Transcript of Module 2B Public Hearing on 13 March 2024.

(9.58 am)

Mr Poole: If I could call Mr Mark Drakeford, please.

Mr Mark Drakeford


Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry for Module 2B

Mr Poole: If you could start with giving us your full name,


Mr Mark Drakeford: It’s Mark Drakeford.

Lead 2B: Mr Drakeford, you have provided a witness statement for

the purposes of this module, and we’ve got that

displayed, it’s INQ000371209. You signed that statement

on 13 December last year. Are the contents of that

statement true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Mr Mark Drakeford: They are.

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

we can see that at INQ000177804. That’s been signed in

the usual way with a declaration of truth as well. You

also gave evidence in Module 1 and the transcript of

that evidence is available on the Inquiry website. You

have also provided two further witness statements for

Module 2, if we can just identify those. The first we

see there, it’s INQ000273747, and then the second, it’s

INQ000280190, and those two have been signed with

statements of truth.

Mr Drakeford, we’re very grateful for the provision of those statements and also your assistance to date.

If I can deal first with your background and career, it is very well known that you are the First Minister of Wales, you have been so since December 2018. Before entering politics you have worked as a probation officer, a youth justice worker and a Barnardo’s project leader.

Between 1991 and 1995 you lectured in applied social studies at the University College of Swansea, now Swansea University. You then moved to what is now Cardiff University first as a lecturer and later as a professor of social policy and applied social sciences.

Alongside your university lecturing in 2000 you became a special adviser on health and social policy and later served as the head of the First Minister’s political office. You then succeeded Rhodri Morgan as the Assembly member for Cardiff West when Mr Morgan retired in 2011. In 2013 you were appointed Minister for Health and Social Services, a post you held until May 2016, when you became Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government. You became First Minister and leader of Welsh Labour in 2018.

Is that all correct?

Mr Mark Drakeford: That’s all correct.

Lead 2B: Although you announced on 13 December last year that you

would stand down as First Minister, you remain

First Minister until your successor is selected; is that


Mr Mark Drakeford: Correct.

Lead 2B: Mr Drakeford, your experience is important for a number

of areas in this module, because in practice you worked

inside the Welsh Government, including a decade in the

First Minister’s office, since the outset of devolution in 2000. You have therefore got a vast knowledge of government, how the Welsh Government machine works in practice. You have also been health minister and minister for local government, so are very familiar with the work of the NHS and local government in Wales.

You’ve also, as I’ve spoken about, been finance minister, you therefore negotiated the current funding regime in Wales, you therefore understand the complex issues of government and the intergovernment finance.

And obviously last, and by no means least, you were head of the Welsh Government and so had overall responsibility for Wales’ pandemic response and also its engagement with the UK Government and the other devolved administrations.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, there is much to cover this morning and this afternoon.

If I can start, please, with some questions about your role as First Minister and the decision-making structures within the Welsh Government.

You say at paragraph 14 of your witness statement that you are primarily responsible for the formulation, development and presentation of Welsh Government policy, and you say that this did not change during the pandemic. Is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: That will be right.

Lead 2B: As First Minister you chair the Welsh Government Cabinet. You describe in your witness statement the Cabinet as the core decision-makers, and you say that although the practicalities of ministerial engagement changed with remote working, the essence of collective decision-making remained intact throughout the pandemic. Is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: My approach as First Minister was always to make sure that the decisions we arrived at prior to and during the pandemic were the collective decisions of the whole of the Cabinet.

Lead 2B: We will look obviously at those particular decisions in greater detail later this morning and this afternoon, but broadly speaking, so that we know the lie of the land and we know how you approached these issues, were all the momentous decisions, so the decisions, for example, to impose lockdowns, social distancing measures and so on, were those decisions that were made in practice by the Welsh Cabinet or were they decisions made by you and enfirmed or endorsed later by Cabinet?

Mr Mark Drakeford: The decisions were always the decisions of the Cabinet, either made directly in the Cabinet and almost always in that way. Occasionally, and particularly in the very early days, they were made drawing on the clear knowledge of what the Cabinet would have decided, because of prior discussion, but made sometimes in a COBR meeting where I am the only representative of the Welsh Government present.

Lead 2B: I understand.

Although, as you’ve explained, the full Cabinet led on collective decisions during the pandemic, individual ministers were required to make decisions within their own portfolio responsibilities, and you make the point – it’s paragraph 39 of your witness statement – that:

“[You] expect Ministers to exercise portfolio responsibilities themselves save where: (i) a decision requires a cross-government set of resolutions … and (ii) [the] issues … are so significant that it needs to be elevated.”

Perhaps just to illustrate the point, the closing and re-opening of education settings during the pandemic, is that a decision for the minister for education or would that have been a decision for Cabinet?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think the decision itself rests with the minister, but given the significance of that decision, it would only ever be made in the full knowledge of what Cabinet colleagues would have contributed to that decision. So it’s made by the minister, but it’s made in the context of discussion across the whole of the ministerial team.

Lead 2B: Although the Inquiry understands that there were certain structural changes within the Welsh Government during the pandemic, so for example the creation of a director general for Covid-19, and certain people obviously moved positions, in terms of who made the key decisions, am I right that that remained always the Welsh Cabinet, as you explained, with you acting as first among equals and then individual ministers when the decision fell within their portfolio?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Yes.

Lead 2B: To what extent, Mr Drakeford, do you accept personal responsibility for the core decisions taken during the pandemic, as opposed to accepting it on behalf of your administration?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, no, I accept responsibility myself for all the decisions that we made. In the end, I am the First Minister of the government, and while I am a very firm believer in what is called distributed leadership rather than hierarchical leadership, in the end the decisions that were made in the Cabinet are signed off by me and in that sense I am responsible.

Lead 2B: I would like to next explore with you some of the legal, technical, structural problems or issues that presented themselves when liaising and dealing with the UK Government and the other devolved administrations during the pandemic.

The Inquiry understands that there was an intergovernmental relations review established in March 2018 which ended in January 2022 and reported then. The idea behind that review was to improve intergovernmental structures and ways of working, and we understand that that review has led to a new architecture for intergovernmental working, which I will come to in due course. I would like to just start though with the arrangements for intergovernmental relations as they stood at the start of the pandemic.

Now, the starting point is the memorandum of understanding, and we have got that at INQ000256804.

As we can see there, I think the memorandum was first agreed in 2001 but it was reviewed periodically, and this is dated August 2013.

If we can please have a look at page 9, paragraph 23, thank you very much, so over the page as well.

So this recognises that although most contact between the four nations should be carried out at a bilateral or multilateral basis between departments, there nevertheless needs to be some central co-ordination of the overall relationship, and therefore the four nations agreed to participate in what was known as the Joint Ministerial Committee, the JMC.

If we can, please, have a look at page 12, paragraph A1.3, we can see there it was agreed that plenary meetings of the JMC would be held at least once a year. They would consist of the Prime Minister (or his representative) who would chair the meeting. And then you have Scottish, Welsh first ministers, together with ministerial colleagues, Northern Irish First Minister and deputy First Minister, and then secretaries of state and territorial secretaries of state.

Now, the Inquiry has heard evidence that prior to 2019 JMC meetings would generally take place, as was envisaged in this memorandum of understanding, once a year. Is that your understanding?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, my Lady, because I’ve been involved, as you heard, for so long, I have taken part in different capacities in meetings of this sort with every Prime Minister since devolution, other than David Cameron. So I started attending these meetings when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, continued under Gordon Brown, and then with Mrs May and her successors.

So, yes, and actually they would sometimes happen more frequently than that. And beneath the First Minister and Prime Minister JMCs, they were very active JMCs, which brought ministers together around a particular topic. William Hague, when he was Foreign Secretary, for example, put a great deal of energy into the JMC Europe, which brought ministers together in advance of key meetings of the European council.

So underneath the headline, there are other JMCs, and as I became a minister I participated in those particularly around Brexit.

Lead 2B: I think there was a JMC meeting on 19 December 2018, that was the first meeting you attended as First Minister. It was a meeting attended by the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, the First Minister of Scotland and the then head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service in the absence of a Northern Irish Executive.

That was the last JMC plenary session before Theresa May resigned in May 2019. Am I right that there were no JMC plenary meetings throughout the pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: None.

Lead 2B: Mr Johnson, former Prime Minister, has said in his witness statement to the Inquiry in Module 2 that he chose not to meet with the first ministers of the devolved administrations because, in his view, that would have been optically wrong for fear that this would give a false impression that the UK was a federal state.

What is your reaction to that statement?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think I shared the reaction of Professor Henderson, who said in her written statement and in her oral evidence that that was one of the most extraordinary statements she had come across in her very long career of academic study in these matters.

As you know, I wrote very regularly to the Prime Minister asking for a predictable series of meetings between the heads of the four nations. It had never occurred to me until I read that, that the Prime Minister had turned those requests down, not on practical grounds, which I could understand, you know, these are very busy times and he’s a very busy man, but as a matter of policy he had decided not to meet, and that did seem to me to be an extraordinary decision.

Lead 2B: Do you consider that Mr Johnson’s seemingly deliberate choice not to meet with the devolved administrations had an impact on the Welsh Government’s response to the pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I believe it did. I believe there are a series of reasons why it would have been preferable to have held, not – I was never, my Lady, asking for meetings happening, you know, every week. To my mind, at the height of the pandemic, had we met once in a three-week cycle, that would have been sufficient. But I think there are a number of purposes that would have been properly discharged in such a meeting. I think it would, to use the Prime Minister’s term, have been optically important for people in Wales and in other parts of the United Kingdom to see the heads of their nations coming together at a moment of such national peril.

I think if we had not reached uniform decisions by coming together, we would have reached joint decisions. So the fact that you would be in the same room as others, you might not come to the identical conclusion, but you would all know what everybody else was deciding, and I think that would have strengthened arrangements.

And even if you hadn’t managed to do that, I always thought that the primary reason for coming together was that you would simply understand better what other leaders of the nations were facing in their own areas of responsibility, how they were proposing to address those challenges, the repertoire of different policy levers they may have wished to use, and as a result – for example, had I known more about what the First Minister of Northern Ireland was facing and what she was thinking and doing, that would have informed my decisions, and those would have been better decisions as a result of having an insight into what other people in a similar position were facing.

Finally, I think regularity of meetings improves trust, and in a pandemic, when things are moving so quickly, and sometimes with such difficult moments, trust is a very special commodity. And I think if you look at the meetings with Michael Gove, by the time we’ve met weekly for about six weeks, you can just see how the conversation is different, how it flows more freely, how people are franker with one another, because they have become used to being in each other’s company and having those sorts of discussions, and I felt that had we been able to do that at the prime ministerial and first ministerial level, we would have had greater trust in that relationship and that would have been a good thing.

Lead 2B: In the absence of JMC plenary meetings, COBR was the highest form for interaction between the four UK governments, and we’ll obviously come on to specific COBR meetings in due course but I just want to ask you some general questions about the Welsh Government’s involvement in COBR.

Now, COBR meetings are obviously controlled by the UK Government; this means that the UK Government decides when they are called and whether or not the devolved administrations are to be involved.

You make a point in paragraph 19 of your Module 2 witness statement, you say that the production of papers to be used at COBR meetings rests exclusively with the UK Government. In practice, this meant that you did not see COBR meetings(sic) until shortly before the meetings in fact took place.

Did you feel that and you other Welsh representatives at COBR meetings were placed at a disadvantage as a result?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I want to acknowledge first of all that at this point everybody is working under the most enormous pressure, and there is very little luxury of time for the production of papers or any other preparation for a meeting. But it would undoubtedly be the case in practice that when you arrived at a meeting, and I would be the only Welsh voice often at that table, other UK ministers would already have had a discussion and would already have had access to the information that I might have seen often less than 20 minutes before the meeting began.

In that sense you are at a disadvantage because you are trying to grapple very quickly with information that others have had longer to absorb and to think about.

Lead 2B: The Inquiry heard evidence in Module 2 and also Module 2A that concerns were expressed by some within the UK Government, perhaps most vocally by Mr Cummings, about including the devolved administrations in COBR.

We see Mr Cummings’ witness statement, INQ000273872, paragraph 82 we’re looking at:

“The COBR meetings with the Devolved Authorities were particularly bad as Sturgeon immediately briefed everything discussed to the media. They therefore became even more scripted, formulaic and pointless than the normal Cabinet. They were ‘handling’ meetings rather than a place where issues were really hashed out.”

So the suggestion obviously being made there by Mr Cummings is that there couldn’t be an open discussion at COBR when the devolved administrations were present as things would be leaked to the press.

Were you aware at the time that there were these concerns being expressed within the UK Government?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I would have been aware of anxieties in the UK Government, but I would also have known that they could not have pointed to a single example. I sat in JMC after JMC with representatives of the Scottish Government, sometimes talking about very sensitive matters indeed in relation to Brexit, and there was not a single example that the United Kingdom Government could have pointed to where either the Welsh Government or the Scottish Government put into the public domain information that had been shared with us on a confidential basis. So while I was aware of and to an extent could understand anxieties, I don’t think there was an evidential basis for them.

Lead 2B: On 13 March, Mark Sedwill, then Cabinet Secretary, wrote to the then Prime Minister.

We can see that letter at INQ000182338.

If we could have a look at page 2, fourth paragraph, what is being proposed to the Prime Minister here is setting up a “new rhythm of meetings”, including a daily 9 am Prime Minister meeting with a small group of ministers and key advisers.

Then if we can go over to paragraph 7, straddling pages 2 and 3, thank you.

“You will also need to decide how you want to involve the Devolved Administrations. Instead of inviting them to your 9 am meetings, I propose continuing to including them in COBR as public service delivery is where their main challenges will be. I would also recommend a regular meeting with First Ministers, either chaired by you or CDL [Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster], to update them on the response.”

Were you aware of this proposal at the time? So this is 13 March.

Mr Mark Drakeford: No.

Lead 2B: Now, we obviously know during the pandemic, and you’ve already spoken about the calls that you had with Michael Gove, and the fact that you were an advocate for a reliable, regular pattern of contact between the four nations, those calls started in June 2020. You describe in your evidence, and you alluded to it in your oral evidence this morning, that those meetings worked well, you say in your written evidence, because all four participants came to the meeting looking to share information, solve problems and work together on agendas of common concern, and you go on to say:

“… we were not turning up to be told what had already been decided whether we liked it or not.”

Now, is that alluding to how you considered effectively COBR to have operated?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, wouldn’t be a fair characteristic of the whole of COBR, because I took part in COBR debates which were genuine debates and where a variety of views were canvassed, but I also definitely took part in COBR meetings where the decision had already been made in advance of the meeting, and we were essentially involved in order to be told what the outcome would be.

But that wouldn’t be the whole story.

Lead 2B: You say, it’s paragraph 164 of your Module 2 witness statement, you describe Mr Gove as a skilful lead minister, but you say he was a centre forward without a team lined up behind him and where the manager was largely absent. Perhaps for those less familiar with football, can you explain what you mean by that.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, the absent manager was the Prime Minister, because he was never at these meetings or at the table, and while Mr Gove was a senior minister with responsibility for these matters, whose voice would count in discussions with his colleagues, he has influence rather than the determinative impact which a message from the Prime Minister would have. A message from the Prime Minister to a Cabinet minister, says “I would like this to happen”, is, in effect, an instruction. Mr Gove picking up the phone would have to say, “What do you think? Would this be a good idea?”

He’s a persuader, and he’s a skillful persuader, but that’s what he is. And that’s what I meant. There was a limit to the extent to which he was able to discharge the remit of leading a four nation approach across the UK Government.

Lead 2B: So would it be right to say that the calls with Mr Gove, whilst useful, in your view were not an adequate replacement for meetings with the first ministers and the Prime Minister during the pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: They needed to be supplemented by some additional regularity of contact between first ministers. I wouldn’t expect to meet the Prime Minister every week, and meeting Mr Gove every week was certainly useful, but at certain points in that weekly cycle a meeting with the Prime Minister would have allowed that head of government impact to have been brought to bear.

Lead 2B: Turning then briefly to the Secretary of State for Wales, who throughout the pandemic was Simon Hart, who the Inquiry heard from last week, I think it would be fair to say that you’ve made some quite pointed criticisms of the role played by Mr Hart during the pandemic. You describe him in your Module 2 witness statement as being peripheral to your interaction with the UK Government, and go on to say that:

“… the Secretary of State for Wales perceived his role as scrutinising the Welsh Government, constantly seeking explanations for policy differences and making inappropriate requests to be inserted into devolved decision-making structures and other groups.”

Now, when those criticisms were put to the Secretary of State for Wales, the then Secretary of State for Wales, last week, he said that scrutinising and interrogating decisions of the Welsh Government was very much part of his role and that effectively the Welsh Government should have been prepared for such scrutiny.

Now, do you agree and do you have comments on that evidence?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, of course the Welsh Government must be open to scrutiny, but the Welsh Government is scrutinised by the Parliament of Wales, by the Senedd that is directly elected by people in Wales to discharge that responsibility. Where the Secretary of State for Wales is concerned, again to try to be as even-handed as I can, where he discharged responsibilities that were his to discharge, he did so effectively. So, my Lady, during the progress of the pandemic, as you know, there were points when the Welsh Government sought the assistance of military authorities, and there’s a process, the MACA process, military assistance to civil authorities, the Secretary of State for Wales has a formal part to play in that process, and he always did it perfectly satisfactorily. He was always, you know, there when he was needed, he always moved the process along by discharging his responsibility. So where he had a role to play, I’ve got no complaints about what he did.

My difficulty was, particularly in the early days, with frankly, I think, very little else to do, the Secretary of State filled his days by writing letters to me asking me about the Welsh Government’s responsibilities. And the risk was that he was beginning to get in the way of our ability to do the things that we needed to do. At one point I had to write to him and explain that I couldn’t go on giving a priority to my scarce officials’ time with so many other things to do to replying to correspondence from him about things for which he had no responsibility and for which I am accountable not to the Secretary of State for Wales at all but to the Parliament of the Welsh people.

Lead 2B: One of the roles of the Secretary of State for Wales is to act as a voice for Wales within the UK Cabinet. Did you consider that Mr Hart acted as a voice for the Welsh Government at UK Cabinet during the pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: UK Cabinets have some hierarchical implications within them, and the Secretary of State for Wales is not to be found near the top half of that hierarchy. I’m afraid I would say that the Secretary of State for Wales was far more the voice of the UK Government in Wales rather than the voice of Wales in the UK Cabinet.

Lead 2B: Now, you’ve mentioned several times in your written evidence and also this morning the effectiveness of the approach that Michael Gove took in the meetings that you had with him, effectively acting as a key link person between the UK Government and the devolved administrations.

In your view, in the event of a future pandemic, where does that leave the territorial offices, the Scottish Office, the Wales Office, the Northern Irish Office? Are those offices being made redundant? Do you see them having a different role or should they have a different role in the event of a future pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, my Lady, this is a much broader question, and well above my own responsibility.

Lady Hallett: It may be way beyond my terms of reference by the sounds of it.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Shall I just say in general terms that, you know, cases have been made for a territorial office in the UK Government, a single Secretary of State, with second tier ministers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but that’s a matter for the Prime Minister of the day, quite definitely not for me.

Mr Poole: I think, Mr Drakeford, the reason I asked the question is because we’re coming to the intergovernmental reforms that we started off speaking about that were then reported on in January 2022.

Perhaps if we can just have a look at that report briefly.

It’s INQ000083215.

A couple of other witnesses earlier in the Inquiry have been taken to this, and this establishes a new framework, a new set of structures for managing intergovernmental relations.

And perhaps briefly if we can have a look at paragraph 11 on page 3.

So the new framework that supersedes the JMC system provides this three-tier committee structure, and all four nations, as I understand it, have agreed to work under these new arrangements.

You say at paragraph 201 of your Module 2 witness statement, you make the point that the new intergovernmental arrangements have never been fully implemented and in any event, you say, they “need to be animated by the necessary cooperative spirit for them to take the strain of responding to a prolonged and profound emergency”.

My question is simply this: in the event of a future pandemic, do you believe that these new arrangements for intergovernmental working will be effective?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think they will be more effective than the ones we had to rely on during the pandemic. They are still very new, they’re still not fully tested. The ministerial committee, the top tier of this, didn’t meet at all in 2023, hasn’t met now for 18 months.

So partly that, my Lady, is because there has not been an Executive in Northern Ireland, so there are sensible reasons why it’s been difficult to do so, but that’s partly what I meant by saying that structures are important and it’s important to get them right, but structures by themselves will not be sufficient. There has to be an approach to the structures, there has to be a commitment to them, there has to be a willingness to make the structures work. You can have all the structures you like on a piece of paper but if the people involved in them don’t approach them in that spirit they won’t deliver what is needed.

So I think –

Lady Hallett: Sorry to interrupt. Do you want to finish the sentence?

Mr Mark Drakeford: No, no.

Lady Hallett: Do you understand the structure? Because I confess I find it really rather difficult. There’s inter-ministerial groups, inter-ministerial standing committees and time-limited inter-ministerial committees. Not exactly straightforward to understand.

Mr Mark Drakeford: No, it’s overcomplex, I think. And I think that’s one of the things we’ve learnt since the structure came into being. It needs to be streamlined and pared back.

Essentially, though, it has three levels. It has ministers meeting in their own portfolio areas. There are two committees then which stand over that, the inter-ministerial standing committees, one dealing with finance, one dealing with other things. And then, at the top of this pyramid, a council of ministers which involves the Prime Minister and the first ministers.

But I would agree with you, my experience of this so far is it’s overelaborate.

Mr Poole: I want to next ask you, Mr Drakeford, some questions about information sharing between the four nations, particularly the sharing of scientific information, and start with some questions about SAGE.

In January and February the Welsh Government’s primary source of scientific and medical information about the virus came from SAGE, and you say at paragraph 30 of your witness statement for Module 2 this was a comfort to you at that early stage of the pandemic to know that SAGE would meet regularly. However, as we’ve seen, the first five SAGE meetings went ahead without any representatives of the Welsh Government. Did that concern you, that those early SAGE meetings going into early February didn’t have a Welsh voice round the table?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, there are a number of answers to that.

First of all, we were fortunate, and I don’t think it’s anything more than that, fortunate that our Chief Scientific Adviser for Health, Rob Orford, was well known and well connected to people who were on SAGE, so I always felt we had a direct line into the SAGE discussions. As that month moved on, I did come to be more anxious that we had somebody in the room while those discussions were taking place, rather than having a good read-out of the discussions, and particularly – this is slightly later on – anxious about our ability to put questions directly to SAGE that were pertinent to Wales.

But in those very early days, it did not occur to me that there was a particularly Welsh angle on what was a global phenomenon. So SAGE in those early days is less concerned with domestic impacts than in collecting the information on what was happening elsewhere in the globe, and at that point I did not myself see that there was a particularly Welsh angle or contribution to that.

So in the beginning I didn’t have concerns; they did grow a little as the weeks went by.

Lead 2B: The Inquiry heard evidence in Module 2 from Professor Henderson that SAGE data and advice had an English frame of reference. From what you’ve just said, do you agree with that?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I do agree with it to an extent. The United Kingdom is a voluntary association of four nations, but they’re very different in size and scale. So if you have a population of 55 million to draw evidence from, that’s always going to provide you with a richer source of evidence than a population with 3 million. So, you know – so in some ways I don’t think we should be surprised that a lot of the information that SAGE has is from the largest nation. However, there were times when there would have been specific dimensions that were pertinent to Wales where you struggle a bit to see where SAGE was finding the evidence it might have needed to make sure that Welsh circumstances were being taken into account in its deliberations.

Lead 2B: You identify another issue with SAGE at paragraph 30 of your Module 2 witness statement. You say there was no reliable protocol which made it clear that SAGE in fact worked for all four nations and not just for England, and you give two reasons for that: first, you say you had to ask COBR to make SAGE advice available to the Welsh Government; and secondly, you could not ask SAGE to carry out any bespoke research without prior agreement from COBR. Is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: That is right.

Lead 2B: Now, the Technical Advisory Cell that was set up on 27 February, and the Inquiry’s heard evidence that that was set up because SAGE outputs needed to be interpreted into a Welsh context. But given the lack of Welsh representation at SAGE, the fact that SAGE papers were not being shared with the Welsh Government until, I think it’s early April, the limitations on commissioning that you refer to in your witness statement and the lack of Welsh-specific interpretation until you get TAC and TAG set up, was it the case in January and February that the Welsh Government was not really in a position to question any of the advice that was coming out of SAGE?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I don’t think we were not in any position, because, as I said, our Chief Scientific Adviser in health was well connected to SAGE, able to let us know what was happening, and able to ask questions on behalf of Wales. But what I think happens is that the limitations that you enumerated get resolved over the weeks that those issues come to the fore. So today you would hope that those things would have been in place from the beginning. They weren’t, but they were identified and they were resolved.

Lady Hallett: But if you had growing concerns that the Welsh-specific features weren’t being reflected in SAGE, couldn’t you have set up TAG and TAC earlier to get the Welsh-specific focus?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I think if all this were to happen again, you would hope that TAG and TAC would be there from the beginning. But I think, as I say, these realisations are dawning as the weeks go by and where you begin to realise some of the limitations of your starting point. And then we do set up TAG and TAC, and I was always extremely grateful for the people who provided their time and their expertise to us in that way. And even if we in a future event had better representation at SAGE, better access to their information, better ability to ask them to do work for us, I’d still have TAG and TAC, I wouldn’t not have them, because I think the job they did in turning that more general information into specific advice for Wales would still be very, very valuable.

