Waiting for a Welcome In the Hillsides

EDITOR'S NOTE : This was written and published just before the Welsh Government announced they will begin allowing pubs and restaurants to reopen from July 13th 2020.

As we have seen this week, the official UK Government stats, which are
 consumed and analysed daily by a public desiring to paint a more hopeful picture of how the virus is behaving at the moment, are incomplete and misleading. Despite a sense of optimism, a lot of folk wearily worry and suspect Leicester won't be the last local flareup, nor the last lockdown.

That said, with the apparent general trend appearing to show the virus being brought more and more under control, it is still fair for hospitality businesses on this side of Offa's Dyke to be frustrated at what they perceive as over-caution by the Welsh Government; especially when they see their friends, some mere metres away in the Borders, being allowed to reopen when they can't. 

Some have even postulated it's a political ideological tactic. Some say that Welsh Labour just *have* to be seen to be different to English Tories because of hatred or distrust between the two political wings and nations. However accusations of this type are narrow-minded in themselves and don't stand up to scrutiny because why on EARTH would any Government deliberately and consciously make itself more unpopular with unjustifiable tactics? Especially one so flaky as this uninspiring lot in the Bay? 

The obvious answer, which disappoints conspiracy theorists and political pundits on newspapers alike is: they wouldn't. At school, you never copied off the dumb kid misbehaving in the corner of the class, who kept forgetting his PE kit, who at break time ran out into the rain without an umbrella or overcoat. Which is why they are apparently taking a higher, harder road than Boris Johnson's nakedly populist, potentially damaging but politically damage-limiting agenda.

An objective overview could likely conclude that the four corners of the UK are opening at different times for different reasons. Northern Ireland has done by far the best of our family of nations due to the good fortune of being physically cut off from the rest of us and being connected to a country which has had its own relatively remarkable success in containing the virus and keeping excess deaths to a minimum. They open on Friday.

Scotland has done well, despite some obvious wobbles and the Nike Conference scandal. They can genuinely say they are opening because the science says they can. But they're still not opening just yet because they're giving their businesses a relatively long amount of time to prepare compared to their southern neighbours.

Boris has, given the devolved nature of these issues, been acting solely as de facto Prime Minister of England during this time, and the brutal truth is that he has had little choice but to force open the doors earlier than can be considered safe. The Dominic Cummings affair, the PPE ordering debacles, the fudging of numbers, the NHS tracing app failure and numerous other missteps have raised the collective ire of a by-and-large patient populace, which unfortunately gave the less scrupulous an excuse to break the government's already confusing "guidelines" to the extent that people are fighting on the beaches. I'm not sure that's the kind of Churchillian effect he desired.

So, in desperation and not unironically like an unfit parent, he's placating the tantrum-throwers (and his friends in the big hospitality companies) by giving them back what they want. Unfortunately he's doing it so quickly he's not given small business a chance to get ready. What's worse, he's doing it without a fully working test and trace system. He's doing it off his own bat without proper guidance. His approach is devoid of care, or attention, or anything. 

As usual.

So the shysters of England - Marstons, Wetherspoons etc - are having their grand reopening with daily deaths still in the hundreds and daily infections still in the thousands. All because he fears losing what support he hasn't already vacated to an opposition leader who, let's face it, while effective isn't remotely effusive, engaging or enticing.

Now Wales. We don't have a charismatic, identifiable leader like Scotland or England. We are lumbered perpetually with Welsh Labour, a notoriously slow-moving unevolved branch of the party. It is so cosy in its position as Wales' default #1 choice it's practically a walking, talking, snooze-inducing Monty Python punchline. 

Welsh Labour gets in year after year by default in the Valleys. Stick a red rose on a donkey we wearily say. And sometimes they actually do, if Chris Bryant is anything to go by. 

So they've been resting on their laurels for a long time. But those laurels are being challenged by an increasingly indycurious population on one side and yet also an Anglo-centric one. Removal of tolls on the Severn Bridge coupled with lower property prices have meant English immigration into Wales has risen, with the threat of the border around the Severn becoming even more blurred. And yes, the effect of Brexit on the poorest communities coupled with the other factors have left Wales feeling genuinely unsure politically for the first time in years. Real change, in one direction or another, is possible if, at present, improbable.

But the signs are there - and not just the ones bolted to motorway gantries proclaiming the Second Severn Crossing to be the Prince of Wales Bridge. Labour's Red Wall in the North of England crumbling was a warning to the Welsh branch - if they don't up their game, they're next. If it hadn't been for a lot of Plaid and LibDem and Green voters holding their noses and voting for Team Red in 2019, they would have been goners too.

So Welsh Labour need to prove they're on the side of the Welsh people. And in this crisis, they've done mildly OK - we have the least amount of excess deaths on the mainland GB and an R0 number averaging lower than most English regions. So far, so good. 

But in a country where a large majority of our 3 million live within stones' throws in Valley and city communities, any uptick in infections could be devastating. Forget Leicester - if anything like that happens in the Valleys, it would be carnage, especially given our aged population.

So caution has to be the name of the game, and while slow progress provokes and foments impatience and its own brand of distrust, it could reap its own rewards. 

We could open later, but more fuller. Tortoise and hare. We have more preparation time for businesses. We can watch and learn how things go down with the Saes. Let others make the mistakes for us.

That's not to say there isn't a political angle, of course there is, because unlike Sturgeon and Johnson, Mark Drakeford doesn't command popularity and support levels which makes him fairly comfortable in his positions. He literally can't afford to get this wrong.

The brutal truth however is that both the Welsh Government and the leisure and hospitality business sector are caught fast between the unforgiving, brutal rock of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the hard place of potentially tanking economy as the Westminster Tories pull the furlough support monies out from under them both. So there's Hobson's Choice: open too soon and folk get sick, or open too late and business gets sick.

For all my innate cynicism surrounding the governments in Cardiff Bay and Westminster, I have to believe that here the sweet spot of compromise has at least been considered in a more nuanced way than in Downing Street's hellish ideological autocracy. The trends and data will have been analysed and over-analysed and a decision made for Welsh pubs and restaurants to reopen. Remember, the data we as consumers and business owners see in public - and our decisions influenced by - is incomplete and has the potential to infer the wrong consequences.

And that it is about to be promulgated. Frustration will soon yield to excitation and anticipation. As I write this, it appears July 13th is the magic date.

But one thing must be clear : England's, or Scotland's, or Wales' approaches are not to be held as pantheons or even examples. In any comparative relationship, if one side get it wrong, and one side gets it right, who will be smiling come September?

If local lockdowns in cities all over England suddenly become the norm, while Cardiff is bustling with folk able to sit closer than 1m apart, will there be grumbling from the hospitality sector? Of course, that's a huge IF. 

But one thing's for sure. It can't as hell happen the other way round. If after the Welsh Government allows pubs to reopen in Cardiff, and there's a spike which closes them two weeks later while Bristol is bustling and London is lively, that will be devastating for all of us.