Marcus Stead

Journalist Marcus Stead

How devolution is hampering the pandemic response in Wales

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THE FAST-MOVING events of recent weeks have demonstrated that during this time of national crisis the two most important qualities needed by the Government are clarity and a co-ordinated approach.

In this respect, devolution has been a horrendous obstacle in effectively dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. 25 years ago, there would have been one health secretary – THE Health Secretary, managing the response. Devolution has led to confusion and mixed messages.

The main criticism levelled at Boris Johnson’s government is that it has been far too vague in so many respects: What is a ‘key worker’? What is an ‘essential journey’? How long should I self-isolate for if I get the snivels? And does the same timeframe apply to other members of my household?

With that in mind, spare a thought for the people of Wales. Matters relating to healthcare have been devolved since the Assembly came into being in 1999, following a referendum in which fewer than one in four of the Welsh electorate voted for its creation.

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Vaughan Gething, Wales’s Health Minister

Polling by BBC Wales in 2014 showed that just 48% of responders knew that  the Welsh Government is responsible for the NHS in Wales. That figure is unlikely to have risen much in the years since. Wales’s health minister, Vaughan Gething, is hardly a household name, and his multiple tweets giving advice on the crisis reach his following of just 17,400.

The Welsh Government has taken to holding late-morning daily briefings, but only a small minority of people in Wales are seeing them, and are paying far more attention to the 5pm briefings from the UK Government.

There isn’t a Welsh national media as such. The country has just one national English language national radio station, BBC Radio Wales, who cover the Welsh Government briefing each morning. But the station’s listening figures are close to the lowest they’ve been in its 42 year history, and in recent years it has morphed into a sort of poor man’s Radio 2, with the annoying bloke from the Go Compare adverts among the presenters on its weekday lineup (I’m not making this up, I promise!).

Indeed, the most listened-to radio stations in Wales are BBC Radio 2, Radio 1 and Radio 4 in that order. There is no Welsh national daily newspaper per se, the nearest to it, the Western Mail, predominantly sold in the south, has a daily circulation that barely reaches five figures, and has fallen sharply in recent years, down from 55,000 in 1999 and 25,000 in 2013. There are still Welsh regional news programmes on BBC and ITV Wales, but they are predominantly watched by older people.

During Wednesday’s media briefing, Boris Johnson proudly announced that 504,303 people had offered their services as NHS volunteers in just 24 hours, more than double the target of 250,000 that England’s health secretary Matt Hancock outlined. This heart-warming response showed the British people at our most charitable and decent.

Many thousands of people in Wales were ready and willing to play their part, only to discover the scheme only applied to England, and that they had to look to the Welsh Government for instructions as to what they should do. Put simply, in the years before devolution, this wouldn’t have been a problem, and those very same volunteers would now be days away from carrying out important work to alleviate the pressure on the NHS.

On Wednesday morning, Mr Gething said that local councils were co-ordinating efforts for NHS volunteering in Wales. The not-very-widely-read advice from the Welsh Local Government Association was that people should ‘call their council contact centres’.

That’s about as clear as mud. In other words, kind-spirited Welsh citizens wanting to help the NHS are being asked to find out the number of their local council call centre, which is probably understaffed in the present circumstances, and then to wait in a queue while the staff answer calls from people enquiring about which colour bin bags to put out this week. Clear and co-ordinated this is not.

The Welsh Government deserves some credit for not wildly deviating from UK Government advice on social distancing and the closure of public venues, but its early response to the crisis was slow and clumsy.

During the week leading up to Saturday 14 March, almost all sporting events in Britain were halted indefinitely. The Six Nations rugby championship was already largely on hold following the postponement of the weekend’s other two fixtures, but in the week leading up to Saturday, the Welsh Rugby Union and the Welsh Government insisted that the Wales v Scotland match was safe to go ahead.

They finally called off the game on the Friday morning, by which time thousands of Scotland fans had already arrived in Cardiff city centre, where they had little choice but to spend the weekend in densely-packed local hotels, bars and restaurants. How many of those Scottish supporters will have been at the Italy v Scotland match in Rome on 22 February and been exposed to the virus? Now, two weeks later, the south east of Wales has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the UK outside London.