Mr Poole: So as well as TAG and TAC being established earlier, in the event of a future pandemic you would be calling for Welsh representatives to be on SAGE from the outset?

Mr Mark Drakeford: To my mind, that would be an important lesson of the experience that we lived through.

Lead 2B: As well as SAGE, information about the virus in January and February was obviously being relayed to you and the Welsh Government through participation in COBR meetings. The first three COBR meetings were 24 January, 29 January and 5 February.

Now, Welsh Government was represented by Vaughan Gething in his capacity as minister for health and social care at those meetings. Those initial COBR meetings and indeed, I think, the next two – so 18 and 26 February – they were chaired by the Secretary of State for Health, Mr Hancock, and it’s not until 2 March that we see the first meeting being chaired by Mr Johnson.

Now, it is obviously quite permissible for COBR not to be chaired by the Prime Minister. Indeed, it can be chaired by any official. You, however, commented in your evidence that there is a clear enough case for concluding that the Prime Minister should have chaired earlier COBR meetings, but you say not for the purposes of reaching different outcome in terms of the work done by COBR but in terms of giving a greater impression that the crisis was being taken seriously.

Is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Yes. So, my Lady, I’ve attended many COBR meetings not to do with the pandemic at all, but other crises, and it’s very ordinary for them to be chaired by the minister with the greatest direct responsibility for them. So the fact that the Prime Minister was not there at the beginning, I shouldn’t – I don’t think people should read that as something extraordinary.

But as the pace of concern begins to gather, I think in retrospect you could say that the Prime Minister’s involvement in chairing COBR earlier than he did would have sent a stronger signal about the seriousness with which the gathering storm was being taken.

Lead 2B: Now, the first COBR meeting that you attended was 18 February, so you did not attend the first three meetings. I mean, might it be said that your non-attendance at those first three meetings indicated that the unfolding crisis was not being taken seriously by the Welsh Government.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think there were two reasons why I wouldn’t agree to that proposition. First of all, at that point the approach to the pandemic is still very health dominated, it’s still being dealt with in the Department of Health in London and the actions inside the Welsh Government are very much concentrated around our health minister as well. So I think a health minister going to a COBR chaired by the health minister of the UK Government to talk about health matters is not unreasonable.

The second point is – of course, is that Vaughan Gething is a very senior minister in my ministerial team and I have full confidence that he will represent the Welsh Government and Welsh interests in the fullest extent.

Lead 2B: Obviously we understand that there would have been discussion in those early COBR meetings about public health matters, and at that stage the virus had not been declared a pandemic, but by mid-January it had spread to Thailand and Japan, you had UK scientists reporting a 12% hospitalisation rate, and there was already evidence of limited human-to-human transmission, so in an over-arching sense, as First Minister, do you not think you should have involved yourself in those early discussions concerning what would have been, on any view, a very worrying virus?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I think as you have said, the discussions were focused on health evidence and health responses, and at that point I believed that the person best placed to represent the Welsh Government in those discussions was the person with those health responsibilities in the Welsh Government.

Lead 2B: The COBR meeting that you attended on 18 February, if we can just see those minutes, please.

It’s INQ000056227.

This was a meeting chaired by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Mr Hancock.

Have a look, please, at page 5, the – and we see there you were dialled in as First Minister for Wales.

Paragraph 2 on page 5, there’s an update there on the current situation. If we can have a look at paragraph 3, the next paragraph, please, you’re told there’s nine positive cases confirmed in the UK, discussion about repatriation of UK nations from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

If we can go to page 6, please, paragraph 11, there’s discussion about what legislation would be used to respond to Covid-19. It’s stated there:

“… any Bill would … be employed on a Reasonable Worst Case Scenario … It was not for [COBR] to decide whether to legislate [or not].”

Then if we can just, finally, go over the page to paragraph 13, there is a legislative policy paper introduced, and the chair, Mr Hancock, emphasised that any Bill would cover the four nations of the UK.

If we can just, please, have a look at that legislative policy paper.

It’s INQ000049396. If we can just zoom in on paragraph 2, please.

It makes clear here that the final decision on what provisions the proposed Bill would contain, when to introduce it and of course its parliamentary handling will be taken by Number 10 and the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee “in light of the latest scientific evidence from SAGE”.

So just pausing there, this is 18 February. You understood from the outset, didn’t you, that the choice of legislation pursuant to which emergency powers would be exercised would be a decision for the UK Government?

Mr Mark Drakeford: That was my very clear impression at that time. And because legislation was to be discussed at that meeting is one of the reasons why I attended it myself, because you’re now going beyond the health brief itself, and the fact that the committee would not be able to make those decisions without the Prime Minister being there I think is another argument for why the Prime Minister might have chaired COBR a little earlier than he did.

Lead 2B: Now, we obviously know that the UK Government had on its statute books the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. It also had on the statute books the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act. Under the former, so under the Civil Contingencies Act, you’d have understood that decisions would be made by the UK Government and the Welsh Government would act as a Category 1 responder, so effectively implementing decisions made by the UK Government, whereas under the Public Health Act it would be the Welsh Government making the actual decisions for themselves.

We can agree, can we, that the choice of legislation used to respond to the pandemic, that would have huge implications for the devolved administrations and the type of structural response to the pandemic across the UK?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Absolutely.

Lead 2B: You say in your Module 2 witness statement, it’s paragraph 22, your assumption at the 18 February COBR meeting, so the minutes that we’ve just looked at, was that the response to the Covid-19 would be a UK Government response and the decisions would be taken by the UK Government. So your assumption at that time was the UK’s response would be based essentially on provisions which existed for the introduction of emergency powers under the Civil Contingencies Act; is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: That was my assumption at that time.

Lead 2B: Now, the legislative response was discussed again at a COBR meeting on 26 February. It was a meeting chaired by Mr Hancock, attended I think by Vaughan Gething and Dr Atherton on behalf of the Welsh Government.

You comment on this. We don’t need the minutes, but perhaps we can just see what you say in your witness statement.

It’s INQ000273747, and it’s paragraph 23. Thank you very much.

You say:

“My understanding is an emergency Coronavirus Bill was thus considered to be the legislative vehicle. The discussion around the legislative options was from the viewpoint of the UK Government – it was the UK Government that exercised the relevant powers in the Civil Contingencies Act. However, my own impression, at the time, was that the Coronavirus Bill would mirror the essential scheme of the Civil Contingencies Act and that the primary decision-making power would remain with the UK Government, to be implemented by the devolved governments.”

Now, your impression in late February was, as you say there, that the UK Government would be introducing the legislation mirroring the essential scheme of the CCA and primary decision-making would remain with the UK Government.

Did you voice or did you have any concerns about that legislative response to the pandemic at that stage, or were you content that that was the appropriate response?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, Welsh Government officials are engaged in discussions about the Bill, so I’m not anxious about not having a voice in the process.

My own impression at the time was that UK Government ministers’ primary objection to using the Civil Contingencies Act was that it required them to go to Parliament every seven days in order to renew the powers that they were exercising, and that they felt that that would be overburdensome in the circumstances of a pandemic. So my belief was that in the emergency Bill they would continue to take the suite of powers that the Civil Contingencies Act provided to them but make them more workable from their point of view.

Lead 2B: If we can just look at the next six lines of this same paragraph, where it says:

“I had not anticipated that the UK Government would use the health protection legislation as the basis for responding to the pandemic. Once that course of action had been determined it placed an onus on the devolved governments to pass corresponding legislation and below, I comment further on the unintended consequences of this decision for divergence.”

Now, we’ll talk about divergence in decision-making and what you describe as unintended consequences of that decision a bit later. I’d just like to focus on when the decision was taken to legislate using public health powers as opposed to the CCA and the impact that that had on Welsh Government decision-making.

You say, we don’t need it pulled up, but it’s in, I think, your supplementary witness statement for Module 2, at paragraph 4, you say:

“On or around 2 March … the UK Government made the decision not to use the [CCA] …”

However, your understanding was that even if the Coronavirus Act would be the legislative vehicle, the UK would be the primary decision-maker. Once the Act had received Royal Assent, implementation would be left to the Welsh Government.

So your working assumption hasn’t shifted at that stage, by 2 March.

We then skip forward to a COBR meeting on 20 March, and you deal with this at paragraph 52 of your Module 2 witness statement and you say this:

“The meeting recommended that the Public Health Act 1984 be used rather than the [CCA] as the legal basis for government action in responding to the pandemic.”

I’m right in saying, aren’t I, that that 20 March COBR meeting, that was the first time that you were told that public health powers would be used to respond to the pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: My Lady, I do think this is a profoundly important part of the debate, and I know the dangers of looking retrospectively at these things, but the lack of clarity over the legislative basis for the powers that would be needed continued all the way through March. My belief right up until 20 March is that the essential decisions would remain in the hands of the UK Government and that devolved governments would be implementers of those decisions.

Even at 20 March there is further confusion over the next couple of days as to where the ability to exercise public health powers lie, and there is an extraordinary exchange of messages between Mr Gove and Mr Hancock on 30 May in which Mr Hancock says “I’ve seen this submission, it’s disgraceful that lawyers don’t understand where these powers lie because public health is not devolved”.

So here is the Secretary of State for Health in England getting the most basic thing entirely wrong. He has advice from his lawyers, which is correct, that once the decision had been made to use the 1984 powers then the decisions would move to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and to ministers in London for England, and that we would have an obligation to discharge those responsibilities once they were placed in our hands. But as late as 30 May the Secretary of State gets that entirely wrong in his exchange with Mr Gove.

So if we were to look to the future and draw any lessons from the experience, then getting clarity early about the legal basis on which these most profoundly consequential decisions were being made, I think that’s – when you work your way through it again, it’s pretty alarming that on 20 March we are still resolving this.

Lead 2B: Both nations knew that they had Public Health Act powers on their own statute books. Just playing devil’s advocate, could it not be said that you ought to have been – rather than assuming it would be the CCA or a new Bill but a version of the CCA that would be used as the legislative vehicle to respond to the pandemic, should you not have been questioning that as far back as 18 February when there’s the first discussion about legislative response, and asking, “Well, where are we? Where is this going?” Given that it has, as you say, such a profound impact.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think that would have required quite an imaginative leap on the part of the Welsh Government. COBR is constructed on the basis that the CCA lies behind the decisions that it will take and there was no suggestion at all that this was going to be any different. All the discussions about legislation seemed to me to be clearly on the premise that decision-making in a national emergency would lie in the hands of UK ministers. So I think it would have been quite, you know, a sort of side-step for the Welsh Government to say “But surely there’s a different way of doing this using powers we’ve already got”. And, you know, quite clearly that had not occurred to me, because 20 March is the first point at which I begin to realise that this is a looming reality.

Lead 2B: You say in your evidence that once the decision had been taken, this was a decision that you agreed with because health is a devolved matter, and using public health powers would allow the Welsh Government to respond to Wales’ specific circumstances.

And you go on to say, it’s paragraph 195 of your Module 2 witness statement, that once the determination was made to rely upon public health powers, the responsibility for decision-making was dispersed to each UK nation and you believe that this allowed the Welsh Government, in your words:

“… to calibrate a response which reflected our particular circumstances, and which sustained the broad support of Welsh citizens.”

Again, I suppose it’s a similar theme to my last question. If you agreed – once the decision had been made and you agreed with the use of public health powers for all of those reasons you explain in your witness statement, why were you not advocating on behalf of Wales for public health powers to be used to respond to a pandemic, rather than the CCA or a version of the CCA?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Because until 20 March there was no suggestion at all that that was the turn of thinking that the UK Government had come to. Once they – once they do come to it – maybe I would have changed one word in my own statement when I heard you read it: it isn’t simply that the decision to use public health powers “allows” Welsh ministers, it requires Welsh ministers. These now become your responsibilities, you have no option but to exercise them because the responsibility has been placed in your hands.

Lead 2B: Coming back to the point I said we’d pick up on about unintended consequences that you refer to in your witness statement. Was that something that you thought at the time was appreciated by the UK Government?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I think that’s probably what I meant when I used the words “unintended consequences”. I don’t think it was apparent to UK ministers at the time, but by placing that responsibility at the nation level, that meant that there would now be decisions being made by others over which they had no direct control. So I think that was a dawning realisation for UK ministers.

You can begin to see it as early as 23 March, though, the decision of COBR in lockdown, because there are already nuances that are different there. There’s a discussion in which the Mayor of London, myself and the First Minister of Scotland are arguing that construction sites ought to be covered by the new arrangements, and the UK Government is taking a different view. So there are already small signs from the very beginning that there would be some differences in implementation, but I think it was a dawning process rather than a clearly plumbed-in recognition from the outset.

Lead 2B: Now, perhaps, Mr Drakeford, for some of the reasons that you’ve just given, the Inquiry has heard evidence in Module 2 from some UK Government ministers and former ministers that they regret the decision not to use the Civil Contingencies Act to respond to the pandemic. Mr Johnson in his evidence in Module 2 has said that in the event of a future pandemic, the UK should be treated as a single epidemiological unit and that the best approach is a UK-wide one with no differences between the four nations, and that evidence was echoed by Simon Hart at the end of last week when he gave evidence to the same effect.

Do you agree that the best approach in the event of a future pandemic is a UK-wide response, or would you see a response, as with this pandemic, by using the Public Health Act again?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I definitely don’t think that the evidence suggests to me that decisions made in London would have been better decisions as far as Wales is concerned. We are just inevitably closer to the ground, more aware of administrative structures, alert to the different patterns of the disease. In the Welsh case, simply better able to communicate in the bilingual way in which Wales operates. So I definitely don’t agree that better decisions would have been made from Whitehall than in Wales. I think there is a different way, however, in which strengthened ability to co-ordinate between the four nations would have been preferable to the pattern that we ended up with, and that that would have allowed a different degree of co-ordination and joint decision-making that we ended up, and that’s a preferable way, I think.

Lead 2B: Before we leave the question of divergence, you will have been aware that both Mr Johnson and Mr Hart have given evidence to the Inquiry that there was a risk of the devolved administrations being, in their words, different for the sake of being different, and in fact Mr Hart arguably went further and stated that the Welsh Government actively sought differentiation for no other reason than to be different and to set Wales apart from the other nations in the UK.

Was the need to be different for the sake of being different ever part of your thinking or the thinking of the Welsh Government?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I absolutely refute the assertion of the Secretary of State for Wales, for which I notice he provided no evidence at all.

My Lady, I am a believer in the United Kingdom. You know, I lead a government that wants the United Kingdom to succeed, and faces considerable political opposition from people who believe that Wales’ future would be better separated from the United Kingdom. I had no motivation of any sort to make decisions for the sake of being different, and I think my effort through the whole pandemic is to try to find better ways of coming together to make better informed decisions. And I don’t think the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State could offer you a single specific instance to justify the charges that they have made.

Lead 2B: Moving away now from legislation, devolution, divergence, and ask you some questions about the Welsh Government’s initial response in the early months of January to March 2020.

You say in your evidence that although you were aware of Covid-19 in January and February, it was not a priority of the Welsh Government, and you go on to say that, as February 2020 moved on, responding to the extreme and adverse weather conditions that caused widespread and significant flooding throughout Wales was, your words, the most urgent matter facing the government, and it wasn’t until March that Covid moved up the Welsh Government’s priority list until it became the most significant matter.

Is that a fair characterisation of the position?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, the early months of 2020 are dominated, from a Welsh Government’s perspective, by the risks of a no-deal Brexit, which was imminent, by winter pressures in the health service, which are always at their most pressing in early January, in our anxieties to pass a budget through the Senedd, we’re a government with a very slim majority and you’ve got to pass a budget, and by the first part of February we are dealing with very significant 40-year adverse weather events that affect thousands of people. So those are the front-of-desk preoccupations during those early weeks.

It is not to say, of course, that we are not aware of what is happening elsewhere in the world or engaged in keeping ourselves properly informed about it. My colleague Vaughan Gething starts issuing weekly statements to the Senedd on 24 January, he starts issuing daily updates to ministerial colleagues on 28 February – 28 January, I’m sorry. Both of those are January dates, 24 and 28 January.

So before February begins, we are already alert to and engaged in making sure we are as well informed as we can be of what’s happening elsewhere. But at that point it is happening elsewhere. There is not a single case in Wales, nothing you can point to that is directly affecting the Welsh population.

Lead 2B: On 24 January, you were advised by Dr Atherton that there was a significant risk that the virus would arrive in Wales. That’s right, isn’t it?

Mr Mark Drakeford: It is.

Lead 2B: Now, despite that warning being given on 24 January, Covid-19 is not discussed by the Welsh Cabinet until 25 February. Now, given that Cabinet is charged with making, as we’ve discussed, any of the key decisions relating to pandemic response, is it surprising for there to have been no discussion at Cabinet for more than a month after you’re given that warning by the Chief Medical Officer about a significant risk of the virus arriving in Wales?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I think if I could, my Lady, it’s just important to provide a small amount of context here.

The Welsh Government is a very small government, we have nine Cabinet ministers, we all work with our offices next door to one another. It’s very, very different to Whitehall, where ministers are scattered, necessarily, across a wide geography, and where the only time they come together is when they’re in the Cabinet Room.

The fact that there was no discussion at Cabinet until 25 February should not be read at all as there being no discussion between Cabinet colleagues, because there was a great deal of discussion between Cabinet colleagues, in the way that we would normally transact business. So I would have spoken directly to Vaughan Gething after all the COBR meetings that he had discussed, and he would have been involved in other discussions with Cabinet colleagues.

At that point there is nothing for the Cabinet to decide. We’re being kept well informed, we are discussing matters between ourselves. And then there comes a point when it becomes clear that the Cabinet is likely to be involved in cross-portfolio decision-making. At that point it becomes an item on the Cabinet agenda and very quickly it comes to dominate the work of the Cabinet.

Lady Hallett: Isn’t the point that it’s not just a case of being kept informed, it’s a case of making sure that people know what is going to happen on the ground, what preparations there are, for example for shielding vulnerable people, to check that there’s surge capacity. It’s not just monitoring. It’s a point I made a Vaughan Gething, it’s not just knowing what’s going on around the world, it’s: what are we going to do when it comes here? Which there’s a significant risk it’s going to.

Mr Mark Drakeford: So I think the question for me there is: at what point does the Cabinet shift from the being kept informed to needing to make decisions that would be necessary in Wales? I think that point does not come for us until the second half of February. Up until then, we are essentially making sure that we’re as well informed as we can be, plugged into the knowledge that is available at a UK level.

There comes a moment, and, you know, it’s gathering after that 18 February COBR meeting – as I say, I attended because I could see that we were moving into a situation where legislation was going to affect not just the health minister but the education minister, the transport minister and the housing minister, and this was going to become a cross-government preoccupation, and that’s when the Cabinet begins to discuss things.

Mr Poole: Mr Drakeford, you had some experience of planning for epidemics as you had to deal with the Ebola outbreak whilst you were health minister. During your time as a special adviser to the First Minister there was a SARS outbreak. I mean, given that experience, did you not think or did you not realise in January 2020 the importance of early action, the rapid scaling up of resources, thinking about infection control measures, and aren’t they issues that ought to have been discussed at Cabinet at that stage?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, the signal to me that we needed to move into that territory was the moment when chief medical officers advised that the risk level to the United Kingdom and to Wales has moved from low to moderate. Right until the point at which the Cabinet begins to discuss things, the advice from our chief medical officers is the risk to Wales is low, and when that is your primary signal it doesn’t read to me like a signal that we need to start mobilising in that purposeful way all the things that you listed.

When the signal changes, and the signal is now it’s gone from being low to being moderate, that’s the point at which the Cabinet does become engaged in exactly that list of considerations.

There’s a very plausible case, my Lady, I’m not denying it at all, that that signal should have been read earlier, and that we should have been – we should have moved what we were doing some weeks earlier into the year. But the signal wasn’t there at the time. At the time the signal is: this is a low risk. You know, it’s not – it’s not as pressing or right in front of you as some of the other risks that we are dealing with, but at the point that the risk level rises from low to moderate you see the Welsh Government gearing itself up and the Cabinet gearing itself up to grapple with some of those matters.

Lead 2B: Eluned Morgan gave evidence yesterday and she said that if the Welsh Government were given their time again “we would recognise that we probably should have been making earlier preparations”, throughout January and February. Do you agree with that?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I think I’ve just said that that – there’s a very plausible case for saying that, but that is with the lens of hindsight applied to it. If we knew then what we knew now, there are many things we might have done differently with better knowledge. In the knowledge of the time we moved when the signal to us suggested to us that that was necessary.

Lead 2B: The Inquiry has heard evidence from various sources, I’m thinking particularly of Professor Sir Chris Whitty, he told Module 2 that he was under no illusions that the UK was well set up to meet a challenge of a major pandemic because he said he knew investment in healthcare had been suboptimal, he knew that the planned flu plans, such as they were, wouldn’t necessarily stand up to the challenges of the coronavirus, and also he was aware that there was no sophisticated or scaled up test and trace system, in contradistinction to some other countries.

In general terms, in late January/early February, were you aware of those concerns? Was that a viewpoint you shared in Wales?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, we would certainly have shared the view that a prolonged period in which the funding of public services was not what it needed to be would have left the system more vulnerable to a sudden and major impact. We would absolutely have understood and shared that.

I would certainly have been aware that we did not have a test and trace capacity of the sort that we were eventually able to mobilise. I received advice in the middle of February that Wales had the capacity to carry out 100 tests a day, and that in normal circumstances that was, you know, sufficient to meet our needs, but it clearly was not going to be sufficient to meet a mass testing regime. So some of the points that the CMO for England makes there I think would have been known to us.

Lady Hallett: Just before we move – can I go back – I’m sorry about this, Mr Poole – can I go back to the advice you were getting, Mr Drakeford. You said that your CMO advised you in January of significant risk. I always call “significant” a weasely word on the basis it can mean a lot of things to different people, but it usually means something to mark, significant. And then you say you’re getting advised it was low risk that the virus was coming to Wales.

Did you interrogate that advice and say, “Well, wait a minute, back in January you said it was significant, and therefore something that should be marked, and now you’re saying low”? Did you interrogate it? Did you ask questions of why you were getting that advice?

Mr Mark Drakeford: We’d certainly have had opportunities to discuss it directly with our Chief Medical Officer, but my understanding at the time would have been the risk to the United Kingdom is low, the chances of it coming here are not significant, if it does come here then the risk will be significant. That’s the distinction I think that was in my mind. You know, the risk of it happening is not – it’s at the low end of the spectrum. If it were to materialise, then the risk will be significant. So I think you can understand that the Chief Medical Officer was making two separate but linked points.

Shall I say that again? Is that –

Lady Hallett: No, it’s the distinction between there’s a risk of serious rain and a serious risk of rain.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Yes.

Lady Hallett: I would have thought that “significant risk” means that there is a likelihood or very real possibility it’s coming, so it’s not a risk of serious rain, it’s a serious risk of rain.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I agree, you can definitely read it that way. Had that been the intention, I would have expected, though, that the Chief Medical Officer would say “And therefore these are the things you need to be doing now”, and there wasn’t advice of that sort, either through Sir Chris Whitty or through other chief medical officers or in Wales at that point. So I think had the Chief Medical Officer meant ministers to understand: “this is coming and it’s coming your way and you need …” there would have been “and you need to do this”. But there wasn’t. And so I think that what he meant was the risk is low. That’s what we were being told. If it happens, it will be significant.

Lady Hallett: And that was accepted without interrogation.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Not with – I wouldn’t say without interrogation, because we would have had an opportunity to discuss it. But the fact that it was unanimously the view – had that been the idiosyncratic view of the Welsh CMO, then you would have expected quite a lot of interrogation. Given that he is mirroring the advice that all his fellow chief CMOs are giving in every part of the United Kingdom, I don’t think you would have thought that there were major alarm bells being sounded.

Mr Poole: Mr Drakeford, as well as assessing risk, one also has to assess likely harms and, given the demographic characteristics of the Welsh population, so specifically the age profile of those aged over 65 and aged over 75, would you agree it was always likely that Wales would experience disproportionate levels of impact from Covid-19?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, as we say, you know, “Wales, older, poorer, sicker”, so yes, of course that would always have been in the mind of Welsh ministers. Health inequalities has been a preoccupation of Welsh ministers throughout the whole of the devolution period. So we would have been aware of course of that.

Lead 2B: So even if the risk is low, the harm levels, given what you say, older, poorer, they are higher, doesn’t that speak to taking earlier action?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I don’t think that’s an unfair point to make. Whether by itself it would have been enough to make Wales what would have been an outlier in the preparations that were being made across the United Kingdom, I’m not sure that it bears that much weight.

Lead 2B: I think in fairness to you, you do say in paragraph 17 of your Module 2 witness statement, you say:

“… looking back on matters and given what we now know, there is strong evidence to suggest that more stringent action could have and should have been taken sooner.”

I just want to explore with you briefly before we take a break what stringent action you think ought to have been taken by the Welsh Government in January and February and if I can just start with the Emergency Coordination Centre of Wales.

