Since the UK’s first confirmed death from Covid in January last year, no fewer than 120,000 people have died from the virus.

The idea that anybody can have ‘a good pandemic’ is a perverse one, but by most international comparisons, the UK does not perform well.

The devolved governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have had freedom to act independently of Westminster in certain areas.

The results of these decisions are difficult to measure, but as of February 22, England had the highest rate of deaths attributed to Covid in the UK, at 189.3 per 100,000 people.

Wales’ was a little lower as 166.4, while Scotland and Northern Ireland were 127.2 and 107.5 respectively.

When accounting for the ages of each country’s population, Wales and England perform similarly, but just how has devolution influenced the way we have dealt with the pandemic?

For Victoria Winckler, director of Welsh poverty think-tank The Bevan Foundation, the answer is simple: “Devolution has absolutely helped us deal with the pandemic here in Wales.

“It has allowed measures to reflect the circumstances in Wales where there are more people at greater risk because of the demographics.

“Decision making has aligned with what people want. The Welsh Government has been able to respond to the socio-economic issues of the pandemic, such as rolling out free school meals when they have needed to and using flexibility in terms of how that is delivered at a local level.

“My personal view is that it is a fundamental duty of government to protect its citizens, and that is what the Welsh Government has tried to do.”

The National Wales: The Dragon's Heart field hospital was one of many set up across the UK. Source: Huw Evans AgencyThe Dragon's Heart field hospital was one of many set up across the UK. Source: Huw Evans Agency

In the lead up to lockdown, all four countries were largely on the same page.

Wales’ first case of Covid-19 was confirmed on March 1, yet following that, Cheltenham Festival drew hundreds of thousands of punters, Stereophonics hosted two gigs in Cardiff and thousands of Scottish rugby fans travelled to the Welsh capital for a Six Nations game that was cancelled just 24 hours before kick-off.

Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething has said more lives could have been saved if we had gone into lockdown earlier.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but at the time, the four UK governments were all acting on the same advice issued by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

For Dr David Bailey, the British Medical Association’s Welsh chair, there is collective responsibility for early mistakes.

“All four nations shared common issues in the early stages like the lack of PPE and the debacle that was discharging patients into nursing homes. All four governments have to take responsibility for that,” said Dr Bailey.

“Since then, I think the Welsh Government has been remarkably prudent, making slightly more sensible decisions in line with what was needed on things like lock downs and imposing restrictions.

“Personally, I believe communication has been slightly more coherent in Wales as it’s been run consistently. We haven’t upped and downed quite so much, and we have just about done as well as we can.”

While the discharge of patients into care homes was a disaster, Mario Kreft, the chair of Care Forum Wales, believes devolution has been of great benefit to the Welsh care sector.

“The situation in Wales improved after a bad start across the UK.

“Devolution has played a crucial role and the more cautious approach in Wales has served us very well.

“One of the biggest lessons and successes has been how the Welsh Government has protected care homes from closure through its hardship fund.

“It learnt lessons and adapted. The Welsh approach, which spends money per head of the care home population, as opposed to through Wales’ 22 local authorities, has undoubtedly saved many care homes from collapse across Wales.”

The National Wales: 'Clap for carers' became a regular Thursday night event as those working in the health and care sectors were pushed to the limit. Source: Huw Evans Agency'Clap for carers' became a regular Thursday night event as those working in the health and care sectors were pushed to the limit. Source: Huw Evans Agency

There are common weaknesses that the virus exploited throughout the UK, especially around health inequality and access.

The UK has 6.6 intensive care beds per 100,000 people, compared to Germany’s 29. In Wales, we have one of the lowest figures in Europe at 5.7.

On the frontline of the pandemic across the UK, health and care staff were scrambling around for Personal Protective Equipment in threadbare storerooms.

Deeply entrenched socioeconomic factors are also as common in Blackpool as they are in the Rhondda valley. Poorer people are twice as likely to be hospitalised and die from coronavirus.

Cardiff University’s Professor Dan Wincott, who works on the constitutional implications of the pandemic, told The National: “It is very clear there are poorer, post-industrial communities where multiple generations live together, and that is a feature of many areas in Wales and England.

“Low paid work is carried out with people working closely together in factories with poor ventilation. That is a result of things that happened before devolution that have not been resolved since.”

The National Wales: As England began to open up, the Welsh message remained 'stay home'. Source: Huw Evans AgencyAs England began to open up, the Welsh message remained 'stay home'. Source: Huw Evans Agency

The Welsh government began to differ its approach to Westminster in late spring as it took a more cautious approach to both policy and communication.

