Transcript of Module 2B Public Hearing on 11 March 2024.

(10.00 am)

Lady Hallett: Good morning.

Mr Poole: May I call Vaughan Gething, please.

Mr Vaughan Gething


Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry for Module 2B

Lady Hallett: Thank you for coming back to help

the Inquiry, Mr Gething, I appreciate maybe not the best

week for you, but anyway, grateful for your help.

The Witness: Thank you.

Mr Poole: Could I ask you to start by giving us your full

name, please.

Mr Vaughan Gething: My full name is Humphrey Vaughan Ap David Gething. I’m

commonly known as Vaughan Gething, it makes it easier.

Lead 2B: Mr Gething, thank you for attending and assisting

the Tribunal, the Inquiry today.

Your witness statement at is INQ000391327, we see

that up on the screen there. You signed that statement

on 3 January. Can you confirm that the contents of that

statement are true to the best of your knowledge and


Mr Vaughan Gething: I believe they are.

Lead 2B: You also provided a witness statement for Module 1,

which is at INQ000187304. You signed that in the usual

way with a declaration of truth. You also gave evidence in Module 1 and the transcript of that evidence is available on the Inquiry website.

Now, Mr Gething, dealing first then with your background and career to date, you have been a member of the Senedd for Cardiff South and Penarth since May 2011, before which you practised as a solicitor in Cardiff; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Correct.

Lead 2B: You first entered the Welsh Government in June 2013, when you were appointed Deputy Minister for Tackling Poverty, and in September 2014 you were appointed as Deputy Minister for Health, a position you held until May 2016 when you were appointed Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Sport, and I think I’m right in 2018 the name of that portfolio was changed to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and you held that post until May 2021, when you were appointed Minister for Economy. Is all of that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Correct.

Lead 2B: I would like to start by asking you some questions about the way in which you and others within the Welsh Government used informal methods of communication in order to discuss matters connected to the pandemic.

In your witness statement, you say that you would sometimes discuss matters by phone, texts, WhatsApps or

Microsoft Teams, but those methods of communication were

not used to make decisions. Is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: That’s correct.

Lead 2B: Now, Dame Shan Morgan was taken to a number of Welsh

Government policies concerning the use of informal

methods of communication and also the importance of

keeping records. Do you accept that using WhatsApp and

text to discuss Welsh Government business was


Mr Vaughan Gething: (unclear) prohibited to make decisions or decisions

through text or WhatsApp, but the discussion, it was

never my understanding that it was prohibited to have

a discussion around that, in the sense of “You need to

look at something”, “I’m telling you I’m just publishing

something, I want you to see this”, “What time are we

going to be in the meeting?” So I think the challenge

is not defining something in a way that is trying to be

entirely definitive, you can’t even mention the

government in those informal messages, because I don’t

think that’s a particularly real world view.

Lead 2B: Not – isn’t the issue, though, not just whether

decisions were made using text or WhatsApp, but whether

informal methods of communication were used to discuss

those decisions that were made or, perhaps even more

importantly, discussions about decisions that perhaps were not made; you would accept that that is an important record to have?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah, all the records about how we made choices, and how they’re available, I think are important, of course. WhatsApp essentially became a substitute for conversations you have in a corridor because you couldn’t have corridor conversations because of the extraordinary measures we had to take.

Lead 2B: Jane Runeckles, when she gave evidence last week, she accepted that using WhatsApp even for admin purposes was wrong. Do you accept that?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Having looked at the rules now in much more detail, I think that’s what the rules suggest. I think we need to have a view going forward about what we do need to capture in record-keeping and what is incidental. I think when you look at the records that are available, they do reflect the way in which we made choice and the reasons for them, and I think you’ll find that informal messaging as it was used in the pandemic won’t take place in the future.

Lead 2B: And you would accept, would you, that it’s not just important to retain records for an Inquiry of this nature but it is important for public accountability?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Indeed, it’s important the public can see not just the choices we made but why we have made those choices.

Lead 2B: Now, during the period that we are concerned with, so that’s January 2020 to May 2022, you were issued with two Welsh Government mobile phones and two Senedd mobile phones. Now, as I understand it, as regards the Welsh Government mobile phones, those did not have WhatsApp enabled, and the Inquiry understands that you did not use those to send any texts or iMessages about Welsh Government’s response to the pandemic; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: That’s my understanding, yes.

Lead 2B: As regards your Senedd mobile phones, your first Senedd phone was issued to you before January 2020 and was handed back in March 2022, so as regards that phone, although it remained in your possession until March 2022, I think you say in your witness statement you don’t recall using it after July 2021; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: That’s right, because I was issued with a new Senedd phone.

Lead 2B: And the first Senedd phone, if we can call it that, that was the Senedd phone that you had for the entire period that you were minister for health and social care; correct?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Correct.

Lead 2B: And it is right that you used that phone to send texts and WhatsApp messages to other ministers, officials and special advisers to discuss matters connected to the pandemic; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: There were some WhatsApps. I don’t think I ever used a text on that phone, because there was a Welsh Government phone, but actually, as you will see from the records, I sent a significant number of emails from my Welsh Government phone, so there wasn’t any need to use a text service. But you’ll have seen there was a ministerial WhatsApp group and within that there were incidental messages around “Have a look at what we’re doing”, “This is what I think we’re going to need to do”, “Check your government device”, essentially.

Lead 2B: So you were a member of a ministerial WhatsApp group that included the First Minister; correct?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Correct.

Lead 2B: You were a member of a WhatsApp group that included Kirsty Williams, Julie James, I think that was called “Schools and Covid”; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I think so, yes.

Lead 2B: And then you were a member of a separate WhatsApp group just with Kirsty Williams?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, a separate thread, yes.

Lead 2B: I’m right in saying you do not have access to any of the texts or WhatsApp messages that you sent during your time as Minister for Health and Social Services; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: That’s correct. I’ve set that out in my witness statement, about how that’s happened, as well.

Lead 2B: I think you say when you returned your Senedd mobile in March 2022 was your expectation that the WhatsApps effectively would be transferred to your new Senedd mobile?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes. So when I moved from my first Senedd mobile to my second one, I did actually have access to all the messages on my new Senedd phone. What then happened was, as I set out in the statement in paragraph 28 and 29, that, following a security rebuild, all of the WhatsApp messages were wiped. That includes all my personal ones as well, things that had nothing to do with the government. So messages with my family, for example. So everything went.

And I have made efforts, following advice from the Senedd IT team and indeed the guidance they’d received from WhatsApp themselves about how to recover messages, and not been able to. I would much prefer it if I’d been able to so you could have seen what was in them and what was not in them.

Lead 2B: So, Mr Gething, I just want to be clear about this. As regards your second Senedd mobile phone, that you say all of your messages from your first Senedd phone were transferred to, I understand you used that from July 2021 onwards but that was returned for maintenance in June 2022 –

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes.

Lead 2B: – and it was at that stage, am I right, that those messages from your first Senedd phone and those that you had subsequently sent on your second Senedd phone you were unable to recover from June 2022 when it went in for maintenance; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, so in my statement, I think I pointed out in paragraph 27 that I had to return my first Senedd phone, so that’s back with the Senedd, and they, as a matter of course, wipe the phones once they’re returned to them. I still had my second Senedd phone at that point and had all my messages. It’s then when I returned that phone for maintenance, in June 2022, that all the messages that exist for the entire period are still on it, and then after the rebuild they’re not. And that’s what I set out in my statement.

Lead 2B: Can we, please, have a look at INQ000396461.

Now, this is an email sent to all private secretaries of Welsh Government ministers, it’s dated 19 April 2021, and it says there on the first page, first paragraph:

“As I mentioned at our Heads of Branch meetings last week, it is important that we are prepared to respond to any future public inquiry in relation to the coronavirus pandemic, and good record-keeping is an essential component of this endeavour.”

Then if I can skip through to paragraph 3:

“Any and all official business that may have been conducted via text or conducted on non-corporate communication channels … [Document read] … as part of the record of Welsh Government’s business.”

First question: was this, as it says it was going to be, raised with you by your private secretary? So this is April 2021.

Mr Vaughan Gething: So what I recall was that we did have a discussion about making sure that our records were up to date, choices we’d made and decisions around them, so that’s what I understood it to have been and that’s what was done, and if you look at – there are lots of examples of decisions that had been taken and conversations that had taken place that are there and are summarised, so I understood that we’d kept and maintained all the information that we should do, and it would be made available to this Inquiry.

Lead 2B: As regards – as it says here, we’ve still got the paragraph pulled up – as regards any business conducted by text or non-corporate communication channels, that should be summarised and saved to iShare, so your WhatsApps, any text messages on either of your Senedd phones, were they summarised and saved to iShare as this directs them to be?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, I don’t think that there was any official business being conducted, and this is where I go back to what you define as official business, because if official business is have you WhatsApped someone in the government to ask them what they’re doing on one particular day or to tell them to read a document, well, actually the fact that that document has been read and there were follow-up messages in the Welsh Government email train is showing that I’d asked people to read documents and it’s also covered in the statements, so all that was done. I didn’t understand that this meant that I had to physically download all of my WhatsApps and to make sure that they were then summarised and put into a different form, because the records about what we had done and why, were there and are there in pretty exhaustive detail.

Lead 2B: Now, Mr Johnson, the then Prime Minister, announced the institution of this Inquiry in May 2021. At that point do you recall there being a discussion within the Welsh Government about the need to retain records and retain texts and WhatsApp messages?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah, I remember there had been a discussion about needing to maintain our records, and to make sure that the way that we had made choices was recorded. I don’t recall there being a specific discussion about to make sure you’ve kept all your WhatsApp messages. And I know most people are obsessed about their WhatsApp and all this, but I don’t recall there being a discussion saying “You need to summarise all of these”. And in fact the Inquiry has before it the ministerial groups, and I think Matt Hancock has shared all of his messages, so anything between the health ministers would be there as well. So I don’t – I don’t recall the discussion you refer to taking place in exactly those terms, but certainly a discussion about making sure that we kept records of decisions we’d made and why we’d made them.

Lead 2B: So knowing in May 2021 that there would be a public inquiry, you return your first Senedd mobile phone in March 2022. Looking back, do you regret now not taking any steps to ensure that your texts and WhatsApps on that phone, so this is the phone you’re using throughout the time you are Minister for Health and Social Services, were recorded?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, not at that time because of course I had a second phone that had all those messages on it. I certainly do regret the fact that all those messages aren’t available to you, because you could see them and satisfy yourself that all of the information there is consistent with all the information in the records you do have in front of you. It’s – it’s a point of embarrassment, and if I had been able to provide all of those records, then I don’t think that this would really be the issue that I understand it is for a number of people. But WhatsApp wasn’t used to make decisions and it wasn’t used to circumvent processes within the government.

Lead 2B: It has been reported in the press over the last couple of weeks that you turned on disappearing messages whilst minister for health, so in other words during the pandemic. Now, the Inquiry has a record of you turning on disappearing messages in a chat with Kirsty Williams in 2023, so namely outside of the period with which we’re concerned. Now, did you on any other chats that you were involved in turn on disappearing messages during the period we’re concerned with, namely January 2020 to May 2022?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No. I wasn’t actually aware there was a disappearing messages function until much later, so I couldn’t have done it because I didn’t know it existed.

Lead 2B: Mr Gething, now changing topic –

Lady Hallett: Just before you do, could I – just a couple of questions.

When you discovered that your second phone basically had the WhatsApp messages and the like wiped, did you do anything about it?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah, so I did ask whether it was possible to recover it, and I had some advice then and I’ve gone through subsequently, on three or four occasions, to try to restart WhatsApp. It says you can recover messages through it. But I wasn’t able to. But it is a matter of real embarrassment, because if I’d been able to recover those messages then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Lady Hallett: So who did you contact, was there somebody – do you have an IT team in the Welsh Government you can contact –

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes.

Lady Hallett: – when you realised they’d all been wiped, including your family messages?

Mr Vaughan Gething: It’s the Senedd, so the Senedd IT team, yes, we did have a conversation. We had another conversation before coming to this Inquiry to see if there was another way to do that, and I’ve had at least three meetings with the Senedd IT team to see if it can be recovered.

So WhatsApp is available on your Senedd device but it’s not supported by the Senedd IT, so they undertake no maintenance on it, they don’t give any sort of warranty for its use. But they gave me the advice and said “This is the advice we have from WhatsApp” and they said “Look, if it’s gone, you may not be able to recover it”. Because I had an iCloud back-up, I assumed I’d be able to get it and to re-download it, but it hasn’t been possible to do that.

Lady Hallett: Just one other question from me before Mr Poole moves on. You, like a number of other witnesses, have said that you thought that – at the time it was only necessary to record decision-making, but I think the email that Mr Poole took you to, and you agreed you had had a discussion about keeping proper records as a result of it, talked about “all official business”. “All official business” is much broader than decision-making, isn’t it?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, indeed, and so we had records of not just the decision but the discussions we’d had around those decisions as well that led to it, so whether that’s the advice we had or whether it’s the conversations we had through Cabinet or the conversations I would regularly with the First Minister before Cabinet as well. All of those discussions that lead into the decision, they’re all recorded. And, you know, when we were having some of those discussions, the First Minister made the point that there’s a significant chunk of this that’s available in the documentary that was provided and, you know –

Lady Hallett: Sorry, how did the discussions from the WhatsApp get recorded? I’m not following.

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, so actually the discussions in the WhatsApp are largely blowing off steam and being supportive. Actually when you look at the rest of what’s in the WhatsApp groups there is – there are times where people say “I have made this decision and here are the points”, but all of that is recorded in any events through the system. And if you then look at conversations that had taken place around the possibility of a choice being made, it’s often “I circulated this but you need to read it”. So it’s directing people to go and look at things, as opposed to “Here is where we have made a decision”.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Poole: As at January 2020, the Health and Social Services Group was one of four groups within the Welsh Government, and until October 2021 the director general of that group was Dr Andrew Goodall and, as we know, he was then succeeded by Judith Paget, and we heard from Dr Goodall last week that director general of the HSSG has a dual role, because that person is also Chief Executive of NHS Wales.

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah.

Lead 2B: Would it be right to say that the director general of the HSSG would be the most significant senior civil servant with whom you had regular contact during the pandemic?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes.

Lead 2B: The Chief Medical Officer, Dr Atherton, he sits within the HSSG and so he too also ultimately reported to you as Minister for Health and Social Services; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Correct.

Lead 2B: If we could, please, have a look at INQ000180757.

Now, as it says at the top, this is the Welsh Government Health and Social Services Group Health Emergency Planning Unit and the NHS Wales emergency planning groups, and it’s the current reporting structures at that point in time, in September 2018.

I just want to understand, what was your role and responsibilities in relation to the NHS Wales emergency planning group, EPAG, at the top of that organogram?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, I’m responsible for everything, essentially, as the minister, so the emergency planning advisory group is the group of officers and officials, and that then comes up, as you can see, through to the NHS Wales chief executive, and I then receive reports through them. So the emergency planning advisory group doesn’t ordinarily report directly to me as a minister, it would normally be that I’d get a report from the director general, who was also the NHS Wales chief executive.

Lead 2B: And not on this organogram, the Inquiry heard some evidence last week about HEPU, so that’s the health emergencies planning unit, which was the body that worked on pandemic preparedness and civil contingency planning within the HSSG.

How did HEPU report to you, as minister?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So I would have reports from officials would come up around emergency planning, so – and you’ll have seen some of those. I know there are emails from one official who has been named, I think it’s David Goulding, and I’d receive updates on what was taking place with pandemic preparation and advice, and of course I – we can go through those briefings, and also there would be conversations with either the director general or the Chief Medical Officer, where that was relevant, as well. And as we go through January then there certainly were conversations with both of them about the developing picture.

Lead 2B: Turning then to your role within Cabinet, you say at paragraph 13 of your witness statement that you were central to discussions around the use of lockdowns and other NPIs such as social distancing and the use of face coverings, but that these decisions were, your words, principally made by the First Minister following discussion and agreement at Cabinet.

By that, do you mean that Cabinet would agree on what decisions should be made and then the First Minister would endorse that collective decision-making?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So the decisions of Cabinet had to be made real by regulations and the Welsh minister had to sign off the regulations, so it was the First Minister that would do that. If there were any remaining items, sometimes we would agree that this could be amended or dealt with by the evidence that might have happened afterwards, but actually what typically happens is you have a set of papers with proposals, they’re discussed, sometimes you need to come back to them, Cabinet concludes, and then you then have to ask someone who signs off not just the MA but the regulations at the end of it so that your decisions are then legal and enforceable.

Lead 2B: The First Minister, in various witness statements before the Inquiry, has been described as acting as first among equals. In practical terms, am I right that this meant that if Cabinet could not reach a consensus view, then it would be down to the First Minister to make the ultimate decision; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, and I think we go into probably the only example where that really happened to any real degree in the run-up to Christmas 2020, and I know I refer to that in my statement.

Lead 2B: Yes, I think you say that was about the decision whether two households forming a bubble over Christmas would remain guidance or would form part of the regulations. Save for that one instance, am I right then to take from your evidence that all other Cabinet decisions were consensus decisions?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, and that included times where Cabinet had to pause and come back to the discussion, either because agreement couldn’t be reached or because more evidence was sought, but we ultimately reached decisions where, either by an entire consensus or a clear majority, there was a clear Cabinet view, and that was then taken forwards.

Lead 2B: Now, although Cabinet obviously led on collective decisions relating to the Welsh Government’s pandemic response, individual ministers presumably would be required to make decisions within their own portfolio responsibilities. Is it therefore right that some decisions taken in response to the pandemic were taken by individual Welsh ministers alone?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Correct.

Lead 2B: Your portfolio as Minister for Health and Social Services, you set out the responsibilities, perhaps it would be helpful to see, it’s INQ000391237, which is your witness statement, and you set them out at paragraph 12, which we can see there.

So we see:

“a. Preparedness for the NHS and Health sector …”

Which obviously you’ve given some evidence about in Module 1.

“b. … management of the pandemic in all health care settings …

“c. Shielding and the protection of the clinically vulnerable;

“d. International travel restrictions.”

And if we can go over the page, please, the list continues, we’ve got: PPE, national testing programme, national vaccination programme, and so on and so forth.

So whilst a number of those areas will be the focus for later modules of this Inquiry, there obviously remain a number of areas for us to cover today.

I’d like to start with the initial awareness and the sharing of scientific and technical information in that early period of January to March 2020, and start with some questions about SAGE, please.

You say, it’s paragraph 144 of your witness statement, that throughout January to March the main sources of information about Covid-19 were from SAGE and COBR.

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes.

Lead 2B: Now, the Inquiry has heard a lot about TAG and TAC and their establishment in late February 2020. Would I be right in saying that prior to TAG and TAC being established, the Welsh Government had very little, if any, access to Welsh-specific scientific and technical information, and it was really all coming from SAGE and COBR? Would that be right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Broadly, yes. So we’d have the advice that would come through SAGE, and I think Dr Orford and Dr Atherton had gone through how that came about. Some of it came through chief medical officers, and then eventually Dr Orford was able to attend SAGE, and so it wasn’t just a question of reading the papers and the minutes. But that was the primary source of scientific advice in the early stages, and indeed it was from SAGE and the UK Government Chief Scientific Officer, Patrick Vallance, who would give the updates at those initial COBR meetings as well.

Lead 2B: If we could, please, we have a look at INQ000066060.

Now, this is a chronology of meetings that took place in January to March 2020 that’s been provided to the Inquiry by the Welsh Government.

If we just see the first – we can see the first five meetings of SAGE, they start on 22 January. Now, the Welsh Government were not represented at those first five meetings. At the time, were you aware that there were SAGE meetings going on with no representative of the Welsh Government present?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, it was part of our discussion that it would have been helpful if Welsh Government were directly in the room. And I know from Dr Orford’s evidence he’s already made clear that he made representations that he should be able to attend and take part. That happened later.

I don’t think that would necessarily have changed the advice or the conclusions of SAGE, but it certainly would have meant that we’d have had a more direct insight into all the discussions as – as you know, records that are written down can be very helpful but being in the same room is more helpful, in terms of understanding the – the balance of knowledge and the different trade-offs that might be made, and advice. Because you get advice that is the overall advice, the consensus, but there are always differing views in the room.

Lead 2B: In the event of a future pandemic, do I take it from your answer then that you consider it would be necessary to have representatives from not just the Welsh Government but the other devolved administrations on SAGE from the outset?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes. I think it would definitely improve the way that not just advice is shared but the insight into that as well, because there are times where the different devolved governments will have a slightly different insight into what that means for the way that the health and care system or the economy is run as well, and it’s better to have all four nations having a discussion about that, to provide advice to ministers. I think it’s also Dr Orford’s and Dr Atherton’s view, and certainly my view, that it would be much better if SAGE is not simply a UK Government construct that is owned and directed by them, without the ability to have the four nations around the same table. I think it would strengthen not weaken the response.

Lead 2B: If we return to the chronology that we’ve still got on the screen in front of us, we can see the first three meetings of COBR were 24 January, 29 January and then 5 February, and I’m right in saying that you represented the Welsh Government at those meetings. I think you were accompanied by Dr Atherton on 29 January and 5 February. Why was it that the Welsh Government was being invited to COBR but not to SAGE over this period? Can you help us with that?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I can’t tell you all the reasons why that choice was made but they’re choices of the UK Government.

It was a strange experience going to the initial COBR meetings, because physically you had to go to one specific room within the Welsh Government, you had to move from – into the building this is on, but in the building in Cathays Park, there’s – well, there was one specific room where you could go to, initially. So you had to move away from the Senedd. So it was a physical dislocation of where you’d normally be. And then the papers were provided a few minutes beforehand and then the papers were then returned physically. It was a very, very strange way to do business.

And also there are restrictions on the numbers of officials who could be there as well. I think it would have been – again, I think this is a point for the future, not just about SAGE having representation from all the governments in the UK but actually, when COBR is meeting, to be clear about the fact that if you want four nations to make choices together, limiting devolved governments to two or three people in the room is unlikely to be helpful, because you then need to go and report to lots of other people afterwards, and actually, again, it would be better if, without having a conference of – in the one room in Wales, but actually I think it would have been more sensible to have had a wider cast list. But you’re dealing with requirements that are at that point set by the UK Government –

Lady Hallett: And presumably those requirements are set for basis of security, because COBR very often deals with matters of very major security. And also – I don’t know if you have had this experience, Mr Gething, chairing committees, I’ve chaired quite a few – the more people you have in a committee, the less chance you have of getting work done.

Mr Vaughan Gething: I think it depends on, again, the numbers, that’s why, so you don’t want a conference, you don’t want 30 people in the room, but actually having myself and the Chief Medical Officer and one other official – not being able to have the chief exec of the NHS in the room, for example, not being able to have my deputy minister there – you know, so I think that actually I don’t think you need to expand the cast list out to have dozens, and I do think that would be unhelpful.

Lady Hallett: But when you’ve got four devolved nations – well, then you’ve got, effectively, three devolved nations and England, then if they’ve all got four, five or six people, times at least three, I mean, you’ve immediately – you’ve said you don’t want to have 30, well, you’re immediately getting close to 20, aren’t you?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, you have pretty much close to 20 in the UK Government room, and I’m saying that – because you’re dialling in, you’re not physically in the same place, you’re dialling in and then having a view from that country. So what happened in the running of the meeting is there’d be a discussion within the room in London and they’d then ask for a view from the different governments. And I think actually being able to observe and take part in that discussion within each devolved government, I don’t think you need different spokespeople responding, but I do think, for example, if the chief exec of NHS Wales and the director general can be in the room at the same time, that’s helpful. And again, it short-circuits some of the – not just reporting back but actually the consideration in the room of the different things you need to think about. If you’re the minister who’s going to respond I do think that would be helpful.

And from a security point of view I think, you know, Ministers of the Crown should be able to trust each other on this, and senior officials should be able to do that as well. And of course –

Lady Hallett: I was thinking about papers, when you’d said they had to go back, presumably that’s a security measure?

Mr Vaughan Gething: At the time it was and yet actually, it was, again, unusual that the papers then returned, but you’ve still got to then talk to people to prepare them, so it made some of the preparation not as helpful as it could have been. And actually, within those papers, I’m sure they’re papers that, you know, this Inquiry would want to see as well, but to be able to say “Look, we’ve had this conversation, I don’t have all the papers, so I’m telling you what we remember from that and the notes we made in the meeting”. And again, when you’re talking about the security of that paperwork, you’ve still got to go and brief other officials on it, so I don’t think it’s an effective device from that point of view either.

And again, within this, and again it’s one of the points I make, and when it comes to recommendations to think about, how do you generate enough trust between governments that won’t always be of the same political shade but you know that in a time of an emergency that is potentially developing like this you’ve got to be able to trust each other to share information and for that to be done professionally through your officials and for ministers to be able to step back from the political engagement that of course we all have and will carry on having, that’s part of democracy, but actually, within this, it should have been possible to have more people in the room, and I think that would have aided how we made decisions and I think would have aided building the trust and engagement that needed to take place.

Lady Hallett: I’m sorry to press you, but surely, you were there with the Chief Medical Officer, anybody else?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Not at the time. I think at some of the later meetings Reg Kilpatrick attended, but the director general, chief exec of NHS Wales didn’t, he was –

Lady Hallett: Pausing there. So, okay, you were there with at least the Chief Medical Officer, scientist and an expert adviser. Surely the system depends on you and he paying close attention to everything that happens and then taking back whatever information you’ve gleaned and seeking advice on it. Why do you have to have the people in the room?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So some of this directly affects the operational choices that you’re making in and around the health service and others, and I certainly think that, as a minimum, the person who’s the chief exec of the NHS in Wales is someone whose perspective on that is important, and if they’re in the room I think that would improve what you’re able to do. And the live reality of if you’re having to make these choices, there are three other things that immediately follow on from that.

Now, as the minister, having been the health minister for some time by then, I understand some of that, but I think actually understanding the operational perspective and how that goes into the wider organisation, I don’t think it would get in the way of administering efficiency or, indeed, the level of security you need to have around it to have some more representation in that room during the calls.

So I’m not making a call to say there should be 20 people from the Welsh Government in the room at the time, but I do think there are at least one or two other people who could have benefitted from being part of the discussion as well, and that’s the point I’m making.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Poole: The First Minister in his evidence to this module has said that reflecting now and looking back on matters through the lens of what was learned subsequently, he considers that Mr Johnson, as the then Prime Minister, should have chaired those early COBR meetings. He says not for the purposes of reaching a different outcome in terms of work done by COBR but in terms of giving a greater impression that the crisis was being taken seriously.

Do you have a view or are you agnostic on that?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, I think it would – the truth is whoever is either the First Minister or the Prime Minister, they carry weight that other ministers in those governments just don’t carry, so if this is something where you want to be clear, this is something of UK significance that isn’t just something in the background, but it’s something that everyone really has to get their shoulder to the wheel to not just put effort in but to put practical resources into, I think the Prime Minister coming to at least some of those earlier meetings does help to give that impetus within the wider system.