The Inquiry has heard evidence from Mr Quentin Sandifer. He was, between January and November 2020, the lead strategic director in Public Health Wales for Covid-19. He’s told the Inquiry that on 22 January he invoked the Public Health Wales Emergency Response Plan at enhanced level and then two days later, on 24 January, so coincidentally the same day that you have a conversation with the CMO and are advised of the significant risk of the virus arriving in Wales, the Public Health Wales called on the Welsh Government to stand up the Emergency Coordination Centre.

He received a response from David Goulding, who said:

“I don’t see this event as it is currently moving from being in the public health outbreak management space and into civil contingency/multi-agency emergency response.”

And then that position was re-stated by the Welsh Government on 3 March in an email to Public Health Wales.

Dr Sandifer then spoke to, on 11 March, the date that the WHO declare Covid-19 a pandemic, the fact that Public Health Wales drafted a paper summarising the current situation in Wales and providing effectively an evidential summary of considerations that the Welsh Government should take into account in deciding whether to declare a major incident for health in Wales, and Dr Sandifer told the Inquiry feedback to that paper was that such a declaration would not be helpful and he said he was astonished that by early March the Welsh Government were not treating the pandemic as a civil emergency situation.

Looking back, is that something that you would do differently?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think the first thing I have to say that I would not have been aware of any of those conversations. Those are going on between officials who are themselves experts in the Welsh response to an emergency. I cannot rule out the possibility that, had the Public Health Wales view been more directly communicated to ministers, that that would have made a difference to the actions that we took, but the system that we had, as you know, is that the Public Health Wales does not speak directly to ministers by routine, they speak to Welsh ministers via the Chief Medical Officer, who is the person charged with the oversight of the Public Health Wales functions. So I can’t rule out, of course, that had those views come to us in the way that Dr Sandifer describes it might have made a difference, but that isn’t the way that they were conveyed.

Lead 2B: Dr Sandifer says that what he thinks was missing was national strategic leadership and co-ordination from the Welsh Government. Is that a fair criticism? And he is talking specifically the period January to mid-February.

Mr Mark Drakeford: No, I don’t think it is. Dr Sandifer, who I’ve worked with over many years and have a great deal of respect for, does not work in the Welsh Government. The fact that he’s unable to see something happening does not mean that it is not happening. It just means that from the vantage point he has in Public Health Wales, an arm’s length body that operates outside the Welsh Government, there were things going on that he didn’t know about.

Mr Poole: My Lady, if that’s an appropriate point to break.

Lady Hallett: Yes, of course, certainly.

As you know, Mr Drakeford, we take regular breaks. I know – I’m very conscious of all your other duties, and I promise you we will complete your evidence today. I’m sorry about the demands on your time.

The Witness: Not at all.

Lady Hallett: 11.30, please.

(11.16 am)

(A short break)

(11.30 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr Poole.

Mr Poole: Mr Drakeford, if we could start, please, with the 25 February Cabinet meeting.

We can see the minutes at INQ000129852.

As we discussed earlier, this is the first Cabinet meeting to formally discuss Covid.

If we can go to the last page, it’s page 6, under “Any other business”, we were told by Mr Gething we shouldn’t read much, if anything, into that.

5.3, please, Mr Gething is leading and addressing Cabinet at this stage. This paragraph was discussed at quite some length with Mr Gething when he gave his evidence. Do you have an independent recollection of what was said about there being imported cases into the UK or imported cases into Wales? I appreciate we are going back four years.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, the minute is inaccurate. It doesn’t reflect what was said at the Cabinet. As you know, some time later, before the minutes are published, I get sent them. I’m afraid, nailing my reputation for pedantry to the wall, I read them and go back in and say, “I’m sure that minute is inaccurate, that’s not what was said”, and the minute is corrected.

Lead 2B: You, just to clear this up as well, do deal with this in your witness statement for this module.

It’s INQ000371209, at page 25, paragraph 77.

You say there:

“It was noted that the Minister for Health and Social Services had been updating Senedd members … The risk to the UK was described as moderate. Information was … shared across all four … Travel advice … Public …”

So four lines up from the bottom:

“There had been no imported cases into the UK.”

So that error from the minutes has crept into your witness statement. That is also an error; is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Yes, it is.

Lead 2B: What is perhaps striking about these minutes is that the – and perhaps if we just go back to them, it’s INQ000129852, please – is there’s no consideration by Cabinet of what steps should be taken to stop the virus spreading, so what infection control measures needed to be thought about and put in place. There doesn’t seem to be any discussion about that. Why is that?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I’m not sure that I can recollect for you precisely enough why some things were discussed and why some things were not at that moment. For me, the key thing is that this is the moment at which the Welsh Government’s attention turns to this issue with the significance that it was to command, and at that point all those issues are being discussed.

My Lady, if I could say, just in terms of the Welsh Cabinet’s response, at this point I decide that all Cabinet meetings should now be attended by all ministers, not just Cabinet ministers. There are 12 ministers in the Welsh Government, four of whom are junior ministers, but I want everybody round the table from now on. By 4 March, we are setting up a second meeting every week for all Cabinet colleagues, specifically and only to deal with the Covid-19 emergency.

So very rapidly from this moment on, the Welsh Government is gearing itself to deal with the issues that Mr Poole has identified.

Lead 2B: Mr Drakeford, what was the plan at this stage? This is 25 February, Covid is being discussed for the first time at Cabinet. What was the plan for practically stopping the spread of the virus into Wales, the nuts and bolts of the plan as you understood it to be? You’ve spoken about testing and tracing, we know that that only dealt with index cases. What was the Welsh Government going to do about infection control measures? That’s why I say I’m surprised that’s not seen in these Cabinet minutes and I just want to know what was the plan at this stage?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, first of all, to be clear, there is no plan to prevent the virus from spreading into Wales. That would have been an ambition well beyond what we would’ve imagined we could have accomplished. But from now on there are very practical things being discussed about how we would respond to coronavirus when it arrives, and it’s now becoming a when rather than an if.

So you will see measures being taken, we have an early discussion about schools and what we will do through that. We are beginning now to think about how we will gear the health service up for what it may face, and within another few days, and only a few days, as the only part of the United Kingdom at that point, we formally agreed that we will postpone all non-urgent outpatient, inpatient treatments in order for the health service to gear itself up for what is coming its way.

So I’m afraid I just don’t have a detailed enough recollection to be able to pinpoint for you, you know, at exactly what point we discuss an exact theme in preparation, but I’m very confident that from that date onwards all of that is happening.

Lead 2B: We’ll work our way through March and look at some minutes as well to help your recollection in a moment.

Just a step to one side, you say in your witness statement – it’s your witness statement for this module, paragraph 82 – you say that:

“During the period … January [to] March 2020 understanding of the essential features of the virus … was, in many ways, rudimentary.”

You go on to say that:

“The Welsh Government’s understanding was no better, but no worse, than any other.”

And then you go on to say at paragraph 83 that:

“During January and February there was some limited and preliminary evidence which suggested the possibility of asymptomatic spread. [But that] The Welsh Government … concluded that there was insufficient evidence upon which to base operational decisions …”

And this has been a topic that’s been explored with various witnesses over the course of the last couple of weeks. The Inquiry heard evidence from Mr Hancock in Module 2 that his single greatest regret was not pushing harder for asymptomatic transmission to be the baseline assumption. Is that a regret that you share?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I have a slightly different regret, I think, to Mr Hancock, which is that I wish we had known more at that point about the scale at which asymptomatic spread would happen. But we didn’t have it. Nobody had it. The World Health Organisation is still saying in July that it is unclear the role that asymptomatic spread is playing in the coronavirus epidemic. And in February and into March, there are very tentative and very – with very limited evidence, suggestions that asymptomatic spread may be playing some unspecified part in transmission.

Now, I wish we’d had better information than that, but I’m not sure that I share Mr Hancock’s regret that we didn’t act more decisively on evidence that was as thin and as unreliable as it was at the time.

Lead 2B: Given the risks presented to some of the most vulnerable in Welsh society, do you think the risk of asymptomatic transmission was sufficiently factored into Welsh Government decision-making in this period, January to March, and I suppose the question is: I hear what you say about there being some evidence but not no definitive evidence, ought a more precautionary approach have been taken in any event?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Knowing what we know now, the answer to that would be definitely. Did the evidence at the time amount to sufficient to take even that more precautionary approach? Well, that question was very directly addressed by our clinical advisers, and as late as 28 April they are telling us it doesn’t.

Lead 2B: I’ll ask some questions next before we move into March 2020, just about data and modelling.

We’ve heard evidence that it wasn’t until summer of 2020 that Wales had its own scientific models and prior to then modelling output was produced by Professor Ferguson at Imperial university and also SPI-M via SAGE.

When those early models reached Wales, the conclusions about NPI effectiveness were not adjusted for, for example, Wales’ particular demographic make-up, its geography, the movement patterns of people who lived there and also the different relationship that Welsh people might have with their government, so likely compliance with any measures put in place.

I certainly mean no criticism by raising this, but were you aware that the conclusions being made, about NPIs would be most effective and whether they were the most effective, weren’t being robustly challenged or amended by Dr Atherton or Dr Orford, because they simply didn’t have the data or the modelling to make those challenges?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, they didn’t have the data or the modelling. That is certainly the case. I think the inhibition on them fine-tuning what the NPIs might have been in Wales, though, is more practical than that. It’s: what could the fine-tuning have been? What, in practice, could you have done? Because the NPIs that are available to you are inevitably blunt instruments and you are introducing them at a population wide level. So I think – I think what I’m struggling to think of immediately is, even if you had calibrated in the way that you are suggesting, even if you had the data to allow you to do it, what would the practical change have been? And I don’t think I can immediately think of one.

Lead 2B: I suppose what you could have done as First Minister, and you may say you did do this, is look at what was happening all over the world. So did you look at South Korea, Japan, what we know happened later in Lombardy, and think that there might be lessons to be learnt there about quick, decisive imposition of NPIs?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, one of the things I think we were again fortunate with, there were some things we don’t have, specific data and modelling, but one of the things that Public Health Wales was always good at was international experience. I remember the Chief Medical Officer reporting to me very early on in the pandemic on direct discussion that he had had with colleagues in South Korea, and that that had had been mediated through Public Health Wales and their international links.

So I felt we were in possession of good advice from our clinicians on what was happening elsewhere, and where you might be able to draw some lessons from it.

They are truthfully not easy lessons to draw. The cultural context of South Korea is very different to the cultural context of the valleys of South Wales, for example, so the idea that you could pick up something that was done there and just drop it into the Welsh context, I don’t think it was ever going to be as simple as that. But we were, I thought, well served by our ability to know what was happening elsewhere in the world and what other governments were trying to implement.

Lead 2B: We move back to the chronology. We’d moved our way through February and moving into March now, which you’ve said in your evidence that’s when Covid moved up the Welsh Government’s priority list and became the most significant matter. Are you able to help us understand when would you say that day came? Because the Inquiry has heard evidence from various witnesses that it wasn’t, in their view, until mid-March that the Welsh Government actually could be seen to be taking Covid seriously?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I would probably put it a little earlier than that, because I’m in the very centre of these things, so I am seeing all the things that are happening, and not everybody will have that same perspective. If I had to choose a date – and there’s an arbitrary nature to this, isn’t there – probably 4 March, I would say, because by 4 March, as I say, we are now meeting every week as a Cabinet specifically on this matter, so our core group is established. There’s a note you’ll have seen where the health minister says to his office “Clear my diary for the whole of March so that I can focus exclusively on coronavirus”. So I think it’s a bit earlier than the middle of March, I put it at about a week or so before that.

Lead 2B: You attended a COBR meeting on 2 March. That was the first COBR that was chaired by Mr Johnson. And we can see the minutes there.

They’re INQ000056217.

If we can have a look, please, at page 5, second paragraph:

“The CHAIR invited the Government [CMO] … and the Government [CSA] … to provide a situation update … there was no [sic] sustained community transmission.”

Lady Hallett: “Now sustained”.

Mr Poole: Sorry, you’re quite right, and an important correction.

Lady Hallett: I have missing “nots” – and now we’ve got a …

Mr Poole: “… there was now sustained community transmission.”

So this is now 2 March. It’s nearly a week since Covid has first been discussed by the Welsh Cabinet, we know it’s ten days after lockdown’s been imposed in northern Italy, cases in the UK since late January, you have had the first confirmed case in Wales on 28 February, and COBR is now being told that that there is sustained community transmission.

Mr Drakeford, did you understand at this point, 2 March, that containment of the virus had effectively been lost, the virus was here, the virus was spreading?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I see Sir Chris Whitty says to the Inquiry that he didn’t believe that we had reached that point in the second half of February, but I think this is the point at which that move down the steps of contain, delay and so on, this is the point at which delay become – contain becomes delay.

Lead 2B: If we can have a look, please, at the fifth page, paragraph 3. So the same page, thank you.


“Continuing the CMO said that interventions to delay the spread of the virus must not be implemented too early in order to ensure maximum effectiveness.”

What was your position in relation to this suggestion? Was there a debate about the good sense or otherwise of delaying?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, my Lady, I’m a social scientist, that’s how I earned my living, so I am – while I’m not in any way an expert in clinical matters, when it comes to behavioural science, you know, it’s the stuff that I am familiar with. So I completely could see why there was the debate going on as to: at what point do you introduce restrictions, at what point will these become things that the public will understand, that people will be willing to comply with? And the advice that we were getting, and it was pretty consistent advice at this point from the CMO, from behavioural scientists, is: if you go too soon, you may lose the impact that you’re looking for, because people won’t be convinced, they won’t see it in their own lives why it is they’re being asked to do these extraordinary things, and the compliance may not follow up a level that you need. So I’m – this is part of the debate which I felt I was on stronger ground, myself, in being able to understand.

Lead 2B: Again, what we see or what we don’t see in these minutes, similarly to what we didn’t see in the minutes from the 25 February Welsh Cabinet meeting, we don’t see any debate about the merit or efficacy of specific measures to control infection.

Why, at this stage, given what you’ve said about your understanding that containment probably had been lost at this point, why is no one saying to the CMO: look, it’s obvious containment’s been lost or is about to be lost, this fatal virus, to which we have no vaccine or antiviral. It’s here, it’s spreading. What is it in practical terms that needs to be done or what we should be doing now to prevent the spread of the virus or slow the spread of the virus?

That all seems to be missing or not debated by COBR, certainly at this point in time. Is that your understanding?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, of course, I don’t have the minutes in front of me, and there were a series of meetings at this point, but this is the point, isn’t it, when COBR is informed that SAGE is debating the different NPIs. It doesn’t yet have a sense of which of the potential repertoire are likely to be the most effective and it doesn’t have a sense of the different combinations. You know, the different ingredients on this menu can be put together in different ways and SAGE doesn’t yet know which ingredients we should use and what combination we should use. So that work is going on in SAGE, that’s what COBR is told, and we’ll get advice as soon as, you know, the people who are focusing on this with the best ability to offer that advice are in a position to do that.

Lead 2B: If we look at page 6, the end of these minutes, “Next steps” it says:

“Summing up the CHAIR said” – so I think page 6 of these minutes. Thank you very much.

Paragraph 14:

“Next steps

“Summing up the CHAIR said that the Government’s response must be guided by science and protecting the vulnerable.”

So this is effectively waiting on SAGE to inform them of what could be done.

Mr Mark Drakeford: That’s that final – I think it’s either this meeting or the one on the 4th where the chair has just summed up a bit earlier in saying it’s business as usual.

So, you know, I think I do need to make that point if I could that, you know, the Prime Minister’s view, and he expresses it routinely in March, is that we must carry on. You know, “We must tell people this is a mild illness, they’re not to get anxious about it”. And that does create a certain inhibition on some of the advice being taken as seriously as I think it was being proposed to us.

Lady Hallett: First ministers of Wales and Scotland being inhibited by the Prime Minister’s view, Mr Drakeford?

Mr Mark Drakeford: When a Prime Minister expresses a view, most people take – you know, they will – it will be taken seriously. I mean, I wouldn’t have agreed with him at that point, but he did – he repeatedly, every time we discussed it, so, you know, said things that were designed to minimise the seriousness of the position we were – we were facing, and to – I mean, you know, he would – he might say that he was responding to that advice about not going too early, not doing things in advance of where public opinion lay, but I think he has said himself, hasn’t he, in some of his evidence that, looking back, he wasn’t taking it as seriously as it needed to be.

Lady Hallett: Accepting the point about, some say, not going too early, although I think there may be debates about that, so you’re waiting on SAGE to come up with the modelling of the various interventions, shielding, face masks, all the different – the closure of schools, that kind of thing, were you aware what work was going on so that, should the modellers say “You need this range of interventions, you need to shield the vulnerable, you need to test and trace”, what work was going on to make sure that once you had got the recommended combination of NPIs from SAGE that basically you could then say, “Right, we’re on it, we’ll get it all ready so that the Welsh people can be as best protected as possible”?

What work was – I mean, to be honest, I’ve heard a lot throughout the Inquiry, not just this module, about plans and discussions. I want to know what was actually happening to make things ready. Were you aware at that stage or had you left it to your health minister?

Mr Mark Drakeford: No, no, we’d have been discussing all of this in our Cabinet discussions. I think the point that I will probably make is that it wouldn’t be a reflection of the realities of the time to regard these things as happening in sequence. It wasn’t an orderly: we will think, we will plan, we will prepare, we will do. We’re thinking, planning and doing all at the same time. So it’s very few weeks, by the time we get – less than three weeks from this point, in Wales, all schools are closed. All FE colleges are closed. Most major events have been cancelled. Pubs, clubs and restaurants are closed. Gyms, cinemas, theatres, leisure centres are closed. Footpaths, beauty spots, tourist attractions and caravan parks are closed.

The reality at the time is not a: were you planning, were you preparing before you do; you’re having to do everything, you know, in one very, very compressed sequence of events. And actually, in a very, very short period of time, many of the things that we were thinking about on 2 March have actually happened. And that’s only possible because people are thinking and preparing and planning and talking, particularly, while at the same time getting on and doing things as well.

Mr Poole: At your regular Monday press briefing on 2 March, that’s the first mention of Covid.

We can have a look at INQ000227479.

Second bullet point, you confirm the first case in Wales, a person being treated at Royal Free Hospital in London.

Then if we can zoom out and look at – under “Preparations”, you say that:

“Wales and the whole of the UK is well prepared for these types of incidents.”

And that you have “robust infection control measures in place”.

Isn’t the reality that Wales was not at all well prepared? I mean, that much was accepted by Mr Gething in his evidence that he gave in Module 1 and, to some extent, in his evidence that we heard on Monday.

Mr Mark Drakeford: For what we actually faced, we were not as well prepared as we needed to be. For what we thought we would face, what we had planned, our planned response, then it did have a lot of robust elements in it. It is simply that, when we came to implement the plan, the – I’m very allergic to some of the military metaphors that others used in all of this, but if I can use one briefly now, the enemy we faced was not the enemy we were expecting.

Lead 2B: If we can have a look at the next COBR meeting, it’s 9 March.

We’ve got those minutes at INQ000056219.

This was chaired by the Prime Minister. You dialled in with Mr Gething and Dr Atherton. I think it would be right to say the main purpose of this meeting was to discuss delaying the peak of the virus.

If we can have a look at paragraph 7 on page 5, please.

So the meeting highlights for the first time that the spread of Covid-19 in the devolved administrations was not at the same stage at England, therefore necessary to consider whether implementation of the response should be staged or uniformly implemented, and although it’s obviously right to say that Wales was behind the curve at this point in time, your view was that a single message was preferable; is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: It is.

Lead 2B: You make a point in your witness statement that the Cabinet Office minutes, which are these minutes that we’re looking at, don’t accurately record a concern that was raised at this meeting by yourself and also the First Minister of Scotland; the concern was that the Prime Minister and the UK Government appeared to be moving away from reliance on the medical and scientific advice.

If I can just summarise, hopefully accurately, the point and then you can confirm if I’ve got it right.

SAGE advice for this COBR meeting defined symptomatic as those exhibiting mild respiratory symptoms, and that advice accorded with the advice that also had been given by Sir Chris Whitty, and the advice from SAGE was that those with mild symptoms should self-isolate and stay at home.

However, if we look at paragraph 6 on page 5 of these minutes, the Prime Minister’s summary there states that “those with heavy respiratory tract infections were to remain at home” and it would only be the “next stage” where those with mild symptoms would be told to self-isolate.

We don’t need to have them up, but there is a Welsh Government note of this meeting, and that records the First Minister of Scotland stating that the Prime Minister’s summary did not correlate with the SAGE papers, it was important for there to be a joint agreed CMO advice if there was to be a change of options.

Have I accurately summarised the position?

Mr Mark Drakeford: You have.

Lead 2B: SAGE and CMO advice was also to consider household isolation that week, but I think I’m right in saying the UK Government thought that that was the least practical option and had the most disproportionate impacts, and you challenged the Prime Minister on this and expressed the view that if the scientific and medical advice was not going to be followed, there had to be a clear – you had to be clear, effectively, with the public that that was the case. Is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: That is absolutely right. I just want to express one nuanced difference. I have been asked a number of times this morning, you know: did you interrogate the advice? Did you ask about it? I don’t – I myself would not use – maybe you didn’t intend it – pejorative language about having a robust discussion in SAGE – in COBR. That’s what they’re there for. And yes, you know, both the First Minister of Scotland and I felt that we have gone into the meeting with a very clear understanding that the advice we were get, the advice we would follow would be that people would be asked to self-isolate on mild symptoms. At the meeting, the Prime Minister would not use the word “mild”, he wanted to use a different threshold for self-isolation, and we have a challenging conversation about it. But that’s what we were there to do.

Lead 2B: Was the impression you got, though, at this SAGE meeting, that this was an instance perhaps of the UK Government and the Prime Minister not following the science?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, it’s a gradation. The science is either – people should self-isolate, we agreed with that, it’s the threshold at which they are to self-isolate that he wished to take a different view. I myself, I’m sure I was guilty of it many times, but I tried to avoid using the phrase “following the science”. What we were is informed by the science, and then we made the decision. And, you know, the Prime Minister was probably entitled to have that debate, but he wasn’t – you know, he was not advocating an outcome from that meeting which was the outcome that I believed at the start. When I went in through the door, I didn’t think that’s what we were being asked to agree. And it turned out that we were and that’s why we both said, in that case, we need a further advice from all CMOs, you know, to tell us whether or not they think we are doing the right thing here.

Lead 2B: Following the chronology but dealing with a discrete topic that fits in now, which is mass gatherings. Two days after that COBR meeting, so now 11 March, you attended a Covid-19 core group meeting. There was an update from Dr Atherton: there was now 15 cases in Wales, with some community transmission, and, given the events in Italy, there was a need to prepare, he told you, for the reasonable worst-case scenario.

Now, Dr Orford provided a technical briefing on mass gatherings and behavioural and social interventions.

It’s INQ000271613. If we can just have a look at the first paragraph, please.


“In the event of a severe epidemic, the NHS will be unable to meet all demands placed on it. In the reasonable worst-case scenario, demand on beds is likely to overtake supply well before the peak is reached. Currently the [reasonable worst case] is also considered within the bounds of a likely scenario.”

If we can have a look, please, at the second page, paragraph 7, being told here that:

“As of the 10th March … 17 patients in [intensive care], likely to increase to 100 within the next ten days, then 300 shortly after.”

Exponential growth.

Paragraph 8, please. Reproduction rate currently 2.4, needed to be brought below 1.

Then if we can go to the bottom of page 2, please, there’s a discussion about behavioural control measures. So restrictions of mass gatherings would likely reduce infection-related deaths by 2% whereas self-isolation of those with symptoms would have a greater impact, likely reduce deaths by 11%.

Then if we go over the page to paragraph 12, you are told that:

“Any of the measures listed below could, on their own, potentially flatten and extend the peak of the epidemic by some degree.”

But a combination was expected to have a greater impact.

So following this briefing, this is 11 March, you knew there was exponential growth in infection numbers, urgent action was required to control the spread of the virus, stop the NHS in Wales being overwhelmed, also, obviously, reduce the number of deaths.

There is then a COBR meeting on 12 March. If we can have a look at the minutes, please.

It’s INQ000056221.

If we have a look, please, at page 5, first paragraph:

“… the Government Chief Scientific Adviser to provide an update … number of cases in the UK were increasing … numbers would increase quickly.”

And then SAGE advice was:

“… UK was approximately four weeks behind Italy and expected the UK … to follow a similar trajectory in terms of the number of cases.”

Then if we can please skip to paragraph 5, the third bullet point notes that:

“The hardest intervention to call was whether to cancel mass gatherings as the evidence was not there, especially for outdoor events.”

Just pausing there, although the scientific advice was not there, as it says here, to cancel mass gatherings, you’d been advised the previous day that restricting mass gatherings could reduce infection related deaths by 2%. That’s right, isn’t it?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Yes.

Lead 2B: And I think you say in your witness statement that mass gatherings were, in your view, you say “an unwelcomed distraction” for the emergency services in Wales. That’s also right, is it?

Mr Mark Drakeford: That is right.

