For three days last week we had no new COVID deaths reported in Wales; the first early signs of a return to normality. Not that normal is really the right word of course. COVID has not gone away, and some kind of behavioural changes look set for some time yet.
Face masks, perspex shields, distancing, testing and all round self-awareness are now common features of daily life, but at least the economy is slowly picking up again. Some people have questioned this, arguing that public health should always be a priority over a return to work. I think it’s a balance. We can manage risk, but we can’t eliminate it. We know much more now about COVID than we did four months ago – habits and preferences are what it takes to slow its deadly progress.
But perhaps we need to take stock and look at the longer view as well. As Dr John Lee said this week:
“...now we have new tools that let us spot (and name) new viruses. We watch their progress in real time, plotting their journeys across the world and then sharing the scariest stories on social media.”
He goes onto argue that,
“The whole COVID drama has really been a crisis of awareness of what viruses normally do, rather than a crisis caused by an abnormally lethal new bug”.
Whether we share his views or not, we should grudgingly accept that context has been lamentably absent from much of the coverage of the disease and our response to it.
So as we grasp all this, it means that we can adapt our work places, travel plans and businesses to mitigate a more clearly understandable risk, whilst getting some much needed money back into the system. At the moment 1 in 3 people in Wales are on furlough schemes with 80% of their wages paid for by the UK Government. Thousands of businesses have clung on - just - because of the loan schemes and grants. It’s no exaggeration to say that the package put together at great speed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak is the most generous in the world. And who had even heard of him just a few weeks ago?
But such interventions cannot go on forever. As they gradually ease up, so our economy needs to gear up to take their place. The Chancellor’s “Eat In, Help Out” scheme is certainly novel – no such scheme has ever been tried before - but if it gets us back in the habit of supporting our local retailers, then that’s a pretty good place to be. The impact of COVID poses the greatest risk for the job prospects of younger people. That’s why the new plans prioritise job retention and creation for this age group. It’s also why all those things we said last year as we approached the election are even more important now than they were then.
We won’t rebuild Wales by battening down the hatches, but by being bold and innovative. Wales benefits more than any other country in the UK from the 15% VAT cut, and what Boris Johnson calls ‘levelling up’ gives us a greater chance of prosperity than we have had for years. Rather than projects which are purely nation-specific we should expect more UK-wide initiatives from which our nation – and the others – benefit. Take the M4 relief road at Newport as an example. This is not a “Wales only” need. Yes, we benefit the most, but by joining London to Ireland more efficiently, everyone gains. Yet the decision rests squarely with Welsh Government. It won’t be easy and there will be challenges.
So last weekend I celebrated the reopening of our tourism industry with a trip to a great local business: Folly Farm. I also dropped in to congratulate Celsa steel in Cardiff for agreeing a package with UK Government that saved 800 jobs, and I also met the brilliant team at Creo medical in Chepstow who are making ground-breaking progress with new technology to help the fight against this, and any other pandemics.
Safety first, but optimism too will be the hallmarks of Wales’ return to prosperity.