You know, when it came to it, he wasn’t there. The UK Health Secretary was there, health ministers were there, and it was seen as a … a health-led issue, and yet of course we know that when Covid really did arrive it was a whole-society issue.

So, look, I think if it was something that the UK Government thought this has not just a real potential but a serious likelihood of arriving and having the impact we now understood it did do, the Prime Minister’s attendance earlier on would have helped us to get to a point where those decisions were made earlier, and I’d put – I wouldn’t put it any stronger than that.

Lead 2B: Now, you would have known when attending those first COBR meetings that they were to discuss a new and emerging respiratory virus, and we know that the virus had not been declared a pandemic by mid-January but it had spread to Thailand and Japan, UK scientists had reported on the 12% hospitalisation rate and there was already evidence of limited human-to-human transmission. Do you recall questioning whether, given the potential seriousness of what was being discussed at those early COBR meetings, the First Minister of Wales ought to be attending COBR?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So I’m attending the meetings as the health minister, and I have a discussion with the First Minister after each one. If the Prime Minister was going to attend then the First Minister would attend, and of course that’s what did happen, and that, again, is part of the reason why if the Prime Minister attends then you raise the level of seriousness and visibility amongst all governments in the UK, not just the UK Government.

I think that what we were dealing with, because it was a possible risk, and the risk level had gone from low to moderate, at the same time you’re dealing with definite risks and definite challenges – so in early February you had Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis, for example, with significant harm and damage that was there, and physical, and had to be dealt with at that point in time, the First Minister was engaged in responding to both of those.

And at that time COBR is still something that might happen but might not, and of course we had the experience of SARS and MERS where they hadn’t arrived and they hadn’t had an impact, so it was still during the COBR discussions – it was – still part of the discussion was this might happen it might not, and actually the risk of that happening in terms of probability, as you know, increased over time, but of course there was real concern that if you have a new respiratory condition, what would you need to do if it’s coming, what do you need to do now. And that’s why the work was stood up around some of the pandemic planning.

Lead 2B: You say in your witness statement that it was a significant source of frustration that when the devolved administrations were invited to or attended COBR, they were not truly consulted about the decisions to be made and, as far as you were concerned, would it be right in saying you did not consider COBR to be a forum for four nation decision-making?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I don’t think that’s correct. I think it certainly was a real frustration that you’d get papers literally, like, 15 minutes before going into the room. And, you know, if you’re making a relatively small decision having 15 minutes to look at papers is often not ideal. You know, you wouldn’t expect a represent a client with 15 minutes’ preparation. As you were going into much more significant choices to be made, and as in particular once you get through the second half of February, when COBR meetings are much more important, because by then not just the risk and the understanding of the new condition itself, but the likelihood of it arriving is increasing all the time, by then when they’re still having 15 minutes of preparation time for papers, that’s a much more significant problem.

The discussion in the room in the first few COBR meetings was one where it was serious and constructive in the room. I wouldn’t think that anyone – I don’t recall anyone going in and being disruptive or unprofessional in the room, but actually my frustration was we could do this so much better if there was more notice of what was going to be discussed, of the information that was going to be provided. And that frustration got more significant as we got closer to having to make big choices.

If you want to be generous, Mr Poole, then this was new for the UK Government too. They hadn’t had to deal with a situation quite like this. I think that generous generosity is less real by the time we get later into the process and it’s a choice that is being made as opposed to the UK Government is still running around itself and not certain what’s to be discussed until 15 to 20 minutes. And as we come later on, it was clear that they’d made choices about what they wanted to do.

In the first few meetings I don’t think it was quite as clear as that because there was a discussion about what to do and what it might mean, and live advice, I think, was being given by the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer, as well as the UK Government’s scientific adviser, and so you were going and having discussions about what to do with the information you’re getting at that point in time as well. I think that’s a fair summary of how COBR changed and I would say that actually COBR should have been a way for the four nations to make choices together, and in the first few months it was essentially that, particularly when the Prime Minister and the first ministers are all in the room together. So I think it was the forum where those choices should have been made. It’s just that later on, as we go deeper into the pandemic, it becomes less and less that.

Lead 2B: You say – again, it’s paragraph 72 of your witness statement, you say:

“When Matt Hancock chaired meetings of COBR there was administrative efficiency, meaning that the meetings were run to an agenda with a decision made. It was a matter of regret that the same could not be said for the meetings chaired by the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson. These meetings would be plagued by the Chair being scatty, incoherent and rambling.”

Putting aside the pejorative terms, do you consider the identity of the person chairing COBR has any impact on the decisions actually made by COBR?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes. So, the meetings for meetings’ sake are much better run when either Matt Hancock or Dominic Raab are chairing them, and that – I think that’s undeniable. But having the Prime Minister chair the meeting, and knowing that this is a choice that can and will bind the UK Government, really does matter. So it doesn’t matter who else, you know, the chair is, whether it’s Matt Hancock, Dominic Raab or indeed Michael Gove, as he later came to chair some of the meetings, they can’t bind the UK Government in the way that when the Prime Minister is there, with other secretaries of state around the table, that’s then a choice the UK Government is making, as opposed to saying, well, then it needs to go back to someone else. Because as we saw, it did matter that the conversations you have in COBR when the Prime Minister isn’t there don’t necessarily end up being the same choices that are made for the UK Government.

So yes, the identity of the chair really does matter.

Lead 2B: I’d like to ask you some questions next about the early months of January and February 2020. You explain again in your witness statement, it’s paragraph 140, you say:

“… the period immediately after Christmas and January is extremely busy as winter pressures increase the demand on NHS services across [Wales].”

Obviously in January 2020 you were also involved in scrutiny of the draft budget and, as you referred to in answer to a question a moment ago, you also had the terrible flooding in Wales throughout February that I think ran into early March to contend with as well.

Would it be right to say that Covid did not become a priority of the Welsh Government until March 2020?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No. Going through January at the start – you’re right, you have budget scrutiny, and January and February are the two busiest months of the year to be the health minister. And actually in my engagement at the time, I think through January and February I don’t think there was a – in the first six weeks, I don’t think there was a single day I didn’t have business in the chamber in the Senedd, and most weeks I also had business in committee as well. So I had stage 2 that I refer to for the health and care engagement bill. And that’s the committee stage of a bill. You’re taking through hundreds of amendments in committee and then later in March are also having to do that in the chamber as well. So those aren’t things you can do on the fly, you’ve got to put lots of time, energy and effort into them. Where I think things really changed from “This is something we’re worried about that might happen” to being more worried about it, to then “Actually, we’re going to need to do more on it”, was actually the second half of February, and it was really driven by what was happening not just in the Far East but actually about the fact that you were starting to see transmission in Europe, and the position in northern Italy in particular had a material impact on – on understanding and on action around this isn’t just a maybe, it is likely to happen that we will have Covid in the UK, and therefore in Wales, I don’t think we’d have been able to insulate ourselves. And that then means that it isn’t just “Well, let’s not worry too much about it might not happen”, it’s very much “We need to be doing more”. And I think that’s also the answer Public Health Wales have given, and certainly for me the middle of February was a real point at which it wasn’t just that this could be bad if it happens, it was “I think this is going to come”, and it’s how much we can do and how quickly. And even then the pace of what happened was quite extraordinary –

Lead 2B: Let’s just work through events, then, leading up to that point in the second half of February.

In terms of your initial awareness of the virus, on 16 January your office was sent an informal briefing by the health protection policy and legislation branch that informed you that there had been a suspected case of novel coronavirus with links to Wuhan in a North Wales resident, and then the following day you were informed that the resident had, in fact, tested negative.

Now, you told the Inquiry in Module 1 that the first time you read the Pan-Wales Response Plan was in January 2020, after you’d received first indications about Covid-19 in China. Putting those two pieces of information together then, would it be correct to infer that once you had been notified on 16 January about this suspected case of novel coronavirus, that is the first time that you picked up the Pan-Wales Response Plan and had a read of it?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah, so I’d had briefings from officials around pandemic planning but to go through the detail of the plan, it would have been then, when actually this is something that might happen here, and certainly with the first test and the notification around it.

Lead 2B: Now, you had been obviously a cabinet minister for health since 2016, and as part of the role, when we looked at the list in your witness statement, part of that role is preparedness for the NHS and health sector, NHS initial capacity, and the ability to increase capacity and resilience. Do you think you should have at least familiarised yourself with the Pan-Wales Response Plan before January 2020?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So I was familiar with the overarching points around pandemic preparedness, I’d gone through Operation Cygnus, and that in itself was instructive around difficult trade-offs you might have to make in a pandemic and the fact that you’d have to move around lots of different pieces within health but otherwise as well. So I’d read every single briefing that was provided to me on pandemic preparation. I’d looked at it and had the assurance that pandemic preparation work was being undertaken. Of course the pandemic flu bill preparation became the Coronavirus Bill, then Act as well, and I think it’s the understanding of who and what the documents are written for, so a pandemic plan was essentially an operational plan that is largely for officials, and then actually, as we’re getting close, as I need to know more about what this could look like, because those things will then end up coming on your desk as a minister with choices about operation as well as policy and strategic choices you’re going to need to make as well.

You have that as a risk that might happen, and you also have the things that definitely happen every single year that take up the reality of what you have to do as the health minister and, as I say, January and February is one of those times where it is difficult and trying to deliver that transformation for the overall healthcare system to get to the point where it’s generally sustainable is important for everything, it’s important for the pandemic, it’s important for the day-to-day care that’s provided as well, and interestingly I was doing some of that in January, delivering a statement to the Senedd on just that.

Lead 2B: Now, the Inquiry heard evidence from the former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Mr Hancock, that there was a serious and significant inadequacy of preparation within Department of Health and Social Care for a pandemic health emergency. His evidence to Module 2, he accepted that the plans the UK Government had in place were, in his words, not adequate.

Now, in Module 1 although you were reluctant to use the word “inadequate”, you accepted in the course of your evidence under oath that the planning for a pandemic health emergency in Wales were, in your words, not complete, and Wales would have had vulnerabilities if it had faced an influenza pandemic.

That’s right, isn’t it?

Mr Vaughan Gething: That’s the evidence I gave, that’s correct.

Lead 2B: Now, you accepted in the course of your Module 1 evidence that you were aware in January 2020 that Welsh and UK-wide planning assumptions were to plan for successive flu waves, each to last 15 weeks in duration.

If we could have a look at INQ000214235.

This is an Audit Wales report entitled “Procuring and Supplying PPE for the COVID-19 Pandemic”. It’s dated April 2021.

If we could please skip through to page 21 and have a look at paragraph 1.26, we have a look at that table in the middle of the page, that shows the quantity of items in the stockpile developed for a flu pandemic in March 2020 and how long it lasted. Now, in Module 1 you accepted in the course of your evidence that the PPE stockpile in Wales was woefully inadequate to deal with a flu pandemic lasting approximately 15 weeks, but you also accepted that the plan that was in place was not just a plan for the wrong pandemic but it was an inadequate plan in any event, even for the pandemic it was being created for. Again, that’s right, isn’t it?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, I think I’ve said that I accept that actually because the planning hadn’t been completed, if we had had an influenza pandemic we would have found it difficult. Having a different pandemic meant that, as I said before, we went through the PPE that we had at a much faster rate and we found that with some of the items, I think it was goggles in particular, that some of them weren’t fit for purpose. So having all those preparations and the assurance that you’re ready, and then when you confront the reality of it, there’s a gap that needed to be bridged.

Lead 2B: Did this lack of preparation or, you might say, lack of completeness give you cause for concern when you first learned about a novel coronavirus on 16 January and how Wales might be placed to respond to such a virus?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, of course, the knowledge – the state of knowledge at the time in the middle of January was that the UK and Wales were relatively well prepared for an influenza pandemic, and that we had stockpiles in place for PPE and other matters, and so actually what then happened was we had a different virus and actually the preparation that we thought we had didn’t stand up as well as we thought it would do in those early weeks.

So, you know, the hindsight is of course we weren’t as prepared as we could have been, but also we weren’t as prepared as we thought we were as well. And I think that’s not just in Wales, that’s across the UK. What I don’t want to do is to get into the reasonable and correct judgements of hindsight with what we thought at the time. So at the time we thought we were better prepared than we were.

Lead 2B: Now, in early January 2020 the UK is facing an unknown but extremely serious pathogenic outbreak. Nobody knows at this stage how long it is going to last, how far it is going to spread. As well as reading the Pan-Wales Response Plan, did you in mid to late January make enquiries with your staff, with health officials, advisers, and ask questions such as: how, as a country, how is Wales going to stop the virus from spreading? Are we going to shut schools? Do we quarantine people? If so for how long? Those sort of questions, were those being asked by you in mid to late January 2020?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So in mid to late January we are having conversations with the Chief Medical Officer, myself and others, and what it might mean. And of course at the start of January the risk is still low, and so – you’re asking us about what might happen, this might happen. And if it does, will it be like the previous pandemic – I think it was 2009 – where there was an impact here but actually, in healthcare terms, relatively modest? And actually this could be that or it could be something worse.

It’s as we go deeper into January and then February that I am more concerned, and growing concern, over what could this mean. And we do have those discussions, around where are we with PPE. And I remember we did have discussions exactly around that, about “We’ve got a pandemic stockpile, it should last us six months”. Well, it didn’t. We had discussions around would schools be affected because a pandemic influenza plan does contemplate that you could close schools, in particular because your understanding of influenza in particular is that younger children are susceptible in a way that they weren’t susceptible in the same way with Covid.

So those are discussions that are there, they’re part of your planning assumptions, part of the real conversations we are having within the government. But they’re things that might happen, and at that point, when the risk is low, things that are less likely to happen than likely by some degree. And yet actually we’ve got all these very real challenges you are dealing with every single day. And so that’s the challenge about dealing with risk, so it’s the risk of what is happening right there in front of you and something that might happen and might not. What we now know is, of course, that Covid did happen. And, you know, again it’s one of the points about getting to the end of the Inquiry, about what do you do to forecast for and to plan for things that might never happen, and how do you balance that against things that you know are certain to happen as well. And I think actually some of the things that are certain to happen help you to deal with things that might happen as well, the resilience system, public health, and others.

So the questions you ask round were these conversations happening, yes. Were they the top priority? No. Are they things that grow each week? Yes. And they become more and more important, and we then find out how well those preparations actually rub up against reality.

Lady Hallett: When your concern grew, you, like Mr Hancock, received assurances that we were one of the best prepared countries. Did you test those assurances? Did you say “Well, wait a minute, are we really as well prepared as you’ve told me we are?”

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, so in terms of the testing of those, so I asked about and we had conversations around PPE specifically. And that’s why I come back to the six-month stockpile, and that’s a decent assurance, six months of PPE to be used and it’s deliberately been created to deal with an influenza pandemic, and then the challenge over the plans that are in place for the society-wide challenges you might need to introduce if you had an influenza pandemic. And because I’d been through Operation Cygnus and I could understand what some of those might look like, it’s as you get each week deeper into, well, it’s gone from low to moderate, what does that mean, and then – I’ve said the turning point really is the middle of February, because by then it’s clear that the risk of this arriving is greater and the impact that it can have, the understanding, even that month, is greater because, you know, each month there’s a fairly significant leap forward in what you understand as you go through the pandemic – we still learn things now about Covid.

Lady Hallett: You say you have been through Operation Cygnus. I think you told me at the last module that – you gave evidence that you hadn’t actually read it. Is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, that’s not true, I was – I took part in Operation Cygnus. There was a report that was delivered after it that was never shared with me. Public Health England did a report. I think it was asked whether I’d read that, when it had not, in fact, been shared with me.

Lady Hallett: What about things that came out of Operation Cygnus? Was test and trace one of the things that – there are so many exercises, I’m losing track of which recommendation came out – was test and trace one of the things that came out of Cygnus?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I don’t think it was. In fact what we learnt about test and trace was, we had a highly efficient contact tracing system and service for small to modest outbreaks. So I think I’ve given the example of the TB outbreak in Llwynhendy that took place, and actually our contact tracing system there was really good and really efficient but actually the scale of what was required – and that wasn’t really contemplated as a learning point that was ever brought to me after Cygnus, and I’m not sure that even in the follow-up that there was anyone that said you’ve got to do this and have a significant process and capability in place. And of course we found out that our contact tracing system as we had it was overwhelmed before we got to lockdown. So we had real challenges around what we needed to do in practice with what we were prepared for.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Poole: The Inquiry heard evidence from Mr Hancock in Module 2 that on 23 January he was told by the UK Chief Medical Officer that there was a 50/50 chance that the Wuhan quarantine would not work, which he understood to mean there was a 50/50 chance that there would be no practical means by which the further escape of the virus could be prevented, so in other words a 50/50 chance of a global outbreak.

Was that information shared with you at that time?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No. I was surprised to read it in Mr Hancock’s statement.

Lead 2B: The day after Mr Hancock says he was told that by Chris Whitty, 24 January, Dr Atherton advised the First Minister that there was a significant risk the virus would arrive in Wales. Was that information shared with you at that stage?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes. So I had a conversation with the Chief Medical Officer and I actually issued, I think, a statement on that day around what was still being called Wuhan novel coronavirus, and the challenge of what is a significant risk and what is probable, the two things are different. It was never put to me in terms of: this is likely to arrive, we don’t know what it would look like. But as we got deeper into the weeks, it was: it’s entirely possible we will have. And it went from being possible to probable, and then understanding the significance of what that would look like as well.

Lead 2B: I mean, aren’t effectively Sir Chris Whitty and Dr Atherton – they’re saying the same thing, aren’t they? They’re saying the chances are there will be a global outbreak. Arguably, Dr Atherton is putting it higher, he is saying there is a significant risk that the virus would arrive in Wales; was your thinking at the time, “Well, irrespective of that risk, it doesn’t really matter because there are practical countermeasures which can be put in place to stop the virus spreading if it gets here”?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No and yes. So no in that I don’t think I can honestly tell you that the risk was put to me that it’s 50/50. And, you know, I have been a lawyer in terms of probability and advice you give and what is reasonably likely to happen and the reasonable prospects of something happening, and then – you know, a risk of significance isn’t always better than half, and that’s the challenge of what does that actually mean. So it certainly wasn’t made clear to me that there was an even chance that Covid would arrive or a better than even chance.

But knowing that something might still happen is something you prepare for. That’s why the risk going from low to moderate matters as well, but it is also the case – and this is why I do agree with you, Mr Poole – that actually we thought we had countermeasures that would be largely effective at that time. And, you know, we’d had the experience – I mean, this is one of the things about having – having had near misses in the past with SARS and MERS, that actually we hadn’t gone through an experience of having to take the whole-society challenge that countries that had been affected had as well. But yeah, we had the assurance that there were countermeasures that should have been in place to help us manage and cope with that.

Lead 2B: You attended your first COBR meeting on 24 January. The day after that, you issued a written statement on – in fact the same day, so later that day, after attending COBR you issued a written statement, and the first line of that statement stated that the Welsh Government is “closely monitoring the emergence of a novel coronavirus”.

Now, I just want to understand, what steps were the Welsh Government taking at this point to closely monitor the situation, or was this essentially waiting to be told from the UK Government through SAGE and COBR what was happening?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, it’s both working with partners across the UK, as you should do – as you’d expect – I think citizens across the UK would expect the four governments to be working and sharing information on risks like – as the NHS and public health agencies do on a regular basis. But it’s also about the fact that officials within the government are having the conversation with Public Health Wales. And I know you’ve had evidence from Public Health Wales around what they were doing and the conversations that were regularly taking place with the Chief Medical Officer and officials in the government. So it is both working with UK partners as well as looking at the information we’re getting from Public Health Wales as our own public health institute.

Lead 2B: The first time that Covid-19 was discussed by the Welsh Cabinet was at a Cabinet meeting on 25 February, so that’s a month after you’d attended your first COBR meeting, it’s a month after Dr Atherton had advised the First Minister of the significant risk that the virus would come to Wales.

Given, as we’ve discussed, all key decisions taken in response to the pandemic are taken through Cabinet, should the Inquiry infer from that lack of Cabinet discussion until 25 February, that Covid was not considered important enough to discuss at Cabinet until 25 February?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No. If you look at what was happening, I was issuing a weekly written statement to the Senedd and the public from 24 January. We were reporting on cases across the UK. So when the first UK case was delivered, that was not just reported in England, it was widely circulated and reported. And in terms of the business, cabinet discusses Senedd business about forthcoming items, and there’s always a discussion about what’s likely to come up and what might come up, not just what we have in the agenda, and I think I answered a question on coronavirus on 29 January, and that would have been discussed in Cabinet about the fact that this might come up, because I think we’d had the first UK case by then.

So actually Cabinet was aware that Covid was something that was happening. And actually, before you get to 20 February, Cabinet is definitely aware because of the fairly widespread reporting and the fact that it comes up in Senedd business, so things we’re talking about, and people obviously know that I am going to COBR meetings. That isn’t a secret, other ministers know that. We have the first full discussion around Covid on 25 February, formally, because it’s very clear by that point that there are going to be consequences that are pretty significant. We still don’t know even then exactly how significant they’ll be, but it’s not going to be something that is – that I think is – it’s contained and it’s something that people won’t notice. I think that’s very clear.

Lead 2B: Now, you say Cabinet was aware of Covid prior to 25 February. I’m right, though, aren’t I, that if one was to look at Cabinet minutes prior to 25 February, one would not see any mention of Covid in those minutes, would they?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I don’t think they would. There would have been discussion about the fact that this is something we’re monitoring, that we’re dealing with, and that I’m leading on. 25 February, the first time there was a full discussion in Cabinet with every Cabinet Minister engaged and involved.

Lead 2B: Now, we heard evidence – yes, I think it was at the beginning of last week, from Dr Quentin Sandifer, who was the lead strategic director in Public Health Wales for Covid-19, he told the Inquiry that on 22 January he invoked the Public Health Wales Emergency Response Plan at enhanced level, and that two days later, so advises the First Minister about the significant risk,

Public Health Wales called on the Welsh Government to

stand up the Emergency Coordination Centre, and his

evidence is that he was told by David Goulding that he

didn’t see this event as requiring a civil contingency

multi-agency emergency response.

Now, there was then on 11 March – which is the date

the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic – Public Health

Wales prepared a paper called “Covid-19 as a major

health incident point to consider”. I don’t think we do

need that displayed but, just in summary, that set out

the current situation in Wales and provided

an evidential summary of considerations to guide the

Welsh Government in any decision whether to declare this

a major incident for health.

Again, Dr Sandifer told the Inquiry that he felt

that Public Health Wales had to lay their cards on the

table and say to the Welsh Government: this is how we

see it, are you going to use emergency legislation?

And the Welsh Government’s response to that paper

was that a declaration of a major health incident would

not be helpful, which Dr Sandifer told the Inquiry he

was astonished by, and he was astonished that by early

March the Welsh Government were not treating the January, coincidentally the same day as the CMO 24 pandemic as a civil emergency situation.

Why was this?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So there’s a number of points in the questions there, Mr Poole. So I don’t think it is surprising that civil contingency arrangements aren’t stood up in early – you know, in the – 24th, 22 January, at that point where there isn’t a case in the UK, there isn’t a case in Wales at that point, and in dealing with something that might happen and the risks are there but the risks are – I don’t know if they’re low or moderate at that time. As we move on and as it becomes more apparent about the level of risk, then actually of course the level of engagement from the government increases steadily, as you would expect.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Public Health Wales to say that they’re acting in a manner which looks at the prospect of what might happen and they stand up their arrangements in that way. If the government does that you’ve got to move resources around to deal with it at that point in time, for something that still might not happen, and at that point the risk was still low.

As you go forward, in through the rest of that time, by the time you get to March – I can’t remember the exact date, but I did declare that Covid was a notifiable disease. Because you’ll remember we had the challenges on legislation about whether to have enforced quarantine for people returning to the UK. So the government in England took powers but almost all the returnees were going to Arrowe Park in any event. So the risk of absconders was something that the UK Government were worried about. That’s why they’d taken those powers. We’d considered it but actually we didn’t have people who we’d need to use those powers with at that point in time. So each – at each point though it’s ratcheting up, and so I make the declaration that Covid is a notifiable disease, a notifiable condition. And then as we’re getting through March and as we’re having more cases I think the reality is we’re ratcheting up to more and more challenges we need to do – to deliver against. So I – I’m not sure that the formal declaration really would have changed much. Because actually, you look at what then happened on 13 March, we made an extraordinary intervention. And it looks less extraordinary now because of everything that happened, but on 13 March confirming that large parts of the normal health service will be switched off is a really significant intervention. And, you know, we – I can see that this is getting bigger, and my view then compared to two weeks ago compared to a month ago is different on the scale of the response we’re going to need to have, because events are moving very, very rapidly.

Lead 2B: Now, obviously I can understand events moving very rapidly, and by the time we get to mid-March the position had changed dramatically to what it was in mid-February, but do you accept what I think is Dr Sandifer’s criticism, which is that the Welsh Government was slow in the period January to February to recognise the multi-agency emergency that Covid presented?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I think the full recognition of the multi-agency nature of the response that would be required and the fact that we’d arrive, as I’ve said comes in around the middle of February. But not understanding, still, the scale of that. That still comes later. And, look, some of this is your perspective, in the sense of Dr Sandifer with his background and view that this could really happen and his view that it’s likely to happen that hardens over time and those are the conversations he’s directly having with the Chief Medical Officer. And I think actually, when it comes to the middle of February onwards, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Welsh Government is both taking this seriously and having to move resources around rapidly while still dealing with what is happening right in front of us in everyday business.

Lead 2B: Just briefly before we take our break in a couple of minutes, if I can ask you to have a look at INQ000056215, please, which is a COBR meeting of 5 February.

We can have a look at page 5, the first paragraph, please. The CMO provides an update:

“… coronavirus … numbers in South East Asia were rising quickly and that this trend was likely to continue.”

We can have a look, please, at the next paragraph, second bullet point:

“… two most high risk groups appeared to be the elderly and those with pre-existing illnesses.”

Given the demographic characteristics of the Welsh population, specifically I’m thinking the age profile and the population over 65 and also over 75, as well as health and economic status and dependency responsibilities, did it strike you that in the event that the virus came to the UK and came to Wales, Wales would likely experience disproportionate levels of impact from Covid-19?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes. That was a clear concern, because from the first briefings and understanding that older people are more likely to be affected and people with underlying conditions, I think sometimes you see that in the papers as comorbidities, so people have other healthcare conditions that make them more vulnerable, we have more of those as a share of our population than England does as a whole, so our population, in the proportional sense, in more vulnerable.

So it was certainly one of my concerns. And if I’m taken to my witness statement, in paragraph 158 I go through the fact that there was a meeting and then what I asked the Chief Medical Officer for, for afterwards, in terms of going through some of those arrangements. And then also part of that is an offer to want to brief members of the Senedd, because even at that point I think, well, this is something that we should directly brief Senedd members on, not just issue the statement. So I asked for that to happen.