Lead 2B: And you also say that you were significantly concerned because of the need for consistency of public messaging and felt strongly that to say on one hand stay at home but on another to say it was fine to attend the Cheltenham festival or a concert was confusing. That’s also right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I argued at this COBR meeting for us to agree that mass gatherings should not go ahead. I argued that as strongly as I could in this meeting.

I think I said in an earlier answer to Mr Poole that some COBR decisions you felt had more or less been made before you got there, others there was a more free-flowing discussion, and I remember this discussion particularly well for a reason I’ll say in just a moment, and in this discussion the Prime Minister in my view did go round the room, he took views from anybody who wanted to contribute, he took views from people who were attending remotely, it was a proper discussion, and in the discussion I was arguing for a four nation agreement that mass gatherings would not go ahead. Not on clinical grounds, I can’t do that because all the clinical advice I have is that that’s not a supported course of action, but I am arguing for it on the grounds of messaging.

It seemed to me we’re trying to convey to people how serious the position is and we’re asking them to do already some extraordinary things. To say that it’s all right to go to a mass gathering seemed to me to contradict that, and my argument was we should all agree that they won’t go ahead.

The reason I have such a vivid memory of it is that, having gone round the table, the Prime Minister summed up against that course of action, and he summed it up by saying “Dom says no”. That was his final contribution. I did not know who Dom was at this point, but that was the final thing that the Prime Minister said, and that was the decision that we were not going to go ahead in that way. But my argument, and I made it as strongly as I could, was that on public messaging grounds that was the right thing to do.

Lead 2B: You weren’t alone, though, Mr Drakeford, were you, because the Scottish Government were in favour of advising against gatherings of more than 500 people? If we can have a look at page 6 of these minutes, I think it’s the ninth bullet point, it says here:

“… Scottish Government … minded to advise against gatherings of more than 500 people … [so as] to ensure frontline emergency workers were able to prioritise the response to [the pandemic].”

Then we have a look at the conclusions, it’s page 8, paragraph 15. And as you’ve just told us, the UK Government took the decision not to prohibit mass gatherings, but it is noted that the PM respects the Scottish Government’s decision to cancel mass gatherings to manage pressure on emergency responders.

So why didn’t you follow the Scottish Government and take a decision on behalf of the Welsh Government to either ban or, if, as we’ve heard some evidence, the thinking was there wasn’t a legal power to ban, to at least advise against mass gatherings going ahead?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, two reasons, because I would not have been able to adduce any clinical evidence in support of that, but secondly because of the final sentence in the extract that’s in front of us here:

“… it was crucial for the government to stick to the SAGE advice …”

And the SAGE advice did not support banning mass gatherings, and:

“… the Four Nations should try to stick together as one United Kingdom.”

Lead 2B: Now, as we know, this was – there was a Six Nations rugby match to be played between Wales and Scotland, due to be played in Cardiff the following weekend. On 11 March, the Inquiry has seen evidence from Gareth Davies, the then chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, he says that he contacted your office to express his concerns about that match going ahead. Were you aware of those concerns being expressed by the WRU at that time?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I was aware that there were conversations going on with the WRU.

Lead 2B: Were you aware of a conversation between Vaughan Gething, Dr Robin Howe and Dr Tracey Cooper of Public Health Wales on 13 March about the match and Public Health Wales expressing to Mr Gething significant concerns about that match going ahead?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Not to my present recollection.

Lead 2B: The concerns were not simply that 70,000 people would gather at the Principality Stadium, but also that significant numbers of fans would be travelling from Scotland, there would be crowding in pubs and bars in Cardiff before and after the match, and the Inquiry understands that ultimately it was left to the Welsh Rugby Union to take the decision whether or not to postpone that match, and that decision was taken at lunchtime on the 13th, so that was the day before the match. By that time 20,000 Scottish rugby fans had already arrived in Cardiff, and Mr Davies’ evidence to the Inquiry is that it would have been reckless to allow the match to proceed.

Do you agree it would have been reckless to allow that match to proceed?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I had already been arguing at COBR for the match not to go ahead so, you know, my position was that it would have been preferable for the match not to happen. But I had no medical evidence to – that I could make to support that conclusion, I had no agreement from the UK Government to that position. And I have no legal power, actually, to enforce that decision, because the power lies exclusively with the Welsh Rugby Union. I had a conversation, as you might be about to say, Mr Poole, sorry if I’m anticipating you, directly with Mr Davies. This was a – I think one thing we’ve missed in this discussion so far is just what a hotly contested decision this was. You know, a rugby match in Wales is never far from the headlines and it was in the headlines all that week, with very, very strongly differing views as to whether or not it should be allowed to go ahead. And what I said to Mr Davies in my conversation with him is that whatever decision the Welsh Rugby Union made, the Welsh Government would back it. There would be no criticism from us of whatever decision he made. If he decided to go ahead, we would not criticise him for doing that, because he would be relying on the medical advice that was available to us. If he decided that it wouldn’t go ahead, we would support them in that as well.

Lead 2B: You say in your witness statement that you do not believe that the Welsh Government was in a position to absolve the WRU of its own responsibilities, but might it not be said that it was in fact an abdication of responsibility on the part of the Welsh Government, who, after all, had – you had had the debate in COBR, you knew all sides of the argument, you had not only the scientific and medical advice but you also knew the position that Scottish Government were taking; surely it was a decision ultimately that ought to have been taken by the Welsh Government?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I want to be clear, I don’t think the Welsh Government had the vires to make such a decision. What we could have been is clearer with the Welsh Rugby Union how we thought they ought to exercise their responsibility, but what basis would I have – would I have had for doing that when in front of me I have evidence from the Chief Medical Officer that there’s no case for doing so? So, you know, I – while my own view, as I’ve already expressed it, is that the game should not have gone ahead, if I’m going to convey that to somebody else as the decision-maker, I need to know that I’ve got the ground firm under my feet and I can point to the advice I’m relying on. And I would not have been able to do that.

Lead 2B: Just so I understand what you say about not having the legal power or not having the vires, you accept, though, that there is a – there would have been a power under the public health legislation but you’re saying because the medical and scientific advice was not there, that you couldn’t trigger the power under that legislation; is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: The trigger you have to use is well set out in the 84 Act. It has to be a public health emergency and your response has to be proportionate. That’s the test, isn’t it? It had to be proportionate. If I have evidence from my medical advisers that this is not the thing to do, I do not know how I pass that test of proportionality.

Lead 2B: Changing topic slightly, but still in the same chronological run, we’re still mid-March: hospital discharge and care homes.

The Inquiry heard evidence on Monday from Vaughan Gething that on 13 March he gave a joint press conference with you regarding the framework of actions, which included a direction to expedite the discharge of vulnerable patients from acute and community hospitals, it also suspended the protocol which gives the right to a choice of care home.

How much of this was led by the UK Government, or was this a decision taken by the Welsh Government in a devolved space, namely health?

Mr Mark Drakeford: This is a devolved government decision, it’s made in advance of a decision by the UK Government for England.

Lead 2B: Now, as we discussed with Mr Gething on Monday, discharging vulnerable patients to care homes presented an obvious risk that had to be managed.

Do you think that the risk of spreading the infection from hospitals into care homes, which obviously contained some of the most vulnerable people in Welsh society, was properly managed by the Welsh Government?

Mr Mark Drakeford: My Lady, I’m trying to be clear in my own mind before I answer the question, because I’m here to explain, not to justify. I’m not here to defend actions, the Inquiry will draw its conclusions, I’m here to try to provide the best information I can about how we acted and why we acted. So I don’t want to sound in answering that question as though I’m saying to you we did everything right and there wasn’t a mistake that was made. That’s not my starting point. I can explain to you why we made the decision that we made.

In fact, in reading a vast number of documents before coming here, in some ways I think this is best captured of all in Sir Chris Whitty’s account of the decision to discharge patients in England, because, you know, he makes the point that the risks to very vulnerable people staying in hospital when they are medically fit to be discharged, at a point when hospitals are about to become the epicentre of – the most dangerous place you can be, then that was not a course of action that had merit. You are discharging people back to their homes. Some people live in care homes, but it is their home, and they are fit to be discharged there, and there are protections that can be put in place to try to manage the impact of the disease when they get there.

That was the line of reasoning that we were following at the time, that the safest thing we could do was to remove people who didn’t need to be in hospital out of hospital, given the impact that the disease was about to have on those hospital services. And that when people went home there were precautions that could be taken to try to manage the risks that they would face there.

Lead 2B: Now, we know it wasn’t until 29 April that the Welsh Government changed its policy and from that point onwards tested all patients being discharged from hospitals to care settings, irrespective of whether they displayed symptoms. Should that decision have been taken earlier than 29 April?

Mr Mark Drakeford: If it had been taken earlier, then the corollary of that decision would have been that the tests that would have been used for that purpose could not have been used for another purpose.

At this point there are a limited number of tests available for all the different things that the Welsh Government might have applied those tests to achieve. Our decision was to use them, in the first instance, for frontline staff in hospitals, and the choice was not to add another purpose to the list. Had you added that purpose you would have had to have displaced another purpose. There weren’t enough tests to do all the things we would have liked to have done with them, and we were creating a priority order, and that’s the debate that lies behind that decision.

Lead 2B: Obviously the issue didn’t begin and end with testing on discharge. We know that the reason Wales’ care homes had such poor outcomes during the first wave of the pandemic was due to infections actually being seeded in the homes through staff, and we know that the UK Government announced on 28 April mass testing of asymptomatic residents and staff across all care homes in England. Two days after that, a group of UK MPs wrote to you expressing their concerns about Wales’ failure to do so.

Now, what steps did you take in response to that letter?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, my Lady, I think this is terribly difficult territory because I know just how powerfully people feel about what happened in care homes here in Wales and, you know, I absolutely regret everything that led to loss of life. My own mother lived in a care home in Wales throughout this pandemic. You know, these are matters that, in a Welsh context, decision-makers are not immune from the decisions that we take. But the evidence, I think, is the evidence Mr Poole has just cited, that of course there are instances where coronavirus is seeded into care homes by people being discharged from hospital, but the primary reasons why coronavirus ends up in a care home is because of a necessary ingress into care homes of people who are there to care for people in them. And as coronavirus rises in the community, the risk that it will be carried into a care home in that way increases. And, you know, I know for lots of people that’s an uncomfortable conclusion, but I think it is where the evidence that I have seen takes us.

Once we had received – you know, we are receiving letters and advice and suggestions from all sorts of people all the time, what we had was, I hope, and I believe at the time, an orderly and predictable way of making decisions. Advice comes to ministers very regularly from people who are focused entirely on this matter, of how to try to keep care homes safe, what we can do to enhance that, and I can’t be buffeted by letters that want me to do something different over here or something else over there, I have to rely upon the orderly decision-making approach that we have laid down. And as ministers get advice, you can see, over March and certainly through April, how our approach to care home testing and the protection of people who lived in that vulnerable setting, how that develops.

Lead 2B: On 2 May, Mr Gething made an announcement that the evidence does not support blanket testing of staff and residents in the UK. Exactly two weeks later, on 16 May, he then made a further announcement that everyone in care homes in Wales would be able to get a coronavirus test.

Now, the Inquiry’s heard evidence from some scientists that they had the science to support blanket testing since at least 27 March. How, in light of that, can you account for the delay until 16 May when blanket testing was introduced?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, if I could, I’d like to make, you know, from what seems to – from my point of view, as the First Minister, an important point. It’s a contested point, but – my view all the way through, and I had to convey it sometimes to my colleagues, is that the Welsh Government cannot pick and choose the scientific advice that it gets. There are a plethora of scientific voices out there, and, you know, they don’t agree either. The Welsh Government has a route to the advice that we receive. We receive it through TAC, through our Chief Medical Officer, through the Chief Scientific Adviser. And what we mustn’t do as politicians is to say “I like your advice on this topic, and I don’t like your advice on that topic, so I’ll pick and choose, I’ll decide when I like your advice and when I don’t like it”. So yes, of course there are other people who take a different view and say they’ve got evidence that would lead you in a different direction, but as a politician and a decision-maker I think that is a very, very slippery slope and I was very determined not to go down that way of decision-making, and, as I say, advised my colleagues of that from time to time. Sometimes we didn’t agree. I could have told you, round the table we did not always agree with some of the things that we were being advised, but I wasn’t prepared to go down a path in which we substituted our lay judgement for the judgement of the professional people who were charged with giving us that advice. We followed the advice that we had through the established routes of providing us advice, while being aware – you know, I thought very hard at one point about an invitation that I received to go to a meeting with Independent SAGE, and in the end I decided not to go there, not because I’m not naturally curious, you know, from my own background in hearing different points of view, but I decided that I couldn’t do that, that that would undermine the relationship we had with the SAGE on which we had to rely.

So that’s – I wanted to make that slightly general point, because it was a fundamental part of the way that we approached this dilemma of somebody says this, somebody else says that, why didn’t you follow … We followed the advice of the people who were charged with giving that advice and didn’t pick and choose between it.

Lady Hallett: But supposing they gave you advice to say – let’s take lockdown as the example, it’s the most controversial NPI. So supposing you have advisers who say “Right, you’ve got to lock down”, and you are conscious of all the impacts of lockdown on people, we all know that they spread far and wide, mental health, children’s development, education, everything, by just following your expert, who happens to be in the pro-lockdown camp, you’re never listening to an expert who may say “Well, wait a minute, lockdown is not necessary”. So, for example, those who signed the Great Barrington Declaration. So did you deny yourself the alternative argument?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, not in the sense of not being aware of it, because these things are widely reported and widely debated, but imagine if we had, imagine if we had said “Well, the advice to the Welsh Government from our Chief Medical Officer” – not just him by the way but all four chief medical officers – “is that we should do that, but we’d rather take the advice of somebody else, who – we fancy their advice a bit more”. What an unravelling of decision-making follows from that.

As I say, it’s a – from my point of view, it’s a terrifically slippery slope to allow yourself to do that.

Lady Hallett: But can’t you justify that approach by saying, “Right, well, I’ve heard this advice pro-lockdown, I’ve heard this advice anti-lockdown, I’m now going to balance all the factors”, which, as the decision-maker you have to do, so you balance the socioeconomic factors as well as the scientific advice, and say, on that, “Balancing all the factors, I’m going to go for the advice from an outside source”?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I would not have been prepared to do that.

Lady Hallett: Right.

Mr Mark Drakeford: I think that would have unravelled proper decision-making inside the Welsh Government very, very quickly indeed. It’s a – once you take that first step, you’ve undermined your ability, I think, to conduct government in the way that government should be conducted.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Poole: I suppose it follows, does it, Mr Drakeford, from what you’ve just said, that it is therefore crucial to ensure that you have a range of opinions at your disposal within your structures that you’re taking advice from, so for example SAGE or SPI-M or TAG and TAC; is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Of course. The fact that we in the end have a single piece of advice – because you’ve got a make a decision. You know, there’s a fork in the road, you’ve got to decide which way you go. That does not mean that behind that final piece of advice there is not a wide variety of views and a lot of sharp debate as well. And of course you want to have that, that’s very important, I think you see that played out in the minutes of those bodies. But in the end that has to crystallise in a choice between the two – if it is a binary choice, between the two courses of action you could take.

Lead 2B: Change topic slightly but staying hopefully chronologically, we now move to 18 March.

The decision was taken in Wales on 18 March to close schools in Wales early for Easter. Was that a – I think you might have answered this at the outset, when I gave you the example of ministerial decisions within their own portfolio, but was this a consensus decision taken by Cabinet or was this a decision taken by the then Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Important to say of course it’s not a decision. Welsh Government does not have decision-making capabilities. It is advice that is given to those that have decision-making.

This is the decision that is made under enormous pressure of unravelling events. I answered questions on the floor of the Senedd on 17 March and I firmly repeated the position of the Welsh Government, which is that we did not want schools to close before Easter. By the end of that afternoon, we are already getting reports of schools closing in many parts of Wales, either as staff fall ill and cannot be in the classroom or as parents withdraw their children of their own volition.

I think something we haven’t touched on at all, you know, but comes home very powerfully to me in re-reading the papers, is just the degree of fear there is amongst people at this point. People are really afraid, and they are afraid that sending their child to school is putting their child at risk.

Between the evening of 17 March and the end of the morning of the 18th I think I met the education minister on at least six different occasions as the evidence accumulated through the day that more and more schools were just closing around us and at least one education authority is now saying to us it will close all the schools in its area.

We are also getting powerful pleas from the Welsh Local Government Association, teacher unions, for the Welsh Government to try to put some order around what we see happening in front of us, so that parents and teachers and others have a sense of schools coming to an orderly end. And by the end of the morning that is what the education minister and I have concluded. There is no opportunity at this point for the whole Cabinet to be gathered around that decision. But, as I say, we are not deciding to close schools. In many ways what we are doing is trying to put some sense of order around a series of events that are happening beyond our direct control in any event.

Lead 2B: Is it therefore your evidence that closing schools on 18 March is really something that could not have been avoided at that point in time?

Mr Mark Drakeford: It was happening already, it was happening in front of our eyes, what we wanted to do was that try to make that system predictable, communicable to parents and staff, and then to take action immediately to put in place alternative arrangements for those vulnerable children and children of key workers who we knew would still need to be able to attend school.

Lead 2B: On the evening of 20 March you announced that the Welsh Government would use public health powers to close restaurants, pubs, bars, other facilities where people gather. The Inquiry’s heard evidence that on 22 March there was then a meeting between yourself, the Secretary of State for Health, health ministers from the devolved administrations, obviously including also Mr Gething, and you say that one of the actions that arose from that meeting on the 22nd was to prepare a lockdown plan.

Would I be right to infer from that that at that stage, 22 March, there was no plan as such for a Welsh lockdown?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think you see there that for the first time I am agreeing that we need to think of a Wales-only lockdown plan. This is – the 21 and 22 March are weekend days, we’re meeting right through the weekend, we’re meeting on the 22nd – as you say, the Cabinet meeting followed at the end of the 22nd and I have been told that there will be a COBR that day. I’m expecting to attend a COBR and I’m expecting the Prime Minister to propose that there will be a UK-wide lockdown.

When the COBR doesn’t happen, I’m now beginning to wonder why it hasn’t taken place, and I’m bound to have some anxiety that it may be because the Prime Minister isn’t going to agree to that course of action.

So at this point I ask for legal advice, policy advice as to what we would do if we were in the position of having to do that alone. I think it’s highly improbable that we would have been able to do it, and I think there were very large barriers in our path, but given that we might have to face it, then over that weekend I asked for that advice.

On the 23rd, of course, we have a COBR meeting and it transpires that the proposal is for a UK-wide lockdown, so I don’t need to act on any of that advice, but on a precautionary, it may be necessary, basis, that advice is commissioned.

Lead 2B: You have said in your evidence that your perception is that the actual decision to lock down was taken by the UK Government shortly before the COBR meeting that you attend on 23 March; is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, that is an impression, so I mustn’t put any more weight on it than that, but we were not getting indications earlier in the day, as you sometimes would, that, you know, these meetings are happening, decisions are being made, this is the direction of travel, this is what you should expect when you come to the meeting at 5 o’clock.

My impression was that the – sorry, I’m going to use another football analogy now – the ball was still in the air until quite late in the day.

Lead 2B: And obviously you attend that COBR meeting on 23 March, at that stage you all knew that there was exponential growth, once control had been lost the virus would be rapidly spreading.

Now, notwithstanding that understanding, the four governments had introduced measures previously, on 16 March, to try to control the spread and slow the spread of the virus. Why weren’t those measures given longer to work prior to imposing lockdown on 23 March?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Because I think the evidence was too vivid that insufficient numbers of people were complying with the decisions that had already been taken. That was the anxiety.

I received, my Lady, reports over that weekend of 21/22 March – it was a beautiful weekend: “Barry Island” – I saw a note – “is rammed. Beaches in Llanelli are overflowing, Pen y Fan” – which is a tourist hotspot in Wales – “has got hundreds and hundreds of people gathering and walking up and down the mountain.”

You know, the evidence was there already that the measures we had agreed only a few days before were not being observed with sufficient consistency to have the impact that we know we needed to extract from them.

Lead 2B: Do you consider then, by 23 March, a national lockdown was absolutely necessary?

Mr Mark Drakeford: That was my view, but I was confident that it was the view of my Cabinet colleagues as well. We’d met on the Sunday, we’d met on the Monday, we’d been rehearsing all of these arguments. Although the decision on the spot was a decision I had to take on behalf of Wales, I was entirely confident that this was what my Cabinet colleagues would have wished to have supported.

Lead 2B: Had different decisions been made leading up to this point on 23 March, do you think there is a chance that lockdown could have been avoided?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, we’re entirely in the realms of speculation here. My own speculation is that lockdown would have happened and should have happened earlier, not that it would have been avoided but the timing of it will have been altered.

Lead 2B: When should the UK have locked down, in your view?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I’m an amateur witness on this matter. I’ve seen what other people have said. I don’t have any reason to dissent much from what seems to me a fairly, you know, broad consensus that it could have happened a week earlier than it did.

Lead 2B: I want to next look at the period following the implementation of national lockdown up to the autumn of 2020.

Now, as we know, imposing the lockdown in Wales using public health powers meant that there was a legal duty to review the need for restrictions and requirements every 21 days. Early April, you were pressing the UK Government to convene a COBR meeting in good time before 16 April, which was that first 21-day review date, so that the four nations could discuss a further set of co-ordinated announcements.

If we could please have a look at INQ000256826.

This is a letter written by all of the devolved administrations to the Prime Minister on 4 April. If we could have a look at the first paragraph, it refers to Mr Johnson’s recent Covid-19 diagnosis.

Now, we know that on 27 March it was made public that Mr Johnson had tested positive for Covid. He was later admitted to hospital on 6 April, where he remained for six days. You have said in your evidence that Mr Johnson’s illness and hospitalisation did have an impact on decision-making. You describe it as having had a chilling effect.

Just describe to us in what way you say that Mr Johnson’s illness and hospitalisation had an impact on decision-making in the way you describe.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Could I say to begin with that I have no complaints at all about the way in which meetings, in the absence of Mr Johnson, were conducted by Mr Raab, who chaired those meetings. He was a good chair of a meeting. The chilling effect is in the hesitation which the whole system feels about making major decisions when the Prime Minister himself is not at the table and not able to participate in them. So, to my mind, you could detect very easily the hesitation that was there amongst people who were left to make those decisions in the absence of the Prime Minister.

Lead 2B: We can have a look at the third paragraph, please, of this letter. You say, picking it up:

“Whereas hurriedly convened COBR(M) meetings earlier in the pandemic were understandable, given the rapid evolution of the scientific advice, there is not reason not to ensure an orderly process is established ahead of this predictable milestone.”

Did you find it surprising that you and the other first ministers were having to write to the Prime Minister in this way on 4 April?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think it does illustrate some of our anxieties that a regular reliable rhythm of engagement at that level had been put in place.

Lead 2B: A few days after this letter was sent, you describe in your evidence a call with Mr Gove on 8 April but you say there was no commitment being given on behalf of the UK Government to hold a COBR meeting.

You must have been somewhat surprised then to receive a call-in notice at 6.50 that evening to attend a COBR the following day. That was chaired by Mr Raab. It’s the COBR meeting of 9 April.

If we can have a look at INQ000083830, please.

Of these minutes you’ve said in your evidence that they accord with your recollection that, your words:

“A consistent message was required across the Four Nations to ensure the message landed in the most clear way.”

And in fact we see that noted if we have a paragraph 5, page 3, there.

Now, in the Welsh Government – this is Cabinet Office minutes, but in the Welsh Government notes of this meeting you are recorded as saying:

“… our clear message is that people stay home and restrictions [remain] in place … we are not throwing away everything we have gained.”

Were you concerned at this stage that the UK Government might not be on the same page as the Welsh Government and the other devolved administrations and also the Mayor of London?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, if I was concerned, then events proved me wrong, because the UK Government does agree that a further three weeks of the same level of restrictions is necessary.

I probably do have some anxiety as to whether or not they share that view, but more importantly in practice when we had to COBR meeting there was a continued four nation agreement that the level of intervention that we’ve seen in the first three weeks must continue for another three weeks.

Lead 2B: You refer in your witness statement to a four nations phone call with the Prime Minister on 7 May. You say that the UK Government’s roadmap adopted a different approach to the approach that the Welsh Government was taking. I just want to explore what you mean by this by reference to some minutes of an ExCovid meeting on 7 May.

It’s INQ000216499, please.

If we look in the middle of the page, the permanent secretary is noted as reporting that he had been told by his counterparts in the UK that the view in Westminster was that the population was over-complying with the work from home message and were overlooking the part of the message which said if you cannot work at home, then you should go to work and practice social distancing.

Reportedly the Prime Minister wanted to correct the overcompliance and was concerned about the economic outlook. And then there was discussion at this meeting on 7 May about as whether to retain the Stay Home, Save Lives messaging.

If we just have a look at the bottom of page 2, please, of these minutes, we see Toby Mason’s comments:

“This absolutely not just messaging but a policy difference.”

And notes that if Wales retains Stay at Home, it will be different to England, who were looking to ease some restrictions to allow activity outdoors.

