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Devolution confusion sets in as policies diverge

Public Affairs

By Siân Jones

We are starting to see increased policy divergence between the Welsh Government and the Westminster Government in their approaches to the coronavirus crisis. This week Wales’ First Minister, Mark Drakeford, announced a £1.1 bn package of support for the Welsh economy and public services, which included a £500m crisis fund for businesses, charities and social enterprises. Unlike in England, large businesses such as supermarkets won’t benefit from business rate relief measures.

There are other subtle but important differences, too. The system of fines for those who breach the lockdown measures in Wales is different, with the ‘once a day’ rule for exercise outings enshrined in Welsh regulations, unlike in England. Separate Wales-specific initiatives are being planned for recruiting volunteers and managing priority shopping deliveries for vulnerable people.

Getting that differentiated message across has been challenging. It’s only this week that BBC Wales will finally start broadcasting the Welsh Government’s daily press conferences. Tensions amongst politicians are running high, with Welsh Labour MPs accusing the Government of mixed messaging.

It’s certainly a difficult line for politicians to tread. People expect national unity in a time of crisis. Go too hard on a differentiated devolved message and you risk being accused of playing politics.  Yet, in these unprecedented circumstances, clear and unambiguous public information has never been more vital.

Has Coronavirus undermined devolution? Temporarily, perhaps. But, once we are through this, there will need to be some kind of reckoning – if only to establish clearer crisis communication protocols for the future. 

And Welsh independence? For now, it’s firmly on the back burner.