The reason I asked about social care arrangements is because of this issue about risk groups and people’s underlying conditions. And also the fact that there would be this tabletop exercise for ministers across the UK, I think it’s rather pompously called Operation Nimbus. That takes place on 12 February, which is a day when I have questions in the Senedd. So I have to do my ministerial questions, I have to respond to a Conservative debate on A&E, and I do the tabletop exercise on the 12th as well. So the gathering of what’s happening is taking place there. And it’s still possible, and it’s when – like I said, it changes from what’s possible and becoming more likely to “Actually, I think this is going to happen”, but still not clear about the extent.

So from that meeting that’s the action that I put in train and that is in fact what happens.

Mr Poole: We’ll have a look at Operation Nimbus after our break, Mr Gething.

Lady Hallett: 11.30, please.

(11.16 am)

(A short break)

(11.30 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr Poole.

Mr Poole: Mr Gething, you mentioned Operation Nimbus. Just a couple of questions, if I may, about that then. This took place on 12 February. You took part, as did Dr Atherton, on behalf of the Welsh Government. Now, the evidence the Inquiry’s heard to date is that the effect of Nimbus really focused on the impact on the NHS, and obviously whilst there was an obvious need to discuss the likely impact on the NHS, the Inquiry understands there was no discussion or debate about infection control countermeasures, so, for example, home isolation, household isolation, shutting schools, lockdowns, all the measures we know that were of course imposed.

Can you help us why that wasn’t debated in Operation Nimbus?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So the exercise was constructed by the UK Government. It was essentially a condensed version of Cygnus. We had a scenario to work through and what would you do if this is where you are. So it was almost all focused on health.

The other part that I think it’s worth pointing out that was part of it was what to do if you have significant excess deaths and you overwhelm your mortuary capacity as well. Not just in public health terms but to think about that. But it didn’t think about the economic consequences or others. So the exercise wasn’t designed in that way.

We participated but ministers in the Welsh Government didn’t design, it was really to look at: if you’re going to the worst end of the reasonable worst-case scenario, what do you do? And there are really difficult choices that would have had to have been made.

I still think with – the value of tabletop exercises is that – and getting ministers to engage in them, is to think about “what would you do if”. This wasn’t so much “what would you do if”, it was “there is something coming, it could look like this”.

I think the air of unreality about it is that you don’t take into account the whole situation because you’d need more ministers around the table to think about that. But the scenario that’s presented is one where you’d have done everything possible to avoid getting to that point even as well. We never got to the point that Operation Nimbus envisaged. So the choices that ministers were being asked to envisage there, I think it was a real as it could have been, to have been helpful. So I don’t think it’s just the health focus, I’d say that actually it would have been more useful to have thought of something at an earlier stage, because actually that’s what we were really looking at in practical terms.

Lead 2B: There was a SAGE meeting on 13 February that Dr Orford attended on behalf of the Welsh Government. At that meeting, SAGE advised that China had failed to contain the virus, and that was relayed to you the following day by Dr Orford, and there was a discussion, I think you say in your witness statement, about school closures.

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes.

Lead 2B: But there was a lack of information about infection rates on children. At this point in time, so when you’re having that discussion with Dr Orford, who’s relaying to you that SAGE has advised China has failed to contain the virus, what plans did the Welsh Government have for infection control in place at that point in time? What were the nuts and bolts of that plan?

Mr Vaughan Gething: When you mean infection control, you’re talking about in closed settings or on a wider basis? What part of infection control are you referring to?

Lead 2B: So at this point in time you had been told China’s failed to contain the virus, so the virus is going to spread outside China, you have been told there’s a significant risk that it’s going to come to Wales. That risk is really eventuating itself here with this advice from SAGE. So infection controls in all of their forms, what did the Welsh Government think it was going to do at this point in time if the virus came to Wales?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, again the challenge is you’re still dealing with real uncertainty, so SARS and MERS had a much wider regional impact but didn’t really get to Europe in significant numbers, and it still wasn’t entirely certain, even on the 14th, it would definitely arrive, but the prospect compared to – from 14 February compared to 16 January has definitely increased. So by then, that’s why – take it back in the statement, going back about – following the 5 February COBR meeting and the work that had been done there and actually wanting to understand more about the work that is being done, that is both about the enforced isolation of returners, it is also then about thinking more clearly about what do you need to do. If the information hardened, there’s more you need to do with community transmission, as we came to know it – and sorry, the point before this, I should correct myself, is if there are more travellers who are returning, what to do about them. That’s why the enforced isolation matters.

There is a point about contact tracing. But then what happens if there’s wider spread? And so actually that’s why we’re going back to the panic – pandemic flu assumptions and the planning there about getting ready for: if we’ve got to do this, then here are the things that naturally flow from that as well. So the level of engagement across the Welsh Government is significantly different by 14 February compared to 16 January.

Lead 2B: Now, as we have already touched upon, there was a Welsh Cabinet meeting on 25 February.

Before we look at those minutes, can we, please, just have a look at the statement of Christopher Morgan. He is the head of the Cabinet secretariat, and just for the record, the witness statement, that’s already being displayed, it’s INQ000319413, and we’re looking at paragraph 11 of that statement.

So he is explaining here how minutes would be taken and he says during the meeting he would take handwritten notes, he would outline issues for discussion and then produce a brief summary of what had been discussed.

Now, we can take that down, thank you very much.

Ms Runeckles gave evidence last week, she explained that Cabinet minutes are published and this typically happens six or seven weeks after the meeting. And as Mr Morgan explains in another passage of his witness statement, once the minutes have been ratified prior to publication, any handwritten notes of those minutes are then destroyed.

So with that background of how minutes comes to be produced, if we can have a look at the unpublished minutes of the 25 February meeting.

They are INQ000129852, please.

If we just look at the top of this page, we can see here:

“Cabinet will wish to note that these minutes, except those items in italics, will be published in week commencing 6th April 2020.”

Ms Runeckles explained to us last week that the items in italics would be discussions about matters that it would be thought not appropriate to put in the public domain. Is that right, broadly?

Mr Vaughan Gething: That’s my understanding, yes.

Lead 2B: If we can just scroll through the pages, we can see that there are about seven pages of minutes, and it looks like there were five items on the agenda.

If we go to the penultimate page, there we have it, page 6, under “Any other business” there is the first mention of Covid-19.

Would it be fair to say that even then when Covid is discussed, on 25 February, it was still not seen as a priority, it being addressed as the last item on the agenda?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No. No, and this is one of those occasions where “Any other business” is actually one of the more meatier items there. You definitely get items that come onto the agenda – it’s wrong to think of “Any other business” as the fag end of a meeting, where people are looking at their watches, needing to leave, and it’s all done in 30 seconds. Actually, this was a much more substantive discussion with an update of the very pressing challenge about what we knew but also because you couldn’t give people assurance that we knew everything, because we didn’t. And, you know, we still don’t know now, actually, everything about Covid and its impacts and – but so, no, it would be wrong to conclude that because it’s item 5 it is the least important item. Far from it.

Lead 2B: As we can see, paragraph 5.1, it was you that provided an update to Cabinet on the coronavirus. If we have a look, please, at 5.3, it is recorded here that you informed Cabinet that:

“The worldwide response was still in the containment stage and [that] there had been no imported cases into the UK.”

Now, we accept, you accept, don’t you, that that is – if that was what was said to Cabinet, that’s wrong?

Mr Vaughan Gething: There is no prospect that I told Cabinet that there were no imported cases into the UK. There had been multiple imported cases into the UK, and in fact I’d referred to them in my written statements.

Lead 2B: Now, you say – sorry to interrupt you – you referred then to your witness statement.

If we have a look, please, at the relevant passage of your witness statement, I think it’s INQ000320744, no, sorry, that’s a wrong reference, it’s INQ000391237. Thank you. It’s paragraph 164. You say there:

“… I updated Cabinet. The worldwide response was still in the containment stage and there had been no imported cases into the UK.”

So when you signed your witness statement, do I assume you didn’t think there was a mistake then?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I plainly made an error there, counsel. In fact there had been plenty of imported cases into the UK by then, I can’t remember if it was 12 or 15. They’d been reported widely. We hadn’t had any imported cases into Wales at that point. In fact a few days later we had our first identified case into Wales. But that’s plainly an error in the statement that’s taken from the minute.

Lead 2B: So should we be reading that second sentence of your witness statement as “there had been no imported cases into Wales”, rather than the UK?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes. Because at that point we hadn’t identified any. We still hadn’t identified a single case. I think it was 27 February, announced on the 28th, when we identified our first case in Wales. But by this point we were … I was more concerned – it’s why there was a substantive discussion in Cabinet. It’s why – if you go to the rest of the statements and others, about the activity that was taking place right across the government at that point, in getting ready for what was much more likely to happen by this point than even a few weeks ago.

Lady Hallett: Are Cabinet minutes circulated to all those who attended afterwards?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Typically they are and – no, they are. They are circulated and then the First Minister goes before then before they’re published as well.

Lady Hallett: So on the one hand you say you told Cabinet there were cases and on the other hand the minutes record that there were no cases. So if you had told Cabinet there were cases, one would have thought a major reaction from Cabinet.

Mr Vaughan Gething: I’d made clear to the public that there were cases. It wasn’t just that the BBC, ITV and others were reporting the identity of cases, in the written statements that I’d delivered, and these are all circulated to Cabinet members before they’re published, I was going through the changing picture and, indeed, the fact that we’d had the first identified case of Covid in – I think it might have been my second statement – in the January, my second witness statement. And so this was a getting ready for the fact that by this point we could be clear that we would get cases in Wales. We then got our first case two days later.

Lady Hallett: Sorry, my point wasn’t that. My point was: so you had alerted members of Cabinet, you say, to the fact there were cases in the UK, multiple cases, but none of your colleagues or you seem to have said “But wait a minute, these minutes are completely the opposite of what I said”.

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, but I think that will be why the minutes that are published don’t reflect this line.

Mr Poole: Well, isn’t the reason that they didn’t reflect this line that these words were always in italics and so were always going to be omitted from the published minutes?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes.

Lead 2B: So that’s not a reason why those words don’t appear in the published minutes, they were never intended to appear in the published minutes, were they?

Mr Vaughan Gething: With words in italics, sometimes they’re published later, after the event. It’s depends what’s sensitive at the time. And there is then a choice around – the First Minister goes through the minutes that are then published, and they’re then published. And this is plainly an error because at this point – if you cast your mind back to what was happening at this point in February, there had been multiple reports of Covid cases in the UK, and it was, if you like, a standing item on the evening news, there would be something about coronavirus somewhere.

I’d delivered multiple written statements, including notifications around the first identified cases in the UK, around the preparations that we were taking, and the Cabinet discussion was getting ready for: what do we do as Covid arrives in Wales not just the UK?

Lead 2B: Even, therefore, more striking that when the minutes were circulated no one seems to have picked this up. Because there was a discussion about this line, and perhaps we can have a look at some correspondence.

If we have a look at INQ000420999, please.

If we go to page 3, this is an email to the First Minister’s office on 9 April asking effectively whether there are any concerns publishing the minutes that we’ve just been looking at.

If we have a look at the bottom of page 2, please, the First Minister queries the accuracy of what was para 5.3 in what we’ve just looked at but had become para 4.3 at this point in time.

Then we see a response from Mr Morgan, who has taken the minutes in the first place, and that’s the top email on page 2, and Mr Morgan responds – he first of all confirms that the original set of minutes, so those that we’ve just been looking at, was agreed in early March. So just pausing there, that suggests to me that the minutes were circulated afterwards and no one has at that point in time taken any issue with it and those minutes we’ve just looked at were agreed. Would I be right in inferring that?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah, the minutes are normally circulated and then agreed, and moved on. And of course by the time we get to early March there’s lots more to be done.

Lead 2B: But no one has picked up on this error?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, no, that’s correct.

Lead 2B: And pausing there, just going back to the email, so Mr Morgan’s suggestion is: well, either we could change the minutes to say “there had been no imported cases into the UK”, we could change that to “no imported cases into Wales”, or we could just remove the line completely.

Then if we go to page 1 we see the First Minister’s response, he confirms that he prefers the first option, so in other words the line is just removed from the published minutes. And as we know, that’s what happened.

If we go back to the minutes themselves, INQ000129852 – sorry, and it’s – I think it’s the last page, so page 6, and paragraph 5.3 is what we were looking at.

Also if one looks at the rest of this discussion, so perhaps zoom out and just have a look at all of that, 5.4, 5.5 and 5.6, there’s no consideration at this meeting, which is the first meeting of Cabinet to discuss Covid, of what steps should be taken to stop the virus spreading. So there’s no discussion here about what infection control measures needed to be thought about, put in place.

When was Cabinet going to discuss matters like that, if not at this meeting of 25 February?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So we had considered – we had a plan, an influenza plan that was our working assumption for what we would be doing, and part of the challenge that we’d gone through – and you recall the SAGE advice and the COBR meetings, where we’d had direct advice around travel, for example, and how connected the UK was and whether actually if this arrived what we could or couldn’t do about it. And so therefore you have both the first stage of: can you prevent Covid getting into the UK, full stop? Then, if it arrives, what do you do? So that’s where you have your pandemic influenza plan and the assumptions around what you do to try to prevent or to delay the spread of Covid. And actually when you then get to the fairly short-lived plan that’s published in early March, it goes through those different stages of delay and contain and mitigate, and so actually in Cabinet the discussion is around the fact that this is a new condition, it’s one that looks like it’s easily spread, and whilst we don’t have cases in Wales, the risk assessment has changed, and that would change if there was sustained transmission in Europe or any kind of – and as we say in minute 5.3.

So actually that is a discussion, and what do you do, both about what’s happening, but then if it comes into Wales as well.

And it’s still at this point I think for ministers around the table not only to understand this could happen but if this happens there are consequences and what do you then do, and I don’t think there is then, certainly even by the next week, a full understanding of the depth of consequences that come from having a transmissible disease of this type, because, as I say, in the 2009 pandemic it was something that had an impact and some people did die, but not of the extraordinary scale that we went through as well.

So, you know, you’ve got to bring ministerial colleagues along with you about the understanding of the scale of what was happening and why is it that someone is doing all this work on preparation for excess deaths, on the preparations around what could happen, why we’re standing up our pandemic flu preparations and what all of those things mean, as I say. And then the speed of what happened really did go much faster than not just ministers expected but scientific advisers as well.

Lead 2B: As we move into March, I think it’s 2 March you attend a COBR meeting, and that’s the first COBR meeting that’s chaired by Mr Johnson.

If we can have a look at those minutes, they’re INQ000056217, thank you.

If we can go to page 5, at paragraph 2, we can see there that:

“The CHAIR invited the Government … (CMO) and the … (GCSA) to … [Document read] … now sustained community transmission.”

So this is now 2 March. We’re nearly a week since Covid was first discussed by the Welsh Cabinet, ten days after lockdown’s been imposed in northern Italy. There have been cases within the UK since late January, first confirmed case in Wales 28 February, and COBR is being told now that contact tracing for the source of infection for these last two cases has not been successful and there’s sustained community infection in France and Germany.

Did you understand that, in effect, containment by this point in time had been lost, the virus was here, the virus was spreading?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So we understood that at this point containment would be a real challenge, because once you start to have a few cases of community transmission the understanding is that actually if the virus is ahead of you, then you’re unlikely to catch up and there’s going to be transmission of some sort. And in fact in my statement I refer to this as well, in paragraph 167. And it was Chris Whitty’s advice that there would be a delay between a rapid rise. So we were expecting we would get more cases.

Again, we still weren’t entirely sure of quite how many and, even then, compared to the next week, the number of cases we thought we would have. But we’d seen what had happened in Italy by then, and so actually this was much more sombre and serious even than previous meetings. And we still hadn’t – we’d had our first case, we weren’t clear about whether community transmission was here in Wales or not, so we’re still looking to deal with the delay phase. And that’s why I say the short-lived plan, because the plan that we published, I think the next day, still talks about delay, contain and mitigate. And actually as we go through, going from the – to the delay phase, didn’t take much longer to formally announce, and it’s trying to get people there and to understand what we need to do around that as well. So by this point it’s very clear this is going to have a significant impact, again even if you still don’t understand the whole society-wide impact that it did go on to have.

Lady Hallett: Mr Gething, the question was: did you all by 2 March appreciate the containment policy was lost? I think really the answer must be yes, mustn’t it?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I don’t think it was entirely clear that by then contain had been lost. And actually for each day there’s something more, because the first couple of cases of community transmission are then a real challenge, and that then means you could lose sight of it, as I say, but actually we’re still not entirely clear whether we’ll get to where Italy is.

The worry is that actually contain could have been lost by then, but I wouldn’t put it quite as definitively as: yes, contain had been lost. The challenge is we then publish a plan the next day and then with each day of new figures I think it is clearer and clearer that you’re into the delay phase as well. And the challenge there is bringing people with you. That’s the public, it’s politicians across parties, and it’s your whole system as well.

Mr Poole: The action plan that you’ve referred to also stated that the UK was well prepared to respond in a way that offers substantial protection to the public but, I mean, you knew, did you not, that that was not the case as far as Wales was concerned? Wales weren’t well prepared to respond to a pandemic of this nature, were they?

Mr Vaughan Gething: At that time that was still where we thought we were, with the countermeasures we thought we had in place, with the pandemic influenza plan. So even then we thought we’d be able to respond in a way that would not lead us to where we eventually got to.

Now, again, the reality of what happened compared to the measures we thought we had in place is – is very obvious in terms of what has happened, and in all of this the difficulty is you’re trying to balance the situation as you see it with the knowledge that you have and the knowledge you don’t have, and you’re also trying to not engender a sense of panic as well, whilst you’re still trying to make sure you understand what you need to do and how quickly you need to do it.

So there’s rarely a black and white decision, and at this point, having published that plan – publishing a four nation plan around coronavirus itself was a significant step, and that’s a significant step for the four governments but also in terms of the public debate and understanding that’s taken place as well. Because I still think when you go back to 2 and 3 March, I do not think I was confident the wider public understood the scale of what might happen. There’s a dawning realisation but it’s not at the point where everyone understands the pictures that you are seeing on your television from Italy are what could happen here as well.

So you’ve got this really difficult balance of taking people with you to understand we’re going to need to do more. And of course you saw in my own statement the – people go about businesses and live lives in a normal matter, there’s the usual “just wash your hands”, and I think the Prime Minister at this point was making a point of saying that he was shaking hands with everyone.

The challenge is you’ve got to try to engender, you know, “Just be normal, don’t rush around, don’t panic”, and at the same time we’re preparing for what we’re sure is coming in larger number if we can’t hold on to the end of the contain phase as well. It’s all incredibly uncomfortable.

Lead 2B: Just looking back at these minutes, if we have a look at paragraph 3, if we can zoom in on that, please, it says:

“Continuing the CMO said that interventions to delay … [Document read] … ensure maximum effectiveness.”

Can you recall, was there a debate about the good sense or otherwise of that proposal?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah, so this was a key part of the discussions we had not at this meeting but afterwards as well, that if you get to delay, which looks entirely likely, then at that point what you then need to do is not straightforward because, having thought about the things you want to do, having gone through different exercises, when it’s Nimbus or Cygnus, if you’re then having to take people with you and say “We now need to seriously contemplate asking people to live their lives in an entirely different manner”, our public haven’t had to do that before. And so that’s why I think this point, looking at social distancing and exploring measures that others have used is both important but the clear advice we were getting then and for several COBR meetings afterwards was: you may only get one shot at this and so if you go too early then the effectiveness of your intervention could be undermined and you could actually end up not saving the harm you’re trying to prevent.

So this is a very real discussion and, as I say, it’s a very uncomfortable discussion because this is a significant intervention in the way that we live our lives and the rights that we expect to have in normal times. So there’s nothing … this is entirely novel for governments in the UK, and there’s nothing trivial about it, so – and you’d expect us to discuss and take account properly of what it would mean. And then you’ve got to be able to go out and do it as well.

So the plan that got published the next day set out the three phases. And then, to work up the advice on how effective you think that would be, you’re still – you’re not dealing with, if you like, mathematical certainty. You can’t be clear that this intervention will definitely prevent this harm. And also, because we hadn’t done this before, we’re not entirely clear about what the downsides of all of the potential interventions would be, and at this point we hadn’t seen the exact detail of what potential social distancing measures would look like. And as the note sets out, the advice would be ready in the following few days.

Lead 2B: Now, Mr Gething, I think my question was: was there a debate about the good sense or otherwise of that proposal?

Mr Vaughan Gething: And the answer is yes.

Lead 2B: In that very long answer, I think the answer is yes?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes.

Lead 2B: I appreciate you have got a lot that you want to say, but we have got a very detailed witness statement from you, we will obviously have regard to that witness statement, and I’m just aware that we’ve got an awful lot of material to cover with you –

Mr Vaughan Gething: Of course.

Lead 2B: – today, so perhaps I could just ask you to keep your answers slightly shorter than they have been, if that’s all right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I shall try to.

Lead 2B: Now, the day after this meeting there was a Welsh Cabinet meeting of 4 March.

INQ000048789, please.

We could have a look, page 2, paragraph 1.4, please, it starts there:

“The UK Government … leading on a single … [Document read] … cover the four nations.”

Now, you’ve explained in your witness statement that by this point in time, 4 March, the decision had been made by the UK Government not to use the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 because it was considered that there was still time to legislate.

And although not the CCA, you explain that your understanding remained that it would be a new UK Act would be the legislative vehicle used to respond to the pandemic and, whilst the Welsh Government would have input into that Bill, the UK Government would be the primary decision-maker once that Act received Royal Assent. Is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: That was my understanding. There would always be devolved choices to make, health, education and others are devolved, but it was our understanding that would be the case. It’s also worth pointing out that that was what I thought the settled view was at the time. There was then an attempt before we went into lockdown to try to see if the Civil Contingencies Act could be used. I think Jacob Rees-Mogg was a Cabinet member who attempted to say that we should go back to that and have everything centralised, but this was the position we were in.

Lead 2B: We know that by the time we get to the COBR meeting on 20 March, it was in fact decided then that the use of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act would be the legislative vehicle used to respond to the pandemic in England and Wales, and you say, again it’s in paragraph 425 of your witness statement, you say that whilst you agreed that the use of public health powers was the right decision, it was not a comfortable decision for a UK Secretary of State to take powers in a devolved space.

So just to be clear, though, that was a UK Government decision which the Welsh Government and yourself agreed with, the use of public health powers to respond to the pandemic; yes?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes.

Lead 2B: And once that decision had been made, the responsibility for primary decision-making became that of the Welsh Government, with the consequence that Wales obviously had to pass its own corresponding legislation.

Did that impact on the Welsh Government’s response to the pandemic? What I mean by that question is, up until 20 March, which, as we know now, is quite late in the day, three days before the national lockdown, there had been this assumption that it would be UK Government being the primary decision-maker, with a new piece of legislation. You then find out on 20 March that in fact public health powers are going to be used. What impact did that have on the Welsh Government’s response to the pandemic? What decisions would have been taken differently, or perhaps they wouldn’t have been taken differently had you known that before 20 March?

Mr Vaughan Gething: If we’d known that before 20 March we’d probably have started work earlier on how to make use of those powers. I’m sure your professional colleagues who were drafting the regulations in Wales would have wanted more time to consider how to do that, the approach to take, also about the policy work around that as well.

So as in everything through the March, even an extra day or two I think would have made a difference to your preparation, ability then to deliver as well. So once the choice is made, we then have to, frankly, just get on with it, because by this point we know there’s no time to delay, and I think by the 20th we’d had our – it was the 20th or the 21st, there was a meeting where we looked at the possibility of a Welsh lockdown if we couldn’t move as all four nations, which I cover in my statement.

Lead 2B: We go back to these Cabinet minutes I think it’s over the page, 2.4, please, there is an – effectively a read-out of a SAGE report that summarised the current understanding of Covid-19.

So 80% of the population are infected, 80% mild symptoms, remaining 20% likely required hospitalisation.

“That would equate to around 160,000 people in Wales requiring some form of hospitalisation, of [those] 133,000 would require oxygen and 14,000 would require ventilator support.”

The Inquiry has heard evidence from various people, including the former Prime Minister and the former Secretary of State for Health, in Module 2 that with an R value above 1 and exponential growth, there was a very real concern that the number of people requiring some form of hospitalisation would eventually result in the NHS in England being overwhelmed.

To what extent did you or the Welsh Government collectively at this Cabinet meeting have a view as to the impact of the virus on the NHS in Wales in terms of would it be overwhelmed and if so when?

Mr Vaughan Gething: If you look at the minutes of Cabinet, in the one in paragraph 2.5, we do talk about considering the implications beyond the NHS but there were significant NHS implications. So, yes, we were concerned and Cabinet was aware that the impact could overwhelm the NHS.

I think it’s minute 2.8 that talks about the potential admissions equating to a quarter of annual hospital admission. So this is an extraordinary amount of harm that potentially comes in if the reasonable worst-case scenario or something approaching it arrives. So, you know, these are pretty terrifying figures to have to look at. And you’ve then got to make choices to try to make sure you don’t get to the reasonable worst-case scenario.

Lead 2B: We can move away from these minutes and look at some COBR minutes from 4 March.

They’re INQ000056218, and I think we need to go to page 8, paragraph 17, please.

There is a discussion – yes, there’s a discussion there about NPIs. The Director for Go-Science said that there were a number of NPIs that could be taken to delay and flatten the peak of the outbreak, such as social distancing, closing schools, discouraging mass gatherings. Go-Science had not looked at combinations of interventions for modelling and the work was under way.

Had the Welsh Government been looking or had begun looking at NPIs at this stage or was this work being left to the UK Government?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Wasn’t entirely being left to the UK Government, because of course Dr Orford is on SAGE at this point, so the conversations they are having are feeding into our conversations as well. And of course we positively wanted to have a four nations approach. So it made sense to be coherent and co-ordinated with the discussions that were taking place, rather than having an entirely separate discussion within Wales.

And actually the – if you like, the heft behind this in terms of the access to the expertise, we didn’t have modelling advice. Understanding the likely impact of social distancing and how it would be modelled, we didn’t have that capacity available to us at this point in the pandemic, that came much later.

So actually it’s entirely right that we’re directly engaged in this conversation. I think characterising it as simply leaving it to others is … is not, I think, an accurate reflection of what happened. But certainly led by the UK Government, undoubtedly.

Lead 2B: There was a discussion at this COBR meeting about public compliance as well and the minutes record there was a lot of uncertainty and one of the biggest variables was that behavioural scientists had noted compliance with interventions.

