ONE significant aspect of Westminster’s failure to deal with Covid, was the realisation that Britain is no longer capable of manufacturing the simplest of products.

Our inability to produce face masks left frontline NHS staff defenceless. The same sorry saga applied to testing kits. We knew this stark reality but didn’t appreciate its far-reaching significance. We simply weren’t equipped to fight a Covid war.

Until the 1960s, Britain had a world-leading manufacturing economy. Prior to 1939, Wales mainly produced basic materials – iron, steel and tinplate in particular. Most finished goods were manufactured in England: the caption “Made in England” became the hallmark.

The Hitler war created a strategic need to disperse production and new manufacturing facilities appeared in Wales. After the war, factories were reconfigured to produce consumer goods, with the Welsh Industrial Estates Corporation, the Development Corporation for Wales and, later, the WDA, playing significant roles.

Wales developed a speciality in certain sectors – such as washing machines. Hotpoint at Llandudno Junction and Hoover at Merthyr Tydfil had massive production capacity and several thousand well-paid jobs. But generally, profitable end-products were manufactured or assembled, in, and marketed from, Midland and south-east English conurbations where key decisions were taken and top jobs located.

As Asian countries – Japan, Korea and particularly China – became major low-cost manufacturing competitors, UK businesses increasingly sourced their production in such countries.

By 2019, Britain imported goods worth almost £50bn from China and had a trade deficit in goods with all countries of £175bn.

This trend has decimated manufacturing which now employs only 10% of Wales’ workforce and only 7% in England.

If we can’t compete with Asian producers of basic manufactured goods we have to be clever, as well as efficient. The innovative side of industry can provide new opportunities – linked to university research.

While Covid pinpointed our basic manufacturing weakness, it also highlighted the impressive speed at which vaccines were developed at Oxford, later manufactured at Wrexham. California-based Inniva has a manufacturing plant in Rhymney to produce a million lateral flow test kits daily, creating 300 new jobs. Ground-breaking research for medical drugs is being pioneered at Cardiff University.

This is highly relevant for future manufacturing opportunities which can create jobs and improve our economy. But it’s vital to have support mechanisms in Wales which enable small companies to invest in developing products and manufacturing processes – enabling them to grow into significant employers.

However, if Britain is to depend on other countries to manufacture basic metal and engineering products, it can no longer sustain an independent conventional defence policy. This implies a shift from obsolete nuclear submarines which can tracked and destroyed, to non-aggressive defence based on intelligence, cyber-security, robotics and automated systems.

Britain’s dependence on overseas countries, highlighted by Covid, reinforces the need to build mutual understanding with other nations. That isn’t achieved by tearing up international treaties or abandoning election pledges on third world aid.

The abysmal failure of successive Westminster governments to prepare for foreseeable pandemics and their consequences, has rendered Britain defenceless – in every meaning of the word. Covid is surely a wake-up call.

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