IWA Analysis: Should Wales Have its own Covid-19 Inquiry?

Andy Regan makes the case for a Wales-specific inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 and sets out the parameters for it to be effective.

As it starts to feel, perhaps for the first time, like the main first era of Covid-19 is actually ‘over’ (for a given value of over), attention is rightly turning to how we learn from governments’ responses to this crisis.

A debate is happening about whether Wales should have its own independent inquiry into the Welsh Government’s role in the pandemic, or whether – as the First Minister has argued – Wales’ response to Covid-19 should be considered as part of a UK wide inquiry.

So should Wales have its own independent Covid-19 inquiry?

It’s clearly possible for party politics to play a role in a given person’s answer to this question, and Theo Davies-Lewis has written a piece exploring this. 

But for those less motivated by matters electoral, it is also a mistake to substitute one question for another and ask ‘Did the Welsh Government do a bad job on Covid-19?’. Or indeed to be led simply by whether bereaved families ‘deserve an answer’ – which of course they do. 

Will Hayward, writing in WalesOnline, has done an excellent job of listing what he considers the mistakes made by the Welsh Government – and concludes that a Welsh Covid-19 inquiry is therefore the correct response. 

‘Accountability is, of course, essential to a strong, confident democracy – but simply collating stories of failure isn’t an end in itself.

But there are links that need to be made between the undoubted errors made, and the idea of a Welsh inquiry. And filling those gaps can only help in shaping such an inquiry if it does end up happening.

If families deserve answers, what is the question? And what is the ultimate purpose of an inquiry? 

Accountability is, of course, essential to a strong, confident democracy – but simply collating stories of failure isn’t an end in itself. It’s important to be clear about what an inquiry can actually achieve.

So in a fast-moving pandemic, described as ‘unprecedented’ an unprecedented number of times, some reasonable core questions for an inquiry could be ‘What did the Welsh Government know and not know at any given time?’, ‘What *should* it have known but didn’t?’ and ‘What different, better decisions could it have made based on what it knew?’.

The first question is, in our view, one which only a Wales-focussed inquiry is likely to investigate in sufficient detail. We would not anticipate a UK inquiry looking, for example, meeting by meeting at cabinet decisions to build a timeline in the way that would be useful.

‘A statutory independent inquiry established by Welsh Ministers risks having no means by which to compel evidence or testimony to be provided by non-devolved bodies. 

The question of what it should have known is about access to data and evidence. Again we conclude that a Welsh inquiry would be better able to review papers presented to the Welsh cabinet, and ask questions about what materials were overlooked or rejected for consideration. Was data simply not collected, either historically or in the moment? Were international comparisons made?

An area where the remit of a Wales inquiry might be constrained would be about the effective sharing of (potentially confidential) data between the UK and Welsh Governments. This raises the question of what powers a Welsh inquiry would have and need to effectively investigate issues, and to pursue avenues of inquiry that emerge. 

The question of where an inquiry would derive its remit, mandate and powers from is fundamental. A statutory independent inquiry established by Welsh Ministers risks having no means by which to compel evidence or testimony to be provided by non-devolved bodies. 

Current political realities mean voluntary cooperation by the UK Government feels unlikely, and there would be a strong incentive to share information inconsistently based on whether it presents the respective government’s positively or negatively. 

‘These inquiries should also not simply fall into investigating day by day decision making during the Covid-19 period, but consider how prepared Wales was to respond.

The matter of ‘different decisions’ is more complex, given – of course – that a number of key decisions which impacted Covid-19 outcomes in Wales are not devolved. The decision not to restrict international travel being the most obvious, as well as decisions about furlough and other schemes which would undoubtedly tie the hands of a government which might hypothetically have wanted to go further on lockdown. 

Inquiries based in Wales which conclude, and we oversimplify for brevity, that ‘this was all the UK Government’s fault’ do not have a happy history of impact. 

Of course many significant aspects of the Welsh Covid-19 response do indeed fall into devolved powers, and again in terms of the depth and granularity of an inquiry, it feels unlikely that these would be given sufficient attention within a UK-wide inquiry. 