Now, in terms of the stay home message, you say in your evidence, Mr Drakeford, that changing policy from Stay at Home to Stay Alert was not something that you could and would support. Can you just explain why, given that the UK Government and the Welsh Government were drawing on the same scientific evidence, you didn’t feel able to support the UK Government’s change of policy?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, having said at the start of my evidence that, you know, there was always more that we agreed on than we disagreed on, this was one of the bleaker moments during the conduct of intergovernmental affairs. I’m not part of the meeting that you’ve just quoted here, but I do go to a COBR meeting on 10 May, and I hear for the first time that the UK Government intend to abandon the message that we’ve all agreed on and to move away from Stay Home to Stay Alert. And I’m hearing it in the meeting. And this is one of those examples when I feel that the decision has already been made, we’re not really being asked to participate in whether to move, we’re being told the UK Government has decided to move. I hear from the head of communications in the UK Government, someone whose advice I’d heard many times and respected a lot, that there had been focus groups carried out around this change of messaging, none of which we either knew about, we didn’t know they’d happened and we certainly had no access to the results of them. And I simply was not prepared to agree to such a major change of policy on the basis of the information that I had in front of me at that meeting.

I was very unconvinced by Stay Alert. I’ve no idea what Stay Alert is asking me to do. You know, if my advice to a Welsh citizen is to Stay at Home, then they know what I’m – what’s being asked of them. If I’m asking them to Stay Alert, I’ve no idea what it is that they are expected to do in response to that injunction.

So for all those reasons, no prior notice, no sharing of the basis on which the change had been made, no ability to explain to me what the new message was meant to convey to anybody, I wasn’t prepared to agree to it. I had no Cabinet cover for doing that, because we’d never – we didn’t know that we were going to be asked to agree.

So at that meeting on 10 May I make it very clear that if the Prime Minister decides to go ahead in that way, then he must be very clear that this is a decision he is making for England, and that in Wales we will continue with the mantra that we have very successfully persuaded people to stay with in those first six weeks.

Lead 2B: I think it would be fair to say that the announcement that’s made, we’ve seen the text of it with other witnesses, there’s very little in that announcement made by Mr Johnson to suggest that these measures applied to England only. Did that cause confusion in Wales?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I think it’s the opposite, of there not being much to convey, that there is a difference. And – I’m doing my best not, you know, only – not to sound as cross as I felt at the time, perhaps, but in that COBR meeting we have a very direct rehearsal with the Prime Minister of the need for him to be clear in a press conference – which he’s told us he’s about to have, so we know the decision’s made, because he’s got a press conference lined up to announce it – in that press conference he must make it clear that what he is about to say does not apply in Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland. And he gives assurances in the COBR meeting that he will do his very best to make sure that he does that.

He then heads to the cameras and he provides a script in front of the cameras in which the only time he refers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is when he says early in the press conference “As Prime Minister of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland”. It is a very clear indication to people that what he’s about to say applies to the whole of the United Kingdom, and he never once says that that is not the case.

That’s why I describe it as a bleak moment, because this is not a moment when, and, you know, I understand that people can use Britain, United Kingdom, England interchangeably, if that’s the way they’ve been brought up, but in this case this is not a slip of the tongue, this is not somebody forgetting to mention, this is a deliberate attempt to imply to people that what the Prime Minister’s about to say means them when he full well knew that it didn’t.

Mr Poole: I think the following day, 11 May, you give a press conference making some of the points you’ve just made, and we’ll come that after the break.

Lady Hallett: Certainly. 1.45, please.

(12.46 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(1.45 pm)

Lady Hallett: Mr Poole.

Mr Poole: Mr Drakeford, before the break we were talking about 10 May, and on 11 May you held a press conference to explain the changes to the regulations that would come into effect in Wales that day.

We can see the text of that at INQ000090562.

The fourth bullet point there outlines the changes: people are allowed to exercise more than once a day, garden centres are allowed to open, people must comply with social distancing.

If we have a look a bit further down the page, there’s an acknowledgement that confusion may be caused as a result of differences in the messaging between Wales and England.

If we go over the page to the second bullet point on page 2, you say:

“I want to be clear – in Wales, Welsh rules will apply.”

Going back to where we left off before the break, could more have been done to make it clear that the UK Government’s Stay Alert message only applied in England?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, as I said before the break, I certainly think the Prime Minister could have done more to have explained that when he announced it. We did make really consistent efforts to communicate with people, and particularly people along the border, where those differences are most acute, although of course that is where people are most used to differences, because there are differences all the time, after 25 years of devolution. But I myself would give interviews, not simply to Welsh media outlets, but I would be giving interviews to the Shropshire Star and to other local newspapers along the border in order to do whatever we could to communicate to people the rules that would apply to them while they were in Wales.

Lead 2B: In a question and answer session I think following on from this press conference that we’re looking at here, you were asked about comments that had been made I think that morning on breakfast television by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Raab. Mr Raab had said that people in England should use common sense when meeting up outdoors and, provided they observed 2-metre social distancing, that is okay.

Now, in Wales, the regulations were clear: leaving home for a pre-arranged meeting with someone from another household was not permitted, even if this was outdoors, observing social distancing.

When asked to comment on what Mr Raab had said, you are reported as saying that it didn’t amount to any real change:

“The rules [you said] in Wales are that two people can meet providing they observe social distancing, so if one person from a household is going out and meeting another member of their family … then under our rules that would be permitted.”

I think it would be right to say that your comments were interpreted by some in Wales as meaning effectively it was okay to arrange to meet someone from another household outside provided social distancing was observed, but that was not permitted, and I think the Welsh Government issued a statement after your press conference to correct any wrong interpretation of what you had said.

Do you accept that your comments were potentially misleading?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I was certainly in trouble over what I had said, and – you are on your feet, you are answering unscripted questions, you sometimes don’t say things in exactly the way that you’d intended. What I was trying to – the distinction I was trying to make is the one, Mr Poole, you’ve made, but – and I made the point at the time – I used to – in those very early days, Cardiff Council kept allotments open for the one-hour that you were allowed out, so I would cycle to my allotment for 45 minutes and cycle home again. And as I would do so, I would see people absolutely scrupulously obeying the rules, and by chance, not by design, they would see somebody they knew on the other side of the road and they would say “Hello” to them or “Hope you’re okay”. And I was being asked whether that was somehow against the rules, that you couldn’t even acknowledge somebody. The point I was trying to make was that there was nothing wrong with that.

Going out purposely to meet other people was clearly against the rules, and that’s the distinction we tried to clarify.

Lead 2B: You say at paragraph 49 of your witness statement for this module that you are in favour of strong debate when difficult decisions had to be made, and you say when physical meetings were not possible, some of the entera defaulted to informal means, and obviously during much of the pandemic, particularly lockdown periods, virtual meetings became the default, and you say these obviously would be supplemented by telephone calls and emails. And one of the informal means of communication that you specifically reference in this context where physical meetings were not possible is the use of text and WhatsApp messages. So I want to ask you some questions about your use of text and WhatsApp during the pandemic.

Now, it’s been widely reported in the press that you had to correct the record in the Senedd when you said that you did not use WhatsApp. Just to be clear, it’s right, isn’t it, Mr Drakeford, that you did use WhatsApp to communicate with Welsh ministers and others, such as the First Minister of Scotland, during the pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I used WhatsApp on 11 occasions in the whole of the very many months of the pandemic. I don’t believe I used WhatsApp to communicate with the First Minister of Scotland. I would have had text messages with her, certainly, but in terms of WhatsApp I’ve had the record checked, there are 11 occasions. One of those I say “Thanks”. That’s one of them. And another one I complained that I can’t hear the sound of the Senedd when I’m meant to be answering questions.

So I did, it’s certainly true I did use, but I’m a very, very infrequent user of WhatsApp. I’m a much more frequent user of text messages.

Lead 2B: 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 to discuss Welsh Government business was prohibited by those policies?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I do accept that. It’s the policy that’s wrong, not the practice.

Lead 2B: Do you accept, as Jane Runeckles, your most senior adviser, did when giving her evidence, that using WhatsApp even for administrative purposes was wrong?

Mr Mark Drakeford: It was against the policy of 2009. In the circumstances of 2009 the policy no doubt was a sound one. In the circumstances of dealing with a pandemic, the policy did not make sense.

Lead 2B: Even if the policy were to change to allow the use of WhatsApp and text messages and other informal methods of communication, I assume you wouldn’t be advocating for a change to the policy of the importance of retaining such messages, because, as you know, it’s not simply a question of whether informal methods such as text and WhatsApp were used to make decisions, it’s necessary to see discussions that led to decisions or led to decisions not being made, and that’s important to retain those records; do you agree?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I understand the point that’s being made. My own experience is, looking at text messages, they’re not used, even for background, to policymaking very often and there are many other far more informative sources available that show the workings out before a policy is concluded. But – I don’t disagree with the point but I don’t myself believe that they would be very helpful to anybody looking to understand the arguments that lay behind decisions, certainly much less useful than many other sources that are available.

Lead 2B: Did you ever give a direction to Welsh ministers and Welsh Government officials for messages not to be deleted and for records to be retained?

Mr Mark Drakeford: No.

Lead 2B: When you were made aware of this Inquiry being formed, did you discuss with Cabinet colleagues or officials for the need for such messages to be retained for the purposes of this Inquiry?

Mr Mark Drakeford: No.

Lead 2B: Why not?

Mr Mark Drakeford: It would not have occurred to me that I would need to do so.

Lead 2B: You’re aware that the disappearing messages function was turned on by a number of officials, including Jane Runeckles, also Mr Miles yesterday said that he enabled this when it became available on his phone. Is that something that surprises you?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Insofar as I am, you know, well informed about these things, I think it’s what people do all the time. And I don’t think people would have been doing it with an eye to a future inquiry when, you know, they did so.

Now that the spotlight has been shone on these matters in the way that it has, then it would have been better had things not been deleted, but I don’t believe that it was in order to escape the gaze of anybody else that people would have taken that very ordinary decision.

Lead 2B: And it’s right to say that although you have shared messages with the Inquiry, you have not been able to recover messages for the period July 2018 to March 2021 from your Senedd-issued mobile phone, have you?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Apparently not.

Lead 2B: Can you tell us what efforts have been made to recover those messages?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I use only one telephone. There are a number of telephones you could use but I use only the one and that’s the one supplied to me as a member of the Senedd, not as a Welsh Government minister. I have no knowledge of or expertise in the way in which messages are stored or not stored, and as soon as the Inquiry asked for messages then my phone was handed over and all the messages available have been made available to the Inquiry. I would have no way of knowing where they were stored or how they were stored or which were still available, but efforts would have been made by Senedd technical staff with that competence to make sure that the Inquiry had everything that was available.

Lead 2B: Mr Drakeford, changing topic, and we’ve looked at 10 May, which appears to be something of a turning point in terms of co-ordination between the four nations, and the Inquiry has heard evidence that would tend to indicate that some differences between the four nations were obviously simply a matter of timing, others were more substantive. The general pattern, though, perhaps with the exception of schools, where England re-opened schools first, in early June, and then that was followed by Wales, with that exception the general pattern seems to be England and Northern Ireland easing restrictions and then re-opening the economy first, followed next by Scotland and then Wales.

Dr Dai Lloyd, who is the chair of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee in the Senedd, he told the Institute for Government that the Welsh Government had taken a “general cautious approach which is reflective of Welsh society”.

Does this explain the pattern that we’ve just been looking at and, if not, what is the explanation?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think it is true to say that we did take a more cautious approach to the lifting of protections. Mostly that is done because of the advice that we have, which is that in opening up Wales again you ought to do it one step at a time and with sufficient time between measures to be able to assess the impact of those measures on the circulation of the virus. That is the essential reason.

Dr Lloyd is right, however, that Welsh opinion was always – I’ll put it slightly differently, if I could. For every one person who replied to various opinion surveys in Wales who thought we were too slow in lifting protections, there were two people who thought we were going too quickly. So the temper of public opinion in Wales was in favour of that more gradual and cautious approach. So we were acting consistently with the centre of gravity of Welsh public opinion.

Lead 2B: There was a Cabinet meeting on 27 May, if we can go to those minutes.

They’re INQ000048926. And if we can have a look at page 2, please, paragraph 1.1.

The focus of this meeting was on the next 21-day review which had to be carried out by 29 May.

If we can have a look at paragraph 1.5, please.

Transmission at this point, 27 May, was under 1, it was 0.87:

“… substantially changed since the last review … there had been decreases in admissions … [suggesting] that the rate was falling.”

Then if we have a look at page 3, please, paragraph 1.9, there is a – thank you – proposal the regulations be amended to change the ‘stay at home’ provisions to ‘stay local’.

Then further down that same page, 1.14, there was a proposal to allow two different households to meet outside subject to social distancing being maintained, and I’m right in saying Cabinet agreed both of those changes ought to be made to the regulations; that is right, isn’t it?

Mr Mark Drakeford: That is right.

Lead 2B: What did Cabinet decide at this point in time, so this is 27 May, in respect of re-opening schools and childcare settings?

Mr Mark Drakeford: At this point the Cabinet decides that we want schools to be able to resume education. We have a plan that the education minister leads, which would be to bring the school term to an end early, and for schools to re-open early in August, because that would have given us the maximum amount of time for schools to be in operation at the best time of the year, when the risks were lowest.

So we are planning for the resumption of face-to-face education and the education minister has proposed that as the plan that would give children the maximum amount of time in the classroom and in the safest conditions.

We were unable to bring that plan to fruition, because it is opposed by the teacher unions, whose argument is that they have a contract that means that they can’t be asked to rearrange their holiday time.

The education minister moves to her next plan, which is to ask schools to continue the summer term for one week extra and to bring children back to school for four weeks before the end of the term and to give schools that one week back in holiday term – time in October.

Again, unfortunately in my view, the teacher unions opposed that as well. Three education authorities out of 22 in Wales go ahead with the education minister’s plans but the other 19 feel they can’t overcome the objections of teachers to it.

So we end up with schools going back in Wales before the end of the summer term, but for three weeks in most cases rather than the four we would have preferred.

Lead 2B: I think Ms Williams, Kirsty Williams, then minister of education, she says in her witness statement:

“On 29 June 2020, schools across Wales opened to pupils from all year groups for limited periods during the week, with only a third of pupils in school at any one time.”

She states that she was proud that “Wales was the only UK nation where all pupils has the opportunity to attend school before the summer break”.

Now, there had been advice given by TAC in a report to the Cabinet on 27 May that there was insufficient headroom for schools to re-open. Do you think in light of that that the correct decision was made, for schools to resume some form of face-to-face teaching prior to the summer holidays?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I do, because that is a month later from the TAC advice, and the basic patterns across the United Kingdom are the same, and at this period we are all heading into better times, better territory, and we are all looking to use the headroom, as we called it, that that provides to be able to restore some of the activities that otherwise would have – would have been there.

On 27 May we didn’t open schools that day but we are giving what the Bank of England would call forward guidance and we are anticipating the fact that things will continue to improve, as SAGE has told us they will, and we will come to a point when it will be safe for that to happen, and we’re planning purposefully for that.

Lead 2B: In June 2020 that’s when MIGs, ministerial intergovernmental(sic) groups, were replaced with Covid-S, Prime Minister’s strategy group, Covid-O, the operations committee that we know was chaired by Mr Gove. I’m right in saying that the devolved administrations were not invited to attend Covid-S meetings and were not invited to attend Covid-O meetings on a standing basis until October 2020. What impact did the decision to replace MIGs with Covid-O and Covid-S have on Welsh Government decision-making?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, the first thing to say is that we’re not involved in that decision, no attempt is made to ask devolved governments how those arrangements might best be deployed, we’re simply informed that a decision has been taken. It means I think that we are even further away from that regular reliable engagement between us that I would like to have seen. We’re not involved at all in the strategic thinking of the UK Government and we’re only involved in the operational side of it when they decide that it would be useful for us to be in the room.

I do not believe that that was a satisfactory basis on which to navigate a four nation approach to the challenges that we all faced.

Lead 2B: And you voiced some of those concerns in a letter you write to Mr Gove on 11 June.

We can see that letter, INQ000216519.

Second paragraph on that first page, you point out that COBR last met on 10 May, you last heard from the Prime Minister on 28 May, this is obviously now 11 June. Through official channels you had also learnt that COBR had been stood down and that there were plans to scale back the SAGE arrangements.

You then note three announcements that had been made by the UK Government: 4 June, mandatory face coverings on public transport; 5 June, face masks in NHS facilities; and 10 June, bubbling for single person households. And you make the point that those announcements were made with minimal or no prior communication.

You then say that those have “big practical implications for Wales, directly or indirectly”. Just explain to us what you mean by that last sentence?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I’m afraid that those announcements will again have been made with very little reference to the fact that they were announcements for England and not for Wales. So many people in Wales get their news from London sources. There is no strong Welsh press, there’s a good Welsh broadcasting system, but even then the closer you are to the border the more likely you are to get your news from Bristol or from Manchester. So there would be a direct effect of people hearing these announcements made by the UK Government and thinking that it meant them in Wales. So there is that very direct decision.

And then there is the fact that had we known about it and had we had the chance to, you know, be part of the decision-making, then, had we chosen to do it at the same time, which we might have done in that context, then there would be practical things that we would need to have done. Putting face masks in NHS facilities in that way in place, you’ve got to make sure that there is a supply, you’ve got to make sure that they arrive in the right place, and so on. So there are intensely practical implications that we might have been able to navigate together, had the opportunity come our way.

Lead 2B: You say in this letter, I think it’s the same page we’re looking at but the last paragraph and slightly over the page, you say that without a predictable rhythm of engagement it is not credible for you to continue to defend the four nations approach as you had done consistently until now.

At the time of writing this letter, did you consider that the UK Government had effectively given up on a four nations approach to the Covid-19 response?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I don’t want to say that, because that implies that there’s a sort of monolithic view of the world by the UK Government. There were parts of the UK Government that I think were very keen to maintain a four nation approach, worked quite hard to do it. What we now lacked was an impetus from the centre of government to sustain that four nation approach. The machinery had been eroded and withdrawn and too many decisions were being announced which applied only to England without any prior notice or opportunity to engage in that decision.

And, you know, I would be very regularly asked in press conferences about consistency in the four nations approach and I always wanted to argue for it, because that was always my preference. But I was explaining to Mr Gove that that was getting harder and harder when I would be confronted all the time with practical examples where the UK Government was not acting in that way.

Lead 2B: You received a letter from Mr Gove on 22 July, so some six weeks after you had written that letter we’ve just looked at. We don’t need to see a copy of that response. Mr Gove agreed with you that regular engagement between the UK Government and the devolved administrations is crucial. Did you see any marked improvement in engagement after this point, so this is 22 July 2020?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, it’s a characteristically emollient reply from Mr Gove and, you know, contact through him, and in the way that we’ve described during the morning, is a much better part of the landscape. There is no – there is no resumption of contact at Prime Ministerial level. So again, you know, I want to give proper credit to the things that did work while just arguing that they were necessary but they weren’t sufficient.

Lady Hallett: You were present at some of the discussions that took place when they took place, Prime Ministerial, First Minister level. To what extent do you think certain personality clashes about which I’ve heard might have affected the attitude of the UK Government to these meetings?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I should say, my Lady, that I had the highest regard for the First Minister of Scotland and the First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. They were never anything but collegiate people, they took phone calls, they were involved in discussions. I had a very high regard for them all.

The UK Government was always anxious about their interactions with the First Minister of Scotland, because, you know, she did have a different underlying ambition for the future of Scotland and that coloured their attitude towards her. She’s also a formidable politician and UK ministers were afraid of her, and would rather not have been engaged in a confrontational dialogue with her. That wasn’t true of the Prime Minister, he was happy to talk to anybody, and I don’t think he avoided discussions for that reason, he avoided them because he did not want to give the impression that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was somehow on a par with first ministers of other nations. It was the optics that he objected to, I think, rather than the personality.

Mr Poole: Between writing your letter that we’ve looked at on 11 June and receiving the response from Mr Gove on 22 July you had a call with Mr Gove on 23 June. Again, we don’t need to display the note of that call. Mr Gove reported on decisions that were made before the UK Government Cabinet that afternoon and one of those decisions was whether to relax the 2-metre social distancing rule, and you’ve commented, Mr Drakeford, in your witness statement in Module 2, paragraph 109, you say that:

“The underlying advice had not been shared with the devolved administrations (prior to that morning) and there had been no consultation with us.”

Surely whether or not to relax the social distancing rule was a matter for the Welsh Government. Did you really need to have been consulted first by the UK Government before you can take that decision for yourselves?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I don’t think that’s the point I was making in what you read out, Mr Poole. I was being asked to agree in that meeting to do the same in Wales as the UK Government had decided to do in England. But I’d got no evidence to help me to make that decision.

I’m told what the UK Government is going to decide for England, and the implication, the invitation is clearly there to do the same. But without being able to understand what lies behind the decision that’s been taken in England, I’m simply not in a position to go along with it.

When we did investigate it we found that we didn’t find the evidence compelling and our contract, particularly through our Social Partnership Council – which I don’t think I have mentioned, but was such a powerful part of our landscape in Wales – the Social Partnership Council were very clear that they wished to see the 2-metre social distancing rules in Wales continue. And that’s what we decided to do.

Lead 2B: We move on to some questions now about face masks.

The UK Government made it mandatory from 15 June to wear face masks on public transport with the exception of people with certain conditions, disabled people and children under the age of 11. The UK Government made the wearing of face masks mandatory in shops and supermarkets then a bit later, on 24 July. And you’ve said in your evidence that face coverings were the subject of, you say, regular and probing consideration, the scientific and medical advice was always contested.

Then you say, and it’s paragraph 209 of your witness statement for this module, that you:

“… set the bar high against a ‘pick and mix’ approach to scientific and medical advice.”

And you say:

“While Cabinet remained the final decision-maker, it could not be on the basis of selective adherence to the most authoritative advice available.”

I think this goes back to an answer you gave this morning. When there were finely balanced scientific and medical arguments for and against a certain NPI, in this example face masks, how would Cabinet decide?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, our Cabinet would be influenced by a range of different considerations. Fundamentally, here, the Chief Medical Officer of Wales advised us very regularly not to put the weight of the Welsh Government behind the wearing of face masks. He says in his witness statement to you that there were only two examples in the whole of the pandemic where the views of ministers and the views of the Chief Medical Officer differed and this is the most important one of them.

Maybe if I could make one slightly wider point, but it’s relevant to this. One of the big differences between being a minister in Wales and being a minister in England, but in Scotland as well, is that we don’t live separate lives. The First Minister of Scotland spent the pandemic in Bute House, you know, in her official residence. We have no such thing. You know, we are directly engaged with the mood of the people.

I remember very vividly, if I could say, the week after the pandemic – so we’d made the decision – we need food at home. My wife and my mother-in-law are shielding. I am the only person in our house who can go shopping. So I leave the government building in Cathays and I go a few hundred yards away to a Lidl and I join the queue outside. And it’s beautiful – the weather is beautiful, and people are standing outside at a 2-metre distance. I found myself standing behind somebody I already know, and lo and behold the person who comes after me is somebody else that I know, and I am observing the extent to which people are already wearing face coverings of their own volition in those more risky situations.

So when Welsh ministers debated, as I said we did, very much with the Chief Medical Officer whether this was the right advice to give, we’re drawing on our lived experience of seeing the way our fellow citizens are behaving in these extraordinary circumstances and worrying about the gap between the advice that we are given and we are giving and people’s own conclusions that they’re drawing in their own lives.

In the end, and it does as you say take me back to the point we debated a little before the break, the Chief Medical Officer’s view is very clear: advising face coverings is not only of marginal utility, but could positively harm the efforts that people are making, because it would lead them to do more risky things in the belief that they were protected from those risky things by wearing a face covering. And in the end, as I say, we don’t pick and choose, we follow the advice that we’re given.

Lead 2B: It would be right to say, we know that Dr Atherton remained at the sceptical end of the spectrum of opinion in respect of face coverings. His advice was always explicitly against making them mandatory. You say in your witness statement you felt it important to support that position. Why?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Because of the arguments I made this morning. Imagine if I – if we had decided to go against the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, advice that would be publicly available, everybody would see the Chief Medical Officer has advised this and you have done something different. The following day I would go to the Social Partnership Council and I would be in a difficult conversation with tourism interests in Wales and I would be saying – explaining to them “I’m afraid we have to do this because the advice we have is that that is important”. What would their first answer to me be? “Well, you ignored the Chief Medical Officer in his advice on face coverings, so why do you feel you’ve got to follow his advice on this?” And that was not a line of argument that I felt it was in anybody’s interests to open up.

Lady Hallett: But you could have justified it. If you felt that it was sensible to take the advice in one example but not in another, couldn’t you just have said to your partnership council, “Well, in this respect, I have a huge amount of time for Dr Atherton but I happen to disagree with him and I’ve looked at all the evidence and I’ve seen what other countries are doing and, because we’re trying to be cautious in Wales, I’m going to go this way”? Couldn’t you have done that?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I could have done, absolutely I could have done, it would have undermined the Chief Medical Officer. I think in the eyes of people who would know that the Welsh Government had seen his advice and decided they didn’t want to follow it, that would have given his advice in other contexts less weight and he would have been more vulnerable. And we were constantly being asked by different groups to make an exception for them. They could see why it was necessary for us to do this, but couldn’t we see that they – whatever it would be, and there’s a very long list of them – need to be treated differently. And my strongest defence always was that the advice that we had was to act in the way that we did. And I wasn’t – I absolutely agree that the choice was there, but the choice I made and my colleagues made was not to create a chink in the wall of the argument that we were making.

