anything significantly beyond what will be attained from the UK inquiry. The inquiry has the capacity, powers and force to oversee the interconnected nature of the decisions that were made across the four nations. The Welsh Government took an active role in shaping the terms of reference for the UK inquiry, including input from bereaved families in Wales, setting out what we would expect to see to ensure that Wales was fully included.

We are still at a relatively early stage of the inquiry. We are part way through the hearings in the second module, and the inquiry is preparing to publish its report in relation to the first module shortly. But before a single hearing has been held in module 2B, this motion is prematurely stating that it won't be good enough. The focus of some in this Chamber on the Senedd's Wales COVID-19 Inquiry Special Purpose Committee is not on what it can do and will do, but again on what it won't do before it has even had an opportunity to get to work. I believe that we must avoid premature assumptions, and we must allow both the inquiry and the committee to complete their work in due course. The Government will not be agreeing to this motion nor supporting amendments to it, and I encourage other Members to do the same. Diolch. [Interruption.]

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru

Yes, he has. The file is closing. 

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Mabon ap Gwynfor to reply to the debate. 

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru

You might try again, Mr Isherwood. [Laughter.]

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you. I will invite Mark to contribute if he wishes to do so.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru

No, no, it's okay. Leave Mabon ap Gwynfor carry on. 

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you to everyone for contributing to this debate. It has been a very powerful debate, and I'm convinced that the case has been made for the need for an independent Welsh public inquiry. As one contributor said—I think it was Delyth who said it—the purpose of our motion and the purpose of establishing an independent inquiry is not to point the finger and to find blame. And that's the problem with politics, particularly the politics we exercise here in Wales and in the UK, this fear to acknowledge blame or that mistakes have been made and the fear of how that will have a political impact on people. But each and every one of us here, those who were elected and those who weren't, have played a part in that process of coming to decisions, and we all need to learn those lessons as we move forward. I am therefore disappointed to hear the Counsel General saying that he is entirely confident that the UK inquiry will look at what happened in Wales in its entirety and that it will be sufficient and adequate. It's clearly obvious that it won't be adequate. [Interruption.] I will give way

Photo of Mark Isherwood Mark Isherwood Conservative 5:53, 21 February 2024

Do you share my concern that both COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru and their barristers, speaking in the Senedd, directly contradicted what the Counsel General has just said and which you've just requoted from him?

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru

I absolutely do agree with that. Even the chair of the UK inquiry, as has been stated several times in the debate today, has made clear that the UK inquiry is not sufficient and can't cover everything and can't look at the details in Wales. 

As I said, it's not about just apportioning blame; there were some good things that happened in Wales. I'm thinking specifically about Ceredigion and what Ceredigion County Council did. I remember reading headlines in newspapers across the UK pointing to the good things that were done in Ceredigion—good lessons that we can learn, as well as some of the mistakes that were made. And the truth is—and I can't remember which Member made this point; maybe Altaf said it—this will happen again. We know that we're facing another pandemic—maybe soon, maybe not in our lifetime, but we will face it. And if we are to face it confidently, we need to learn the lessons from what we did here in Wales. 

We're thinking about the fact that, in Wales, we allowed people to go back to their care homes. Was that the right decision? In hindsight, probably not, but without a full inquiry we won't know fully. I'm thinking of my son, who had to go to school via Zoom. Was there another way of doing that, of educating our children during a pandemic period, during a lockdown period? We don't know at the moment. The lockdown itself—were the lockdowns the right length, could they have been done in another way? 

I know, in parts of Wales, that the Government introduced local lockdowns. Was that the right decision at the time? Should that have been spread out more or not? These issues need to be learned. We know that here in Wales we had Exercise Cygnus back in 2015; what lessons were learnt from Cygnus and were they put in place? And have those lessons been learnt moving forward? For instance, currently in Wales, we know that hospitals aren't making sure that staff are wearing FFP2 and FFP3 masks. Those are lessons that certainly should have been learnt, but are clearly not currently, so where are we at with learning best practice and bad practice from those experiences?

I think Adam made a really important contribution there about the idea of developing and establishing a parliamentary commission, and I think that's something we all need to consider and the Government should look at with interest. It's certainly an option for us to have, next to an inquiry, something that will look at all of the lessons from the COVID experiences that we have.

And finally, one thing I think the Counsel General did say that I think was important: you mentioned that it is going to be a difficult experience for everybody, and you did extend your sympathies. I think we all need to think about the language that we use. Over the last few days, I've heard members of the Government saying that they were looking forward to giving evidence to the COVID inquiry in Cardiff. Bereaved families aren't looking forward. This is triggering in the extreme for those families. I would urge people to consider carefully the language that they use. It's not something to look forward to; it's an imperative, it's something that they have to do and do so with dignity and with wisdom. So, hopefully you'll consider the words that you use as Government members when you do talk to the cameras on this issue.

So, the case has been made. It's absolutely clear that here in Wales we do need an independent inquiry. Both sides of the Chamber, as far as the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru are concerned, have made it clear that we support this, and I would urge other members of the Labour Party as well to support this motion before us today. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 5:57, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? Yes, there are objections. We will defer voting until voting time.

(Translated)

Voting deferred until voting time.