These inquiries should also not simply fall into investigating day by day decision making during the Covid-19 period, but consider how prepared Wales was to respond. Did we have capacity in the NHS? Was there sufficient public infrastructure in place, both physical and in terms of human resource? Was there a plan, was it any good, and did we follow it? 

It is not possible to adequately consider these longer term historical questions in respect of Wales without also considering the funding settlements the Welsh Government has received as a consequence of fiscal decisions made by the UK Government. 

‘An inquiry could inform what that should be in the future, and a Welsh Covid-19 inquiry undertaken by people who understand devolution would be better able to make well crafted recommendations about the use of devolved powers.

Hypothetical questions like ‘would the Welsh Government have invested more in crisis planning if there hadn’t been a decade of fiscal austerity?’ are legitimate lines of political debate, and might naturally be invoked as a defensive response to a Wales Covid-19 inquiry. There is no realistic means for a formal inquiry to evidence these questions, but it feels reasonable to conclude that a lack of headroom in the public estate generally is not conducive to an effective and engaged crisis response. An inquiry could map where the specific issues created by under-resourcing actually manifested in practice, and where they did not. 

This leads us to the core question of what a Welsh Covid-19 inquiry might achieve.

Politically, a suitably sharp investigation might prompt soul searching and political change. Ministerial resignations, or a potentially different election outcome next time. It is certainly a widely held view that the positive perception of Mark Drakeford’s Covid handling helped Labour in May 2021 – despite evidence that, by certain measures, death rates were worse in Wales than other nations of the UK at key points in the pandemic. 

Policy change could clearly be a positive result from an inquiry. The state cannot respond to a crisis if it has not invested in advance in the right sort of infrastructure and planning. An inquiry could inform what that should be in the future, and a Welsh inquiry undertaken by people who understand devolution would be better able to make well crafted recommendations about the use of devolved powers. This is particularly true in health and education.

Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Ymunwch â ni i gyfrannu at wneud Cymru gwell.

An inquiry might also usefully look at the post-Covid future. ‘Long Covid’ is the great ‘known unknown’ of this crisis. We are beginning to understand its effects, but not their prevalence of how long they will last. With schools reopening and children going unvaccinated, there is clearly a potential generational issue if Long Covid has lasting effects on children’s health and education.

‘It is the IWA’s view that the purpose of an inquiry should primarily be to identify opportunities for a better preparedness for the next crisis, and to address the long term impact of Covid-19.  

An inquiry cannot bring back the loved ones we have lost, but it could help the Welsh Government prevent or mitigate the long term impacts. There is still scope to make a real difference to Covid’s victims by looking forward as well as back.

The core questions and purpose should, then, inform our view on whether a separate Covid-19 inquiry for Wales is the right way forward. 

If it is about accountability, blame, and a retrospective look at decisions made, then the core questions can’t reasonably be answered in full by an inquiry which is restricted – either in powers or in remit – to looking only at Wales.

However, it is the IWA’s view that the purpose of an inquiry should primarily be to identify opportunities for a better preparedness for the next crisis, and to address the long term impact of Covid-19. Any inquiry undertaken without the knowledge or incentive to consider past and future uses of devolved powers cannot achieve this. 

We therefore conclude that a Wales-only Covid-19 inquiry is necessary, but that it cannot achieve everything it should without – and this is crucial – a clear and formal link to a UK-wide inquiry. 

It is otherwise reasonable to fear that Wales would become a ‘footnote’ within a UK wide inquiry. So the body established to conduct it will need the power to require evidence from UK public bodies, including UK Ministers. It will need the power to share information with investigators focussing on decisions in Westminster. It should also have its own budget, governance, and administrative arrangements. Much of this can be achieved through strong collaboration between governments in setting the Terms of Reference for the various inquiries. 

Whether such an inquiry is possible will be a test of political courage in both Cardiff Bay and Westminster, and indeed of the strength and long term viability of the devolved UK. 


All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Andy Regan is Policy and External Affairs Manager at the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

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