Lady Hallett: But aren’t you then slavishly following the science? Which this morning said you weren’t doing, you were being guided by it. But if you always follow it, aren’t you slavishly following it?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I don’t think we were slavishly following it, because, as the extract said, we were in vigorous discussion with the Chief Medical Officer on this point, and testing him and asking him things like that.

In the end, his professional assessment was always clear: you can do it, but you’ll be doing more harm than good. And I don’t think that was a position my ministers would have willingly put themselves in.

Mr Poole: What about consistency of messaging? Was there not an argument, and quite a powerful argument, for charting the same course as England and Scotland just to ensure a consistency of messaging on face masks?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Yes, there was, and I’m absolutely certain those points were made in the discussion we would have had.

Lead 2B: There’s a Covid-19 core group meeting of 14 July, don’t need to display the minutes, but it was noted that there had been a great deal of coverage in the media about the use of face coverings, and in short the public were questioning why it wasn’t mandatory to wear face coverings on public transport.

Face coverings were made compulsory on public transport in Wales from 27 July; was that decision influenced by public opinion?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Yes.

Lead 2B: Six weeks after that decision had been made by the UK Government. Is that six weeks’ delay justifiable in your view?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I think it’s explainable. I don’t think it’s for me to justify it, but I think I can explain it, and in the way that I have, is that we are – and we come back to this topic, you know, far more often than maybe the significance of the wearing of a face mask justified. We come back to it very regularly because of the public interest in it, because we can see that people in Wales are acting in a way that’s not consistent with the advice that we are giving and we want to test that advice regularly and probe it and challenge it and all of those things. Over time the advice changes and part of the reason why it changes is that it’s – it erodes confidence in some of the other things you’re asking people to do if too big a gap opens up between what people are concluding in their own lives and what it is that the Welsh Government is advising them to do.

Lady Hallett: When you changed it, what was Dr Atherton’s advice at that stage?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think Dr Atherton was always at the more sceptical –

Lady Hallett: So you didn’t follow him when you changed it?

Mr Mark Drakeford: No, I think he had moved away from the argument that it would do more harm than good. He was sceptical always that it did any good, you know, and always anxious that people would think they were protected by a face covering and therefore, you know, not observe social distancing, for example, because “I’ve got a face mask on, it’s okay”. So he was always anxious about that.

I think by the time we changed the advice his feeling was, given the way that people were behaving, that while you didn’t do much good, the argument that it would be positively harmful was no longer as strong as he would have articulated it at the beginning.

Mr Poole: One of the reasons that Dr Atherton explained in his evidence to the Inquiry of his view why he was at the sceptical end, as you’ve just alluded to, is that it would make people complacent if they were to wear a face mask. From what you’ve just said about your trip to Lidl and seeing people in the queue wearing face masks, even though it wasn’t mandatory in Wales at that point, did you see evidence from England or anywhere else in the world that actually wearing face masks made people complacent such that it might support Dr Atherton’s views?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I don’t think I could say that I saw direct empirical evidence. I certainly saw Dr Atherton’s view expressed by a whole range of other scientists who also argued that there was a risk in encouraging people to wear face coverings that it would undermine their willingness to adhere to far more effective NPIs.

Lead 2B: The Inquiry heard evidence in Module 2 from Sir Patrick Vallance and his evidence was that there was clear advice on the benefits of face masks in June 2020 and he said anything else was politics. Did you consider that playing politics is perhaps how the different policy decisions being taken by the Welsh Government would perhaps appear to members of the public?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I don’t think there’s any evidence of that. Satisfaction levels with the Welsh Government and people’s confidence in the advice they were given was at a very high level during all of these months.

Lead 2B: Change topic, briefly, Eat Out to Help Out. August 2020 saw the introduction of that scheme. We know obviously it was a scheme implemented by the UK Government. We’ve heard, the Inquiry’s heard, evidence that SAGE wasn’t consulted about the scheme, only knew about it when it was announced. And I’m right in saying that there wasn’t any consultation with the Welsh Government about it; is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: That’s right.

Lead 2B: Were you given any opportunity to ask questions as to its scientific rationale?

Mr Mark Drakeford: We weren’t offered any opportunities. And just to be clear, this was an entirely non-devolved scheme, carried out by the UK Government, using their own reserved powers, and there would have been no – there would have been no receptivity at all to the Welsh Government saying “We’d like to talk to you about this, are you sure it’s the right thing to do?” We would, I’m absolutely certain, have been told that it was nothing to do with us, it was a UK scheme, and it was happening everywhere.

Lead 2B: I think it’s quite clear from your witness statement that had you been consulted you would not have supported the scheme; is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I don’t want to overstate it. Had we been offered the opportunity, we would have asked some fairly sceptical questions about it. But I – you know, we would have weighed up the answers and the evidence that we were given.

We know now that, you know, it very likely helped the spread of the virus. At the time, I don’t want to go further than saying, had we had the opportunity, we would have asked some probing questions about it and would have wanted to see the evidence on those points for ourselves.

Lead 2B: Change topic now and deal with the period September through to October and the Welsh firebreak.

You say at paragraph 215 of your witness statement for this module, when describing the use of local lockdowns to deal with local outbreaks of Covid-19 in September 2020, you describe that as a failed experiment.

Now, explain why you have said that.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, the pattern in Wales, my Lady, is the one we’ve described, that things get better during the summer, and the first Sunday of July we have the first day since March where there were no deaths from Covid, we have 11 days in a row in August when there are no deaths, things are getting better, and the last time we have a three-week review in August, the advice is that we can expect things to continue to be relatively benign, with some warning signs about the autumn.

In fact, things got worse much more quickly in September than we had anticipated, and very soon we find that there are some local areas where there is a significant upswing in the virus. So the county of Caerphilly, for example, had a third of all the cases in Wales in that early period of September. And what we follow is a classic public health response to it, one I was very familiar with from my time as health minister, when I dealt with outbreaks of measles in Swansea and tuberculosis in Llanelli: you find the source of it, you track, you trace, you contain and you try to put a ring around the problem, and restrain people’s lives there but don’t affect people’s lives where there is no virus in circulation. That’s what we set off to do in September and, as I say, it’s textbook public health response to an outbreak.

By the time we get halfway through October, though, we have got local lockdowns over almost half or more of Wales, and every week we’re having to add more local areas to – in other words, it just hasn’t worked. That’s what I meant by a failed experiment.

I’m not saying it didn’t have an impact, I should make that clear. I think there are figures that show, for example, the county borough of Torfaen in South East Wales, on the day that it went into lockdown it had – local lockdown – it had the same level of coronavirus as the town of Bolton in England. Weeks later, the rates in Torfaen are between 50 and 60 per 100,000, and in Bolton, where there has been no restrictions, it’s over 300.

So I’m not saying it didn’t have any impact, but what it didn’t do was to contain the outbreak in that local area in the way that we had hoped.

Lead 2B: Let’s just look at the information that was coming through to the Welsh Government throughout September and into October. If we start on 15 September, there’s a daily ministerial call, you received an update from Mr Gething. We don’t need to go to the minutes of it.

There’s a TAC report that Wales was in an equivalent approximation to early February, the R rate was above 1, urgent decisions needed to be made as to whether to persist with the local lockdowns or take national measures.

Then on 18 September, three days later, TAC advised that more needed to be done to bring the R rate back below 1. So in summary, again, the TAC advice was a package of NPIs may be needed to bring R below 1, and that action would be most effective if implemented early.

We know that a circuit-breaker or firebreak lockdown was recommended by SAGE on 21 September. Perhaps if we just have a look at the minutes, Fliss Bennee attended on behalf of TAC.

They’re INQ00061566, and I’m looking at page 2, paragraph 2, please. Thank you.

SAGE advice:

“A package of interventions will need to be adopted to reverse this exponential rise in cases. Single interventions by themselves are unlikely to be able to bring R below 1 …”

Top of the list of interventions we see there:

“• a circuit-breaker (short period of lockdown) to return incidence to low levels.”

So this is 21 September 2020.

Then if we can look at paragraph 6 on that same page, please:

“The more rapidly interventions are put in place, and the more stringent they are, the faster the reduction in incidence and prevalence, and the greater the reduction in COVID-related deaths (high confidence). Both local and national measures are needed; measures should not be applied in too specific a geographical area.”

Just continuing, so we know what the information was that you had. Four days later, 25 September – we can take these minutes down, thank you – the need for early intervention is reiterated by TAC. Again, don’t need to go to the advice. It was that if current measures do not bring R below 1, further restrictions will be needed to control the epidemic in Wales.

And then a week later, on 2 October, rather more stark warning from TAC: unless measures bring R below 1 it is possible that infection incidence and hospital admissions may exceed scenario planning levels.

So the advice seems to be pretty clear, certainly from SAGE on 21 September, and then reinforced by TAC and TAG, that immediate steps such as a circuit-breaker are needed and that they would be most effective if introduced early.

So at this point, we’re now at the beginning of October, what is the Welsh Government’s thinking as regards a circuit-breaker?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, the Welsh Government took the advice very seriously. You’ll know that I raised it at COBR meetings. The Prime Minister told me he wasn’t prepared to introduce a national lockdown. I asked for a special meeting of COBR to consider the circuit-breaker advice. I was supported in that by the First Minister of Scotland, but that meeting never took place.

There are a series of headwinds to the Welsh Government being able to act on that advice. There are financial headwinds to it, there are political headwinds to it – given the Prime Minister is not just not prepared to do it, he is actively opposed to doing it, and says so publicly, and criticises the Welsh Government when we say that we are intending to do so.

I think Professor Dan Wincott says in his advice to the Inquiry that decisions in Wales are often made in the shadow of decisions that are made by our next-door – much bigger next-door neighbour, and I want just to underline the headwind that that does create when you are trying to do something in the face of active opposition from others.

There is acceptability to the public. You know, we’re four weeks on from the summer holidays. Only four weeks ago people are on the beach and things look like they are much better. Four weeks later to say to people that they’re heading into a national lockdown, there are real concerns in my mind about being able to persuade people of that.

And then there is the balance of harms, which we are more aware of, you know, in the lead-up to the lockdown period, the circuit-breaker period, than we were back in March. We’re now more aware of the other things that we have to balance.

So we spend October trying to grapple with those things and to come to a decision that balances the advice we are very clearly getting from SAGE and increasingly getting from Welsh sources with all the other things we have to take into account.

Lead 2B: So let’s just look at the – you mentioned two headwinds, a political headwind and the economic headwind. And you mentioned the COBR meeting. I think the COBR meeting was on 12 October. We don’t need to bring up – though we’ve got the minutes, so why don’t we look at them, as they’re there – thank you very much.

INQ000083851, page 7, paragraph 11.

You asked the Prime Minister whether a circuit-breaker or a firebreak lockdown would be considered, as had been advised by SAGE.

And I think, talking about a political headwind, you had formed the view, had you not, even at this relatively early stage in October, that the UK Government was not with you on the need for a firebreak lockdown; is that right?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I had formed that, I don’t – it’s there in the minutes. I don’t want to over-rely on Mr Dominic Cummings’ evidence, but this is what he says about the Prime Minister’s attitude at this point: enraged, the Prime Minister made his comment “No more [expletive] lockdowns, let the bodies pile high in their thousands”.

Now, I don’t want to over-rely on that, but it does give you a sense of it’s not just the UK Government is not convinced or is neutral about it, they are positively determined not to do what they’re advised to do and positively going to oppose Welsh efforts to do what we thought we needed to do.

Lady Hallett: It was, of course, the evidence of Mr Cummings.

Mr Mark Drakeford: I hope I’ve caveated my reliance on it.

Mr Poole: Following this COBR meeting of 12 October you updated Welsh ministers as to what had been discussed at this meeting. That was on the daily ministerial call of 13 October. Again, we don’t need the note of that meeting, but it records your recollection of the COBR meeting: the UK CSA and CMO repeatedly telling the Prime Minister that Tier 3 measures would not be sufficient to reduce the R rate below 1 but that a circuit-breaker would.

And it’s at this point, 13 October, that you invited Welsh ministers to consider a circuit-breaker, and it’s recorded in the minutes. Dr Atherton informed the meeting that the four CMOs of the UK supported a circuit-breaker. Public Health Wales, TAC and SAGE all agreed that that was the right approach.

So at this point in time, we’ve seen SAGE advice, going back to 21 September, talking about a circuit-breaker. Would I be right in understanding that as of 13 October no plans had been put in place by the Welsh Government for the introduction of a circuit-breaker?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, that is a decision in principle, so it’s not a decision about the detailed planning. First of all, I need to know whether this is a course of action that the Cabinet are prepared to embark upon, so we do have a very detailed debate, and at the end of it there is a unanimous agreement that, despite those headwinds that I’ve outlined, this is the right thing to do and we make that in principle decision that that will be our policy.

Lead 2B: I think it’s right to say also on 13 October you wrote to the Prime Minister, you raised an issue about the English/Welsh border that we might come back to about those moving from high prevalence areas to low prevalence areas, but at the end of this letter – we don’t need this brought up – you invite the Prime Minister to convene a COBR meeting to discuss a UK-wide circuit-breaker.

So although you say on 12 October at COBR you had formed the view that this was not something that the UK Government or the Prime Minister was ever going to countenance, you seem to still – be writing on the following day on 13 October inviting a meeting to discuss it. Why?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Because I thought the Prime Minister’s approach on 12 October was extraordinary.

It is very unusual for very senior civil servants to be as blunt with the Prime Minister as both Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance were in that meeting. They both repeatedly said to him “Your plan for Tier 3 lockdowns will not bring the R rate below 1”. And it’s rare for advice to be given as bluntly as that and to be repeated during a meeting in that way.

So I wanted the Prime Minister to have another opportunity to reflect on that advice and that evidence, and in a meeting where we weren’t talking about lots of other things but where we had as the sole purpose of the meeting the advice we had from SAGE, the advice we were hearing from senior advisers. And I would not have given up hope at all that, if we’d done it, we might get have come to a greater consensus about the need to act in line with the advice we were receiving.

Lead 2B: We’ve addressed the political headwind that you say you – the Welsh Government faced. Dealing next then with the economic headwind. Now, I think you say that had you the confidence that the UK Government would provide the money needed to support people during firebreak, you would have probably implemented the lockdown sooner. That’s right, is it?

Mr Mark Drakeford: It is.

Lead 2B: Just exploring that with you, if I may, the job support scheme was announced on 9 October and Mr Sunak has said that he confirmed that the date of 1 November could not be brought forward prior to that announcement on agree that you knew that the date of 1 November was not a movable feast?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I would have known that that is what the Chancellor of the Exchequer had said. Didn’t mean that I necessarily agreed with him.

Lead 2B: You wrote to him on 16 October.

If we can have a look at that letter, please. It’s INQ000216554.

The first paragraph you tell Mr Sunak that the Welsh Government is actively considering introducing a Welsh circuit-breaker and that the plan is that it would run from 23 October to 9 October. I think that is captured in the next paragraph.

But if we can turn over, please, to page 2 and look at the third bullet point, you say that:

“… HMRC [could] administer a scheme of this sort,

given the systems … put in place.”

And you then say that:

“The Welsh Government would be willing to reimburse

HMRC for the additional costs of paying 67% of the wage

costs of eligible employees instead of 60%.”

So that’s your letter of 16 October.

The then Chancellor’s response, if we can see that,

please. October. I suppose, first, is that right? Do you 9 It’s INQ000216555.

It’s the first main paragraph, effectively saying:

unable to bring forward the claims date to 23 October

“due to limitations in HMRC delivery timelines”.

Now, it’s fair to say that you were deeply

disappointed with this response, and you said as much in

your letter back to the then Chancellor of 20 October.

Returning though to the point you make about the

timing being tied up with or influenced by UK Government

financial support, your first letter is 16 October,

that’s a week before the firebreak was to come into

effect. You knew prior to the JSS announcement on

9 October that 1 November had been effectively a date

set in stone by the then Chancellor. Why were you not

making these enquiries much earlier, especially given

the SAGE advice in mid-September?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think the facts are that I was raising it much earlier. The first time I raise it is on 22 September in a COBR meeting where I make a point – my Lady, there’s a huge amount of very knotty detail in this issue, but there’s a very simple principle behind it, which is that if the public health circumstances in any part of the United Kingdom were such that action needed to be taken, there needed to be a process in which the Treasury could be asked to support that action. Clear?

It was never my proposition, nor indeed the proposition of the first ministers of Northern Ireland and Scotland, that it would be simply be a matter of us saying, “Please send us” – however many pounds, and it would follow. We wanted a process that we would all agree on, where the First Minister of Northern Ireland would say “Things are so bad in Northern Ireland at the moment, I need to take this action, will I have the financial support needed to allow me to go ahead?”

And that’s what I was looking for from as early as 22 September: a recognition that any part of the United Kingdom could have a call on Treasury support where it could be demonstrated that that support was needed.

After that, that is what I am pursuing all the time here. Here is a letter from the Chancellor that tells me it can’t be done practically. Of course he was able to do it practically as soon as England asked him to do it. So there’s – you know, there’s a little bit of a gap between what he is saying to me – he had no more to change his plans for England when they asked him than I was asking him in Wales.

As you know, there is a document that I would like to draw attention to, if I could, because I think the Chancellor’s reply offers half of the reason that he had rather than the whole of the reason.

Lead 2B: Yes, just for the record so we can see it there displayed, it’s INQ000397193.

Mr Mark Drakeford: So I asked if I could draw attention to this, my Lady, because I hadn’t seen this document until Friday of last week. It’s a debate between officials in the Treasury as to how they should respond to the request that I have made. And you will see that there are two reasons why the request was turned down: there is the practical reason, they continue to identify that in here, but they say that there is a policy, a policy of the UK Government, not to support the devolved administrations going further than the UK Government on NPIs.

So it is the policy position of the UK Government that devolved administrations are never to be offered more help than has already been offered to England.

Lady Hallett: Sorry, where do I find that, Mr Drakeford?

Mr Mark Drakeford: You will find that, it’s under “Handling advice” and it’s in the second line:

“… the point we previously discussed about DAs going further than HMG on NPIs.”

My request, they say, is “not possible and … goes to the point we previously discussed”, and they say in the first paragraph that that is a matter of policy. Policy –

Lady Hallett: I’m not sure I’m reading it exactly that way.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well –

Lady Hallett: So basically in the first paragraph we have two reasons: a matter of delivery, which we know about, as well as policy. Well, “policy” there could mean policy to do with whether or not this should all apply to the United Kingdom and when – or the fact that it’s going to apply to the whole of the United Kingdom and when. “Policy” doesn’t necessarily mean – it could be all sorts of things, couldn’t it? So it’s not necessarily relations with devolved nations.

So then we come to – and “furlough anyway [carries on] to end [October]”, which I suspect a point Mr Poole was about to come to.

Then “Handling advice”:

“We’ve had the attached letter …”

Can’t bring it forward.

“As you know, this is not possible [bringing it forward] and anyway goes to the point we previously discussed about DAs going further …”

Mr Mark Drakeford: So I believe that that is a statement of their policy, the policy they refer to in the first paragraph, which is that they have made a decision that we will not get any more help than has already been provided to England.

None of that appears in the Chancellor’s letter. The only point he relies upon is the practical point.

But you will see in point 2 of the handling that this is a relatively cynical decision to put pressure back on the First Minister: “Will he go ahead with the actions” – that I am explaining are necessary to protect public health and prevent people dying in Wales – “knowing that we, the Treasury, won’t bail it out?”

That is the recommended option. This is put to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is not just junior officials debating amongst themselves, this advice is put in front of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and he agrees it.

I think my only point is that in public the Chancellor relied on “It’s just not practical for me to do it”, although, as I say, it turned out to be practical only a few days later, whereas in fact it was more than just practical objections, there was a policy position in the Treasury not to support the devolved governments even when we needed it.

Lady Hallett: I see that’s your reading. I’m not quite sure I read it the same way. But maybe it’s open for discussion – for which we do not have enough time, so I apologise for entering into the debate.

Mr Poole: My Lady, not at all. And I think it’s only fair to say that the then Chancellor, I think his – when the relevant passage of your witness statement, which you’ve just elaborated on orally, was put to him in Module 2, I think his answer was twofold: I think he first pointed to the fact that furlough ran until the end of October, but he also pointed – as well as to the Barnett consequentials, he said the upfront funding guarantee that the UK Government introduced in July 2020, which he said provided an extra £5 billion for Wales, and provided Welsh Government with extra financial flexibility and security – so in other words, he said a significant sum of money was made available to Wales in advance of need. Is that an answer to the point you make about timing –

Mr Mark Drakeford: No –

Lead 2B: – of the firebreak?

Mr Mark Drakeford: – absolutely not, and in fact in the additional statement that Mr Sunak has provided to you, he doesn’t mention that because he realises that that was not actually available. The money that comes in the Barnett guarantee, for which we were very grateful – and I should, again, just say, time and time again I tried to say how much I appreciated the enormous efforts that the Treasury did make in many of the schemes that they put forward, and the Barnett guarantee was a very helpful thing for us, but the Barnett guarantee money was to be spent on devolved responsibilities only, we could not have used it to spend on schemes for which only the Treasury had the responsibility. So although the Chancellor said that in his oral evidence, in his follow-up written evidence he retreats from that completely.

Lady Hallett: Mr Drakeford, I’m sorry, I’m going to enter the debate again, having told myself not to. What I don’t understand is this, I have heard a number of representatives of the Welsh Government basically blame the UK Government for a delay in bringing into existence the firebreak, on the basis that the delay was really caused by their refusing to give you the financial backing you needed. Then yesterday we were discussing this matter with Ms Mason(sic), and she explained, when pressed, that actually the furlough scheme was going to keep going until the day before the new scheme came into force, and therefore you had the financial backing, it’s just that the new scheme would have provided greater financial backing.

So I’m sorry, I don’t understand the argument, and I’m happy for you to explain it if you can, as to how the Welsh Government can blame the UK Government when there was financial backing in existence, it just wasn’t as much.

Mr Mark Drakeford: I’ll do my best to explain. So I think there are two reasons why that argument doesn’t – would not have been sufficient for us at the time.

First of all, it would have required every business in Wales who was now going to have to furlough somebody, because they would no longer be able to operate, to apply for one scheme for week 1 and then a wholly new scheme for week 2. We thought that was not a reasonable burden to put on businesses and employees when it could be avoided.

But the second and the more important reason is that the qualifying criteria for the two schemes was very different, and the qualifying criteria for the first week was much more restrictive than it would have been for the enhanced job support scheme.

So not only would people have had to have applied twice but far fewer people would have been successful in those applications in the first week than would have been true in the second week. And the reason the Chancellor had put in a new scheme and a more generous scheme was to recognise the gathering difficulties of Covid’s new sweep up through the autumn.

So not only would it have been difficult to do it practically, but actually it wouldn’t have delivered for very many people – anybody working in hospitality would not have qualified for the first week of help at all. So we would be saying to people in Wales: you’ve got – you’re not allowed to go to work and there’s no help for you at all.

All of that could have been put right by the UK Government by simply adjusting one week in the introduction of the scheme, and we were prepared to recognise that there would be additional costs for them in doing that and we would have paid for them out of our own resources. The UK Government wasn’t prepared to do that.

Lady Hallett: So I understand that you would have much preferred it to come in and you made your contribution offer. What I don’t follow is if on one side of the argument – or one side of the equation you have the health of your nation and the possibility of many more infections and many more deaths and the fact you’ve come to the conclusion you have no alternative but to lock down, and on the other hand some difficulties, which I accept would not be easy for employers and certainly wouldn’t be easy for people in hospitality, but I don’t see how those two end up with your being able to blame the UK Government for a delay in the firebreak.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, what I’m arguing for is a level playing field. When UK ministers go to the Treasury and say “Things are so bad, we need you to change the scheme”, the scheme is changed immediately. When Welsh Government goes –

Lady Hallett: So what was the example of that – I’m sorry, I meant to ask you, what was the example?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, because within a couple of weeks of our firebreak England is in a four-week lockdown –

Lady Hallett: But did they bring forward any scheme then? I’m not following why you said they were able to bring forward the schemes.

Mr Mark Drakeford: I’m sorry, it is fiendishly complex in the detail.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer changes his plans at that point. He doesn’t move from one scheme to another, he rolls forward the first scheme for another month, to accommodate the changing circumstances in England, when – it’s as simple – it really is as simple as this: when English ministers ask him for help he says yes, when Welsh ministers ask him for help he says no.And that’s not fair that is the Treasury not operating as a UK Treasury, it’s operating as the Treasury for England.

And that’s why this was such – you know, I think I say in my evidence, this was one of the – for somebody who believes in the United Kingdom, this was one of the hardest moments in the whole of the firebreak, because we were not being treated fairly. We were not being treated as we would have been had we been English ministers asking for that help.

Mr Poole: Mr Drakeford, just before we take a break, try to finish this topic of the firebreak, and circling back round to timing, it was 14 October that the firebreak implementation group was established. There was then an emergency Cabinet meeting of 15 October. We don’t need to look at those minutes. The scientific advice was that a minimum two-week lockdown was required but it was said that three weeks was preferable.