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The Principality Stadium in Cardiff

The rugby was postponed, but, absurdly, at a large indoor arena a ten minute walk from the Principality Stadium, the Stereophonics played two gigs over two nights to 5,000-strong crowds each time. If public gatherings are a bad idea, why didn’t the Welsh Government step in to prevent this?

We don’t know very much about how the coronavirus works, but one thing’s for sure, it takes no notice at all of imaginary lines on a map. Wales, which was only ever an ‘independent’ country for an eight year period between 1055 and 1063 AD, under the rule of Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, is an east – west country. People in north east Wales have close economic and cultural ties with Cheshire, Lancashire and Merseyside. People in the south east corner of Wales frequently commute to Bristol for business and pleasure. By the same token, north and south Wales often feel worlds apart, separated by difficult terrain and poor transport links.

With that in mind, we know that the ExCel Centre in London is about to be turned into a field hospital holding up to 4,000 patients and two morgues. Similar plans are being considered for the NEC in Birmingham and the Manchester Arena. The Welsh Rugby Union has approached the Welsh Government offering use of the Principality Stadium for  a similar purpose.

If we get to the stage where the use of these field hospitals is necessary, there are two huge questions that haven’t yet been addressed: Firstly, if hospitals in north east Wales are overwhelmed, will patients be able to be treated by the English NHS at the Manchester Arena? Secondly, if hospitals in Bristol and Gloucester are full, will they be allowed to receive treatment at the Principality Stadium?

The answer to both of these questions should very obviously be ‘yes’, and in the days before devolution, it would have been a complete non-issue. But now, nobody is sure. The English and Welsh NHS are run in very different ways. They used to be well-integrated. Now they are not.

There is a rightful place for Wales v England rivalry, and that is on the pitch at the Principality Stadium, during the match. At a time of national crisis, that same rugby pitch could well become a battleground for saving lives. In that situation, should no longer be English or Welsh people, only British people pulling in the same direction.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 30, 2020 at 9:39 pm

Posted in Comment, Health, Politics, Review

Coronavirus Update: 28 March 2020

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CoronavirusMARCUS Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins return with another Coronavirus Update. 

In this week’s podcast, they reflect on the death of Seb Lewis, a 38-year-old Charlton Athletic super-fan who died from Covid-19 on Wednesday.

Other topics of discussion include the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s proposals for helping the self-employed, which Marcus says are too complex and don’t go nearly far enough.

The area around Newport/Blaenau Gwent has the highest number of cases in the UK outside London. Marcus and Greg discuss how devolution is hampering a UK-wide, co-ordinated approach to tackling the pandemic.

Towards the end of the podcast, they discuss the testing of NHS workers, to establish whether they’ve already had the virus. How useful is it? Nobody knows whether a person can get the virus more than once, or whether having it once buys you immunity for a set period of time.

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 28, 2020 at 4:57 pm

Coronavirus Update: 21 March 2020

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CoronavirusLIFE IN Britain has changed dramatically in the last seven days. At the start of the week, the Government encouraged people to work from home where possible. By midweek, it was announced that schools were to close indefinitely from this Friday onwards.

And on Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that all cafes, pubs, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and leisure centres were to close at the end of the days training, or sooner, if practical to do so. The public were were strongly discouraged from socialising on Friday evening.

In this podcast, Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins take stock of the situation, and assess the extent of the crisis, in terms of public health, and in terms of the enormous damage it is doing to the economy.

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website,  iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 21, 2020 at 6:10 am

Coronavirus: Radio Sputnik Interview

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ON Monday 16 March, I gave an interview to Radio Sputnik where I shared my thoughts on various aspects of the coronavirus pandemic.

What will it mean for the US Presidential election? How will the UK and US be able to compensate those who lose their jobs due to the Coronavirus? How could the Coronavirus impact on the UK’s post-Brexit trade negotiations with the EU and US? What can we all to do minimise the risk to ourselves, our families, and to wider society?



Sputnik: How could the Coronavirus impact the US Presidential election?

Marcus Stead: It’s far too early to say that the US Presidential Election will be postponed, we’ll have to see what the situation is by the time we get into the late summer, but in terms of Donald Trump’s reaction to this, it all seems very haphazard.

Trump was speaking off the cuff the other day, saying that it’s all going to be fine and that we were all going to get through this, don’t stockpile, it’s not Christmas, you don’t need to buy lots of stuff from supermarkets, it’s all very haphazard.