Was this something that the Welsh Government was looking at at this point in time? Had you formed a view as to whether the Welsh public were likely to comply with NPIs such as social distancing or discouraging mass gatherings?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, so it was part of the discussions we had both in COBR and outside, and there was real concern that the public would not go along with these sorts of extraordinary interventions into how they were entitled, lawfully, to go about their business. Because these are really significant civil liberties intrusions. So it was both about not wanting to intrude into those individual and collective rights, but it’s also then and how many people will comply and do what they’re being asked to do, and actually that matters because that matters about the impact of whether social distancing reduces the level of harm.

So the initial behavioural science advice was I think more pessimistic about public response. I think I cover that in my statement, I think in the end people were much more responsive when the time came.

Lead 2B: Just the last question on these minutes, if we could have a look at page 8, where we are – paragraph 18, please.

We can see here there is a discussion here about the economic and social impacts of interventions and you deal with it in your witness statement. It’s paragraph 178, and you say the Cabinet Office was tasked with co-ordinating the economic impacts of NPIs and the isolation of the elderly and vulnerable.

Was this something that the Welsh Government was looking at for itself? And I have in mind, particularly given the demographic characteristics of Wales, the impact on the elderly and vulnerable being profoundly important to consider when making decisions about NPIs.

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, and my recollection was that the – within the government we were working on: what would this mean? I guess it’s the pre-shielding discussion: what do you do to try to make sure there’s support available to people who’d be affected by this? And when it comes to the economic modelling, it’s one of the things we’re repeatedly going through that the economic firepower to support businesses, to prevent harm to the economy, you’ve got to have the UK Government acting. And that isn’t just the economy, it goes into everything else, because, you know, economic inequalities and health inequalities neatly overlay on top of each other, so your most vulnerable citizens, if the economy slows down, there’s likely to be a bigger impact on them compared to your most financially advantaged citizens. So, you know, there’s no argument about that, that’s the reality of it. So all of these things are real considerations for us. So we’re not simply turning up to COBR and saying “Whatever you say”. And then we’re not going away and getting on with other stuff, we’re actively going through all of these considerations and what will this mean for us.

Lead 2B: You say at paragraph 184 of your witness statement that the message coming from COBR in these early March meetings was explicitly: don’t overreact, measures taken too early are wasted.

I want to get your views as to what extent did the debate about not going too early as there was a limit or thought to be a limit as to what the population might be able to countenance, how did that slow down, or whether it did, slow down ultimate decision-making in your view?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So it was a genuine concern, and there was advice that actually if you introduced these interventions there is likely to be significant civil disobedience that would need to be policed, and the behavioural science advice we had was of a percentage of compliance and whether that would be enough to slow down what was happening. So it was a real factor.

If – and it’s again one of those benefit of hindsight points. With the benefit of hindsight, if we’d known how supportive the people would have been, we could and probably would have taken some steps earlier. But everything else would have been needed to have been aligned around it as well. And actually I think, as you go through – I think I made this point earlier – every few days the mood changes and shifts as there are more cases and it’s clear about the harm that is around you not just somewhere else. So from where we were on the 6th to the 16th to the 26th, I think the public are in really quite different spaces about what they’re prepared to do and why.

Lead 2B: If we can have a look at some minutes of – I think it’s the first meeting, in fact, of the Covid-19 core group, which was 11 March.

It’s INQ000215171, please.

Paragraph 2 on that first page, being told:

“There were now 15 cases in Wales … [Document read] … move towards the delay phase.”

If we can turn over the page to page 2 and have a look at paragraph 9, please:

“Ministers agreed that there would be a need for further … [Document read] … Government was advising households to go into quarantine.”

Now, that 2% reduction in mortality rate figure, that’s taken from a TAC briefing. I just want to briefly look at that briefing with you.

It’s INQ000271613.

If we have a look at the first paragraph together:

“In the event of a severe epidemic, the NHS will be unable … [Document read] … within the bounds of a likely scenario.”

Now, so you’re being told there: likely scenario is that the NHS in Wales will be overwhelmed, demand on beds likely to overtake supply before the peak is reached.

If we can have a look at paragraph 3, please:

“Applying behavioural interventions could be helpful in containing … [Document read] … of the NHS and other sectors more sustainable.”

Then if we can have a look at the next paragraph, paragraph 4 sets out objectives of interventions. So first objective, contain, there’s a note “unlikely to be achievable”.

Then if we can please turn over the page and have a look at paragraph 7, on page 2. I think – yes, thank you.


“As of 10th March there were 17 patients in ICU, likely … [Document read] … then 300 shortly after.

Next paragraph, paragraph 8, reproduction number, R rate, currently 2.4, needed to be brought down below 1.

Then at the very bottom of this page, a discussion about behavioural control measures, so restrictions of mass gatherings likely to reduce infection-related deaths by 2% whereas self-isolation have a greater impact, likely to reduce deaths by 11%.

Then, please, if we can turn over the page.

Page 3, paragraph 12, you are told:

“Any of the measures listed … [Document read] … by some degree.”

Then later on, we don’t need to go to it, page 7, it lists all of the behavioural and social interventions that were examined by Neil Ferguson.

So following that briefing, you knew that there was exponential growth in infection numbers, and urgent action was required to bring the – control the spread of the virus, delay the peak, reduce the number of deaths.

In your capacity as minister for health and social care, what was your plan at this stage, 11 March, to respond to the virus?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So our plan was to try to make choices with other nations in the UK to address the challenging advice we’re having, not just in the TAC report but of course SAGE advice. The TAC reports at the time were Welsh advice taking on board the advice that SAGE had already given and the papers that were published, so I think when we’re in COBR meetings essentially the same points are being made.

So we then have a challenge about what we’re going to do and that’s, we go back to your previous questions around non-pharmaceutical interventions, and those are things that we were actively considering, and we did eventually then go on to have another discussion on 12 March at COBR that went through those again.

So I’m clear that Covid is here, and it’s going to grow, without interventions, and it’s going to grow to a size and shape quite quickly where the NHS can be overwhelmed with significant harm, so actually you have to do something, it’s about the what and the when. And so this is a discussion saying “here’s a range of interventions you could do”, and this is getting us ready for the choices we need to make. And our plan is to try to make those choices together with the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive as well, which is what we did and, you know, the meeting the next day was about going to do that.

And there was a genuine – I think a fairly lively discussion about the advice that SAGE and Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty were giving to the UK at that time, which was about how far and how quickly can we go. In the end, the advice was significant and there was a response, but it didn’t prevent the rapid growth of Covid at this point in March.

Lady Hallett: So the answer to Mr Poole’s question was the plan was to await a mutually agreed decision between the UK Government and the devolved nations?

Mr Vaughan Gething: But – yeah, the plan was: we know these interventions are being advised, we’re certain that this is the advice the UK Government is getting as well, because it’s come from SAGE, and we want to meet to agree on what those things are going to be done. Apart from anything, of course, given Mr Poole’s previous questions, we thought that these interventions would require UK Government action for a number of them to happen, and in the end we actually then took – we did this through public health powers.

So we’re still trying to make sure that we don’t have different voices advising different things in different parts of the UK, and we want to be able to do this together to have the maximum effect. And that was the plan, but we knew we were discussing taking some of these measures in the very near future, not just discussing but then having to make those choices.

Mr Poole: Mr Gething, perhaps to illustrate the point that I think you were making then, and these questions of what and when, in the context of mass gatherings, you say in your witness statement – it’s paragraph 195 – you say there was no power to force – the Welsh Government had no power to forcibly close.

Now, I take it from your statement that your understanding then at this time, this is 12/13 March, is that the Welsh Government didn’t have a legal power to ban mass gatherings; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: That was our understanding. And of course we found through public health powers that we did, depending on the nature of the public health emergency we’re facing.

Lead 2B: Can we have a look at the COBR meeting that you referred to a moment ago, so this is the 12 March meeting.

It’s INQ000056221.

If we can have a look at page 5, first paragraph, please, so we see there the Government Chief Scientific Adviser gave a situation update, said the number of cases in the UK is increasing, estimated 5,000-10,000 cases in the UK. You’re told numbers would increase quickly and SAGE advice was that UK was approximately our weeks behind Italy and expected the UK to follow a similar trajectory.

If we could have a look, please, at paragraph 3. The Chief Scientific Adviser outlined SAGE recommended best approach would be to implement option 1, so namely individuals staying at home for seven days from the point of displaying mild symptoms, potentially option 2, so that’s household isolation for 14 days, and might want to recommend reduction of social contact by the over 70s.

Now, there’s a SAGE presentation paper – yes, let’s look at that together, actually.

So it’s INQ000056209.

If we could have a look at page 6, please, this page is entitled “What would be the effect on the NHS of interventions?” And we see on the right-hand side “Graph A: no measures”, and below it “Graph B: measures 1&2”, so that’s 7-day isolation and household isolation. So in both graphs the red line, that’s “Freeable beds”, and the black line, “Total NHS beds”, they make it plain, don’t they, that whatever was done, so either unmitigated or mitigated through those two measures, the NHS would be massively overwhelmed?

Mr Vaughan Gething: That’s correct.

Lead 2B: Do you think at this point, so this is the – going back to the COBR meeting, when you’re presented with this, did you think, well, hang on, what can be done to bring the peak below the black or the red lines? Why are we only discussing these relatively modest measures which might be imposed this week, they might be imposed next week? Wasn’t more sense of urgency required?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, I think, with respect, that’s a question from the perspective of hindsight, not where we were at that time. So at the time we have these graphs, at the time we have the growth of Covid through the UK, but the two suggested interventions are not modest at that point in time, because this hasn’t happened before, there hasn’t been a nationwide directive telling people with symptoms that look and feel a lot like a common cold to stay at home. So actually this is really quite significant.

The challenge is the understanding that you’re going to need to do at least this and you’re probably going to have to do more. And that was certainly my understanding coming through the meeting. So when we looked at the four options that were provided to us, and it was very hard to think you’re not going to have to do all four of them, but actually one of those was large gatherings and that’s where we did have lots of debate at the time focused on that, without thinking about the three more significant interventions, which I think would have been more helpful.

But we had the discussion in the meeting and afterwards, we tried to agree what we were going to do, and there was an agreed position across the four nations on mass gatherings, and that then fell apart within a day or two after the meeting. And I think that’s because of the incoherence, as the public saw it, of talking about significant intervention in other parts of your life but you can still go out to a large gathering. That’s what scientific advice was at the time. But it – as with a number other things, you have to deal with the reality of how people react.

Lead 2B: Let’s just explore that, because I think you said there was an agreed position across the four nations on the mass gatherings, so let’s just go back to those COBR minutes we were looking at.

It’s INQ000056221, please.

We’re on the fifth page, and the fifth paragraph, and third bullet point. So it’s noted here that:

“The hardest intervention to call was … [Document read] … for outdoor events.”

Although the scientific evidence might not have been there to cancel gatherings, we go back to those minutes we looked at from the Covid core group of the previous day. You had been told that restricting mass gatherings could reduce infection-related deaths by 2%. You knew that, yes?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah.

Lead 2B: If we go over the page in these minutes, page 6, and I think it’s the ninth bullet point, it starts:

“… Scottish Government was minded to advise against gatherings … [Document read] … response to [the pandemic].”

Then further down the bullet point list:

“… public had not grasped … [Document read] … self-isolation and mass gatherings …”

Thank you.

“Cancelling mass gatherings may positively impact on people’s behaviours.”

I think that’s three bullet points up from the bottom, we see that.

Then if we go to page 8, we can see the sort of summary of the conclusion reached at this meeting, page 8, paragraph 15, please.

So I think I’m right in saying so the UK Government took the decision not to prohibit mass gatherings at this stage, but it is noted here that the Prime Minister respects the Scottish Government’s decision to cancel mass gatherings to manage pressure on emergency responders.

Now, I mean, I suppose the first question, do you agree that advising against or banning mass gatherings so that public emergency services are not displaced, that seems to be a pragmatic approach?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes. I think there are two perspectives here, aren’t there? There’s the pragmatic approach of: do you want emergency services dealing with mass gatherings or not? And then there’s whether there’s a scientific rationale that underpins you should ban gatherings now.

And it goes back to your earlier questions of the timing of interventions as well, at what points you do things, and whether all those things stick. And that is part of the framing of all of the conversations we had.

And it was hard, having the advice that there is no scientific or clinical medical reason to ban gatherings, and understanding that will look incoherent, and, you know, that’s exactly what we found ourselves.

Lead 2B: You say there are two perspectives here, perhaps I can suggest a third perspective? Would not advising against or banning public gatherings, mass gatherings of more than 500 people send a message to the people of Wales that: there were terribly difficult times ahead, impossible choices to be made, you need to start taking this seriously?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes. It would have helped to send that message.

What we actually did on the 13th, because it was the 13th when we turned off lots of regular NHS activity, I think that was an even bigger message, but that highlighted the challenge of so the NHS is going to stop doing normal activity but we can still go to the rugby. And actually I think that is one of the things that would have been difficult.

So at the time, with the advice – and if you’re saying we’re going to follow the science, be led by it, that’s the advice we had. Actually, and I think in hindsight, it is a reflection that, from that meeting, if we had all agreed that mass gatherings weren’t going to go ahead, it would have been a really clear signal. And of course people were reacting around us. I think football had gone ahead of others.

So yes, I recognise, as I think others do as well, that if you had your time again in hindsight the message on mass gatherings is really important as a behavioural signal for the scale of the choices that lie ahead of us.

Lead 2B: Do you recall a conversation between yourself, Dr Robin Howe, who was the incident director and professional lead consultant in microbiology, and Dr Tracey Cooper, who is chief executive of Public Health Wales, a conversation with you on 13 March about the Wales and Scotland rugby match that was due to take place the following day on the 14th?

The Inquiry has heard evidence that Public Health Wales expressed significant concerns about the match going ahead and recommended that the match be postponed or cancelled. Is that your recollection of that conversation?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Not entirely. I think that formalises it in the way that that’s not the conversation that I recall taking place. I do recall them saying that they thought it would be sensible for the match not to go ahead and I told them about the advice that we’d had and that we were going through with SAGE and about where we were and that it was difficult.

In the end, of course, the WRU cancelled the event – and again, this is one of those learning points about at what point in time you take different measures, not just for the scientific advice but the behavioural signal that it sends. So I think the characterisation you read out is not one that I share, but there was a conversation, I do recall Public Health Wales saying that they thought actually they’d prefer it if the match didn’t go ahead.

Lead 2B: The Welsh Rugby Union had in fact, we know, approached the Welsh Government and asked for a conversation about whether or not the match should go ahead. As you’ve just said, they were left to cancel the match themselves. They did that at lunch time on 13 March, by which time 20,000 Scottish rugby fans had travelled from Scotland to Cardiff. And Mr Davies of the Welsh Rugby Union, his evidence to the Inquiry is that it would have been reckless to allow the match to proceed. And yet, as I understand it, that was a match that you and your family would have gone to had it not been cancelled.

Do you agree with him that it would have been reckless for that match to have proceeded?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I think at the time this gets back into the advice is that there is no scientific reason to cancel the game. And that’s clear, it’s in the advice that’s there at the time in more than one source.

I’d been asked previously whether I was going to the game and I’d said yes, and if I’m saying there’s no reason for this game not to go ahead and for people not to go, I can’t then say, “But actually my family isn’t going, I’ve made that decision”. You know, you’re in a position that would be utterly impossible. You can’t be a minister who stands up and says “This is the advice I’ve had, this is why I’m saying this to the country, but personally I’m going to do something entirely different”. It’s like, you know, trying to advertise a vaccination campaign but then refusing to have the vaccine yourself. You couldn’t do it. And yet what happened was everything changed around us in a really rapid manner.

So that was the advice, a decision’s made, and you then have to explain to the public what you’re doing next and why. And you can see it changed by 16 March. There was an agreement this shouldn’t go ahead and mass gatherings, I think, wouldn’t take place.

Lead 2B: You say “everything changed around us”, but on 12 March – so this is a day before you have the conversation with Public Health Wales – two Six Nations rugby matches are cancelled, Wales’ football match against the USA later in the month was cancelled, Premier League was put on hold until April, and the annual Welsh Labour conference, due to take place in Llandudno at the end of March, that was postponed. So those decisions had been taken.

You’d been at a COBR meeting where you’d been told that the Scottish Government had taken a decision to ban mass gatherings of more than 500 people for the reasons we’ve discussed. Was it really fair to leave the decision in the hands of the Welsh Rugby Union? Could it be said that that was an abdication of responsibility on the Welsh Government’s part? Should you not have passed on all of that information to the Welsh Rugby Union if you were going to leave the decision-making to them?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So, as I say, we’d had the scientific advice that says – concluded there wasn’t a rationale to advise governments to cancel those events. We’d also then had – not just a call from the Welsh Rugby Union, I’d spoken to the chair and I’d arranged for the chair to have a direct conversation with the Chief Medical Officer as well. So I don’t think it’s correct to characterise it as the WRU were left on their own, because there had been a direct conversation with the CMO about the advice that was there wasn’t a rationale to do it.

And I think, with respect, counsel, the event in the rugby stadium is different to an indoor conference, and an indoor conference to be taking place both in terms of transmission but also, frankly, can you imagine if we had trooped every Welsh Labour minister to a party political event over a weekend when we’re just about to make more announcements, for example, about what the NHS can and can’t do? I don’t think that would have been tenable.

Lead 2B: But that is one example, isn’t it, and I take your point an indoor conference is different, but we have two other rugby matches and Six Nations cancelled, an international football match cancelled and the Premier League, all outdoor events, put on hold?

Mr Vaughan Gething: And different sporting bodies had made different choices, and that was part of the reason why it was such a lively discussion in COBR, because large sporting events have an unusually significant cultural impact and about what people see and do, and that’s also why I recognise that, in hindsight, saying those things can’t go ahead is a hugely important behavioural signal. But the advice we had, about actually there isn’t a clinical reason to do this and it’s not an intervention that we recommend you take now, was the advice that we had.

And again, you look back and it’s one of the choices that I do think I would have made differently, and that is the value and the benefit of hindsight, looking at where we are now.

Lady Hallett: Mr Gething, as I’m sure you know, I’ve had a fair bit of evidence about following the science and the impact of that particular mantra. What concerns me is that when a politician or a decision-maker like you says “We were following the science”, you are essentially saying the scientist is taking the decision.

Now, as a politician, a decision-maker, you have to balance a number of factor, don’t you? It’s not just the scientific advice. And in fact you did have some advice that said a reduction of 2% in mortality, so that’s quite a few deaths you might save. So do you not accept that it’s not a question – do you accept that it’s not just a question of following the science, but of balancing a number of factors?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Indeed. And I’ve never tried to avoid my responsibility for making choices, because the choices were choices of ministers. The challenge here is when you have advice that says “We don’t think you should do this now and we don’t think there’s a scientific justification for doing it, you’ve then got to have another rationale saying, “Well, actually, I think there are more considerations to do it”. And so that is the choice, and that was a choice we made at the time. In hindsight, I think we’d do that differently.

Now, I’m clear, I think that’s the view of not just Dr Atherton but Dr Whitty as well, and others, so that’s their advice, but whatever happens – and even if their advice was to ban mass gatherings, it would still be my choice, the First Minister’s choice, about whether to do that or not. So those are the things that you do have to balance all the way through this.

The mass gatherings issue I understand why it’s significant, particularly because the highlight of the rugby game and what happened on that weekend, and then what happened literally at the end of that weekend as well and the pace of events. So it’s uncomfortable and in all of the awkward choices we made that is definitely one that jars and I recognise that.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Poole: Just before we leave 13 March, we heard evidence from Dr Tracey Cooper last week, and she said it was only when you visited Public Health Wales’ offices and the National Contact Centre on 13 March and saw, her words, half of a very large office filled with people wearing high-vis jackets and whiteboards with tens of people’s contact initials and numbers on that she thought that the pandemic suddenly became more tangible for you. And she told the Inquiry that was the challenge, that ministers were effectively distanced from it to an extent because it wasn’t palpable to them until 13 March.

Do you have any comments on Dr Cooper’s evidence?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, that’s Dr Cooper’s, it’s certainly not mine.

From – images in Italy were the ones that really visibly drove home the extent of what could happen, and the reason for that is northern Italy, as part of a wealthy nation – it’s the wealthiest part of Italy, it’s got a highly developed First World health and care system, Italy was being overwhelmed, when you go through the end of February and into March. And so actually for me, seeing that, that was both what could happen here, and that’s harm to people, you know, seeing images of people in corridors, but also, you know that there is more harm then in a community that isn’t in that hospital and you know there’s direct harm for your staff who are seeing that and trying to treat people in that.

Staff who go through experiences like that, many of them don’t end up staying in the service, and it’s because of the harm that is done to them that is, you know, health and wellbeing harm that is not just physical harm that might come. So actually for me, by the time I saw Dr Cooper, I was well aware that we were facing something real and significant. And of course by then I’d already asked for advice on what we’re going to do around the whole system, and I knew that if I was going to make the announcement that I did make later on that day, that is a significant intervention no other health minister has ever stood up in front of a camera and said “Large parts of your normal NHS are not going to be available within the next few days because something else is going to happen”.

Lead 2B: Now I want to change topic and perhaps introduce a topic that we won’t quite finish before the break, this hospital discharge and care homes.

On 13 March you made a public statement, you’ve alluded to it already, announcing a framework of actions. Now, that framework included measures such as the suspension of non-urgent outpatient and surgical care in Wales, as I think you’ve said, but it also directed that the discharge of vulnerable patients from acute and community hospitals should be expedited.

Now, the Inquiry obviously understands the purpose of those measures, they were to maximise the number of hospital beds available to support a potential surge in demand, and expediting the discharge of vulnerable patients from hospitals into care homes you would accept, though, presented a clear risk that had to be managed; yes?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Undoubtedly.

Lead 2B: I just want to explore then your understanding of that risk, how it was managed and whether, ultimately, you think it could have been managed better.

Social care is obviously part of your – or was, when you were health minister, part of your departmental responsibility; yes?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Correct.

Lead 2B: In Module 1 you were asked some questions about the social care sector, I think in the context of pandemic preparedness, and you agreed that one of the major problems facing the Welsh Government, and you say identified as far back Operation Taliesin and Operation Cygnus, was that it wasn’t possible to collate an accurate picture of social care capacity because much of the capacity lay with private providers.

Would it be fair to say that that was the position when the pandemic hit in January 2020?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, that’s correct.

Lead 2B: Now, in terms of the risk posed to those in care homes, there are three ways, aren’t there, in which the virus can enter a care home: visitors, staff, residents.

We know that visitors were stopped from entering care homes early in the pandemic, so that leaves staff coming into work or new residents, usually from hospital discharges.

Given the growing number of infections in Welsh hospitals throughout March and April, would you agree that new or returning residents discharged from hospitals presented a significant risk to vulnerable care home residents?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So of course there was a risk with anyone moving around in the community, and the risk is there in care homes, which is why there had been advice around infection prevention and control. And infection prevention and control is a real issue for the care sector in any event because of the vulnerable population. So it’s why the flu season is such a challenge. And it’s why there are supposed to be measures in place in every commissioned care home around infection prevention and control.

And that risk is there to be managed, as is the risk in a hospital, and as is the risk in the community. So I think the difficulty is, if you see it only as a self-contained issue, that can tell you something about what you can do within that setting. It can’t tell you the full picture about all the risks you need to be able to see and to manage. So yes, we understood there are risks and then it’s practically what you then do about them.

Lead 2B: The Inquiry has heard evidence that the best way to mitigate the risk of infection, to use the words of the WHO, is test, test, test. Now, up until 29 April, Welsh Government policy was to only test those being discharged if they displayed symptoms, and we know that on 29 April that policy changed to test regardless of symptoms being displayed.

Now, that was some two weeks after that policy change had been introduced in England. You say in your witness statement, it’s paragraph 493, that at the time of your announcement of the framework of actions, so 13 March, the testing of asymptomatic patients being discharged from hospital was not discussed with you. You say that this was something that was brought to your attention later and advice changed over time as the understanding about asymptomatic transmission changed. Is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes.

Mr Poole: Now I want to explore your understanding at the time about asymptomatic transmission and how that influenced decision-making. But as that’s a slight change in topic, that might be an appropriate point.

Lady Hallett: Yes, of course. 1.45, please.

Mr Gething, I think you know that we have to take – well, we have a lunch break anyway, but we will, I promise, complete your evidence today.

The Witness: Thank you.

(12.42 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(1.45 pm)

Lady Hallett: Mr Poole.

Mr Poole: Mr Gething, some questions then about asymptomatic transmission. What I would like to do is start with some questions just to establish what you were told or what you were not told, and we start on 28 January 2020. It’s a meeting between the former Secretary of State for Health, Mr Hancock, and the CMO.

We’ve got it there, it’s INQ000233747. If we could have a look at page 2, in the second bullet point, please:

“The CMO commented that today’s date would appear slightly less reassuring than yesterday’s but the positive is there’s been no sustained transmission outside of China.”

Then if we can go to the ninth bullet point, please, on that page:

“CMO commented that there is now credible evidence of asymptomatic transmissions within Germany.”

Was that information, information that was brought to your attention at that point in time?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So what’s the date of this?

Lead 2B: This is 28 January.

Mr Vaughan Gething: No. No, 28 January asymptomatic transmission in Germany?

Lead 2B: Yes.

Mr Vaughan Gething: No.

Lead 2B: If we could have a look, please, at the fourth – actually we don’t need to look at it – it’s 4 February, so a few days after this. It’s a SAGE meeting. There were no representatives from Wales. The minutes of that meeting note asymptomatic transmission cannot be ruled out and transmission from mildly symptomatic individuals is likely.

So do you recall in early February, that was a SAGE meeting on 4 February, do you recall being advised that asymptomatic transmission could not be ruled out at that stage?

Mr Vaughan Gething: My recollection is that that was a discussion, asymptomatic couldn’t be ruled out, it wasn’t usual in a coronavirus but actually the people who were symptomatic were likely to be infectious, yes.

Lead 2B: If we move through to 21 February, there was a NERVTAG meeting of that date. Again, I don’t need the minutes pulled up. The minutes record John Edmunds reporting that 40% of virologically confirmed cases are asymptomatic.

Again, were you made aware at that stage – this is 21 February NERVTAG meeting – that there was evidence of 40% of confirmed Covid cases being asymptomatic?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I can’t remember the exact time, but I do recall that through February there was evidence that people could have Covid and not have symptoms, as opposed to be asymptomatic and be infectious as well. I think Dr Orford went through the distinction with you as well.

Lead 2B: You would have recalled at the time there was the cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, which showed very significant asymptomatic transmission. You were aware of that at around this time, 21 February; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I think the Diamond Princess, again, it’s the distinction between transmission and people who have Covid but don’t have symptoms. So yes, I think this was discussed in a COBR meeting that the Diamond Princess, there were a number of people who had Covid but didn’t have symptoms. And again that’s distinct from whether you can be infectious and give Covid to other people without symptoms and that was a distinction where there still wasn’t certainty about that at that point in time.