I suppose, just pausing there, if you’re being told that a three-week firebreak was preferable why was it ultimately decided to go with a two-week firebreak?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, it wasn’t a two-week firebreak –

Lead 2B: Three – three weekends and two weeks.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Yeah, indeed, so it was a 17-day firebreak.

And there’s a trade-off here between length and depth. The advice we’re getting is: you can either go longer and have more shallow restrictions. The shorter the firebreak, the deeper it has to be, and the Welsh Government decides to have a 17-day firebreak and to have it as sharp as we can make it. So every time you will see in the papers there are a series of choices ministers are asked to make between more intense restrictions or less intense restrictions, and every time we decide on more intense restrictions because we have got fewer days of those restrictions in place. So it’s the balance between length and depth and we resolve it in that way.

Lead 2B: The emergency Cabinet on 15 October makes an in-principle decision. That’s to have a firebreak. That’s not formally approved until Cabinet then meets again on 19 October. Why does it take a further four days to formally make a decision that’s already been made in principle?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, it’s because of the way in which we make decisions in Wales, which, I think, if I could sum them up, you know, the process was exhaustive and exhausting, because my aim was to make sure that we involved as many voices as we could in these difficult decisions.

My Lady, I can say to you, you know, from my experience that the easy way for a government to ask is to ask as few people as you can get away with. Our objective was to do the opposite. We aimed to talk to as many people as we could about the impact our decisions would have on them. So in this period the Cabinet is meeting daily, sometimes twice daily. We are also meeting the Social Partnership Council, we are consulting with the Children’s Commissioner, my colleagues are talking with all their sector organisations. From a ministers’ point of view, as I say, that’s an exhausting way to make decisions, and it makes the burden of decision-making more difficult in some ways because now you have to take into account all the difficulties that everybody will have explained to you that this is going to mean for them, and that does take a couple of days to do it.

But my aim throughout the whole of the pandemic was to never come to a final decision unless I felt that we’d had every opportunity to listen to people in Wales and their representative organisations, and for every question that any one of my ministerial colleagues, that they wanted to raise, that they’d had the opportunity to raise it. And, you know, that does take a couple of days and that’s what was going on in the days between 15 and 19 October, that intensive work of engagement with people about the major decision we were about to take.

Lead 2B: We now know that the second wave had a greater impact in Wales than the first, more lives were lost. Do you consider that different decisions should have been taken throughout September and October, and ultimately should a firebreak have been brought in sooner and for longer?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I said to you that the firebreak decision was about balancing the four harms, and the harm that is most in the minds, other than the harm from the virus itself, in our minds at this point is the harm to children. We had agreed as a Cabinet that keeping schools open would be our top priority. The schools would be the last to close. And we were very committed to making sure that a week of the firebreak coincided with half term in order to minimise the impact on children’s lives.

So there’s obviously a very plausible argument that you could have brought it forward a week and still had a week of half term in it, but it’s the process of weighing up all those different harms that leads us to the timetable we eventually adopt. It’s not the only timetable, I’m not defending it, I’m explaining it as best I can, and that’s one of the driving considerations for us at this point, is trying to minimise the impact of what we’re about to do in the lives of children who have already had their education significantly disrupted in Wales.

Mr Poole: My Lady, if that’s an appropriate point.

Lady Hallett: Yes, of course. 3.15, please.

(3.01 pm)

(A short break)

(3.15 pm)

Lady Hallett: Mr Poole.

Mr Poole: Thank you, my Lady.

As you came to the end of November 2020, Mr Drakeford, attention turned to the approach to adopt over the Christmas period, and it was recognised that if possible there should be a four nation position on what was and not going to be allowed over Christmas.

If we can have a look at the COBR meeting minutes of 24 November, please, INQ000083850.

Have a look at page 6, paragraph 4, please. Dr Atherton is noted as saying “relaxing the rules for winter festivities would bring a cost to it”.

Paragraph 6, on the same page:

“… Christmas proposal [was put] together as there was a significant risk of non-compliance [otherwise] and it allowed the public to come together when needed in a more managed way.”

Paragraph 7, please.

The proposal was for up a three households to come together in an “exclusive bubble”, with the four nations being able to define households slightly differently.

Then if we go to page 7, please, paragraph 10, you are noted as agreeing to the top messages of the proposal and would need to ensure clarity of public messaging.

Now, one of the concerns that was voiced at COBR was that Wales was the only nation at this stage without a tier system and so needed to give thought to what to revert to after 27 December.

Do you consider a tier system ought to have been introduced earlier than 4 December, as it had been in the other three nations?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I don’t think so. At this point we have our own method of responding in Wales, and I don’t think I felt under any pressure just to come into line with what others were doing.

Lead 2B: Now, we know that a new variant of the virus had been identified that spread very quickly, and on 16 December you announced that Wales would move into alert level 4, so the highest level, effectively lockdown, from Christmas Day, and that a smaller Christmas is a safer Christmas.

Mr Gething told the Inquiry in his evidence on Monday that by 15 December it was his view that there was a clear rationale to move ahead of the agreement that you had reached with the other nations of the UK. He told us that the Cabinet was split. You set out a case for a different course of action, namely delaying further restrictions.

My question is simply this: given that you and Mr Gething were drawing on the same scientific evidence, including Dr Atherton’s advice, why were you and Mr Gething on different pages, it seems, regarding the timing of a Christmas lockdown at this point?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, this was the most difficult period of decision-making in the whole of the pandemic for the Welsh Government. The health minister was in receipt of direct advice from the director general of the NHS about the risk to the health service and from the Chief Medical Officer about the continuing rise in infections in Wales. I am concerned about the other harms that would occur if we were to bring forward a lockdown to the pre-Christmas period instead of the immediately post Christmas period that we have identified.

I’m anxious about that for a string of different reasons. I’m anxious for businesses, because many businesses make their – you know, the difference between them surviving and going under is the week before Christmas, that’s when they make money, and we had promised them that they will have that week to trade.

There are many people in Wales, my Lady, weekly paid people, who only buy Christmas presents in the week before Christmas because they’re not able to manage money in a different way, they rely on a final pay packet and then they go and make Christmas. And we’re about to take that away from them.

And even more so, I am very heavily – well, weighing very heavily with me is the impact on children. In my own constituency, I have a school which has one of the largest proportions of children on the at-risk register of any school in Wales. It’s a fantastic school. Their teacher sets off at 8 o’clock in the morning to go and collect children whose parents otherwise wouldn’t manage to get them ready to get to school. If those children have a Christmas, they have it in school. If they have a Christmas present, it’s because the school gives it to them. If they have a Christmas party, it’s because it happens in school. If they have a Christmas dinner, it’s because the school provides it in that final week. They’re not going to get it at home. And we are about to say to them that their Christmas is completely cancelled.

And, you know, I think I am lucky that I don’t have many sleepless nights even in these difficult days, but at that moment I am – I am really worrying about what we are faced with deciding.

We have a Cabinet meeting, the Cabinet is evenly divided between whether to bring forward the restrictions or to stick with our original plan.

Although I had approached it from a different starting point than the health minister, of course I sum up at the end of the meeting in favour of his position, not mine. And the reason for that is a point, my Lady, I think you made earlier, and it’s why in the end some of what looked like really difficult decisions I felt were resolvable, because the advice we are having from our medical colleagues is that if we don’t act now people who otherwise would be alive would lose their lives. And although a child in school, if we close them early, they will be losing their education and in some children’s cases they will be losing an awful lot more than that, in the end they will get Christmas back another year and we can do things to restore their education. I cannot give them back their nan.

And so in the end for me the decision was never that difficult: if you have advice that says you need to do this or lives will be lost, despite the other harms, that’s the way in which the Welsh Government resolved the decision.

And in that meeting, where that is the very dilemma we were faced with, although I had started in a different place to the health minister, I resolved the discussion in favour of the arguments he was making for exactly that reason.

Lead 2B: We don’t need to go to the minutes but just for the record, that was a Cabinet meeting on Saturday 19 December. It’s INQ000048803. And the decision, as you said, Mr Drakeford, was to bring forward alert level 4 restrictions for the whole of Wales from midnight that night.

I want to just go back to schools and education in this pre-Christmas period briefly, because on 2 December there was a draft TAG paper titled “Statement on NPIs in the pre-Christmas period”, INQ000350039.

If we can turn to page 7 please second paragraph:

“The available evidence indicates that schools being open is associated … [Document read] … of a causative relationship …”

If we can have a look at page 12, please, under the “Schools policy option”, this provides modelled estimates of the impacts of schools moving to blended learning, from 14 to 18 – and if we turn over the page to 13 and look at the table, this sets out the difference in outcomes using different reproduction rates between schools being open and closed, and we can see that the difference is reasonably sizeable.

Ms Williams, Kirsty Williams, set out her thoughts on this TAC paper in an email to the Minister for Health and Social Services and your special advisers and your private office.

If we could have a look at the email, it’s 6 December, INQ000350044, third paragraph.

She explains that:

“The paper …”

So namely the draft TAG paper we’ve just looked at:

“… is deeply difficult for education …”

And then in the next paragraph, the fourth paragraph, that it is “contrary to the agreed position of the government that education is a priority”.

And it is right, isn’t it, that, as a result of Ms Williams’ concerns, you asked for the paper to be held back from publication and an updated paper was published on 7 December.

Before we just look at that updated paper, I’ve got everything right so far?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Correct.

Lead 2B: That updated paper is INQ000350057.

If we look at the modelling charts, they’re pages 12 and 13, please. Just having in mind what we saw earlier, the section setting out the differentials in impact when schools are closed has been removed from this published paper, as has the suggestion that schools move to blended learning from 14 to 18 December.

Why did you consider that the TAG paper should be amended in this way?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Because I agreed with the education minister that there had been insufficient discussion with her and her advisers about the content of the paper. She wished to interrogate that data further. She wanted more discussions with the authors of the paper, to understand the basis on which this advice – which was contrary to, as she said, the position that we had aimed to sustain up until that point – before that information went into the public domain I wanted to be sure that my education minister was confident in it, and she clearly wasn’t confident, she hadn’t had the opportunities that she needed. I didn’t want to hold the paper up longer than was necessary, so the paper was published, but it allowed discussions with the education minister and her advisers to go ahead.

Lead 2B: I understand.

As we entered 2021, cases remained very high in most parts of Wales, there were rapid increases in North East Wales in particular, so despite the Christmas restrictions the new strain of the virus appeared to be driving an increase in cases.

4 January, all four CMOs for the four nations recommended that the UK alert level moved from level 4 to level 5, and we don’t need to go to the minutes but that was discussed in a four nation call with Mr Gove, and in summary the decision was made that measures would remain in place until 15 February with no review before then; that’s right, isn’t it?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Yes.

Lead 2B: I want to, again, just look briefly at decisions that were made in respect of schools in this period in early 2021.

If we can see a TAG paper, published paper, 7 January.

It’s INQ000066357.

If we can have a look at page 6, please, under the heading “Education and schools”, I think it’s about six lines down, it starts slightly indented:

“It is difficult to quantify the size of this effect, and it remains difficult to quantify the level of transmission taking place specifically within schools compared to other settings, open schools being associated with adults attending work, more travel and commuting, and schools day wrap around, community and sport activities in the end-to-end day.”

If we can turn to page 8, please, second paragraph:

“Pattern of confirmed cases and clusters of cases … [Document read] … associated with schools.”

Then over the page, page 9, please:

“ONS CIS data from 2 September to … [Document read] … (medium confidence).”

Then finally page 11, please, second paragraph:

“Schools should not be disproportionately used as a control … [Document read] … relaxation of precautions …”

Ms Williams, in her witness statement to this module, when discussing this paper, she says it was discussed in a ministerial call on 7 January 2021, and it was decided that schools could not fully re-open on 18 January and that it was unlikely that schools would return to face-to-face teaching before the half term in mid-February. Why was this decision taken, given the advice and the evidence set out in this TAG report?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, first of all, Mr Poole, I think in the extracts you’ve highlighted you see the complexity of the advice in this area and its inconsistency. It was never that we had a definitive set of information about the impact that schools had on transmission, the difference between different age groups, the effect of parents congregating at the school gate. You know, at different points the advice pushed you in different directions, and although this advice would be very consistent with the Welsh Government’s ambition, which is to have children in school, there is lots of other advice extant that gives people of a different view, you know, evidence that they can point to to say this is not the right thing to do.

You know, during this period, the education minister and I are both separately served with a legal document from the National Association of Head Teachers saying that they will prosecute us if we open schools in Wales.

Now, I obviously would not agree with that, but the National Association of Head Teachers is not a frivolous organisation and it would not have come to that conclusion if it didn’t believe seriously that re-opening schools in these circumstances, the Alpha wave and so on, that that was putting their members at serious risk.

So while there is the evidence you have quite rightly pointed to here, it’s not unambiguous and it’s not the only advice in town, and there are other people who feel very strongly that schools must not re-open, to the extent that they’re prepared to take legal action against the Welsh Government to prevent that from happening.

Lead 2B: Mr Drakeford, changing topic now but staying anchored in 2021, I wanted to ask you a few questions about international travel.

You have said in your witness statement that engagement between the UK Government and the Welsh Government regarding international travel was a low point in intergovernmental communication throughout the pandemic.

On 23 June 2021 you wrote to Mr Gove regarding the UK Government’s proposals for relaxing the self-isolation requirement for those returning from amber list countries. We don’t need your letter displayed, but in that letter you say:

“It is important for decisions regarding international travel to be taken on a UK-wide basis”, and you hoped that changes would not be made without agreement between the four nations.

Now, we’ve seen calls for four nation decision-making before. When it came to international travel, did unilateral decision-making present an even bigger problem?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, in this area the Welsh Government had only theoretical powers of agency, because most people who travel abroad from Wales don’t do so from Wales and back to Wales, they go through ports in England and airports in England. So while theoretically we could make rules of our own, in practice they would have had no impact. So, in effect, we simply had to do whatever the UK Government decided in this area.

I don’t think the UK Government were slow in coming to that realisation themselves, so the amount of discussion with us was pretty rudimentary, often very late in the day.

Personally, I disagreed with the UK Government’s approach to international travel from almost beginning to end, but in practice that made no difference at all to citizens in Wales, because the practicalities of international travel were not in the hands of the Welsh Government.

Lead 2B: On 23 July you describe in your witness statement receiving an email informing you that the UK Government was proposing to relax international travel restrictions for fully vaccinated arrivals from EU countries and the USA.

It’s INQ000256899 and we’ve got it on screen there.

At the bottom of page 1 there’s a proposal to be discussed at Covid-O with it coming into force as soon as 2 August. You are asked for your views, and I think it is page 1, right at the top, you say:

“I think my reaction is as it has been throughout: that the risks from international travel remain real, and that the UK [Government’s] approach is not proportionate to that risk.”

Can you just explain what you meant and why you say that in that email.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I believed from the beginning, as I say, to the end that more could have been done to mitigate the risk of coronavirus and particularly new variants of coronavirus arriving in the United Kingdom through international travel. The instinct of the UK Government was always to liberalise travel as much as possible and that meant, in my view, that they were prepared to take risks on importation that would better have been avoided.

So it’s just a fundamental difference of a view, when it plays out week after week in all the practicalities. We would have had a stronger grip on international arrivals in the United Kingdom and when they did arrive we would have had stronger precautions to ensure that they were safe to be here and we would have lifted those restrictions more gradually and for fewer countries at a time.

Our view, in a practical sense, counted for nothing, because we couldn’t make it effective. But that’s what I mean there, that throughout the time their approach underestimated the risks.

Lead 2B: In a letter you wrote to Mr Johnson on 5 August you described the UK Government’s approach to international travel and UK borders as chaotic and the engagement with the devolved administrations as shambolic.

Looking ahead to a future pandemic, how is this to be improved in the future, in your view?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, it is chaotic and shambolic because of the pace at which changes are made. You really would need to be running a travel agency to have kept up with whether France is on the list today and Tobago is on the list tomorrow, because the lists were constantly changing and the criteria against which it was decided whether or not a country would be on a list were changing as well.

So I suppose my answer – I haven’t given it a great deal of thought, truthfully, but my answer would be rooted in some of the answers I’ve tried to give earlier, which is that consistency and predictability of action would be as welcome in this area as it was in others, and it was very absent in this area.

Lead 2B: Heading into winter 2021, Omicron, as we know, emerged as a variant of concern. Do you consider that the Welsh Government was overly cautious or overly pessimistic in the way that it responded to Omicron in winter 2021?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I don’t. The advice that we had was that Omicron was significantly more transmissible, and there were two things that we didn’t know about it: we didn’t know whether the available vaccines would have been as effective in dealing with this new variant as they had been with the pre-existing ones, and we didn’t know whether Omicron would not simply be more transmissible but that it could be a more serious disease.

Now, you could try your luck and, you know, gamble on the fact that it wouldn’t be more serious and that the vaccines would work. Trying your luck wasn’t a basis of the decisions we would make. We acted on a precautionary principle that it could – either of those things could have been true. Until we were confident that it wasn’t true we would protect the Welsh public from the potential impact.

Lead 2B: Changing topic, Mr Drakeford, and just touching on public health messaging, which I appreciate we’ve already touched on already. You’ve said in your evidence that you were determined throughout the pandemic that the Welsh Government communications should speak to the people of Wales in a way that was clear, direct and honest.

I appreciate this is probably asking you to mark your own homework to a certain extent, but do you consider that that was achieved during the pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I’ll make one point, and maybe, if you don’t mind, I’ll tell one story just to illustrate the – I’ll do it as quickly as I can.

So the general point is that my aim when I went to give press conferences was to share with the people listening the information that I had, and then to explain why the Welsh Government had come to the conclusions we had come to, based on that information.

But that information would allow people it make a different conclusion if they wanted to. I wanted them to know what I knew. So I would set it out week after week, I would say, you know: this is the state of the virus, this is what we’re being told, and this is what we now think we need to do. But I wanted to make sure that they always felt that if they thought there was a different conclusion to be drawn, people would be able to do so.

Were we effective? Here’s my very brief story. I woke up one morning at home, probably in July, one of the days when things are getting better, cafés have just been allowed to open outdoors and a BBC reporter is interviewing a group of ladies who have gathered at Verdi’s, which is a coffee shop in the Mumbles in Cardiff, which they’ve not been able to do for many weeks, and he says to them, “How have you been able to follow, you know, the rules? It’s all been very difficult”, and this person says to him, “Well, at quarter past 12 on a Friday we draw the curtains, we sit down, we listen to the press conference, and we do everything Mr Drakeford tells us to do”. At that point I felt a rather sinking feeling, really. But in a way I don’t think that was untypical. The number of people who followed the press conferences was enormous and the number of people who relied upon them to know what our advice to them was, was huge. And the willingness of people in Wales to comply with the extraordinary things we were asking of them was, I think, well beyond what you might have reasonably expected.

Lead 2B: There were some high profile instances of ministers and officials within the UK Government appearing to contravene Covid regulations. We’ve heard about Mr Cummings’ drive to Barnard Castle. Do you consider, from a Welsh Government perspective, that those incidents had any exact on the public’s confidence in your government’s handling of the pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I think there’s some empirical evidence on this. Every month the UK Government paid for research, I think it was by MORI. We paid for a Welsh booster sample to get the views of people in Wales. At the start of the pandemic, trust in the Welsh Government and the UK Government are more or less at a par, maybe the UK Government is slightly ahead of the Welsh Government in terms of trust. There comes a point, and it’s around that time, when there’s a big divergence in trust. So from there on the Welsh Government’s trust rating is around the 70%, sometimes a couple of points below, sometimes quite a few points above and the UK Government’s trust ratings are 40% or lower. So a 30% gap opens up between people feeling that they can rely on what the UK Government is telling them and what they think – and how they think they can rely on the Welsh Government telling them. And I think it’s very, very much connected to a feeling that in some parts of the United Kingdom there were people issuing instructions to others that they did not feel they had to follow themselves. And I don’t think people thought that was true in Wales and I can give you an absolute guarantee that it wasn’t true.

Lead 2B: Did you ever consider that your own ministers’ or Welsh officials’ behaviour during the pandemic dented public confidence in Wales?

Mr Mark Drakeford: You know there are one or two incidents that are reported and much is made of them, but they’re very infrequent. Well, my Lady, you will know that a television company had complete access to the Welsh Government for months and months and, you know, filmed us at work exhaustively. I don’t think you will see anything there at all other than people absolutely scrupulously observing the rules that we had set for others and determined that we would always live up to what we were asking others to live up to.

Lead 2B: I want to deal next with the Welsh Government’s consideration of vulnerable and at-risk groups.

You say in your witness statement to this module, it’s paragraph 70, that you initiated a significant amount of data collection and modelling in relation to at-risk and vulnerable groups and those with protected characteristics.

First of all, how did the Welsh Government assess who would be considered vulnerable and at risk during the pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, we would have essentially relied on the protected characteristics list.

Lead 2B: Dealing then, if I can, with older people first, you make the point in your witness statement, it’s paragraph 68, that data and modelling in Wales took into account the relatively higher proportion of older people in Wales, and you point to the fact that the Older People’s Commissioner was a member of the Shadow Social Partnership Council.

Professor Nazroo, in an expert report for all of the Module 2s, has highlighted in evidence to the Inquiry that there has been no comprehensive study of ageing in Wales to capture the experiences of people as they grow older.

If that is so, what sources of information were used to inform the Welsh Government’s approach to vulnerabilities of older people during the pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I was puzzled when I read that, because I know from my own work at the university that there are very distinguished Welsh researchers who have reported on those matters in Wales. So I’m not absolutely certain that I agree with the point that was made. The work of Professor Judith Phillips, just to cite one example, you know, is very significant and very highly regarded, and Judith is a professor who focuses on older people and has worked in Wales extensively.

So I’m not sure that I sign up to the idea that, you know, there wasn’t information available. But it is true, as I said in one of my first answers, that the scale of research available on a population of 55 million people is always going to be greater than is available on a population of 3 million. So I’m not saying that there are not gaps, you know, there are, but I’m not sure that some of those gaps were quite as extensive as the advice the Inquiry has had suggests.

Lead 2B: Pandemic planning appears, though, to have treated older people as a homogeneous group and not paid attention to which categories of older people might have been at particular risk.

I mean, do you agree with that proposition?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I think to an extent. I don’t think it would be true, for example, in our approach to black and minority ethnic communities where we had some very specific policies aimed at older people in those communities. So I’m not going to say that across every protected characteristic we were able to disaggregate our efforts according to age, but I think where it was most available to us to make that difference, we did.

Lead 2B: Briefly, what steps did the Welsh Government take to mitigate risks to older people in respect of, particularly I’m thinking, the NPIs that were introduced in response to the pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I suppose the most obvious one is many, many older people were asked to shield from the very beginning. I don’t think I’ve made – and apologies if I have – but four members of my own ministerial team were shielding, from the very beginning. So we were very alert, as a group of Cabinet colleagues, that there were older people who were – we were asking to take even greater measures to protect themselves against the virus.

So that’s the most obvious example, and then through our local authority colleagues we also instigated a series of measures to try to make sure that isolated older people would have the contact that they need, particularly for delivering food to them, making sure that medicines were collected and delivered to them, and so on.

Lead 2B: Debbie Foster gave evidence in respect of disabled people, now – which was looking at the impact on disabled groups in Wales, and she said she was largely left to her own devices and she compared that with, to give an example, the Black, Asian and minority ethnic group, and this was interpreted, she said, by some members of the Welsh Government that they saw their work as less important. Is that the case?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I’m very grateful to Professor Foster and to members of the disability forum who did advise us throughout the pandemic and who produced the Locked Out report which I attended a meeting with the authors, including Debbie Foster, shortly before the Senedd elections in May 2021.

It’s difficult for me to put myself in her position. My Lady, I just want to say, you know, I was very keen indeed that the Welsh Government took full account of the needs of Black and minority ethnic citizens and disabled citizens before the pandemic started at all.

By the end of 2019 we had working in the Cabinet – and I was very insistent that these individuals would sit on the floor where Cabinet colleagues would see them every day. So we appointed Professor Iwobi, from the race equality council of Wales, to be a specialist adviser to the Welsh Government, and we appointed Jon Luxton, who was, you know, a leading campaigner in the field of disability, to be our advisers, and that was before the pandemic, and they sat on the Cabinet floor where colleagues would see them and meet them and hear from them over time.

While I’m quite certain there are things we didn’t do and could have done, the fact that by the middle of April, within three weeks, we were engaged with people from the Race Equality Forum and the disability forum. My colleague Jane Hutt met absolutely regularly throughout the pandemic with them, and we’ve taken action on the reports that they provided.

You know, I don’t want to overplay it, I don’t want to make claims beyond what we can, but I can say confidently that those matters always were in the minds of Welsh ministers.

Lead 2B: We know that the British Medical Association raised concerns about the impact of the pandemic on ethnic minority groups, and we heard evidence in the first week of hearings from Professor Ogbonna that the Race Council Cymru, wrote to you in early April. The first time you were briefed by the black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Advisory Group was 20 May.

Does that suggest an unjustifiable delay in focusing on a significant vulnerable and at-risk group?

Mr Mark Drakeford: No, that really would be to misunderstand the sequence of events, because it’s not that we get contacted on 14 April and there was a letter from Judge Ray Singh and then don’t do anything about it until 20 May.

