Covid ‘not the top priority’ for Welsh government in early 2020, inquiry hears

Covid was “not the top priority” for the Welsh government in early 2020, an inquiry has been told.

Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, said in written evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that the virus was not treated as the most pressing concern in the country in January and February 2020.

The FM’s written evidence was raised by Tom Poole KC, the lead counsel for the inquiry, at a hearing on Tuesday during questions to Dr Andrew Goodall, who led the Welsh NHS through the pandemic.

Mr Poole said: “Would it be fair to say that these planning assumptions were simply not taken seriously enough at this point in time, and it wasn’t until you get into the early weeks of March, that things really started to happen in Wales?”

Dr Goodall (pictured) – who is now the permanent secretary to the Welsh government, Wales’ top civil servant – insisted that they were “mobilising various actions” early on in the pandemic but accepted there was a “change in our response in Wales” in the last week of February 2020 and early March.

He said: “In early March we were also looking at the progress of the virus more internationally and there were some real concerns being expressed by the NHS that we were taking account of.”

The first case of the virus in Wales was on February 28.

Mr Poole questioned if reports from February 13 2020, that had “clear information” that the virus could be passed on without symptoms had set “alarm bells ringing” for the level of controls that would be needed in care homes and hospitals.

Dr Goodall responded they were “not necessarily triggered at that time” and it was not until April that there was “some emerging evidence” that Covid could be passed on asymptomatically.

The senior civil servant added that moving vulnerable people into care homes reflected the “knowledge and evidence of the time” and that there was an expectation for “care homes to be able to accommodate isolation procedures”.

However, he accepted that in hindsight discharging patients “could have been targeted differently”.

“One of my own worries for the hospital systems were they were likely to be areas where patients would be exposed to Covid-19,” he said.

“So, there was something about trying to ensure that we could find the safest environment for patients who are in our system rather than just leave people within the hospital environment.”

The former NHS boss also said the public should have been warned of the dangers of Covid earlier, but was unable to do so, with the first press conference where it was mentioned coming as a “shock”.

Asked if something should have been done earlier, Dr Goodall said the Welsh government had faced “constraints” on what it could report, with information that came from Cobra meetings – UK government cabinet briefings – having a “level of confidentiality around them”.

He added: “I think looking backwards, it would have helped to have been able to be more transparent with the population, certainly through March and maybe at the end of February.”

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