Lead 2B: If we have a look, please, on 15 March, there is a paper published online, it’s INQ000312305. If we can have a look at the abstract on page 2, we observed, yes, so reading from the third line:

“We observed the highest viral load … [Document read] … probable substantial pre-symptomatic transmission.”

Mr Collins has provided, so that’s evidence to the Inquiry, stating that he – so this is Brendan Collins – he is not in fact aware of a time when he thought that there was not any asymptomatic transmission. Were you aware of this paper and this 44% of transmission could occur before the first symptoms of the disease?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I wasn’t aware of this paper at the time. We were aware, as I say, of the possibility of asymptomatic transmission, without having confirmed evidence, or indeed about how likely transmission was in people who were asymptomatic as opposed to pre-symptomatic, so all of those distinctions and uncertainties were there.

Lead 2B: If we have a look at a further paper, it’s a paper, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, it’s 27 March. It’s INQ000224063. So this CDC paper, it’s a study that looked at asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic Covid-19 infections in residents of a long-term nursing facility.

If we can have a look, please, at page 2, it’s the box in the left-hand corner:

“What is already known …

“Once Covid is introduced into a long-term nursing facility, rapid transmission can occur.”

And what is added by this report, we see there:

“76 of 82 residents were tested. Approximately half of those with a positive test were asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic on the day of testing.”

Then if we can have a look, if we can zoom out but zoom into the right-hand column on this page, it’s just under where we see “discussion”. It’s about five lines down starting “Approximately”:

“Approximately half of all residents … [Document read] … diagnosis and contributing to transmission at 6 to 8.”

If we can look nine lines up from the bottom of that last paragraph there:

“Although these findings do not … [Document read] … symptom status groups.”

Now, this is the report that Mr Hancock described in his evidence to the Inquiry in Module 2 as changing the scientific evidence that underpinned the policy advice in the UK.

First question: were you aware of this report? So this is 27 March 2020.

Mr Vaughan Gething: Not on 27 March 2020, no. I think the document I have in front of me is dated 3 April. But I recognise that the evidence was changing and firming up and moving around. That’s the challenge in all of this as a decision-maker. You’ve got evidence that something might happen without being clear about the extent to which it could happen.

I think the World Health Organisation issued a note on 2 April saying that there was no evidence of asymptomatic transmission. Then the CDC, I think relying on this – it might be this report actually – then said that they think asymptomatic transmission is real and should be assumed. So, you know, you’re left with entirely different conclusions on the same subject, which is not helpful.

Lead 2B: Now, the Inquiry heard evidence from Mr Hancock in Module 2 that he said his single greatest regret was not pushing harder for asymptomatic transmission to be the baseline assumption. Is that a regret that you share?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Again, my view is that that – a significant piece of hindsight that you then need to work through to understand what does that do in terms of changing how you deal with a novel virus, because no – if you know from the outset asymptomatic transmission is a significant factor, you’re still going to have to decide how to test and identify people with Covid, and how to then take effective infection prevention and control methods, or how big a group of the population do you assume have Covid. And the control measures themselves carry harm, of course. You know, isolation for people in care homes is not a benign intervention.

So, you know, that’s part of the challenge in all of this. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as “that’s your single biggest regret”. I think actually if you have greater testing capacity you can do a great deal more, and the place we ended up at the end of April into May could have been a real option if we’d had capacity and tests and the knowledge on asymptomatic transmission at the same time.

So I don’t think the puzzle is as simple as asymptomatic transmission and knowledge of that is the only thing you need to be aware of.

Lead 2B: On 16 April England introduced mandatory testing of all patients prior to discharge to a care home. We know that a day later, so 17 April, Public Health Wales wrote to you to express their support for a policy change in line with the UK Government. And then a few days later, 20 April, Public Health Wales produced plans to support mass testing and bring Wales in line with England.

It’s not until we get to 29 April that the Welsh Government changes its policy such that all patients being discharged from hospital to a care setting would be tested regardless of showing symptoms.

How do you account for the delay, the 13-day delay, between the policy change in England and the policy change in Wales?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I cover some of this in my statement from paragraph 496 onwards. So at that point in time, I set out that I ask about testing of care home residents and release from hospital. That’s an email that I send to Dr Orford and Dr Goodall, latterly picked up by Public Health Wales officials, and we do then get more advice. And it’s then, getting from that to then having the practical action of changing the policy as well.

And, again, it’s one of the areas where there wasn’t the sharing of information you’d have expected between Department of Health and others, so – you know, and again these things, you know, because lots of things are happening at the time, but if the same information had been shared with us instead of being announced, then I think we could have been in a different position.

What you then have to do is you’ve got to try and catch up with events, and I certainly do wish that we’d been able to move more speedily on not just changing our position but then in making sure that we had the testing ability to implement a new policy effectively, because that’s the point. If you say “we should be doing something different, we don’t have the tools to do it”, well, not having the means is a really significant problem and we eventually did get there.

Lead 2B: You have said in various public interviews that the Welsh Government could have made the decision to test all care home residents and staff earlier.

Now, given that there was clear evidence at the beginning of April that only testing those with symptoms missed up to half of care home infections, adopting a precautionary approach, should routine testing of all care home residents and all staff have been adopted in early April?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I don’t think we had the testing capacity to do it, and I think Chris Whitty has given the same evidence, and I think Dr Orford commented on this in his evidence too.

But if you want to say this is the policy, you then need to be able to do it as well. Actually, at that time, I don’t think we did have the testing capacity, and, again, I think Chris Whitty’s given this evidence, that actually the testing capacity at that point in time was needed for people with symptoms. And, again, you’re thinking about all the risk that exists across the population, for care home residents, for people in hospital, for people who need to get into hospital either from Covid or non-Covid or potential Covid harm. And so you’ve got to deploy your testing in a way that deals with the resource you’ve got in volume terms and to then prioritise it, and that’s the testing strategy or policy we had at the time, that of course Dr Orford authored initially, and that then moved to a new group officially but underwent rapid change and this was really difficult.

Lead 2B: You say – it’s paragraph 501 of your witness statement – there that the decision not to test all care home residents and staff was not a question of resource management but, as I understand your answer that you’ve just given, capacity and resource was in fact the reason that testing was not introduced earlier. Is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I think even – it was our relative understanding about the value and that’s what’s set out in the TAC paper. But even if our understanding had been further advanced and hardened, at that point, we still didn’t have the tests available. So if you recall – I certainly recall having gone through all of the decision-making discomfort and making changes in policy on a regular basis, but actually the growth in our testing capacity was a real issue through this time as well.

If we’d had both the knowledge, then actually it wouldn’t have been the testing capacity or the – it would have been the testing capacity itself, not the knowledge. The point I’m making in 501 is the evidence that was available to me and the advice I was getting wasn’t “you should do this if you have the capacity”, the evidence wasn’t there to say “you should definitely do this.” That wasn’t the advice that I was getting. But even if the knowledge did exist, at that point in time I don’t think we had the capacity for the tests. So we’d have had a policy for this that we couldn’t implement.

Lady Hallett: Forgive me for interrupting.

What did you mean in 501, “it wasn’t a question of resource management”? I’m sorry, I’d read that as it was a question of testing capacity. But what did you mean?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So what I’m trying to get over is that if the knowledge had existed at the point in time of setting it in 501, the knowledge and the advice there on testing all staff in the way we eventually did do, to have essentially blanket testing and then serial testing eventually too, that wasn’t where our understanding was, certainly not across my desk and the advice that I was getting.

However, if we’d had that advice, for example in the middle of April, that “actually you really should do this and our advice is definitely do it”, at that point in time we wouldn’t have been able to test all of our staff. So some people suggested this was just about not having access to tests and that’s why you didn’t do it. And actually the point I’m making is, well, actually, we weren’t being advised to do that anyway and we didn’t have the tests. But the first point was, if the advice isn’t there to do this, it doesn’t really about the resources.

But, you know, if we’d had the advice and the tests, then we’d have done it. If we’d had the advice in a clear – stating “this is what you should do”, in early and mid-April we didn’t have the tests to do that.

Is that clear? I’m not after making confusion. There’s two distinct –

Lady Hallett: Should the statement read, instead of reading, “At the time it wasn’t a question of resource management”, should it read, “At the time it was a question of resource management but more it was a question of our understanding of the position”? Is that what you’re saying?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I’m saying it was our understanding of the position of the relative value(?) of testing all those people as set out in the Technical Cell paper. That’s the reason why the policy position didn’t move. But if the policy position had been at that point “You should do this”, I don’t think we’d have had the resources to deal with it.

So, for example, if, as Mr Poole is suggesting, that we all should have known and that was the advice that came to me, for the sake of argument, if it came to me on 16 April and the policy position had shifted then, I think when you look at the testing capacity we had on 6 April we couldn’t have delivered that policy. So actually each week of increasing testing capacity was really important to be able to deliver against the position that we reached, because in England as well they had this challenge of announcing a policy that they couldn’t then implement as well, that the capacity for testing still needed to grow to deliver against the policy position itself.

Mr Poole: We return to the chronology. So we’re now around mid-March, and the Inquiry has received evidence in Module 2 that over the weekend, 14 and 15 March, the UK Government took what may be considered to be a significant change of direction. So evidence being received that a body of scientific material by that stage had built up from a variety of sources, officials at SAGE had been asked by Professor Ferguson what an epidemic with 4,000 deaths a day looks like, and there was much more data by that weekend on the likely impact on the NHS.

That change in direction was communicated to you at a COBR meeting on 16 March. If we can have – it’s INQ000056210, thank you. I suppose, just clearing this one thing up, I think from those attendance records it doesn’t confirm your attendance but I think in your witness statement you do confirm that you attended; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, correct.

Lead 2B: If we have a look at page 4, please, first paragraph. We have there Sir Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty:

“… told the meeting that the UK was on the cusp of the fast upward swing of infections. There had been 35 confirmed deaths in the UK, including the first Covid 19-related death in Wales that day.”

Then if we have a look at paragraph 2, the proposed intervention measures outlined there were agreed upon at this COBR meeting.

Now, those intervention measures would obviously have a significant economic and also social impact when they’re introduced in Wales. Were you satisfied that there had been proper consideration by the Welsh Government of implementing these proposed intervention measures?

I suppose what I have in mind specifically is, as I spoke about earlier, the demographic characteristics of the Welsh population, so the impact on the elderly, the impact on the vulnerable.

Mr Vaughan Gething: So, yes, there was – there had been about a proper consideration of the fact that if the virus is growing significantly as it is, and if we know that our population is vulnerable, then needing to act and, as we went through before the break, understanding the evidence picture on the 12th and 13th going into COBR on the 16th, even in that few days the evidence picture has hardened on the need to do more.

So yes, I was clear that we’d need to do that to prevent really direct harm but then understanding the full suite of what that means for all the indirect harms, lives and livelihoods and everything around those, then I think it would be dishonest to try to claim that everything around that had been fully worked through, because the picture’s moving really fast and, by then, the Treasury hadn’t got through to doing, for example, understanding what furlough’s going to look and how that’s going to look.

I don’t want to give you a misleading answer, Mr Poole. So, yes, I understood very clearly, as did the First Minister, Covid was growing, it’s an even bigger problem than it was the other side of the weekend, and we need to do this, and we’re signed up to taking measure together to do it and that gives us the best prospect of protecting people here and indeed across the rest of the UK.

Lead 2B: If we can look at another set of minutes now, these are Covid-19 core group minutes from a meeting on 18 March, so a few days later. It’s INQ000215172. Looking at paragraph 1, Dr Atherton advised that the virus was probably circulating in the community, 136 cases reported in Wales, two recorded fatalities.

If we have a look at paragraph 3, Dr Orford advising:

“… modelling suggested that the UK was four weeks into the curve … expected to be another 11 weeks before the spread of the peaked, whereas the NHS in Wales was four to five weeks away from maximum capacity.”

So just pausing there, you were aware obviously at this stage of the need to act urgently to stop the NHS in Wales being overwhelmed; correct?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Absolutely.

Lead 2B: If we turn over the page, page 2, and have a look at some paragraphs there, starting at paragraph 11 dealing with schools, there’s a discussion about the policy on school closures and it’s noted here that SAGE was in the process of updating its advice for COBR. So this is 18 March.

Have a look at paragraph 13, please. There’s recognition here that once schools were closed, unlikely they’d re-open until the autumn term, so impact on exams would need to be considered.

Now, we know that the decision was taken to close schools in Wales early for Easter this day, so on 18 March, and that was announced by Kirsty Williams, the then education minister. Ms Williams says in her witness statement that on 16 March, there was another COBR meeting in which COBR maintained its previous position that schools should not be closed immediately and were crucial for maintaining frontline workforce. And she then goes on in her witness statement to say:

“Even at 4 pm on 17 March [so the day before this meeting we’re looking at] the Welsh Government was still working on the assumption that the best thing to do would be to keep schools open.”

Are you able to help us understand how the position changed so rapidly since COBR on 16 March are still looking at the position, keeping schools open; Welsh Government, working assumption the day before this meeting, best thing to do would be to keep schools open; and then we have the announcement made on 18 March that in fact schools are going to close early?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So what happened was the pace of events taking place. So we had the understanding that schools are part of transmission because, you know, people are moving around and mixing, whether it’s a primary school and a school gate conversation, or whether it’s actually the fact that adults who are out and going doing other things will often go and see other people after that as well.

There’s the unknown role of older adults, and older children in particular, and their possible role in transmission. So all these things are unknown.

What we do know is, and it’s noted in the minutes, that if schools close it will be difficult to re-open them. You’ve got to rebuild confidence, you’ve got to possibly think about new ways of teaching and learning, and we wanted to keep schools open. The things that are highlighted later on, both the impact on children’s learning and outcomes but also, as I pointed out regularly in my statement, that home isn’t a safe place for every adult and home isn’t a safe place for every child. Having your children in school means there’s greater visibility of what’s happening. So there’s a real safeguarding issue about having schools open.

What happened was you had some schools closing because they had staff who were isolating, in accordance with our advice, having symptoms and isolating. So some schools couldn’t stay open because they didn’t have the staff to staff them. In other schools there was a growing group of parents who were anxious and were fearful for their children, which was, you know, quite a rational thing for a parent to consider: is my child better off at home or better in school?

So all of those things were happening and we found that local authorities, from the conversations we were having with them – I say “we” in the government sense – to then reaching an agreed position at WLJ leadership level – I think every now and again the leader of the WLJ is described as the Chair, it’s the leader, Andrew Morgan – and those conversations with the education (inaudible) agreeing that we should try to keep schools open. And then you find individual schools, and then some local authorities, break from the pack and what we were finding was a disorderly closing of schools and some authorities were acting.

So, again, this is the pace of events. From the 16th to the 18th, it wasn’t tenable to try to keep schools open. So to bring about an orderly conclusion, the decision was made which I think was the right decision at the time and I still, looking back, think taking that decision then was the right thing to do in those circumstances. But it is one of my regrets that we couldn’t keep schools open for longer. Some of that is what we know at the time; an awful lot is what we subsequently learned about harm for children and young people’s prospects for the future.

Lead 2B: You attended a COBR meeting on 20 March. We don’t need the minutes to be brought up. There was discussion at that meeting about additional social distancing measures, so such as closing restaurants, bars, theatres, cinema, non-essential retail.

You say in your witness statement – this is paragraph 221 – that you agreed with these measures and wanted to see them introduced that night.

I suppose my question is this: given that there had been substantial reductions by voluntary means at this stage and measures had already been introduced, did you consider waiting and allowing more time to see if those measures that had been introduced on 16 March would take effect and those measures alone would bring the R rate below 1?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I think the evidence was clear, in the modelling that came from SAGE, in the evidence of our chief – no, in the advice that our Chief Medical Officer had given. And indeed Chris Whitty in opening the COBR meeting, when he was asked to speak, was pretty clear that all the things that we had done were not going to stop the growth of Covid at that point and more significant measures were needed. There was a discussion about that. Then when there was a group(?) That something else needed to be done, there was then a discussion about the timing of it, which is what I set out in 221, and I was very clear that we needed to act as soon as possible, and that’s what the overall conclusion was.

Lead 2B: Now, we know that that evening, 20 March, the First Minister announced that the Welsh Government would use public health powers to close restaurants, pubs, bars and other facilities.

The day after, Saturday 21 March, I think Welsh Government were told that there was going to be a COBR meeting but that didn’t in fact go ahead.

22 March, Dr Atherton confirmed another seven Covid-related deaths in Wales. That took the total number to 12. I think I’m right in saying, this is Sunday 22 March, that afternoon you had a meeting with the First Minister, and we can see an email setting out a number of action points following that discussion. It’s INQ000336319. So we can see at the bottom of that page, yes:

“As discussed with the First Minister And Minister for Health and Social Services this afternoon …”

Can we have a look, please, page 2, and I think it’s the final, final action point, yes:

“Lockdown plan – Reg [that’s Reg Kilpatrick] and team to prepare first cut so we are ready either to respond to UK Government or move separately.”

Would I be right to assume that at this stage, 22 March, there was no lockdown plan and what was being suggested here is that Reg Kilpatrick and his team would go away and do a first cut of that plan?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah, I think a first cut to come back to us, because we had thought that we’d be going to a COBR the day before, and a lockdown choice would be likely made there, and then it didn’t happen, and so, you know, part of our concern was whether with all of the evidence around increasing harm and the extraordinary things that were happening in that week, that we might get another week of not making a decision.

And this is more about the Prime Minister’s willingness to take the steps required, and so when you think back, well, if we were going to do this ourselves, bearing in mind the conversations we had before the break around the balance of who would take measures and action, what would that look like? So we did have a meeting with a number of ministers and I think one of the chief constables – I think it was the then Chief Constable of South Wales Police – around if we were to do this, what would it look like?

It’s again a really uncomfortable conversation because you want to go together with all four nations because that then brings everyone with you. And, you know, so that was definitely what we wanted to do, we had to prepare, well, actually if that didn’t happen, what could do we? What powers do we have? How fast could we move and what would it look like?

So that was it. We had a meeting and then we had COBR and, of course, we reached the agreement that we did on 23 March with COBR.

Lead 2B: Just returning to this – and I hear what you say about the reasons why a plan had not been put in place by the Welsh Government at this stage, and that’s because you thought that the UK Government was going to be leading on this and you thought there was going to be a COBR meeting on the day before – but just to be clear, prior to this meeting, there was not a plan put together by the Welsh Government of what a national lockdown in Wales would look like; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Not as a separate entity from what happened across the UK. So from the 20th, if you recall, there are significant measures outlined on the 20th on the back of significant measures on the 16th. So all of the practical points about getting ready – I forget whether it was the 16th or a previous meeting we talked about shielding – getting ready all the data and info, there’s lots of practical things to do and, you know, we would have to do those even if it was going to be a UK Government-led approach in terms of legislative powers.

So we know there’s lots we need to do and as we then get to the 20th and, you know, it’s going to be public health-based powers, not something else, we then need to think about how do we exercise those powers and then thinking, that we’re going to make a joint decision on the 22nd and that not happening, it’s then we’ve got to have a more formulated plan about what we do if we have to make all of those decisions rather than make those choices together, as well as the very practical things we need to do around supporting of vulnerable people.

Lead 2B: Now, as we all know, the decision to lock down was made on 23 March, announced that evening by Mr Johnson and then the First Ministers in the devolved administrations. I just want to examine the decision-making of that day, who actually made the decision and rationale for that decision.

If I can start, there’s a Welsh Cabinet meeting on the 23rd which you attended. We don’t need the minutes displayed. The First Minister advised Cabinet that you discussed a number of issues following emerging advice from SAGE on the rate of transmission. I’m right, though, there was no discussion at that Cabinet meeting about imposing a mandatory stay-at-home order in Wales, was there?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I don’t recall that we did have that discussion. What I do think happened, though, is we had discussed about the measures that we’d taken and whether we need to go further, and actually we had already had discussions around whether something like lockdown would be needed, because that was a familiar phrase by then. Something that no one had really discussed a few weeks before was now being talked about quite commonly, not just within the Government, but of course you’ll recall because you lived it through, Mr Poole, in the wider public the phrase “lockdown” had entered, you know, the public lexicon and that was because of what was happening in Europe. It was actually seeing that and seeing our own cases rise and the fact that there didn’t appear to be another answer. So it had moved from might this happen to, I think, when would this happen and how would it be done, but we didn’t have a specific discussion, if you like around, deliberately making a choice at COBR that would then be implemented. But ministers understood plainly what was happening around it.

Lead 2B: There was a TAC briefing that’s dated 23 March. Let’s identify it and then see if this was discussed at Cabinet. It’s INQ000312930. Do you recall whether this TAC briefing was discussed at that Cabinet meeting or indeed before the COBR meeting that took place later this day on 23 March?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I can’t recall exactly, but I do think this was available to us before COBR, because of what it sets out and where we were. So my view was that we were going to need to do something and the exercise we’d been through earlier in that day, I think, I think it was on the same day, was about what we would do if we didn’t get four nation agreement. So this is advice telling us all these things are happening around you and to the public, you need to make some choices. And the recommendations I think are pretty clear, and there’s the SAGE assessments in here as well.

Lead 2B: The COBR meeting then later this day on 23 March, that is where the decision to lock down is recorded. We don’t need the minutes up, but it’s recorded in those minutes. The Inquiry’s heard evidence that the decision to lock down was one taken by the UK Government in advance of that COBR meeting. You were obviously at the COBR. Does that accord with your understanding, your recollection of decision-making on that day?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So that isn’t my recollection of how it was presented. There were proposals and considerations and then it was “The recommendation is”. It wasn’t, “We have decided to, are you coming with us?” from the UK Government.

But we were prepared for that and expected it. We’d sort of expected it the day before of course, so it wasn’t a surprise that that was the recommendation. And I can’t speak for other people about whether they already made a decision in the UK Government to do that in England or not. But that isn’t how it was presented to us. They didn’t say, “I’ve already” – Boris Johnson didn’t say, “I have already decided we are doing this in England. I will now allow other people to explain why we have decided that”.

Lead 2B: When it was proposed at COBR you say in your witness statement that you agreed with the decision to lock down. The witness statement of the First Minister states he also agreed with the decision to lock down.

Had the UK Government not decided to lock down, would the Welsh Government have followed TAC advice and Dr Atherton’s advice? Would it have imposed its own national lockdown in Wales?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I think it’s hard to say, and I’m not trying to avoid the question, I’m trying to be honest with you about all of the uncertainty we’re managing, we’ve been dealing with. So we had this meeting to try to understand what would it look like, and particularly if you’re an outlier, ahead of other action being taken. But you can also see the action being taken in neighbouring European states and of course the Republic of Ireland had gone ahead and effectively gone into lockdown before this as well.

So we may well have done but I can’t tell you absolutely certainly that we had decided that if we couldn’t get agreement at COBR we would definitely be doing this ourselves. If there wasn’t agreement at COBR, we’d have had to say something about where we were though. So it’s possible that we would have got agreement around the Cabinet table to implement something like a Welsh lockdown plan. It’s also possible that we would have said, “We think we need to do it this but we need to do it together” because there are lots of things that need to come alongside it to make it tenable for the public, the businesses that won’t be able to operate. So it’s not quite as simple as “we’re doing it anyway, do your worst”.

So that’s what I can’t honestly tell you what we would have done if we hadn’t agreed at that meeting, but I would have been pretty shocked if we’d got to a COBR at that point in time, understanding what the advice from SAGE was because Dr Orford was at the meetings and then not having agreed further measures to be implemented that were effectively the lockdown that we lived with.

Lead 2B: Now just obviously, as you appreciate, it’s necessary to examine both the rationale for but also the rationale against the imposition of the lockdown on 23 March. Now we’ve discussed the measures that were introduced on 16 March, additional measures introduced on 20 March. Now obviously on the premise that those measures were introduced and they were designed to work, and given that in COBR on 23 March there is recognition within the minutes that there had been a significant degree of compliance, I think the drop in footfall was 28% in the High Street, travel had dropped by 60%, there was a 52% drop in socialising, so the broad direct of travel one might say was good.

The question is why not wait a few more days to see whether or not those steps that had been taken on 16 and 20 March were enough on their own without introducing a national lockdown that day?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Because we’d lived through the experience the previous ten days. You know, from the previous ten days of, you know, the challenge of the rugby game not going ahead, understanding what that had done in terms of public communication and uncertainty, and even then, you know, there were still people going out to large events together. Then the NHS decision about saying there’s a framework to stop lots of NHS choices, still seeing – and that’s a really big behavioural signal – still seeing that Covid cases are rising and even though some people are being more cautious, actually cases are still rising and rising. Then on the 16th more measures agreed, then on the 20th more measures are agreed and, within that, each couple of days you can see more things moving inevitably in one direction.

So if we had said on the 16th, “Look, we’re not going to wait, we’re going to go into a lockdown now”, on our state of knowledge at the time, I think that’s something that could have been justified but it would have been much more difficult. By the time we get to the 20th and then the 23rd, I think the real difficulty is not acting because you can see harm that’s taking place right in front of you, and by then we knew that actually not because of the evidence about where you were compared Italy on the curve, but that actually you need to take action and then it takes time for that to feed through. So on the one hand, you can say, “Well, actually you should have waited two to three weeks”. In that two/three weeks, more harm would be created.

And, you know, the point that the Chair made earlier, you’re not just following the science, you’re a decision-maker. If the science had said, “Look, let’s act”. You choose not to, that’s your decision. The science says “Don’t act” and you act anyway, that’s still your decision and I don’t think we could have justified not acting at that point in time.

So the evidence had hardened significantly, in my view, between 13 and 23 March. Ten days isn’t normally a rapid time for government to take on board new information, but a great deal had changed in that time.

Lead 2B: So do I take it from that answer that, as far as you’re concerned, by the time you get to 23 March the mandatory stay-at-home order was absolutely necessary?

Mr Vaughan Gething: In my view, yes.

Lead 2B: Had different decisions been taken leading up to this point, do you think a lockdown could have been avoided?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I think lots of things are possible, and then you think are they likely and realistic? So you go back to January/February and think about how Covid was largely introduced. You know, my understanding of the evidence – we saw this during the pandemic – was that most of the introductions that were made into the UK, including Wales, came from essentially the February half term, from people going into Europe, largely skiing holidays where you’re indoors for a long time and then multiple introductions are made.

So actually by that point, and this is the thing about going again back to the questions yourself and the Chair asked about contain and delay, by that point Covid is introduced. And then when you see evidence of community transmission, the danger is that actually within a day or two you’ve lost track of it and it’s running well ahead of you. If we knew all of that, we could have acted earlier, but we’d have needed to take the public with us, we’d have needed to have the co-ordination across all governments, the financial support as well.

So actually I think the real challenge was that we’d have needed to make decisions much, much earlier, to have had a greater state of knowledge, we’d have needed to intervene before harm was visible to the public, and that’s actually really difficult because of the scale and the extent of the measures we needed to take.