While UK Government ministers were refusing to acknowledge that they were talking about England when encouraging people to get out and about, the Welsh Government continued with its slow and steady approach.

Political friction between Cardiff Bay and Westminster threatened to erupt on several occasions, with Mark Drakeford claiming there was a ‘vacancy at the heart of the UK Government’ when it came to communicating with the devolved administrations.

Professor Dan Wincott believes communication has often prioritised political point scoring over public health.

“The devolved administrations have to be on tap when Westminster or Whitehall want to talk to them. When they don’t, a weakness has been exposed that limits the ability of territorial governance to work effectively,” said Professor Wincott.

“There is something about the way devolution is organised that creates an element of dependency. Breakdowns on testing for example made it impossible for Wales to take its own course.”

Track and trace was held up as the way out of lockdown, but with an official app not being launched until September, the two governments took different approaches once again.

Wales’ system was run by Public Health Wales, Welsh Government and local councils. England’s was largely outsourced to private firms. In October, Wales was reaching 96% of positive Covid-19 cases, while England was hitting 82.7%.

Despite these differences in success, further ‘firebreaks’ and national lockdowns proved inevitable as transmission of the virus gained pace again in autumn.

Financially, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and the UK Treasury remained the most influential throughout the UK. The UK-wide furlough scheme supported 30% of the British workforce at its peak in May, keeping businesses viable and people employed.

The National Wales: The UK Treasury's Furlough scheme hit 30% uptake at the height of the pandemic. Source: PAThe UK Treasury's Furlough scheme hit 30% uptake at the height of the pandemic. Source: PA

David Phillips, associate director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, told The National: “There are clear benefits to having borrowing at a UK level to deal with shocks that effect the whole of the UK.

“Where the case is stronger to have differential powers is where shocks differ in different parts of the country, like if Wales had been disproportionally hit based on the makeup of its population.

“In many respects, the way the framework operates provides insurance and protection to the devolved governments.

“It is taxation and borrowing made at a UK level that funds Furlough for example.

“On the other hand, there are restraints around borrowing. The Welsh government has some borrowing powers to invest in capital projects, but it cannot borrow to spend more money.

“If the UK Government had granted Wales more powers to borrow in the short term to deal with Welsh specific issues, that could have benefitted Wales.”

The National Wales: A cluster of 130 cases at a meat processing plant caused a spike in Merthyr. Source: Huw Evans AgencyA cluster of 130 cases at a meat processing plant caused a spike in Merthyr. Source: Huw Evans Agency

One area of UK policy that came under fire across Wales was Statutory Sick Pay. The UK rate is one of the lowest in Europe at £95.85 per week.

When breakouts of the virus were affecting factories in Merthyr, Llangefni and Wrexham, Wales TUC General Secretary, Shavanah Taj, called on the UK Government not to leave people with the “unrealistic choice between paying rent, buying food, paying bills and adhering to public health advice to self-isolate.”

While the UK and devolved governments have shared common mistakes and had their own success and failures, developing and rolling out vaccines has always been the target for ending the pandemic.

Vaccinations across the UK have been a huge success by international comparisons, and their development, production and roll-out have been a cross border effort, both inside the UK and beyond.

The purchasing power of the UK Government allowed the investment and pre-order of multiple vaccines, a decision now benefitting recipients across the four countries.

Moving forward, public support for decisions made in Wales continues to reflect confidence in a cautious approach to lifting restrictions.

Swansea University’s Dr Simon Williams, who researches public views during the pandemic, has found that the Welsh approach has been consistently favoured by people across Wales.

Dr Williams told The National: “Confidence in the Welsh Government’s handling of the pandemic has been born out of its slow and cautious approach and that has had a positive response.

“People have opposed the different approaches across the UK, but they appear to have had confidence in the Welsh Government compared to the UK Government on the whole.

The National Wales: The Welsh Government's communication strategy has been a cautious one, with Mark Drakeford and Vaughan Gething sharing most media duties. Source: Huw Evans AgencyThe Welsh Government's communication strategy has been a cautious one, with Mark Drakeford and Vaughan Gething sharing most media duties. Source: Huw Evans Agency

Like everything to do with the virus, the role devolution has played in Wales’ pandemic is complicated.

Where the Welsh Government has had the freedom to make its own decision, it has.

A consistent and cautious approach, backed up by the UK Government’s furlough scheme, has had the backing of the Welsh public and the support of those in the health and care sectors.

Yet, death rates across the UK are no cause for celebration and some areas of Wales have been hit as hard as anywhere.

The true cost or value of decision making across the UK will only become more apparent when we begin to rebuild. A rebuild that is only just beginning.