I think all of us, whether we are in the media or politicians; need to be very careful with the words we use at the moment, because there is a very fine line to tread between making people aware of the sheer seriousness of the situation, and at the same time not causing unnecessary panic.

In the case of Donald Trump; it all seems a little bit too haphazard, and a little bit too flippant the way he was speaking, but I will say this much for Donald Trump, at least he was appearing on television over the weekend, whereas Boris Johnson hasn’t appeared since last Thursday, although that is likely to change by the end of the day, but least we are seeing some leadership on this from Trump.

As for Joe Biden; the way he was speaking the other day, it was as though he was already the President, the way he was reacting towards the end of last week, and in reality, the sheer logistics now of the Democrats selecting a candidate for the Presidential Election may prove difficult in the weeks and months ahead, but will it actually impact the election itself? We’ll have to see what the situation is later this summer.

Sputnik: How will the UK and US be able to compensate those who lose their jobs due to the Coronavirus?

Marcus Stead: I think in terms of the welfare state and the government situation there, it’s going to be very expensive for the government, and they are going to have to prioritise, because if people are not in work; because they’ve been told to self-isolate, therefore they are not going to be paying as much, or any income tax, also if they’ve not got a regular salary coming in, they are not going to be able to go out and about and to buy products that have got VAT on them, and it’s likely that shops and bars will be closed anyway, so even if you wanted to go out, you probably couldn’t for a period of time.

The government will, therefore, lose out on income tax revenue and VAT revenue, and we’ve also got a third factor, and that is that if parents have to stay at home and look after children because of the schools being shut if we get to that stage; then if they are off work for an extended period of time for child care, then they become recipients of welfare payments as a result.

The government is being hit insofar as a lack of money coming in, in terms of tax revenue, and there is more money going out because more people would be entitled to benefits under those circumstances, and I think that there will be some very stark choices that will have to be made.

Things that we don’t necessarily need, but that would be nice to have will have to go on the backburner, maybe even the amount of money that local councils get to fix potholes, that sort of thing, will have to go on the back burner, because very tough choices will need to be made in terms of prioritising what needs to be done right now, and things that will have to wait for some considerable time.

Even if the Coronavirus was to disappear tomorrow; and I’m afraid that is not going to happen, the economic impact in terms of government spending is already absolutely enormous, and if there wasn’t a budget scheduled for last week, then Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak would have had to have had an emergency budget anyway, such is the magnitude of the situation.

Sputnik: How could the Coronavirus impact on the UK’s post-Brexit trade negotiations with the EU and US?

Marcus Stead: The best thing we could do now is take a moment for a sobering reality check. We know that the over the seventies are more likely to become critically ill due to the Coronavirus, as they could have underlying health conditions, but that’s not the reason they are more likely to die from the virus.

This is the brutal honest truth, and it’s this; healthcare is going to have to be rationed, and when that happens, people over the age of sixty-five are going to be at the bottom of the list, not those who are very frail and very old, I mean anyone over sixty-five.

There is not going to be any scenario when the NHS has enough beds and staffs to save everyone, and when thousands of people are critically ill, doctors have to decide who lives and who dies, and this is already happening in Italy.

The over sixty fives will not be given respiratory aid if there are younger people who need that lifesaving equipment, and many younger people will, right now most people in Britain and elsewhere have still not grasped the seriousness of the situation.

You may be young or middle-aged, you may not be very worried at all about the Coronavirus, because it’s quite likely that you’ll fight it off, indeed you probably will recover, but during the incubation period of we think around twenty-one days, when you are visiting elderly parents and grandparents, and standing behind an elderly person in a queue, or sitting next to them on a bus, you are passing the virus on to them, and it’s going to be far more deadly for them, for the reasons that I have outlined.

Do not visit people over sixty-five for the next few months, do not allow your children to have physical contact with people over sixty-five for the next few months, your children are a risk to them, and to be clear; the government knows that around eighty per cent of us are going to get the virus.

Boris Johnson and his government are buying time with their strategy, they are trying to push it until the end of April onwards, when the normal winter pressures on the NHS will have been alleviated, enabling them to treat more people suffering from the Coronavirus.

Life in this country is going to be very difficult for us all over the next two to three months, quite possibly longer, now as for the economy; the economic impact of the Coronavirus is already absolutely enormous, the FTSE lost ten per cent of its value in a single day last week, and that was the second-worst day on record after the nineteenth of October 1987.