So I’m – I have thought about this a lot, not just in preparing for the Inquiry but, frankly, because of having to live with all the choices you’ve made and seeing the consequence of them. I’ve thought a great deal about this and I don’t think there was a way to avoid the first lockdown, I really don’t. The timing of it could have been different, potentially, and, you know, a few days could have saved more lives, but I honestly can’t see that there would have been a way to have avoided that lockdown, I’ve not seen any persuasive and realistic argument that says “Here’s how you could have done it at the time”.

Lead 2B: Do I take it from what you’ve just said that you think that lockdown was imposed a few days too late, so should have been imposed, say, on 20 March?

Mr Vaughan Gething: If that had been the decision, if that had been the proposal, then I think we would have said yes, we agree. And again that would be – that would have been my view at the time.

In hindsight, I think, you know, if we’d gone a week earlier, we would have made a great deal of difference because again when you look at the pandemic curve a few days matter but a whole week would have made a difference too. But it took everyone some time to get used to the enormity of what was actually happening and the scale of harm and the scale of action that would be required as well. So at the time I think it is fair to say that, you know, I was expecting there to be a lockdown decision on the 22nd. If it had been on the 20th as opposed to extra measures to have a full lockdown then with everything else, I think we would definitely have been signed up to it. I think that would have been our view at the time.

By the 16th or the 13th, given our state of knowledge at the time, I’m not so sure and that’s where I think a few days was reasonable and realistic. Another week or two weeks earlier, then you’re definitely into hindsight, I think.

Lead 2B: I want to next look at the period following the national lockdown up to autumn 2020. Now, imposing, as we know, a lockdown in Wales using public health powers meant legal requirement to review the regulations every 21 days. You describe in your witness statement that process for the 21-day review. You say that it involved a careful consideration of the latest advice from SAGE, advice from the CMO, and then the question to Cabinet would be: should the regulations be approved, should they be amended?

14 April, that’s the first 21-day review. If we can just have a look at a ministerial advice that was prepared for that. It’s INQ000145553. As we can see from that ministerial advice, it’s copied to all ministers and deputy ministers. We see the recommendation there. The First Minister is asked to agree to retain a full package of restrictions.

Although the MA expressly states it’s a decision for the First Minister, and the recommendation obviously asks the First Minister to take this decision, I’m assuming this was a collective decision that was taken by the whole of Cabinet; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes. Yes, Cabinet – as I explained before the break, Cabinet meets and agrees but the First Minister has to agree the decision and then the regulations are then enacted.

Lead 2B: The reason I ask that question is simply this: there is no record of a Cabinet meeting on 14 April, so that’s the day after Easter Monday, and the next Cabinet meeting on 20 April doesn’t discuss the 21-day review. So I just wondered how the decision, how this ministerial advice was actioned, and how the decision was taken, but it’s your evidence that it would have been a Cabinet decision?

Mr Vaughan Gething: That’s my recollection. We’d agreed to do this, we’d agreed to go ahead. I can’t remember where it is in my statement but, having gone into lockdown, and then you will see that there’s a need in the regulations to undertake a review and that’s where we got into the cycle of 21 days.

Lead 2B: We have received evidence, the Inquiry’s received evidence, that on 10 May Mr Johnson made a public announcement indicating a change in policy for the UK Government, that was the change in public health emergency from Stay Home to Stay Alert, and the Inquiry’s received evidence that one of the main drivers for changing that public message to Stay Alert was that there were some within the UK Government, including the then Chancellor, who were concerned that the population was over-complying with the work from home message. So they were – I think the view was they were overlooking the part of the message which said you cannot work from home, then you should go to work and practice social distancing.

Was that a concern that was shared by anyone within the Welsh Government or yourself; can you recall?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, in fact, it was the public willingness to follow the basics that had managed to squash the curve and reduce infections.

And I think actually rather than it being a public announcement, it was a briefing to the press. I learned about the change in messaging from the Sunday papers, I think it was the Sunday Telegraph that had an exclusive on it, and I think another paper – I think there were a couple of papers that were briefed. So the briefing had taken place on the Saturday and we found out about it on the Sunday before going into a COBR meeting later on Sunday, I think, 11 May.

Lead 2B: In light of the UK Government’s decision and the importance of consistent public messaging, do you think proper consideration was given to changing the message in Wales to align with the position in England, particularly I suppose I have in mind the issues that it may cause having different public messages across the land border between Wales and England?

Mr Vaughan Gething: We were acutely aware of the highly porous border. It’s a more porous border than Scotland and England. There’s a lot more social and economic transfer across the border. I’ve given examples in my statement, I think, of settlements that straddled the border.

It was part of the reason why we were so annoyed – I’m being polite – when that significant change in messaging is made without an attempt to even have a conversation. It was a surprise to officials as well as ministers, and it’s a really significant departure. So we did think about it, but our clear advice to us was this was the wrong time to remove the stay at home messaging.

So it wasn’t the sense of wanting to be different for different’s sake, it was far from that, and it wasn’t our choice to be different. You know, if we’d had a discussion about it, we might have reached some agreement on some common messaging or agreement on at what point would we move from stay at home. I think that would have been –

Lady Hallett: Can I just interrupt. I’m so sorry, Mr Gething. Apparently the cameras have gone down. We’re still broadcasting sound, so I think we should continue, but the investigation’s going on. Technology is wonderful when it works.

Mr Vaughan Gething: Quite so. We found that out in the pandemic.

Lady Hallett: So let’s carry on, Mr Poole. I’m so sorry to interrupt. Do you want to go back to:

“… it wasn’t our choice to be different … if we’d had a discussion about it, we might have reached some agreement on some common messaging … at what point would we move from stay at home …”

That’s where you got to.

Mr Vaughan Gething: And I think that would have been the right thing to do, and it’s from this point onwards that I think you can see more differences in the way that the four governments addressed this. And it was – I think it was a mistake and it need not have happened, but it’s a choice that the UK Government made, consciously, to make the decision to brief it to papers in advance of the COBR meeting.

Mr Poole: Given that the UK Government and the Welsh Government were both drawing from a very similar scientific base, how – can you explain the very different messaging, then, that was coming from the two governments?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Broadly, the health advice that chief medical officers gave to their respective governments was similar. The four chief medical officers met on a regular basis and there was lots of commonality and agreement. And even after we stood up our greater capacity through TAC and TAG in Wales, there wasn’t huge dispute between what SAGE were saying and what TAC were advising us. The TAC and TAG advice was, if you like, localised for Wales, context specific rather than giving entirely different advice.

Mr Poole: Mr Gething, I’m told unfortunately that we do need to stop.

Lady Hallett: Oh my goodness, the video is back but the sound has gone. Shall we take a break now and hope that by the time we come back – I mean, we have to have the sound, even if we don’t have to see each other.

I’ll come back – well, shall we take the 15-minute break now? We’ll take the 15-minute break now, and let’s hope it’s all resolved by the time we come back.

The Witness: Okay.

(2.36 pm)

(A short break)

(2.52 pm)

Lady Hallett: I gather we’re now up and running for both.

Mr Poole: My Lady, I think that’s right, I think both audio and visual problems have been remedied.

Lady Hallett: And I am going to say, I appreciate it will be a great disappointment to those following online, especially any bereaved members of families who couldn’t make it to the hearing centre, but because we have to finish Mr Gething today, I can’t ask him to come back the rest of the week, then we are going to have to go on without sound or visual if we have to. But, as I say, I’ll do my utmost to ensure we don’t have to, but we have to finish Mr Gething.

Mr Poole: My Lady, thank you.

Mr Gething, we’d spoken about the 10 May. I want to briefly look at the decision to re-open schools in June 2020. How involved were you in that decision?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So we discussed as a Cabinet but all, if you like, the legwork was done by, led by the education minister. There were some meetings with the First Minister, some meetings that I attended, that – the Deputy Chief Medical Officer also I think from the lead person from the Chief Medical Officer’s department around the conversations with both local authorities and education trade unions. And there’s, if you like, two blocks, there’s the staff unions representing support assistants and other non-teaching staff at schools, as well as the group of teaching unions. So that then came back to Cabinet and we had discussions around how we’d use our headroom to try to get out of the restrictions we’d had, and signalling when we wanted all children to be able to go back to school at some point before the summer break and the conversations that weren’t successful on whether we could extend the school year either at the end of summer – the summer 2020 term or at the beginning of the autumn 2020 term to bring it forward.

Lead 2B: Just ask you to have a look at some WhatsApp messages, please.

It’s INQ000388430.

So these are WhatsApp messages between yourself and Kirsty Williams, who was then the minister for education, so we’re looking at some exchanges on 19 May. Yes, if we can start right at the top, you say:

“I spoke with MD …”

Presumably that’s the First Minister, Mark Drakeford:

“… after the 9 am call … [Document read] … useful advice from TAC.”

Then Ms Williams says:

“Thank you. Yesterday was not helpful.”

You say:

“What happened? Was it all … [Document read] … about where we are?”

Was it your understanding at this point in time that, on this issue of school re-opening, you weren’t receiving the necessary scientific advice, scientific information to help you make informed decisions?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I think it was really about getting scientific advice and information in a form that help you to make the choices. It goes back to the point around “following the science”, you still need to make a decision, you also need to understand what the science is telling you and, because there was still so much uncertainty, the difficulty is, you know, as a decision-maker you really want more certainty to found your decision on, and at this point that was important not just for the minister, the education minister, it was important to get staff unions and especially teaching unions to agree to go back to work, and of course the leaders of local authorities as well who have their own responsibilities as employers with governing bodies.

So it’s really about trying to understand how the scientific evidence can be framed and phrased in the way that helps to make that decision for the minister and indeed those other stakeholders, but it still has to be advice that they’re prepared to sign off and sign up to. That includes, if you like, the evidence and the advice in its broadest sense, including public health advice as well.

Lead 2B: With the exception of schools, I think I’d be right in saying that the general pattern was that England and Northern Ireland eased restrictions and re-opened the economy first, followed next by Scotland and then Wales. As I’m sure you’re aware, some have criticised the Welsh Government for taking an overly cautious approach to easing restrictions and re-opening the economy. Do you consider that the Welsh Government was overly cautious?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I don’t, we were always trying to balance the competing responsibilities and the competing harms we had, and it goes back to your earlier questions around the population of Wales being more vulnerable, about understanding how we do that effectively, how I take people with us, the point that I make in my statement regularly about trust. And, you know, then it goes into the advice you’re getting, at what pace you do things, and then how you use the headroom you’ve got. Because each intervention and easing is likely to potentially bump up the rate of transmission. So do you keep all of your headroom to do a larger intervention, or do you do something you can do at that time without risking going back into exponential growth?

Those are all the things we were grappling with at the time, and of course, you know, other people will judge in the wider public and this Inquiry will take a view on not just how we made our individual choices but whether we could have done more and done better together.

Lead 2B: I want to next ask you some questions about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Now, the former Chancellor has given evidence to the Inquiry confirming that there was no consultation with the Welsh Government before the UK Government announced that scheme on 8 July, and he, Mr Sunak, told the Inquiry that such consultation would not have been ordinary policy and that the Eat Out to Help Out was within the competency of the UK Government.

Now, I suppose my question is this: do you agree with Mr Sunak that this is not something that you should have expected as the Welsh Government to have been consulted on?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I don’t agree with him. You’re essentially talking about the support you provide to businesses, and business support and economic development are plainly devolved in their broadest sense, so business rates are devolved, there are other things that aren’t devolved, and apart from whether you think it’s devolved or not devolved – and Mr Sunak and I may just have to agree to disagree on that, though I think it is pretty obvious – there is just the point around the fact you’re in an unfinished emergency and it would make more sense to be able to have a conversation and to try to agree how to do something together. And, you know, I’ve seen the evidence, it wasn’t just a surprise to devolved governments, it was a surprise to fellow ministers in the UK Government and indeed public health experts advising the UK Government on these matters as well.

Lead 2B: Had you been consulted, would you have endorsed this scheme in Wales?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, if we’d been consulted, I’d have wanted to have a conversation with the economy minister and I’d have wanted to have a conversation with our public health experts as well, and their advice is not particularly different to the advice that – and evidence I’ve seen Jonathan Van-Tam give about the fact that they would have said “This is not a very good idea, it’s likely to lead to a greater circulation and regrowth of the virus”.

So, you know, I’ve covered this in my statement about what my view was at the time. It had already happened, it was a matter of fact. I think we’d have been unlikely to have said “We’re very happy for this to go ahead”, we’d have had to factor it in properly and choices we were making within our own 21-day review process, as opposed to it being an intervention that just cut across that.

Lead 2B: Now, you say in your witness statement, and it’s paragraph 295, that you did not think it was helpful or productive to publicly criticise the UK Government or the scheme at the time.

Now, given that the protection of life is the pre-eminent duty which each government owes its people, if you or anyone within the Welsh Government thought that this scheme, as you’ve just said, might increase transmission and therefore lead to more deaths, was it not your duty to raise concerns with the UK Government?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, politics is supposed to be a practical business, and that means that when this has happened, and it’s already out there, and you’ve got lots of businesses who, frankly, are genuinely worried about not just their livelihoods but their broader health and wellbeing, you’ve then got to make a choice about: do you pick a fight in public on this when there’s zero prospect of changing the answer? And this is of course in an environment, going from 10/11 May that we started at, where actually the disputes and disagreements between different governments are increasing, and do you choose another fight to have?

So being clear that we’re not certain about what has happened, and then you get the advice from your own public health experts saying “We don’t think this is a great idea”, but lots of the people you represent and have a responsibility for are out and using it.

Now, that’s actually very difficult and, you know, the choice is: is it better to say “We think this is wrong and we’re not prepared to endorse it”, knowing full well the public response is already there, or do you, as we did, have to factor this into account when we make choices though our own 21-day review process? Which is what we did.

Lead 2B: Now, Mr Gething, I do understand the practical consequences of: if the scheme had already been implemented and there were people using the scheme, then at that stage it may be too late. But the former Chancellor’s evidence to the Inquiry was that the scheme was announced on 8 July, it was not due to commence for a month or so later, and he said there was ample opportunity for anyone to raise concerns about the scheme between that announcement and its implementation.

Why did you not raise any concerns in that period of time?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Once the UK Government have made a decision and they’ve announced it on this scale, the real world truth is they’re not going to row back, and the idea that in the month, having made an announcement with his name all over it, Rishi Sunak was going to row back I think is, you know, fighting with reality and there is no point in pretending that.

Lead 2B: It may have gone ahead in England; would you not have been able to say to the then Chancellor “That’s all well and good, but it’s not happening here in Wales”?

Mr Vaughan Gething: The problem is: how could we have done that? You know, in practical terms, if you’re saying we’re using – they’d taken powers to be able to spend in devolved areas anyway, then actually there isn’t a legal mechanism to over – override that. I think there should be, I think it’s the wrong thing to do, but that’s a different point outside the Inquiry. But actually once that happens, then, no, there isn’t. And Mr Sunak has been determined on a number of fronts to do things, and this was one of them, and it didn’t matter whether it was devolved or not. I mean, like I said, I think the idea where he said “We won’t do it in Wales, you can have the money to do something else with”, I mean, that’s for the birds. You know, let’s not waste time pretending that that would have happened in reality.

Lead 2B: Deal next with some of the key decisions that were taken in the period August to November, including the firebreak.

Now, the Inquiry’s heard evidence about further local lockdowns that were put in place, so Llanelli, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Bridgend, Blaenau Gwent, Swansea, Cardiff, Llanelli, Neath Port Talbot, Bangor, Vale of Glamorgan; all of those effective local lockdowns that were imposed, the First Minister in his evidence to the Inquiry has described as a failed experiment.

Do you share his view?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah, so the starting point was Caerphilly, which I announced in early September because of the rise in rates. What we saw initially was some fallback and then a plateau, and then rates started to rise again eventually. And all of those county-wide and then some of the more local lockdowns – so, you know, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr were then next, and I think Blaenau Gwent came soon after that, then in Llanelli there was a group of wards, so not the whole of Carmarthenshire, the nature of Carmarthenshire is it’s not quite as compact as some of those other authorities.

So we ended up following through on what we’d said in coronavirus control plan about how we’d tried to react and deal with rises in the rate of Covid, so we’re doing what we’d set out we do to try to avoid having to take wholesale national measures, and we found that there was an immediate impact but it didn’t mark a decisive turning back.

So we ended up with, as you pointed out, a quilt across the country of most of the country being in some form of local intervention, so I think more of Wales geographically was in a state of local intervention than not, and before the firebreak – I think I cover this in my evidence – there were three authorities in northwest Wales who were talking to about the possibility of a county-wide intervention to cover the rest of Gwynedd and, I think, Ynys Mon and it may well have been Conwy, and we chose not to do that because we were literally rubbing up against having to make a choice about firebreak or not, and so it wouldn’t have made sense to have had an intervention for three days on a local basis to then have a national intervention.

So we recognised that, in the sense of whether those interventions prevented us in aiming to do national things, then yes, they did fail, they did not succeed, but I think it was the right thing to try to do them and we’d set out that would be our approach.

Lead 2B: You say at paragraph 298 of your witness statement: on 18 September TAC noted that the situation was serious. Now, we don’t need to pull up that TAC advice, but in short that TAC advice was that a package of NPIs was needed to bring R back below 1 and that action would be most effective if implemented early.

Are you aware that a circuit-breaker or firebreak, so a short period of lockdown, was recommended by SAGE on 21 September? Is that something that you were aware of?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Not immediately on the 21st but fairly soon afterwards. So I obviously read the TAC advice … because I read the full advice and I read the summary and I had to approve the publication of the summary which was, I think, the right thing to do from early on so people could see why we were making choices, and here again saying “You need to do something”, that was what we were trying to do with the local interventions and the challenge was, as we saw, despite those local interventions we weren’t seeing the growth of the virus capped or reduced. So that’s why the advice hardened about: it isn’t just something you might want to do, we really think you should, and that advice got stronger and it’s how we ended up eventually having the firebreak.

Lead 2B: I just want to follow through the evolution of this advice so we can see the picture as we move into October. And you’re right, the SAGE advice of 21 September, that is then translated into TAC advice on 25 September, which you say you authorised the publication of the summary.

Now, at paragraph 304 of your witness statement, you say:

“It was clear at this time [so this is 25 September] that infection rates were rising and that action was needed.”

But you go on to say:

“We knew from events between January and February of the significant harm that could be caused by the virus spreading too quickly.”

But then you say:

“We were mindful that if we jumped to a national lockdown too quickly, this may affect support for and compliance with that lockdown.”

So on the one hand you’re being told by TAC action would be most effective if implemented early, and on the other it seems from your witness statement you’re concerned not to impose lockdown too quickly.

Just I’m interested in what informed your thinking at this point in September that jumping to a national lockdown too quickly might affect support and compliance with that lockdown, knowing what you did about public compliance back in dealing with the first wave in March and April and May 2020?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I think this goes back to the point the Chair made again, that you have advice and then you still need to decide, and having had advice you need to do something, we’ve got a range of measures we set out in our control plan just from the summer, so not a long time ago, and we say we’ll try to undertake a series of local interventions to avoid going back into national interventions because whilst the public had been fantastic, frankly, in dealing with a lot of significant intervention in their lives, to ask them to do that again in September I think would have been challenging. We’d just got our children back to school, and if you’re then going into a national set of interventions, you’ve got a real challenge on keeping schools being open and we’d recognised, you know, not just the theoretical harm but, with children going back to school, some of the harm that is being crystallised there as well.

So we’ve got all of these difficult challenges, and the politics are getting more and more difficult, both within Wales as well as between the Welsh Government and the UK Government. So, you know, you pointed out about the fraying that really started really visibly on 10/11 May and that carries on regularly.

The Secretary of State for Wales from the time, who gave evidence here, I think it really highlights it. So Simon Hart came here and gave evidence on oath that he thought that there were differences just driven by the politics, about us being different for the sake of it, and that’s even after all the evidence that’s been given in all the other modules of this Inquiry, from public health experts in England and indeed the evidence you’ll have heard from Public Health Wales, Dr Orford and Dr Atherton here, and it’s still Simon Hart’s evidence on oath that we were just being difficult for the sake of it.

And that is a real factor, because in the Senedd we have a majority of two at this point in time, so it’s not like the governing party in Westminster with a majority of 80 and if they can deal with 20 various backbenchers they’re home and hosed. So actually making choices within the politics is much more contested and gets worse through the rest of the autumn and the winter, and it matters about how we think we can take people with us in making really difficult choices when the release from the summer has only just happened.

So this is actually very, very difficult and it’s one of the things about the behavioural side, you know, as politicians and decision-makers you’ve got to think about all of those things and how you do take people with you. So it really wasn’t as black and white as I would want it to be.

Lead 2B: A week later, so we were talking about 25 September, when you get to 2 October there’s a rather more stark warning from TAC. Their advice was unless measures bring R back below 1, it is possible infection incidence and hospital admissions may exceed scenario planning levels. That advice doesn’t get any better; gets, if anything, worse. So a week later, 9 October, TAC advice is still exponential growth, hospital admissions continuing to rise.

Then there’s a ministerial call on 13 October. Now, again, we don’t need the note of that meeting but it records the First Minister updating Welsh ministers on a COBR meeting the previous day, during which Sir Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance repeatedly told the Prime Minister that Tier 3 measures would not be enough to reduce the R below 1 but that a circuit-breaker would, and it’s at that ministerial call on 13 October that the First Minister invited Welsh ministers to consider a circuit-breaker.

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah.

Lead 2B: So is it right to say that until 13 October, Welsh Government had not started drawing up plans for a firebreak lockdown, despite the advice that we’ve seen from SAGE and then through TAC starting in mid-September?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So I think I was at that COBR meeting as well. So we had been seriously considering the deteriorating picture, it’s why we’d not made any significant further easements. I think in my statement I set out that the only one was allowing ice rinks, skating rinks to open with certain restrictions around them. So we’d not moved to have further easements again, and in the messaging from myself and the First Minister in the regular press conferences we ran, it was about the fact that the situation was deteriorating, and we were asking people to come us and to think again about who they’re having contact with and why; and despite all that – and our public-facing communications are very clear about this as well – the situation continues to deteriorate, even whilst you’ve got most of Wales in these local restrictions as well and, again, that’s a really visible signal.

So what we then have to think about doing is, well, now that we are clear that we have the powers – because in March, through March, that wasn’t entirely clear – do we choose to do this and, if we do, what does this look like in terms of a firebreak? And actually what we wanted to do was to have a conversation, because we knew the same evidence and advice had been given in public health and the scientific basis as the UK Government.

But, as I said with the politics, it gets worse at this point, because all through September and October a point is being made by the then Prime Minister that he’s not going to do what he claims Kier Starmer, as the relatively recent leader of the opposition, wants to do and there are shots being fired at us politically as well.

So at a point in time where we think we’re going to need to do something, and we want to be able to have a sensible conversation, there isn’t a direct conversation between the First Minister and the Prime Minister, and in fact the political rhetoric is getting more divided, and that’s the context in which we have to make our choice.

So that is then reflected in the Senedd as well, so the Senedd is much, much more contested through the whole of the autumn and it gets worse in December actually, than at any point through January, February, March all the way through to June/July. This is actually a very, very difficult time to be making choices. That –

Lead 2B: Sorry to interrupt you, Mr Gething, but even more so, given that these are – I mean, there’s no easy choices to be made throughout the whole pandemic, but isn’t it even more important that you have the scientific information and data to inform these decisions?

So, given that advice had been given from as early as 21 September about a circuit-breaker being what is needed by SAGE, by the time we get to this ministerial call on 13 October and the First Minister is then inviting Welsh ministers to consider a circuit-breaker, the Inquiry understands that no modelling had been carried out for what a circuit-breaker might – the effects of a circuit-breaker might look like at that stage.

Why wasn’t that work being commissioned at the end of September?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I can’t recall, I don’t have all the documents in front of me, about when formal modelling started, because that modelling is on the range of interventions to make, and so understanding that you’re going to need to have more NPIs introduced, whether it’s the same as the March lockdown or less, you do need to be able to model that. And actually by this point we’ve managed to get – I think there’s the conversation with Swansea University where Professor Graveston(sic) and his team are leading and working on the modelling advice for Wales. So actually we’ve got more of our own source of more bespoke advice to call on then.

So actually that – and we actually did – I recall this in the papers we had about different versions of sets of measures that could be undertaken to try to deal with the growth in cases that we’re seeing, but it would be preferable if we could persuade the UK – who we know are seeing the SAGE advice – if they will take measures alongside us as well, and that didn’t happen obviously.

So we did publish the summaries of our TAC advice, so the worsening picture wasn’t a secret or a surprise, because we were not just publishing the advice but myself and the First Minister in particular were actively pointing to it in the public press conferences we were running up to the middle of October, and we get to the point of saying “We can’t not do this”, so we go and get the specific plan that ends up being the firebreak. But even there, that isn’t simple because – as I know you’ll see in lots of the evidence, and I think you’ve been through it before – you need financial support to make it work, and that was … that was hard because the Treasury made a choice not to make it available in the way that it was subsequently made available a few weeks later in England.

Lead 2B: Now, Mr Gething, I think my question was just really, in a nutshell: do you think modelling should have happened earlier than it did? Because we know modelling did take place, we know that by the time you get to the 15 October Cabinet meeting that we’re just going to come on to have a look at, there was modelling from Swansea University, as you said – we heard evidence from Professor Gravenor at the end of the first week – but that wasn’t being done until the middle of October. Should modelling have taken place for firebreak earlier, at the end of September?

Mr Vaughan Gething: In hindsight, if we’d undertaken modelling then, we’d have had a further basis to undertake action, but we were still trying to have a conversation through official means and others around whether the UK were prepared to act as well, which was a fruitless course.

Lead 2B: If we can have a look, please, at those minutes, so this is Welsh Cabinet minutes, 15 October, it’s INQ000048796. Have a look at page 2, please, paragraph 1.4. So the minutes note here that the advice from the CMO, CSO and TAC:

“… all reflect the advice that Sir Patrick Vallance had given … [Document read] … was the preferred option.”

If we have a look at the next paragraph, 1.5, please:

“Scientific advice was that a minimum of a two-week lockdown was required …”

Pausing there, was the Welsh Government looking at longer lockdowns? So did you look at a three-week or a four-week or even longer lockdown, or was it always looking at the half term and it was always going to be two weeks?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So the model advice we got on the 15th had been commissioned previously, and the advice that we got as ministers was looking seriously at the two or three-week options, and that’s the advice that we considered, and we wanted to positively take half term into consideration for that, because you would get in some ways a natural break with the week in half term. Again, if we’d managed to move the school term round, we might have been looking at a two-week half term in any event, but that didn’t happen.

Lead 2B: We have a look at 1.6, please, in these minutes. That’s the modelling advice from Swansea University, so a two-week lockdown, potential to reduce R from 1.4 to 0.8.

Then if we can, please, just have a look at – I think it’s page 4, which might be the last page of these minutes, paragraph 1.21, we can see there recorded:

“Cabinet agreed in principle … [Document read] … cover three weekends.”