By 20 May, the work of the forum was well under way, including the production of the risk assessment tool that members of black and minority ethnic clinicians themselves devised in order to make sure that people from those communities were not unfairly placed in the frontline, given the susceptibility to the virus, and that risk assessment tool was used not just in Wales but very widely, including in the Houses of Parliament as well, and all that work was going on between the receipt of the letter and the time that Professor Ogbonna and Professor Kesh Singhal, an orthopaedic surgeon who’d led the work on the risk assessment tool, by the time they came to speak directly to the Cabinet about it.

Lead 2B: The Inquiry’s heard evidence that at the start of the pandemic Wales had the highest level of child poverty in the UK at 31%. What measures were put in place to ensure a minimum level of welfare provision for children living in poverty during the pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, the levers available to the Welsh Government to directly affect poverty are very limited, the major levers are the social security system, the benefits system and, you know, macroeconomic policy. But we were the first government in the United Kingdom to guarantee the free school meal payments would continue throughout the school holiday, and we continued them for longer than any other part of the United Kingdom as well.

So there is one intensely practical action that was in the hands of the Welsh Government, and which aimed to support those families with the least resources to assist children and young people during the pandemic.

We also, as I said earlier, having closed schools or advised that schools should be closed on 18 March, by 23 March schools were open for vulnerable children and children of key workers. One of the reasons why we, differently to other parts of the United Kingdom, asked every child in Wales to come back to school in the end of June and beginning of July of 2020 was because of our anxiety about safeguarded children, children who wouldn’t have been seen by a social worker in those months who normally would be visited regularly. We wanted to make sure that those children presented themselves somewhere where adults could make an assessment of their wellbeing.

So, you know, within the limited levers that we had, I think we did our best to use them to the benefit of those children who needed help the most.

Lead 2B: It has been set out in the inequalities evidence of Professor Bécares, who reported on the impact of the pandemic on LGBTQI+ communities, that there is an increased prevalence of pre-existing physical and mental health conditions among LGBTQI+ communities.

First question, I suppose, is: was the Welsh Government aware of this going into the pandemic, and then, secondly, did it factor into decision-making?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I could not claim that I was aware of some of that evidence going into the pandemic. For the purposes of ensuring that the needs of that community in Wales were known about and discussed, I relied primarily on two ministers in my ministerial team who belong to that community and who were assiduous in making sure that where there were issues drawn to their attention that were relevant to that community, that they would be shared with the Cabinet where we were able to take collective action to address them.

But I can’t say it was necessarily more systematic than that, but we did have representatives around the table every day who had particular capacity to make sure we were aware of those issues.

Lead 2B: Digital exclusion has been highlighted by a number of inequalities experts as a bar to receiving timely updates about the rules, guidance, access to help and also healthcare during the pandemic.

How was the risk of this form of isolation taken into account in Welsh Government decision-making?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, the fact that we relayed our decisions through televised news conferences and, from the very beginning, we had a British Sign Language interpreter there with us to communicate to people who wouldn’t be able to hear what we were saying, and there were 250, I think, press conferences held during the whole of the pandemic. I think that was our major effort to make sure that we weren’t simply relying on a website or forms of access that people wouldn’t otherwise have. But, you know, it is a rare person in Wales who doesn’t have access to a television, and given that we were using that as our primary means of making sure the most widespread communication was available, I think that was a reasonable course of action.

Lead 2B: Mr Drakeford, final topic, lessons learned.

You contributed to “The Welsh Government[‘s] … lessons learnt for good practices and areas for further development”, that was published in 2022.

We can see it on the screen, and for the record it’s INQ000182549.

If we can have a look at the second page of that, the third paragraph – thank you – set out there, that’s a summary of the key lessons emerging from that exercise.

Would I be right to assume that you would commend those key lessons to the Inquiry?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I do commend them, but I just want to be clear that they are recommendations about the internal workings of the Welsh Government rather than wider recommendations. The exercise was to look at how the Welsh Government itself had discharged our responsibilities. It’s a – it drew on the experience of many, many people who worked in the Welsh Government during that period and the key lessons are well summarised on that page, but they don’t necessarily translate into wider lessons beyond the internal workings of the government itself.

Lead 2B: And if there was a single lesson that you learnt during the pandemic, what would that be?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Dear. That’s a difficult question, isn’t it, to think of late in the day.

Well, I’ll probably just return to a theme which I’ve raised a number of times, that predictability, orderly conduct of government, the willingness to be round the same table together even when decision-making is dispersed, availability of authoritative evidence which has signs of internal challenge in it, and then a commitment to follow that advice as part of the decision-making process.

To varying degrees, those qualities were not sufficiently present in the way that the pandemic received a response across the United Kingdom, and if those lessons could be learnt and those strands strengthened for the future, I think it would be to the advantage of us all.

Mr Poole: Mr Drakeford, thank you. They’re all the questions I’ve got for you, but there are some questions from core participants.

Lady Hallett: Ms Heaven.

Questions From Ms Heaven

Ms Heaven: Good afternoon, First Minister, I represent the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru.

In your witness statement, you state as follows:

“Sadly, too many families have lost loved ones. This cruel virus has stolen lives and it has left their loved ones with questions, which they rightly want answered.”

First Minister, you’re entirely correct, the Welsh bereaved do want answers, but they want to see that you’ve openly reflected on your handling of the pandemic and learnt some lessons.

Now, the Welsh bereaved have pored over every word in the statements that you’ve given to the Inquiry, and indeed they’ve sat here today and listened carefully to everything that you have said. They are therefore deeply disappointed that in all of your evidence to this module, including your oral evidence today, you will not accept that there was anything that the Welsh Government and, in particular you, did wrong.

Now, you told CTI at the start of your evidence that you were not here to justify and you were not here to defend, but unfortunately that’s exactly what you have done.

You have refused to accept that you should have read the signals of risk earlier and acted sooner, instead relying on hindsight; on asymptomatic transmission, you’ve refused to accept that a precautionary approach should have been taken; you have refused to accept that you should have cancelled mass gatherings; you’ve refused to give an unconditional acceptance that you failed to plan for the pandemic; you’ve defended the two delays by the Welsh Government on introducing testing in care homes; and you’ve tried to explain away the Welsh Government’s obviously illogical divergence on face coverings.

Now, Nicola Sturgeon, Matt Hancock and even Boris Johnson were able to identify some things that they got wrong when they gave evidence to this Inquiry.

So, First Minister, can you please explain to the Welsh public why you are so reluctant to accept that the Welsh Government, indeed yourself, may have made some mistakes in the handling of this pandemic?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, first of all, my Lady, I’d like to thank members of the bereaved families Cymru for the opportunities I’ve had to meet with them, and to pay tribute to them for their being here at the Inquiry.

I tried to say at the beginning that I wasn’t here to justify, I was here to explain. I don’t think the test for me is whether I got everything right, because I don’t think anybody could possibly pass such a test.

What I tried to do is to explain why the actions we took at the time were reasonable in the context of the information that we had at the time, and that is not to say at all that another reasonable person could not have come to a different conclusion.

So, Ms Heaven, I suppose I don’t sign up to your propositions. I hope that in the decisions that I made and my colleagues made we were reasonable in our assessment of that evidence. I don’t make a higher claim than that. Though, as I say again, other reasonable people could have come to a different conclusion. That’s not the same as saying that we got everything right. I don’t claim that at all.

Ms Heaven: All right.

Let me move on, then, to my topic of the firebreak. Now, you have been asked a lot about this, so I’m going to just –

Lady Hallett: Sorry if I stole any of your thunder, Ms Heaven.

Ms Heaven: No, no, no, not you, I’m going to go on to new topics.

Now, we know that money was eventually made available in Wales, and indeed we know obviously that the firebreak did happen, and I’ll look in a moment at the money.

You’ve seen the SAGE advice obviously on 21 September, you’ve been taken by CTI to that TAG advice and series of advices which was tracking the deteriorating picture.

So my question is this: knowing what you did then, in September, did you commission anyone in the Welsh Government to consider the financial implications of introducing a firebreak and the funding options that might be available to the Welsh Government in September, or is the very first time you put pen to paper and think about this issue 16 October when you write that letter to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak?

Mr Mark Drakeford: No, of course we’d been thinking about that topic well before then. As I said in my earlier evidence, I had raised it as early as 22 September with the UK Government. The Welsh Government is mobilising enormous sums of money to assist Welsh businesses, over and above the money that comes from the United Kingdom, and there is evidence throughout the month of October of how we are looking to see what more we can do from our resources to be able to go on assisting businesses, given that we know that a firebreak has to be considered.

What we’re not able to do is we’re not able to mobilise resources at the scale that only the UK Government can, and we’re not able to use the mechanisms that are only available to the UK Government to get that money into the pockets of people who need it.

Ms Heaven: First Minister, can I press you there, because you provided a very detailed witness statement and we have gone through it, we can’t find any evidence that you personally commissioned somebody to look at the Welsh Government finances in September, on receiving that really quite devastating advice that we’ve looked at with CTI, as a matter of urgency to understand whether you had the resources to introduce a firebreak.

So can you give us a bit more specificity: when did you commission that advice?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think probably you’re looking for the wrong piece of evidence, because that is not how it would have happened. So my colleague Ken Skates, as the economy minister, and Rebecca Evans, who you heard from yesterday, worked together to find money that we could use to support businesses through these very difficult times. They were working on that throughout those early weeks of October and there is plenty of evidence that is already available, not in my statement necessarily, but in the workings of the Welsh Government to show how that – I wouldn’t have commissioned it, I think, in the way you suggest –

Ms Heaven: Let me move on, because as you know I’ve got limited time.

I want to ask you about a document, then, please, INQ000395839, please.

Lady Hallett: While that comes up, I must apologise, I think I called Ms Evans “Ms Mason” earlier.

Ms Heaven: Yes, Rebecca Evans.

Lady Hallett: Sorry.

Ms Heaven: Yes. Not Toby Mason, it was Rebecca Evans yesterday.

So this is an email here from Fliss Bennee, 5 October – and of course she needs no introduction – that was sent to your office and to your special advisers:

“Given the likely increases in Covid across the board, the fact that we do not yet have enough evidence to show that people are complying and the need to have a definitive effect on the R number, I would suggest that the First Minister may wish … [Document read] … circuit breaker around half term.”

So that, as we can see, goes to your office, to two emails, and it goes to Jane Runeckles.

Now, I can tell you – I’m not going to put it up, but you can take it from me – that you had a call with CDL indeed on that day at 15.45, and there is absolutely no reference to a firebreak and there is no reference to economic support. The topic just didn’t even come up.

Can you assist us with that, please.

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I don’t have the notes of that meeting in front of me, so I imagine that it was dealing with other matters, but the record shows as clearly as can be that well before 5 October I am asking the UK Government for the financial help that will be needed, and I continue to do that at the opportunities that I have directly with the Prime Minister, undoubtedly with Mr Gove, and it culminates in the exchange of letters that we rehearsed earlier this afternoon.

Of course it was fundamental to us to have the support of the UK Government for the actions that we were taking, and I can absolutely assure you that I raised that wherever I thought I was likely to get a positive response, even though in the end we didn’t.

Ms Heaven: Moving on to the COBR meeting that we know took place on 12 October – we don’t need to bring it up, CTI has shown you the note of that – we can obviously see there that on that day the Chancellor explains the package, amongst other things, and you make a contribution on that day, don’t you? You’re talking about, I think, the border issues; you’re also asking: is there going to be another COBR on the firebreak?

So can I ask this: why on this day, on 12 October, at this late stage, are you still asking whether COBR would be held to discuss circuit-breakers? Surely by this stage the Welsh Government should have met with its own Cabinet, it should have conducted all its planning, and it should have taken its plans and demands to COBR. And is the fact that you didn’t do this an example of your poor leadership?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Sorry, I missed that –

Ms Heaven: Is it an example of your poor leadership, the fact that by 12 October, here’s your opportunity, you’ve got a COBR, that you didn’t go there prepared with your modelling, with your data, with your plans agreed in Cabinet, you’ve spoken to the unions, you’ve got it all lined up, and there you are, you’re going to present it to the Chancellor on the 12th; that was your opportunity and you missed it, didn’t you?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I think that would be quite badly to misunderstand the context of the COBR. That would be so far in advance of the facts, and particularly where the UK Government was, that it would have been an effort not only wasted but very likely to be counterproductive.

The reason I asked for a special meeting on the circuit-breaker advice is the reason I provided earlier, which is that the Prime Minister was so emphatic in that meeting that he wasn’t prepared to agree to a firebreak and that he wouldn’t be willing to support the Welsh Government in our actions that I needed to have another run at that argument with him separately from the wider set of issues that were discussed.

Had I turned up there not only to ask for the UK Government’s general support for that proposition but with a detailed plan of doing so, I really don’t think we would have had a hearing at all.

Ms Heaven: Final document, then, please, can we look at INQ000227915. Now, just so you understand, you’re not at this meeting. This is minutes from the finance subcommittee group, Partnership Council for Wales, 2 November.

Now, it turns out Wales had its own fundraising capacity and reserves to support a firebreak and to support workers.

So if we just have a little look down on to the next page, please, if we see point 5:

“As a result of the firebreak, additional funding has been made available to businesses and employers in Wales, and this will be reviewed in light of recent developments in England. The MFT [so that’s obviously Rebecca Evans] had announced on 23 October an extra £10 million to help protect workers at risk of falling through the gaps.”

So pausing there, First Minister, it’s right, isn’t it, it’s totally disingenuous of you and the government to blame the UK Government for the timing of the firebreak? Because in reality Wales had the money to support a firebreak. The only person responsible for the timing of the firebreak in Wales and the fact that it probably came too late is you, so will you now not accept responsibility for this and for the inevitable spread of the virus and the deaths that occurred because of your lack of decisive action? Will you accept that?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I absolutely accept that it was my responsibility, in the end, to decide on the implementation of the firebreak.

I’m afraid the question very badly misunderstands the level of financial assistance that would be needed in Wales to support not just those groups who were not covered by the UK Government’s schemes – that’s what that £10 million is for, it’s for the freelancers’ fund, for example, freelancers weren’t covered by the furlough scheme that the Chancellor funded. £10 million is a small amount of money to pick up people who weren’t covered in the main scheme.

I’m afraid I think you’ve answered your first question, you have suggested to me that we weren’t doing anything to model the money that would be needed. Here is the practical example of exactly what we were doing. We were using our resources to supplement what only the UK Government could do, and my responsibility was to do everything I could to get them to support the public health action that we knew we needed to take in Wales.

Ms Heaven: Just finally, though, what I put to you is that you were being disingenuous in your witness statement to the Inquiry, where you were blaming the UK Government for the timing of the firebreak. That’s right, isn’t it? You can’t blame the UK Government.

Mr Mark Drakeford: No, no, it’s absolutely wrong, and it completely misunderstands the division of responsibilities between the Welsh Government and the UK Government.

We were able to mobilise our resources to fill the gaps in what only they could do. Without their willingness to provide the help that only they were able to do, we were inhibited from taking the action we needed to take in Wales. That’s what those letters are about. I failed to persuade them, and I cannot help but notice that as soon as it was necessary for them to take that action, they did find the resources. But my efforts at this point are all directed to asking the UK Government: we’ve got to take this action, please will you help us? And there’s no chance at all that the Welsh Government can simply step into that space, we have neither the resources nor the mechanics. We cannot instruct HMRC to make payments to anybody.

So it’s not disingenuous in any sense at all, it is simply a factual explanation of where the responsibilities and the capabilities for action lay, and the fact that I wasn’t able to persuade the UK Government to take action that only they could take had an inhibiting effect on our ability to do what we wanted to do in Wales.

Ms Heaven: Thank you, First Minister.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Ms Heaven.

Mr Straw.

Questions From Mr Straw KC

Mr Straw: Good afternoon, I represent John’s Campaign and Care Rights UK.

You mentioned at the end of your evidence with Mr Poole that, among other areas, the availability of authoritative evidence wasn’t sufficiently present during the pandemic.

Now, some stakeholders, including those involved in the care sector, considered that concerns they had raised weren’t taken into account or weren’t acted upon.

Is this one of the areas in which not enough was done to obtain and make available evidence?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I don’t think that the point that the sector was making was about lack of evidence. I think they felt and many other sectors felt that getting their case heard and recognised on the terms that they would have put it to the Welsh Government was as straightforward as they would like it to have been. But I’m not sure that it was absence of evidence that they were pointing to rather than access.

Mr Straw KC: So trying to understand, then, whether there was a point in the sort of chain of decision-making where there was a problem: so they’ve said that they’ve made their concerns and the concerns weren’t acted upon, they weren’t implemented; is there some point in that chain where there was a problem?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I think there are a whole series of difficult factors at this time, it’s the sheer scale of everything that the Welsh Government is trying to respond to.

The sector itself, as you know, is a – quite a disparate sector in Wales. The characteristic ownership pattern of care homes in Wales is not the pattern in England where there are a small number of very large corporate providers; we’ve still got lots and lots of owners of care homes who have one or two care homes and the sector has a job, which it works hard to do, to be able to represent the views of a very disparate audience.

Evidence is gathering all the time around us at this point as well, so it’s not as though there is a fixed body of knowledge that everybody can agree on and point to.

So I think there are many contributory reasons to the point that you made in the introduction.

Mr Straw KC: So perhaps getting together these disparate sources of evidence may have been an issue; would that be fair?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I think that is possible, but it’s not just evidence, it’s sheer practicality of things like: how do we get PPE to care homes in Wales? There is no single register of where every care home in Wales is located. We were very unfortunate, my Lady, to have some expert logistical support from the armed forces early on in the pandemic, and one of the things that they focused on was something as basic as being able to help us to make sure that we had, you know, all the information we needed and the most effective way of being able to mobilise the help that we wanted to provide to the place where it was needed.

Mr Straw KC: Looking at another part of the process, so from bringing forward the evidence from stakeholders to then implementing the concerns that they raised, the Older People’s Commissioner and also Professor Debbie Foster have talked about an implementation gap; so even where the concerns of stakeholders were recognised in central government, it got stuck somewhere, so the concerns weren’t then implemented.

Would you agree that that was a problem?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I certainly agree with this, that if you believe there is a model of government in which, you know, in Cathays Park here in Cardiff a minister pulls a lever and something happens out there on the Llyn Peninsula, then it really isn’t like that at all. There is a complex pattern of intermediaries and there are many ways in which, particularly in the beginning, making sure that decisions were translated into practical impact on the ground was challenging.

Mr Straw KC: In terms of learning lessons, is there something that can be done to improve the position in future?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I do think there are, and I think some of those things are the lessons that we learnt during the process itself. So just something as simple as there not being a central register of every care home in Wales, each local authority would have its own register, but there isn’t one consolidated place where that information is kept. So I think there are some very practical lessons that can be drawn from the experience, just in making sure we have those basic components in place so that then we can act more swiftly and more effectively than we were able particularly in those early weeks.

Mr Straw KC: Just one more question about this topic, and to try and illustrate the sort of broader systemic problems just with a specific example: a number of stakeholders raised concerns about the adverse impacts of bans on visits to those in care, and you yourself, on 11 November 2020 in a call with the other first ministers and Michael Gove, appeared to recognise the problems in that you drew attention to the really heartbreaking set of restrictions, as you put it, on care homes on those in care, and suggested liberalising them by use of testing.

Now, despite what you’d acknowledged at that point, there remained essentially a ban in place until May 2021. Does this illustrate any sort of broader issues in the systems in place? Could something have been done better to ensure that changes which had been recommended were put in place?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I hope so. I said right in the very beginning, you know, I visited my mother on 22 February at her 90th birthday and I didn’t see her again for many, many months. So, you know, the heartbreak that people feel about being separated from people who mean such a lot to them is very real.

I think there are two areas where I wished it was much – you know, we could have done much better. I wish it was easier for people to visit in the care homes, but I knew because of the evidence I saw that the importation of coronavirus into care homes full of vulnerable people was generally brought in by people who were coming in from the community to do so. So much, as I would have wished myself not to have been standing outside a window trying to talk to somebody, I also knew that I would be a risk to them if I did go in. So that’s what you’re balancing.

So I wish we had a better formula for it. We tried some practical things, we tried to find outdoor spaces where people could meet and things like that. They were – you know, they’re all things we should learn from and look at, and I very much wish that we could have found a different formula for people to be able to meet with loved ones in their final days or hours.

Mr Straw KC: Because of the time available, I’m going to have to move on. I’ve just got two more topics.

The first concerns expert groups, so you explain how the Black and Minority Ethnic Covid-19 Advisory Group was formed, and that of course was a very important group, but those needing care were also really at the sharp end of the pandemic and the response. Just to take an example, in the first three months of the pandemic, statistics indicate that around 39% of deaths in the UK involving Covid-19 were deaths of care home residents.

Would you agree that an equivalent advisory group similar to the BAME group should have been formed at an early stage?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, we have the Older Persons’ Commissioner for Wales who is specifically charged with representing the views of older people, and she has done an enormous amount with people who lived in care homes and worked in care homes and was a very powerful voice for them throughout the pandemic.

Personally you see I’m a believer in, just as we have a schools council in every school in Wales, I’d have a care council in every care home in Wales, myself, because I do think that the voice of people who live in those settings does need to be amplified. The idea that’s put to me is one of them, but during the pandemic itself we relied, you know, very much on the good offices of the Older People’s Commissioner, and she was a very powerful and I think effective voice on behalf of people in the care sector and beyond.

Mr Straw KC: The suggestion of a care council is very interesting.

The last topic, discharge from hospital into care homes. Firstly, you’ve discussed this already with Mr Poole, so I’ve got just a couple of specific questions about it.

You noted earlier that there was limited testing available at the time, but in fact there were only a pretty limited number of people being discharged per day from hospital without prior testing. So some of them already had testing, the asymptomatic ones didn’t, and I think the figures are somewhere between 11 and 18 people being discharged a day, whereas in mid-March there were about 1,800 tests available and the number increased.

Would you agree that allocating this pretty tiny proportion of the tests to discharged patients was justified by the huge risks involved?

Mr Mark Drakeford: I could maybe one point I haven’t made earlier, and I think sometimes in the sort of, you know, public prints on these matters, it appears as though what happened was, in March, that there was a wholesale discharge of people from hospitals into care homes. In fact, fewer people left care homes – fewer people left hospital for care homes in March and April 2020 than had left in the previous year.

So actually it wasn’t – and this is a fair point that’s being made; the numbers were not – you know, were not enormous, and maybe the amount of testing that would have been needed could have been accommodated. That’s not the advice that ministers had at the time, but I think it’s a fair point that’s being made.

Mr Straw KC: You fairly made the point earlier that these patients were unsafe in hospital because of what was happening, but there’s a slightly different question which is about whether they should be tested, whether asymptomatic patients should be tested prior to discharge. Do you accept that, taking the government and its scientific advisers collectively – so not you specifically, but the whole lot – that this was a mistake?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, I’m afraid I think this is classically an example where, knowing what we know now about asymptomatic transmission, if we’d had that state of knowledge at the time we would undoubtedly have been testing people.

At the time that knowledge didn’t exist, you know, the advice that we were still getting at the end of April – and was still being advocated by some scientists for a couple of months after that – was that asymptomatic transmission was not a primary cause for concern.

So it’s a matter of what you know at the time, isn’t it? Had we known at the time, I think we would have acted differently, but we didn’t know at the time, and what we were told at the time would not have supported diverting tests from other purposes to testing asymptomatic people.

Mr Straw: Okay, I’m going to have to finish there, but thank you very much.

Lady Hallett: Just before you sit down, Mr Straw, in case I raise anything …

Just – sorry, Mr Drakeford, I haven’t quite followed that. I thought you agreed with Mr Straw that it was a fair point to make that, given the limited number of those being discharged, they could have been tested because those with symptoms were tested.

This was the point you were making, Mr Straw.

Mr Straw: Yes.

Lady Hallett: And I thought you agreed that it was a fair point, that those without symptoms were sufficiently low in numbers that that – and I thought you agreed that could be accommodated, and then you seem to have said “but we weren’t getting that advice at the time therefore …”

So is it a fair point or isn’t it?

Mr Mark Drakeford: Well, than it’s a fair point in this way – it’s not a fair point in that the evidence we had didn’t say you would do that, but I think the point that was being put to me was: even though you have a limited amount of tests, the number of tests you would have to divert for this population could have been small enough to accommodate, even within the limited number of tests that you had. And, you know, I think that is a fair point. I would need to go away and look at the numbers and look at the availability of tests to see whether that was a practical proposition, but as a basic proposition: you haven’t got many tests but you don’t need many of them for this group, you know, it’s a reasonable point to make.

Lady Hallett: And we know how vulnerable people in care homes are.

Mr Mark Drakeford: We do.

Mr Straw: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Straw.

Does that complete the questioning?

Mr Poole: It does, my Lady, yes.

Lady Hallett: Mr Drakeford, thank you very much indeed for your help, both in this module and the previous module. I don’t know what life has in store for you when you step down as First Minister, but obviously we wish you well. Thank you.

The Witness: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: So does that complete the evidence for today?

Mr Poole: It does, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Therefore tomorrow we turn to closing submissions at 10 o’clock, please.

(4.30 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 10 am on Thursday, 14 March 2024)