It’s very bad news indeed for anyone planning on retiring with a private pension at any time over the next ten years, but it goes well beyond that as well. I can think of a coffee shop where I live in the Welsh Valleys, where the owner has spent the last few weeks recovering from Storm Dennis, they’ve cleared up, they’ve refurbished, it’s open again, only for people to stay at home because of the Coronavirus.

There will be lots more stories like that. Ireland is ordering all pubs to shut down until at least the twenty-ninth of March, and the UK may well do likewise before too much longer, the same will apply to restaurants, theatres, cinemas and more, and that’s without mentioning wedding venues, conference venues, bed and breakfasts, the list goes on.

How many of them can afford to stay shut for any length of time? We are all going to have to find new ways of working wherever possible, yes that business report still needs to be done, but surely you can work from home? Maybe that team meeting you are thinking of having this week really does need to take place, but come on; let’s use Skype or another platform, we don’t need offices in the way we used to, and we need to take responsibility and grit our teeth for the next few months.

It seemed likely to me even before the Coronavirus took place, that getting a Canada style deal which the UK’s Chief Brexit negotiator David Frost was saying we should aim for, seemed highly ambitious to me, because the actual Canada deal has been negotiated since about 2004, and has not yet been completed.

It not only has to be agreed by the European Parliament, but all the different administrations, and I don’t just mean national parliaments, I mean devolved institutions like the Scottish Parliament, and that process even before the whole Coronavirus took place, was still far from complete.

Whilst I think Brexit negotiations can continue; vis Skype or other platforms, they are very much on the backburner now for obvious reasons, but I always thought that the overall transition period was always likely to take far longer than the end of this year.

I welcome the news that the British government is now going to give daily televised press briefings. We saw at the weekend how information was being leaked out, and another concerning aspect of this is the impact that devolution is having in response to the crisis.

Twenty-five years ago, there was no Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly, there would have been one UK Health Minister dealing with a co-ordinated response across the UK, and now that is not the case, and that’s without mentioning the situation in Northern Ireland.

Britain is a small island, and it’s important that the containment strategy is the same across the whole of this island, as Coronavirus does not respect Hadrian’s Wall or Offa’s Dyke, and this is one particularly disappointing aspect for me right now.


Written by Marcus Stead

March 20, 2020 at 1:38 am

Posted in Comment, Health, Law, Politics, Review

Coronavirus Update: 11 March 2020

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THE SITUATION here in Britain is becoming more and more serious by the day. At the time of recording, it’s just been announced that Health Minister Nadine Dorries has tested positive for coronavirus. 

In this podcast, Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins aim to strike a balance between making listeners aware of the sheer seriousness of the situation, while remaining calm and avoiding hysteria. They also aim to give sensible advice as to what we, as individuals can do to minimise the risks to ourselves, or families, and to wider society.

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud and the TuneIn app.

The regular Twenty Minute Topic podcast series is on hold until the coronavirus crisis has passed, though archive episodes are available via the Talk Podcasts website.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 11, 2020 at 3:39 am

Posted in Health, Politics, Review

Coffee Break with Marcus and James: March 2020

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Coffee Break Poster March 2020MARCUS Stead and James Easton return with an hour-long Coffee Break. Topics discussed in this month’s edition include:

  • Products that used to be commonplace, but you can still buy if you know where to look.
  • What obsolete technology are you still using?
  • What technology do we use that will be obsolete in ten years’ time?
  • Memories of the ‘good old days’ of independent local radio.

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, SoundCloud, TuneIn and Stitcher.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 3, 2020 at 9:17 pm

Twenty Minute Topic Episode 37: Coronavirus – How Worried Should We Be?

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AS OF 2 March 2020, more than 3,000 people have been killed by the coronavirus, including 50 in Iran and more than 30 in Italy.

Globally, there have been almost 90,000 confirmed cases, with the numbers outside China now growing faster than inside China.

In this podcast, journalist Marcus Stead and veteran campaigner and blogger Greg Lance-Watkins tackle some key questions:

  • How concerned should we be?
  • Why is the coronavirus more serious than conventional strains of flu?
  • Is it time to follow the example of other countries by closing schools and banning mass gatherings at sporting events and theatres etc?
  • What can we all do to minimise the risk?

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 2, 2020 at 3:37 am