Now, that in principle decision was not formally approved until Cabinet met again on Monday 19 October, and then obviously the First Minister announced that evening that a firebreak would start on 23 October for two weeks.

Why did it take four days to formally make a decision that had been taken in principle, as we can see from these minutes, on this date?

Mr Vaughan Gething: My recollection was that it was both the work that was being done with partners and what this would look like, so making sure you’re ready for the interruptions to schools, for the sake of – but also in particular about wanting to understand what it was possible to do in terms of business support as well.

So I think again it was in this period that the First Minister made another effort to try to get access to the new – the new version of furlough that was going to be introduced, and we offered to pay for access to it but we were rebuffed, and so we had to have more than one option: what we could do if we did get that and what we could do if we didn’t. So there were some significant financial choices to need to work through that as well, and it was all about making sure that we would have in place not just the rationale for what we were doing, the expected result, but also part of what we’d said we’d taken on board, this point about the advice from TAC that if you’re going to have more – more interventions and they’re significant, you need to explain what they’re for, what they’re expected to achieve and when you expect them to end. So we were thinking about giving, you know, the commitment on when this would finish and what would be in place afterwards, and work had to be done on what all of those different things looked like.

Lead 2B: You say at paragraph 318 of your witness statement that the impact of the firebreak was effective, you say it reduced new infections and gave Wales an opportunity to reset ahead of Christmas.

Now, the Inquiry has heard evidence suggesting that in fact the firebreak wasn’t as effective as hoped, so although infection rates fell for two weeks, by 29 November Wales was in fact back above the level of cases it had when it went into the firebreak, and in fact by 10 December Wales’ weekly infection rate had risen to 480 cases per 100,000 people, which was double what it was before the firebreak.

Do you accept that the gains anticipated by the firebreak were much more short lived than had been modelled or hoped for?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah, they were certainly more short lived than had been hoped for. So we understood that when you take action, it takes two to three weeks for it to really feed through, whether that’s new interventions on closing down or whether that’s releasing interventions as well. So the pace of your easing as well as the pace of going into something. So, you know, the measures that you saw and the impact at the start of the firebreak you didn’t really see til two to three weeks later, and then, as we go back to more mixing taking place again, even though the restrictions were more than we had in place as our baseline before the firebreak, actually we didn’t get the reset that we’d wanted to in terms of public mixing and engagement and, you know, the run-up to Christmas was really challenging and we didn’t know at the time about when the Kent variant, that was then renamed Alpha, was circulating, but that was definitely a factor and a much more aggressive growth we saw of Covid in Wales, and I think it’s coincidentally that the timing of England’s four-week period of interventions was actually at a period of time when the Kent variant was circulating. So if they had not been in measures, I think they’d have seen more growth too, but we certainly saw those gains eroded quicker. I know there’s been evidence given about 35 or 37 days gained from the firebreak, but we didn’t manage the reset that we wanted to.

Lead 2B: Let’s look at this period after the firebreak in the lead-up to Christmas 2020. In order to allow some mixing over the festive period, Cabinet discussed the imposition of NPIs, and we can see Cabinet meeting minutes, 27 November.

It’s INQ000022511. If we can have a look, please, at page 2, paragraph 1.3, we can see there:

“The epidemiological evidence showed … [Document read] … stretched NHS.”

If we could please turn over the page to page 3 and go to paragraph 1.9:

“Cabinet considered the measures taken … [Document read] … tier system.”

Then if we have a look, again, over the page, page 4, paragraph 2.5, please, it was agreed by Cabinet that:

“ … on balance, the most appropriate … [Document read] … its specific circumstances.”

Do you consider that a tier system ought to have been introduced in Wales earlier than 4 December?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, in hindsight, it would have been preferable to have done that, and we had – this again was part of the, if you like, the deal with the public to go into the firebreak was that a shorter intervention rather than a longer one that will be harder and more difficult should give us more long-term gains, but that actually we’d need to have a reset in the way we went about our lives afterwards, and actually what we couldn’t do was make that stick in the sense of still managing to keep coronavirus under control. So, you know, we didn’t manage to do that. And, again, when you look back, actually having more restrictions in place after the firebreak would have helped us. The ideal of course would have been that we could have agreed on UK-wide action, because then you would have had a much greater prospect of resetting public engagement and understanding of what’s at risk as well as what’s to gain. But yes, plainly what we wanted to do did not work to the extent we wanted it to and so, looking back, it is again one of the things that if you had your time you would do differently. I certainly would.

Lead 2B: There was some TAC advice that I think you say in your witness statement was shared with you on 5 December, it’s INQ000228579, dated – I think it’s produced on 2 December, shared with you three days later.

We have a look at page 3, please, second paragraph, and I think it’s the third line:

“The firebreak had the intended impact … [Document read] … three to four weeks.”

Now, then it says:

“The benefits of this period … [Document read] … at the beginning of the firebreak.”

If we can have a look, please, at page 10 of this advice, we see there some policy modelling, or the text of policy modelling at least. It’s analysing there different policy options undertaken by Swansea University, and it is saying: in the no intervention scenario, where the background R rate is assumed to be 1.3, a cumulative number of Covid-19 patients that required hospital and ICU beds is estimated to be just over 8,500 and 1,500 respectively, with over 2,500 deaths.

In the third Tier 3 pre – I’m grateful. It’s probably easier to see by reference to this table at the top. Thank you very much.

So in the third Tier 3 pre-Christmas intervention, which is estimated to bring R rate below 1 back to 0.9, cumulative number of hospital and ICU beds is estimated to reduce below 5,000 and below 580 respectively, with less than 1,500 deaths.

I mean, it follows that, putting it very simply, if more stringent restrictions were imposed – so for example a Tier 4, effectively a lockdown restriction – the number of hospital and ICU beds and deaths would be lower, and yet it doesn’t look from this advice that Tier 4 or lockdown restrictions are in fact being modelled.

Do you know why lockdown restrictions weren’t being modelled?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Because going into wholesale lockdown at that point is a thing that we’re trying to avoid, and we’re trying to avoid that because of the hugely contested environment we’re still in, and even though England had gone through their own circuit-breaker, our experience of the last six weeks has not been that if we think there’s a real case that the UK Government will say: actually have everything you need in terms of public messaging and support, never mind finance as well. And actually I do think, you know, all of us detected a real weariness from the public. There were some people who were desperately worried and most of those people were acting stringently within the rules, but you could see in terms of some of the behaviour reporting about some of the other challenges of what people were doing, with mixing taking place.

So you have to recall, of course, Mr Poole, that for many people Christmas is an unusually important period of time, and often nothing to do with religion, it is a time when people see friends and family they haven’t done for a long time. So we had all heard and had from constituents and others, “I’ve done everything you’ve asked me to but I’m having my Christmas”, and, you know, so you’ve got these really different pulls to try to manage, as well as the fact that it’s unusually important period of time for the economy as well, and closing down the economy in the month up to Christmas has longer term consequences for a number of businesses, for lots of businesses, how they – how they turn the profit that keeps them running into the next year as well.

So all of these things are there and you have the public health advice, and it goes back to again questions you’ve asked me about not just health but can you see the wider range of choices and impacts that you make.

Lead 2B: There’s a Cabinet meeting on 9 December, don’t need to bring up the minutes of that meeting, but what was agreed in principle at that meeting was that Wales would move to alert level 4, so lockdown restrictions, from 28 December if infection rates had not improved significantly by then.

That day, 9 December, you received letters from chairs of two local health boards letting you know that they had concerns that the health system would be overwhelmed and the same day, 9 December, Dr Goodall emailed you stating that there was a visible increase in overall and confirmed cases, and he added that cases were in fact running ahead of the number that he had shared with Cabinet as his personal worst-case scenario.

I mean, at this stage is it not dawning on you that perhaps 28 December moving into Tier 4 restrictions is going to be too late, we should be bringing that forward?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, I was really concerned. In my statement I cover this in paragraph 331 onwards, including the conversations with the education minister about schools. I sent him a note on 10 December saying that I think we need to move schools to distanced learning, and the phrase I’ve repeated in my statement is that I was more worried than ever before because I could see the picture of harm building up, and this is the challenge about managing all these different harms across the public. Within these, you obviously have the direct harm from Covid, the indirect harm for people who can’t get healthcare treatment, you also have the other societal harms that come from the interventions you need to take to deal with, you know, health harm, whether direct or indirect. And at this point, you know, I’m getting more and more concerned that the direct harm from Covid is going to overwhelm all those other things, and so that’s why, you know, schools are essentially your last big shot before you go to lockdown. So I think we’d introduced restriction to hospitality that again was really difficult, and again in the politics at the Senedd, Plaid Cymru had started voting with the Conservatives at that point opposing some of the measures we had. So all that’s happening, and we’re then still having to choose. Knowing how desperately we wanted to get schools back open again, what I then say to the educaton minister, “I think we need schools to go to distanced learning”. It’s not a benign intervention, it’s one that comes with harm, but I thought at that point if we don’t do this we’re going to see even more harm in a whole range of other areas.

You know, this really is difficult. Because you can see harm in every direction you look about your possible choices, and this period is what’s covered in the documentary that S4C – I mention it because the cameras had turned up months before, and by the time we got to the firebreak and by this period of time you’d forgotten they were there, so everyone’s very honest in front of the cameras, and when I watched the programme back I was surprised at some of the things I’d said on camera because I’d literally forgotten they were there. It doesn’t mean they weren’t my honest reflections, they really were, about why we needed to act and then going from this point to then coming away from the agreed Christmas easements across four nations.

Lead 2B: Just following through the timeline in December, there was some TAC advice of 11 December. If we can have that, please, it’s INQ000228507, and we’re looking at page 2, the top line summary, and I think the fourth bullet point, so:

“The number of people with confirmed … [Document read] … indicator threshold.”

Now, the same in respect of ICU occupancy. So in other words, the indicator that had been set for when a further circuit-breaker would be required had been exceeded, so this is advice of 11 December.

Now, you say in your witness statement, this is paragraph 344, that summary advice was not received by you until 15 December, and we saw previously, I think, some TAC advice taking two or three days to come to you.

Given the importance of this advice and the importance of the decisions that you are contemplating making leading up to Christmas, would you have expected this TAC advice produced on 11 December to come to you straightaway?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, yes, so in the conversations I think I’m talking to, not just Andrew Goodall, but I think I’m talking to Frank Atherton pretty much every day at this point. So understanding that we’re in real – we’ve got real challenge, and one of your circuit-breaker indicators is going to be breached, is part of the reason why I say to the education minister on 10 December “I’m really worried and you should be worried too”, essentially, and it’s why my push at that point in time is to say: look at what I’m being told by the NHS and look at what is happening in front of us, and if we can’t act there’ll be more of this, and with all the harm that we gave up so much to try to avoid, not just in the firebreak but also in the March lockdown as well, so it’s – it’s a very, very – it’s difficult to say not just “We have a plan to do this if we need to” but then to actually have to do it is still something that you need to get through as well, and that’s why we had a week of, you know, daily meetings to get to a place where that did happen as well.

Lead 2B: You say you were obviously speaking to Dr Goodall regularly in this period of time; if we can have a look at INQ000321014, it’s an email from Dr Goodall, 15 December, and he starts:

“Morning minister, some overnight thoughts.”

So he starts by informing you that medical directors have written outlining their concerns clinically about the NHS’s ability to manage into January, based on high community prevalence.

Then if we go to the fourth substantive paragraph, so right down the bottom of this page:

“If we were looking for the tipping point … [Document read] … hospital picture …”

He then goes on to state that, same paragraph:

“If the Christmas Day forecast … [Document read] … only for Covid.”

He notes that at the peak in April Wales was only at 15% to 20%.

That email appears to have prompted you to commission advice on moving to level 4 restrictions before 28 December, and we can see that advice, INQ000321016. Let’s have a look at the fourth paragraph there:

“Situation has considerably worsened … [Document read] … last week.”

We can have a look at the fifth paragraph:

“Need to move … [Document read] … further data …”

Then if we can perhaps just move to the conclusion, so page 7, I think it is, fourth paragraph on page 7, yes:

“There is therefore a clear rationale … [Document read] … potential behavioural implications.”

Now, public health implications had obviously been the subject of modelling and forecasting.

Did you consider at this point in time, so this is on 15 December, that you had sufficient information about the economic and behavioural implications referred to here in this note to make a decision whether or not to move into level 4 restrictions?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I think we knew there’d be really significant economic harm and there would be some people who would be furious and other people that would be relieved, so it wasn’t that everyone would heave a sigh of relief and say “Thank you”, there’d be people who’d be, as they were, deeply upset about what had happened, you know, the same way that, you know, when international travel restrictions changed people were furious about what had happened with their holiday. This is much more than that and the harm is much greater.

Over this time, I recall – and I’ve thought about this since my statement went in – I had – you know, there were regular calls with local authority leaders about different things. I had a conversation with Huw Thomas, who is the leader of Cardiff Council, and also with Rob Stewart, who’s the leader of Swansea, and they both said that they would support the government if we needed to move again, because they were worried about their local healthcare systems, they were worried about their local economies. Cardiff and Swansea have lots of big winter wonderland activities, it’s a big deal for both cities about what they do. But they could see the figures that’d been published as well and they were worried, as indeed was I, which was why I’d asked about the case and having that conversation with colleagues across the government, including with other ministers, about not waiting for another week’s worth of data, but the balance between those is a very real one, but it was my view that we had a clear rationale to move ahead of the agreement the First Minister had reached with the other nations of the UK.

And of course, as I’ve set out, the politics had got much worse the six months following 10/11 May. We finally get the UK Government to re-engage with us, we reach a decision on Christmas, with some pain and not little effort, and then I start telling the First Minister, you know, within days of that, “I think the agreement you’ve just reached, we need to tear up”. It’s not straightforward, it’s – this is the occasion where the First Minister did eventually end up being first among equals, because the Cabinet was split as well.

Lady Hallett: Sorry, I couldn’t quite hear that.

Mr Vaughan Gething: Because the Cabinet was split as well.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Vaughan Gething: As we got through this, the Cabinet was divided, so the First Minister then said, well … and it was odd, because you’d – what normally happened in Cabinet meetings was the First Minister and myself would broadly be on the same page in terms of measures that we needed to take, and I think that was important for Cabinet colleagues. If the two of us had been openly disagreeing with each other on the course of action, I think that’d have made life very difficult for everyone else, and indeed for our officials. So it was a strength that there was genuine trust and engagement between us, and the way that we spoke with colleagues in Cabinet, without ever taking for granted, if we’d turned up and said “This is what we think we should do”, that everyone would say yes.

This is one of the few meetings where Mark and myself set out the case for two different courses of action, and I set out the case for coming away from that agreement and taking more intervention, and Mark set out the case for sticking to the agreement that we had reached, and also the point about whether changes should be made in guidance or regulation.

So this is really very unusual for the Welsh Government, in all times, but certainly through the pandemic.

Mr Poole: We know that on 16 December the First Minister announced that Wales would move into alert level 4 from Christmas Day, and that a smaller Christmas is a safer Christmas. We then, though, have a Cabinet meeting on Saturday 19 December. If we can have a look at those minutes, please, it’s INQ000048803, if we have a look at page 2, please, paragraph 1.1:

“The First Minister updated Cabinet … [Document read] … consider the impact on Wales.”

If we can zoom out and zoom back in at paragraph 1.55, please.

“Deputy CMO … [Document read] … transmissible.”

Paragraph 1.6:

“Hospital admissions running ahead of the reasonable worst-case scenario.”

And I’m right, aren’t I, just cutting to the chase, the decision was taken at this Cabinet meeting to bring forward alert level 4 restrictions, so namely a lockdown for the whole of Wales, from midnight that night?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes. This is what was the Kent variant became the Alpha, so this is the Kent Alpha wave that we’re seeing, and actually I think the evidence is that it ended up not just more transmissible but more harmful as well. Fortunately every subseqent variation I think was more transmissible but less harmful.

Lead 2B: This is a decision taken at Cabinet on 19 December but, as we know and as you’ve just explained to us, you were advocating along with Dr Atherton for an immediate move to level 4 restrictions, four days previously, certainly by 15 December, that was your position. Do you think this decision should have been taken earlier than it was?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, this is a discussion you have around the table, and, you know, it’s important that around the Cabinet table you’re able to have a discussion on what you think should happen and then when we get to those meetings, as I say, that meeting where we went through the guidance about what we should or shouldn’t do was, I think, the only occasion where the First Minister and I had overtly different positions in a Cabinet meeting. But you don’t just have that discussion within the one meeting, there’s all the things that go on around it, there’s the advice that comes in, there’s talking to colleagues about what it’s possible to do, there’s the conversations about the options paper that will go to Cabinet as well. So in all of those, you know, I was becoming more and more worried about the picture that is unrolling and growing in front of us. And the case rates are real harm because, whilst we started a vaccination programme, the first vaccine is really hard to move around and to use, so actually the great majority of the population is still vulnerable whilst these cases are – are growing rapidly through our population.

Lead 2B: Now, Mr Gething, you deal with the easing of restrictions during 2021 into May 2022 in your witness statement, and obviously the Inquiry will have regard to that. Going back to a question I asked earlier about the first wave, it has been said that those easing of restrictions throughout 2021, again the Welsh Government acted overly cautiously. Do you think restrictions should have been eased more quickly than they were?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I think we tried to strike the right balance and even now, having had lots of time to think about it, given what we knew at the time, I think we did the right thing. What we now have is the benefit of hindsight where, because of the extraordinary success of the vaccine programme – to be fair, I said lots that’s critical about the UK Government; their choices around the advance purchasing of the vaccines I think is a definite strength and a definite positive, and it meant that we had real hope going through the winter because we were able to vaccinate lots of our population and to deal with some of the harm, it gave us very different choices, because without a vaccine that lockdown would have been even harder and probably longer.

So, you know, the vaccination gave us headroom to make choices but, dealing with the level of uncertainty about the level of population protection it provided, going through February and March in particular, we really did have to take seriously advice we’d had, taking account of where we were before Christmas, and to give you an idea of how serious it was, it wasn’t just we agonised over these things, we talked seriously about whether we’d be able to have an election. And, you know, after five years in office, I’m quite keen that you go to the public and, you know, you’ve got to renew your mandate. But if we hadn’t had progress, I’m not sure that we could have run an election campaign, which is really, really serious, but we managed to.

I think the pace was the right one. With hindsight, if we knew how effective the vaccination was, we might have been able to have a different pace in doing that, but that’s not the pitch on which we were playing at the time.

Lead 2B: I want to change topic.

There were some high profile instances of ministers and officials within the UK Government appearing to contravene Covid regulations. I have in mind particularly Mr Cummings’ drive to Barnard Castle and his subsequent press conference in the rose garden in Downing Street.

What impact, if any, do you consider that those incidents had on the public’s confidence in the Welsh Government’s handling of the pandemic?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I actually think the contrast reinforced views the public had about the Welsh Government. So there are always people who are sceptical, not just in party politics but not clear about whether we’re doing the right things, and there’s a reasonable argument about most of the things that we did, so I wouldn’t want to try to say that anyone who disagreed with the Welsh Government was unreasonable; that isn’t what I’m saying.

But we tried to be serious, we published the evidence, we tried to answer questions in press conferences, and I think there was a contrast, and you could see at the start of the pandemic confidence levels in the UK Government were at record levels and actually ahead of the Welsh Government, harm was done by the trip to Barnard Castle, you know, partly because I think most people thought that if you’re worried about your eyesight, the last thing you’d do would be to pack your family into the car to test your eyes out. But I don’t think it harmed the Welsh Government, and I think the contrast reflected positively on us in overall terms.

Lead 2B: Now, you were accused of a transgression when you were photographed eating chips outside sat on a bench when the rules only permitted a single period of household exercise, and you’ve explained what colloquially became described as “chipgate” in your witness statement. I don’t want to go over any of this.

My question is simply this: does the fact that you maintain that what you did was within the rules, whilst others considered it was clearly not permitted, does that demonstrate the need for greater clarity in the rules at the time?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, I think there are two different points. The first is that in that period of exercise where it was our one period of exercise together, the rules said that you could buy takeaway food and you could eat that and then move on. The challenge is that we also had in the guidance that, you know, going out for a picnic was not permissible, that’s not really exercise, so people were saying “You were having a picnic” when actually it was exercise and the food was incidental to doing it, which was covered by the guidance.

The challenge is, once you start explaining all of that, then you do get into people wanting to throw sand in everyone’s face about what the rules and the guidance really provide. And we had, if you like, two broad periods on how we ran rules. The first was essentially things are permitted if there’s a rule that says they’re permitted, and actually you then end up with what was described as a thicket of rules and actually that’s a hard challenge for everyone to understand. We then moved into a broader based definition of: here are all the things that you can’t do rather than things you can do.

So we wanted to try to change the way, to try to make the rules easier to understand with the guidance alongside in giving examples, and that was because, you know, we were regularly – you know, we had people ask us very odd questions about very individualised activity and whether there was a rule that covered it. We had requests to write a rule saying that it was or wasn’t.

So, you know – and again that was a learning point. You can’t have a rule for everything, because that’s not a fair fight for the public to understand what you want them to do, and then having a more broader approach still comes with all the challenges but actually I think that second approach was better than the one that we’d had at the outset.

Lead 2B: Final topic, Long Covid. You deal with this in your witness statement starting at paragraph 525.

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes.

Lead 2B: And you make plain that from the spring of 2020 the Welsh Government identified the likely need for rehabilitation of people recovering from Covid-19.

Now, in May 2020 we know that the Welsh Government published a national framework for rehabilitation, that was then followed in the summer by a further suite of guidance and resources to support health boards model their population needs and plan and develop local rehabilitation services.

To what extent, when you and your colleagues became aware of the long-term after-effects of Covid-19 and the long-term consequences of infection, did that understanding feed into the debate about the mechanics of NPIs and then subsequently the relaxation of restrictions?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I can’t remember exactly when, but we knew that with a respiratory disease, but also affected internal organs, it’d be entirely possible that people would have long-term consequences, and the phrase “Long Covid”, I think I first heard it through the summer 2020. So we knew that there’d be people affected, including any groups that weren’t typically vulnerable, but there would always be people who would become ill and indeed there were sadly people that died in (inaudible) age group.

So then thinking through not just our framework on rehabilitation and actually how you help people to get fit and well after a serious illness, but those people who with a long-term condition that can vary as well, because there isn’t – there isn’t one form of Long Covid, it’s the long-term consequence of people who had Covid and a lot of it is individualised, and then how do you then factor in that both in your treatment and care provision framework, but also in the restrictions as well because this is part of the overall population risk.

So, as I said earlier, you’ve got a population in hospital, a population that needs to get out because it’s the wrong place for them, somewhere for them to go, and you’ve got the population in the community and then everyone else in age group, so they should be less vulnerable. And the people who have Long Covid were not necessarily people like me who were in a group where you get access to (inaudible), a vaccine, you know, I’ve got a long-term kidney condition from an illness I had when I was much younger. So that’s what makes me more vulnerable than my age group. For other people, they have Long Covid and they don’t have any of those vulnerabilities that pre-existed.

So it’s another area of uncertainty and even now, compared to when Long Covid was first used as a term, we still don’t understand enough about how to do it and how to help people to both understand who’s most likely to be susceptible but then how you help and support people who do have Long Covid, and to do it in a way we’re not just saying “What’s wrong with you?” but actually to understand: how do we help you to be able to live with and hopefully improve the healthcare conditions you have, but also be able to do all the other things you still can do as well. It’s a direct challenge because we have staff like this in the Welsh Government and how we support them and change their work patterns as well.

So it was a factor, but it was a factor that was covered by lots of uncertainty and there’s still, I’m afraid, lots of uncertainty now.

Mr Poole: Mr Gething, they are all the questions I’ve got for you.

My Lady, there are core participant questions, but I wonder …

Lady Hallett: There are, and given I think it’s about 35 minutes’ worth, I’m afraid, Mr Gething, so for the sake of the stenographer I suggest that I will leave, perhaps it would be helpful if not many other people did leave so it doesn’t take quite so long to reassemble. I’ll just leave for 5 minutes, just to give the stenographer a chance to –

The Witness: Okay.

Lady Hallett: – rest her fingers. Sorry.

The Witness: No problem at all.

(3.56 pm)

(A short break)

(4.00 pm)

Lady Hallett: I’m sorry everybody’s been boiling, I think we need an inquiry into heating systems and ventilation systems.

Ms Heaven.

Questions From Ms Heaven

Ms Heaven: Thank you, my Lady.

Good afternoon, Mr Gething, I represent the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru.

Can I start with the topic of testing for healthcare workers, and we’re looking here at the second wave, so autumn and winter 2020, just to give you a bit of the evidence first.

So on 16 November the UK Government introduced testing through lateral flow tests in England for all healthcare workers in hospitals. However, it was only on 4 December that you announced that the Welsh Government would roll out testing of healthcare workers from 14 December 2020, but it was widely reported by the BBC, in part following comments from the British Medical Association, that in Wales this lateral flow testing didn’t really roll out properly until around mid-March.

So given that evidence, and that’s the evidence that’s before the Inquiry, just so you understand, will you accept today to the Inquiry and indeed to all those affected by these decisions, that the Welsh Government, and indeed you as the responsible Minister for Health and Social Services, failed healthcare workers in Wales, firstly, in not giving them access to lateral flow tests at a time when we know they were available in England from the UK Government and, secondly, in failing to ensure that healthcare workers actually got those tests in a timely manner; so will you accept that today?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So I need to look at not just the decision-making, what was happening at the time with practical access to devices and how and when information was shared about the access to them, because during the course of the pandemic Dr Orford regularly updated us on some of the changes that were being made to try to have point of care testing, so flow – so a reliable test device that you could give you a result in a short window of time, not the overnight testing that otherwise had happened. So I’d need to look at the detail of what’s in the evidence before the Inquiry about when that information’s available, about both the fact that there is a reliable device, then how it’s been procured, because I think these were procured through the national testing programme, run by the Department of Health and Social Care in the UK Government, then how our share is then used and where they’re distributed. I’ve seen the reports around where they reach people at different points in time, but I’d need to understand where and how that problem was in the system, whether it’s widespread or individualised.

Ms Heaven: I don’t want to interrupt because we’ve got limited time, just to focus you though, would you not accept that Wales was at least a month behind the UK Government in introducing lateral flow tests and that this was an unacceptable delay? Will you not at least accept that? A month behind.

Mr Vaughan Gething: I’d need to have a look at the evidence directly on when they were available and how they were distributed, and also, of course, the access to alternative tests, because testing on the – PCR overnight tests were available through that time as well. So I’m not trying to –

Ms Heaven: Not accepting it?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I’m not trying to be difficult, counsel, I just don’t want to be manoeuvred into a corner to accept something when I can’t see the advice and the evidence you’re basing the question and the proposition on.

Ms Heaven: Let me move on to the next topic, then, fair enough. Let me move on to face coverings. Let me situate you. This is your 9 June press statement, and I’m sure you recall that. As you will know, this was significant statement because this was the first time the Welsh Government were recommending face masks to the public in Wales where they couldn’t socially distance.

I know you’re looking at your witness statement. It doesn’t really feature –

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, no, I was looking at the new documents that were provided during the course of the hearing.

Ms Heaven: I don’t think it will be that. But if you just listen, it’s obviously the first time that the Welsh Government are recommending face coverings, and indeed yourself are recommending that. It’s also significant because four days before, as you’ll recall, the UK Government had mandated face coverings on transport, so this was the – I mean, there was a lot of divergence in face coverings, as you know, with the UK Government, but this was a significant one because it was going to be mandated on trains in the UK in England, so what that meant is you could be taken off a train and given a fine in England if you didn’t have a mask on, but that, of course, wouldn’t happen in Wales.

One more bit of context, this was happening because the World Health Organisation had changed its guidance and it was telling governments to recommend face coverings.

Now, the Inquiry has heard, as you know, from Frank Atherton, and he’s accepted that his advice and the Welsh Government decision to diverge on face coverings became confusing for the Welsh public and weakened public messaging in Wales. And Ann John, the behavioural scientist from the TAG subgroup RCBI, also told the Inquiry that the Welsh Government’s approach was confusing and damaging to public trust, and she stated that a four nations approach would have been better.

So, first of all, do you agree with the evidence of Frank Atherton and Ann John?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I think on face coverings if we’d had a more engaged four nation conversation we could have reached a four nation decision.

As this and on other matters, the more engagement you could have had, you reach compromise and trade-offs, but the benefit is consistency for the public.

Ms Heaven: Well, the CMOs were engaged, you see, the CMOs were all talking to each other. So did you probe Frank Atherton – who was obviously giving you advice along with TAG, we know that – to understand whether he had sought any behavioural advice for the theories that he was coming up with on the three harms, or from TAG, RCBI? So did you question him as to whether he had any advice that was different from what the other CMOs had to justify divergence?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So we had a number of conversations, myself and the First Minister, the CMO, around the advice around face coverings and the position that we were in. I know some of this is in my statement, I think some of this is in the First Minister’s statement as well. And to be fair, Dr Atherton’s recognised that this was a live conversation and he was not persuaded of the evidence at the time that masks would be a positive addition to what we were doing. And again, he’s reflected in his evidence to this Inquiry that in hindsight he would give different advice now, and I think that’s honest, and we were well aware of the challenges on transport, on buses as well as trains actually on that.

Ms Heaven: Can I ask you, then, about your public statement. I’ve listened to it, it’s obviously available. You don’t explain to the public, do you, why it is that the Welsh Government is taking a different position to the UK Government? Do you not agree that in not explaining why you’re doing something different and addressing that, that you weakened public messaging, that you undermined public confidence in the science, and in all likelihood you probably risked encouraging non-compliance with the rules because you didn’t grapple with divergence; is that a fair comment?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I don’t think it is a fair comment. If you look at what we were doing, on the 9th where we’d advised people it would be useful to wear masks in enclosed spaces, and again reiterating the advice around masks where there are – where health and care is being provided, that’s what we did, and the process to then get to having those as mandatory, we’d moved from saying “Actually these are useful things to do”, so we’re guiding the public to make their own choices – and I think actually most people welcomed it – we then moved to actually having it mandated, and of course we end up some time later where we’re still mandating face mask usage in enclosed spaces when the UK Government aren’t.

I think when it comes to public trust and confidence in messaging, this is one issue, look at the overall suite, the reality is of the great majority of the public were coming with us through the summer on the pace of easements –

Ms Heaven: I’m going to move on. Sorry to stop you but, as I said, we have got limited time.

The next issue I want to ask you about is medical masks for vulnerable groups, because the other significant thing we know is in the WHO advice in June is that those over 60 who are vulnerable with comorbidities, the WHO is saying that they should have access to medical masks where they cannot socially distance.

I’m going to ask you first of all to look at some TAG/TAC advice from 8 June, so this is the day before your statement, please, because this information appears in the first draft of the TAC advice. So if we could get up, please, INQ000327606, and it’s page 5, and that should appear on screen in front of you. Do you see that there? That’s the TAG advice on masks, coverings and medical masks, and you see in the first paragraph there it’s in light of changes to policies in England and the WHO advice. Do you see that there?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I can see that, yes.

Ms Heaven: If we turn over, please, to page 7, so this is a couple of pages down, we see at the top there, I’ll read it to you, it says:

“There would be benefit of recommending … [Document read] … correctly et cetera.”

So essentially there is a TAG advice, we know this is 8 June, which is essentially reflecting the advice of – from the WHO. If we just go down a few more pages for completeness to page – internal page 15, we can see the WHO advice there.

Can you look at that box, at the very penultimate box line:

“Settings where physical distancing … [Document read] … negative outcomes.”

Do you see that there, it says vulnerable population, so over 60, comorbidities, and the protection that you need according to the WHO is a medical mask, isn’t it? Okay.

Now, what I want your assistance on is this: what we can see in the evidence is, between the date of this TAG advice and your public statement the following day, there appears to be – and on that day of your public statement, the TAG advice is published. The reference to medical masks has completely gone from the second TAG advice. Of course you’re not saying anything in your public statement, are you, about medical masks on that day? So it’s just to understand, if you can assist with how that happened and in particular how the TAG science advice came to be amended.

So if I can ask you about a second document, please, and this is INQ000215454. If we just keep that up for the moment, if we can go to the first part of the email chain, this is an email from Toby Mason on 9 June at 10 am.

Do you see that there?

Mr Vaughan Gething: It’s in front of me.

Ms Heaven: Yes.

So the context here is we know that there was a 9 am meeting at which your press statement was discussed, and we’ve seen some WhatsApps between Shan Morgan and Toby Mason talking about how that meeting was a bit muddled.

Do you recollect, were you at that meeting at 9 am on the day you gave your press statement?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No. I would undoubtedly have been busy, but I wasn’t in this meeting.

Ms Heaven: Are you sure about that?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I don’t –

Ms Heaven: I just want to be very clear with you. Are you sure, or are you saying you can’t remember now whether or not you were at that meeting?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I don’t think I was, because I was in a number of meetings and, look at these, I don’t ever recall being at the meeting with Toby Mason and Lee Waters discussing this in the circulation list.

Ms Heaven: Let’s –

Mr Vaughan Gething: If I had my ministerial diary, I could be more clear about whether I was or wasn’t there, what I was doing at the time.

Ms Heaven: Well, let’s look at this email then.

Mr Vaughan Gething: Do you have the diary available or not?

Ms Heaven: Well, no, I’m not permitted to put that to you, but I think this email probably will give you some assistance. So if we look at it, please, it’s the 10 am email from Toby Mason to Jane Runeckles and others:

“I’m really concerned … [Document read] …TAG paper [which is the one we’ve just looked at] will bring with it … [Document read] … Minister for Health and Social Services …”

That’s you, isn’t it?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Indeed, at that time.

Ms Heaven: “… that any questions… [Document read] … clearer position on all the issues.”

So if we just move up for completeness we then get a response from Lee Waters back saying:

“Agreed. I think Vaughan’s oral summary … [Document read] … hostage to fortune.”

So would you agree with me that it would appear, certainly from that summary, that you were at a meeting certainly before then? This is 10 o’clock. You must have been, mustn’t you, because there’s reference here to you giving an oral summary that was defensible?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I’m not at all sure what the things are referring to, that’s why I asked for my diary, because I could then tell you if I was in a meeting or not.

Ms Heaven: Okay. Well, I’m going to suggest –

Mr Vaughan Gething: I’m just trying not to give you a misleading answer.

Ms Heaven: Okay. Well, it says here “oral summary”, so in whatever context, though, would you accept that you presented some sort of oral summary and you have given very clear advice that the TAG paper on vulnerable people and medical masks that I’ve just shown to you “needs to be pushed off beyond today”, so in other words it wasn’t going to be told and presented to the Welsh public on 9 June? That seems to be what’s being suggested in this email, isn’t it?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Well, it’s possible, and of course this is one of the occasions where the scientific advice has actually been the policy in development, because if you say “This is what we’re going to do”, you do then need to say: and where will the deliverability come from, and at that point in time, not just the volume of masks of the right type, but how you get them to people. So if you’re getting yourself to a hospital, for the sake of argument, and you’re in a vulnerable group, you can probably get a mask on the way and as you do now on a regular basis. If you’re getting the bus or the train and you need to have a mask, how do you get the mask to those people? In the end what we found was that on buses, for example, they ended up putting masks at the front of the bus, so people could have them and take them –

Ms Heaven: Can I just pause you there for a moment, because what I’m putting to you is quite serious. It’s that TAG scientific advice was amended on your say-so and not presented to the Welsh public when underlying that advice was very clear guidance from the WHO that vulnerable people needed access to medical masks.

So that’s what I’m suggesting to you, the scientific advice –

Mr Vaughan Gething: Oh, I see.

Ms Heaven: – was amended on your say-so.

Mr Vaughan Gething: Oh, I see. So we’ve gone through this on a number of occasions where we had advice up to us to then be published –

Ms Heaven: Okay.

Mr Vaughan Gething: – and the publication of the advice, to help and inform the public about choices we have recently made. When we’re still making a choice, then we would say that actually this is still policy in development and we need to understand what we’re going to do about it as well. So it sounds as if the accusation is that I’m deciding what the science is, when I’m not. I need to be clear though, as indeed does the whole government, that if we’re saying “We’re going to make a change and here’s the science that underpins it”, you’re able then to deliver it –

Ms Heaven: Okay.

Mr Vaughan Gething: – what that recommendation is, and I think that’s sensible.

Ms Heaven: Just finally, then, on this topic before I move on, we can’t find any evidence to suggest that the Welsh Government ever told vulnerable people in the community in Wales that where they were over 60, with comorbidities, that the World Health Organisation was recommending that they use medical masks in the community.

So is this right? Was this vulnerable cohort of people in Wales never told by the Welsh Government what the World Health Organisation was saying that they needed; is that right?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I’m really not certain, and I don’t want to try to pretend I can piece through the documents to find –

Ms Heaven: Okay.

Mr Vaughan Gething: – an exact statement around that. We did of course issue lots of guidance around use of face masks and of course one of the things we were being advised in the same science was actually to try to draw a distinction between masks and face coverings, and that was a distinction that never stuck.

Ms Heaven: Okay.

Can I move on. I’ve got three minutes left, so can I move on to the firebreak, please, next final topic.

Dr Orford states in his statement that there were few occasions when Welsh ministers made decisions that appeared inconsistent with the advice offered by TAG/TAC, and he said a notable exception where the science didn’t align with the important decisions including the post-firebreak period where TAG advocated for control measures that would keep rates of infection lower, but for different reasons this was not followed, and he tells us that the national population protections that were introduced after the firebreak were insufficient to control the growth of the epidemic.

So will you accept today, then, that you were part of a Cabinet that rejected scientific advice that was given to you by TAG in autumn 2020 about how you should ease restrictions post-firebreak, and that this led to measures being introduced that led to a resurgence of the virus? Will you accept that, because that’s what Dr Orford is saying?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I think you’re characterising what Dr Orford said in rather more definitive terms than he did. If you look at where we were and the advice on the length and the depth of the measures in a firebreak, the opportunity to reset, the gains we thought we’d make and what we thought we’d be able to in resetting public behaviour, that is bounded in with all those other harms that take place as well, and we had to balance and weigh all those up. And, as I said in answering questions from Counsel to the Inquiry, the politics and the environment in which we were asking people to make those choices changed significantly and become much more contested, frankly much more bitter –

Ms Heaven: Okay.

Mr Vaughan Gething: – and, yeah, unpleasantly so.

Ms Heaven: One minute left, final question.

Were you ever made aware that the Swansea modelling team had results that showed that a four-week firebreak would suppress the virus deep into December? So that’s a four-week firebreak, that if that had been employed it would have suppressed the virus deep into December; was that ever told to you as a minister? I know you were told about two to three weeks –

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yeah, I –

Ms Heaven: – but were you told about four weeks?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I don’t recall seeing that. That doesn’t mean that I (inaudible) but I genuinely don’t recall seeing that. In all of the, you know, five lever-arch files of evidence that I’ve read, I don’t recall seeing that. From what I’d seen at the time, I have seen a reference to it in the files I’ve read for this hearing, but I can’t recall seeing that in September or October –

Ms Heaven: Thank you very much.

Mr Vaughan Gething: – 2020.

Ms Heaven: Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Ms Heaven.

Mr Straw.

Questions From Mr Straw KC

Mr Straw: Thank you.

Good afternoon –

Mr Vaughan Gething: Prynhawn da.

Mr Straw KC: – I represent John’s Campaign and Care Rights UK.

A number of people working under your responsibility have said that indirect harms were less well understood or evaluated than Covid harms or that insufficient attention was given to them. So to give a few examples, Professor Gravenor, the chief information officer, Andrew Nelson, Professor John Watkins, and moving on in time the TAG’s five harms paper in July 2021.

Now, since an accurate estimate of all harms or benefits of a particular restriction was necessary in order to decide whether it was appropriate, would you agree that more should have been done to ensure that indirect harms were accurately evaluated and taken into account?

Mr Vaughan Gething: This goes to the balance of some of the questions that started with Counsel to the Inquiry, I think before lunch, around how you assess the speed at which you need to act with the direct harm that you know is possible, then probable, and then much more likely, and how you assess that direct harm in terms of the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed with avoidable mortality and long-term ill health, the impact on the whole population of seeing the NHS collapse, against what you know are some indirect harms that you can see and others that you only see once you take some of those measures.

So, you know, we talked about the position and I think (inaudible) in response to questions to counsel that putting care home residents into individual isolation is not necessarily a benign and harm-free intervention, because that might protect them from seeing other people in the sense of not getting Covid from them, but it has an impact on them and their wellbeing. That isn’t just in a mental health sense, it’s in a real and physical sense as well.

So understanding all of those things is part of what you’re trying to balance. If you wait, though, to get chapter and verse on all of those, then events will have run ahead and you’ll be out of time. So, you know, that’s the difficult challenge.

Science, you have a public health advice, but you have to make the decision, and sometimes that is imperfect evidence that you have to deal with, but it’s still your duty to choose.

Mr Straw KC: On a systemic or learning lessons basis, do you – like the individuals under your responsibility – feel that it would have been a benefit to you to have not just this sort of carefully evaluated Covid harm evidence but also the other side of the picture, the indirect harms that would be arising from those restrictions? Do you agree that it would have been better to have that sort of evidence?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So, look, it was never outside the mind of ministers, certainly not me and I don’t think it was outside the mind of my colleagues either, because of the discussions we did have, that Covid was only one form of direct harms. You start off with the four harms that we had about – you know, that included direct and indirect harm in health service terms, but also indirect harm to the wider population as well and the economic harm being done.

So it was always a factor in our decision-making. If we could have had more information, more clarity about what that indirect harm would look like, that would always have been useful.

But I think my central point, but I’m trying to be direct and honest here, is that even if we’d had more information about those indirect harms, you’d still be faced with pretty terrible choices to have to make, and you can’t walk away from your responsibility as a decision-maker and – you know, certainly the case being the health minister and certainly the case if you’re the First Minister at this time – you’ve still got to choose, and so sometimes you’re choosing between harms, you’re not choosing how to avoid all those things.

Mr Straw KC: Thank you.

The next topic is about stakeholder input. So at 403 of your witness statement, you note that there were some opportunities for stakeholders to give input and you particularly – in particular you note the Older People’s Commissioner and Care Forum Wales.

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yep.

Mr Straw KC: First question about that: do you agree at that it was very important to ensure that key stakeholders could provide their views and evidence about important decisions, for two reasons: firstly, the decisions had potentially very serious adverse impacts and, secondly, because specialist knowledge of a particular sector would be helpful? Do you agree that getting that stakeholder input was important?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, and it was a feature of what we tried to do. So not just the Older Persons’ Commissioner but the Children’s Commissioner and others were engaged, both individually with policy areas they engaged with on a lead basis, but also through the Shadow Social Partnership Council where you did gather together – so you’d have all the commissioners, you’d have trade union stakeholders, businesses and the third sector, local government, and police in Wales, even though they’re not a devolved service, there was a conversation with the police board that was always fed in. So that Shadow Social Partnership Council had a wide range of stakeholders, not just to understand what the government were proposing, but to actually listen to what those people had to say, and those conversations did have meaning for ministers and indeed our officials who were advising us on the choices that we still ultimately had to make.

Mr Straw KC: A number of stakeholders have complained that their views or recommendations weren’t adequately or promptly acted upon. Just to give one example, the Older People’s Commissioner noted that she’d given – she’d said on 14 April that she considered it was urgent for there to be an action plan prepared for the care sector, but she didn’t consider that an appropriate action plan was produced until 30 July, so some time later.

Would you accept that a number of the views of stakeholders weren’t adequately and promptly acted upon and, if so, can you explain why that might have happened?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So I think it’s fair to reflect a couple of things.

The first is that sometimes you disagree with stakeholders. It doesn’t mean that they haven’t been heard or appropriately listened to, but there’ll always be a time when someone is urging a course of action on you that you choose not to take and, you know, reasonable people can and do disagree on the same facts.

There’s also, though, the point around whether you agree that the manner in which something has been done and whether you believe you’ve been listened to as well, so that’s different to whether you just disagree. It is how you do it.

And there’s then the point about your capacity to do something as well, and at various points in the pandemic I think some of our stakeholders overestimated the capacity of the government to do lots of things at the same time, and of course there are competing – there are competing challenges and objectives that different groups of stakeholders have and they’re not always consistent, and that goes into again ultimately you have to decide.

Mr Straw KC: Okay, my final topic. I’ve only got ten minutes, so I’m going to move on.

You appear to accept at paragraphs 528 to 529 of your statement that in the early stages of the pandemic, the PPE that was needed by the care sector in particular wasn’t made available to it.

The main reasons why – I’d like to explore, please, the reasons why sufficient PPE wasn’t made available, and you’ve already discussed with Mr Poole the adequacy of the PPE stockpile, but I’d like to ask you about two particular other factors.

Firstly, supply chain problems and with the care sector routing PPE from the government to local authorities which then had to be distributed to the care homes.

Do you consider that that sort of decentralised nature of the supply chain caused problems in PPE being made available?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So the two things are important. So there’s both how you get adequate volumes of PPE into the country, because internationally supply chains were stretched, were often just-in-time orders, and that collapsed rapidly around us. So we had this big challenge of getting adequate PPE for the health service and then the social care supply chains, because often individual homes or groups of homes would have their own supply chains and some local authorities would procure PPE and they all collapsed, they didn’t have the purchasing power to get into what was a – you know, an ultra competitive market and, you know, we’re not going to go into everything about PPE purchasing, but …

So actually the NHS was able in Wales, with some very difficult times, to get PPE to meet the NHS’s needs. What we also did, though, because we could see social care supply lines were collapsing around it, was pressure both from the individual groups, the Care Forum Wales, the biggest one representing individual homes, as well as local authorities, to say “The NHS needs to help us to get PPE”, because the NHS had never supplied social care with PPE in that way, but we did it because it was an essential part of what we needed to do in the pandemic.

And it was then – then that’s your second point about: how do you make sure it gets to people? And the NHS couldn’t deal with a system where individual homes would come to the NHS and say “I want this much”. So actually that’s why we used the joint equipment stores that local authorities had where the NHS, through our shared services organisation, would push out the PPE that we had and then local authorities who, in the largest part, commissioned care from those homes would then be able to distribute that direct to homes, and I think that’s still the right way to have run it.

So we introduced a wholly new way of supplying social care with PPE because of the pandemic and, after a very difficult first month or so, it was actually I think really quite successful.

Mr Straw KC: Okay.

The other factor that I’d like to focus on then in terms of supply of PPE arises from an email. Can we have up on screen, please, INQ000349300. Could you go down to the last email, please, between pages 3 and 4. Hopefully you will see this on your screen there. Thank you, that’s perfect.

So this is an email from you on 3 April 2020, and over on to page 4, 3 to 4, it refers to PPE, and then at the bottom of that top paragraph it notes – on page 4, it notes:

“Council leaders are concerned … [Document read] … compared to the NHS.”

I’ll read you all the emails out of fairness before I ask you the question.

Could you go up the page, please, to pages 2 to 3. This is an email from Chris Jones on 3 April, and he refers in paragraph 2 to some reasons why it may be that the NHS is being prioritised.

Then the final part of the picture is that on page 1 there’s an email in response to that by a special adviser who’s just referred to as Andy there, which I think is passed on to you, where he says:

“I simply don’t think … [Document read] … clearly contestable.”

He gives a number of reasons there as to what the staff do, cleaning, bathing, dressing and so on the residents, as to why they need to be fully equipped.

The question really is this: was the NHS prioritised over care homes in the terms of PPE distribution?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So the PPE that was available was PPE that had been procured by the NHS for the NHS. You then have the pandemic and, as I said, the supply lines collapse and so that’s a problem for the NHS and it’s an even bigger problem for social care because it isn’t just they’ve got restricted supplies, they don’t appear to have any.

So we directly supplied social care through the NHS, which had never been done before, and it wasn’t done in England til some time later. So actually you’re using your purchasing power through the NHS to actually help to supply PPE to social care that wouldn’t have it otherwise. And then it’s around the guidance, and this is about the guidance that a number of people looked at about which group of workers need to have PPE and in what form, and so this is around not saying everyone in social care needed the same because, you know, some people need different PPE. You’ve got cooks in social care, as well as people providing, as the note says, some people are providing personal care tasks.

So actually that’s in about working through which people are in an equivalent position and how do you make sure that both the guidance reflects that and that you then supply it against those needs. And this is part of having to do something that we hadn’t done before and needing to work through to make sure that guidance is reflective of the real world, and you’ll then get the supplies to the homes that need it. And Covid in care homes was about much more than PPE, you know, Covid circulating in the community was a – you know, I understand from the evidence I’ve read, including documents in the Inquiry, that it’s community circulating that was the biggest factor. So even without PPE, that’s still one of your biggest challenges about how you prevent it, but making sure there’s PPE is important both for residents and staff as well.

Mr Straw: I have to leave it there.

Thank you very much.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Straw.

Mr Gardner, I think you have some questions for the Children’s Commissioner.

Questions From Mr Gardner

Mr Gardner: Minister, I’ll take you back to the beginning of your evidence today, really.

In your statement at paragraph 161, you make reference to a SAGE meeting of 14 February 2020, and then you make reference to the Chief Scientific Adviser for Health advising that school closures were being expressly discussed at that meeting.

Do you recall that?

Mr Vaughan Gething: Yes, school closures were a regular feature of conversations throughout the period of time about –

Mr Gardner: So may I ask, then: that conversation post 14 February, was that the first time you became aware that schools closing was either under consideration or may be required?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I cannot – if it was then or a previous COBR meeting, but it’s part of what’s envisaged in the pandemic flu plan. So I was aware that schools activity is one of the things you might consider because of course influenza, children are – young children in particular are one the most vulnerable groups, so it’s about protecting them from very direct harm.

Mr Gardner: Let’s jump forward a month then. So then on 18 March 2020 a decision is taken to close schools as of 20 March 2020. So, given that the Welsh Government would have been actively aware that there’s at least the possibility of school closures for – from that time and at least a month prior to closure, can you say why the Children’s Commissioner for Wales was not involved in the discussions around closure?

Mr Vaughan Gething: No, I can’t tell you that. I have a wide range of responsibilities as the health minister through the pandemic, but I can’t tell you who was – how the lead contact was dealt with for the Children’s Commissioner and school closures as an issue, and actually this is really a feature of the fact that we’re trying to keep schools open and schools are closing around us, as I explained earlier, because a combination of staff who were isolating becuase they’d got symptoms, and indeed because parents are withdrawing their children, and that is a rational response that concerned parents were making.

Mr Gardner: Well, given then that we have our month of knowledge and we also have your evidence there that you knew that these measures were likely to be needed to be taken, can you then answer why no children’s rights impact assessment was undertaken at that time either?

Mr Vaughan Gething: I think we have been through this both in the documents and, I’m not sure if it’s my evidence or the education minister’s statement, and the pace at which events were moving and the opportunity to undertake a children’s rights impact assessment, and again in normal times you would undertake that assessment before making the decision, but these were anything but normal times.

Mr Gardner: So in which case, as there was no involvement of the Children’s Commissioner, as there was no children’s rights impact assessment, can you inform the Inquiry how the Welsh Government would go about considering the rights of children, how to mitigate the impact of school closures, if they’re not thinking through those things at the time?

Mr Vaughan Gething: So, we’re thinking through keeping schools open for a whole variety of reasons, because the evidence appears to be that children, particularly young children, are less affected. So that’s why we’re trying to keep schools open, it’s the conversation that the First Minister, the education minister, and indeed local government have, and yet schools are closing around us.

To then understand how you undertake a children’s rights impact assessment, when actually you’re forced from a decision on the 16th/17th, want to keep schools open, then you either close them or they will close for you, and so that’s why the choice was made, and there isn’t practically the time to undertake the full children’s rights impact assessment, and I – that’s just the truth of it.

You then get into: how do you protect children’s rights? And that’s about wanting to have distanced learning implemented from a standing start, and I should say, not just staff across every area of public service, the NHS and others who did so much to keep us well, but the headteachers in the primary sector in particular, they went to extraordinary lengths to try to make sure that our more vulnerable learners could still have access to some form of learning, and all of this happened within a matter of days.

Mr Gardner: You may have missed the second part of my question, which was: how did the Welsh Government think about mitigating the impact of closing schools if it’s not considering it at the time?

Mr Vaughan Gething: And that is the point about distance learning: how do you move to successful distance learning? What does that look like for teenagers, people in secondary school? What does it look like for our youngest children? And actually our youngest children in primary school, they’re very different cohorts, you know, so young children at the age my son was at the time have an entirely different view about what learning looks like to, say, a child who’s 10. Now, so actually you’ve got to think about: what does distance learning look like? How can you protect those children? And they’re missing all of that social interaction. It’s why it was such a painful and difficult choice, and why we spent so much of our capital in trying to get schools re-opened in the summer 2020, and why we had all those difficult conversations about whether we really needed to close schools and why me talking to the education minister in December 2020 saying “I think you need to move to distanced learning” is actually the last shot before lockdown.

Mr Gardner: Thank you, minister.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Gardner.

I think that completes the questioning for today.

Mr Poole: It does, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Mr Gething, I do understand the burdens I – the Inquiry makes on serving ministers in particular when we ask them to help the Inquiry, and I have now asked you to give evidence twice, so I hope this may be the last time but I can’t yet give you a guarantee.

Anyway, thank you for the help you have given, and sorry it’s been such a long day.

The Witness: That’s okay, it’s important. Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Very well. 10 o’clock tomorrow, please.

(4.40 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 10 am on Tuesday, 12 March 2024)