A group of families in Wales who lost loved ones to Covid-19 are considering launching a legal challenge against the Welsh Government.

Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru, which has been campaigning for a Wales-specific Covid enquiry, is considering its options for legal action over the Welsh Government’s decision to rapidly discharge hospital patients into care homes without testing at the start of the pandemic.

It comes after a High Court ruling on Wednesday found that the UK Government’s version of this policy was unlawful.

The families say they are also “furious” over comments made by First Minister Mark Drakeford today that suggested the Welsh public were not interested in a Wales Covid inquiry.

Judges in the High Court case, which was brought by two women - Cathy Gardner and Fay Harris - who lost their fathers to coronavirus, concluded that UK Government policy documents released in March and early April 2020 failed to take into account the risk to elderly and vulnerable care home residents from non-symptomatic transmission of Covid.

Lord Justice Bean and Mr Justice Garnham said the UK Government’s policy in England was “irrational”, and suggested both ministers had failed to “[keep] on top of the emerging science”.

The judges added: “This was not a binary question – a choice between on the one hand doing nothing at all, and on the other hand requiring all newly admitted residents to be quarantined.

The National Wales: Cathy Gardner, whose father died from Covid-19, outside the Royal Courts of Justice, central London. (Picture: PA Wire)Cathy Gardner, whose father died from Covid-19, outside the Royal Courts of Justice, central London. (Picture: PA Wire)

Given that the Welsh Government operated a near-identical policy at the time, cross-party politicians have repeated their calls for a Covid enquiry examining the Welsh pandemic response specifically.

The Welsh bereaved families group, meanwhile, says it’s exploring whether the case brought against Whitehall could be replicated here in Wales.

“This is a legal thing now,” Anna-Louise Marsh-Rees, who leads the Welsh bereaved families group, told The National. 

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“[Mark Drakeford] is adamant that he won’t have a Wales Covid inquiry, I don’t think he’s going to change his mind on that - so what we’re trying to do now is see if we can make a legal claim against the Welsh Government.

“Both Vaughan Gething and Mark Drakeford clearly said, at that time in April 2020, that testing [in carehomes] wasn’t important.”

 

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, patients in both Wales and England were rapidly discharged into care homes without being tested for COVID-19, despite the risk of asymptomatic transmission being highlighted by scientists.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK Government’s chief scientific adviser, had called the possibility “quite likely” as early as March 13 that year.

UK Government policy documents reviewed by the High Court showed that there was no requirement for testing in England until mid-April, and there was no evidence the risk of asymptomatic coronavirus transmission had been considered by either Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary at the time, or his advisors.

The National Wales: Mark Drakeford at the launch of Labour's local elections campaign in Bridgend earlier this month. (Picture: PA Wire)Mark Drakeford at the launch of Labour's local elections campaign in Bridgend earlier this month. (Picture: PA Wire)

Testing in Welsh care homes was initially limited to staff and residents displaying coronavirus symptoms, and then only in care homes which already had a confirmed case of Covid-19, with First Minister Mark Drakeford criticised for claiming there would be “no value” in expanding tests to all.

By May 2, the Welsh Government had u-turned on the matter - days after routine testing had been introduced across the border.

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In June, Vaughan Gething, who was then Health Minister for Wales, insisted he would not have required testing in care homes earlier even if the government had had “treble the testing capacity”.

The comment was made after a reporter questioned whether the government had failed to roll out the policy sooner because it lacked the resources to do so.

"We did not get advice that said you really should do this but can't because we don't have testing capacity,” Mr Gething said.

"To make a link between testing capacity and the choice we made is not borne out by the facts."

By July 2020, both the Older People’s Commissioner and the Equality and Human Rights Commission had raised concerns about the Welsh Government’s “slow response” on testing in care homes.

The National Wales: Vaughan Gething served as the Welsh Health Minister during the onset of the pandemic. (Picture: PA Wire)Vaughan Gething served as the Welsh Health Minister during the onset of the pandemic. (Picture: PA Wire)

Calls for a Covid inquiry specific to Wales have been brought to the Senedd on multiple occasions - by Members from all opposition parties - since 2020.

The Welsh Government, however, insists that the Welsh Covid response will be adequately scrutinised in the planned UK Covid inquiry.

Asked about the issue on Thursday, ahead of next week’s local government elections, the First Minister said: “Not a single person has asked me about that in the hundreds of doors that I’ve knocked.

“There is a Welsh inquiry, because we are part of the UK inquiry into what went on during the shutdown.

“The best way to get a proper understanding of the decisions we made is to see them in the wider context.”

Mr Drakeford said that the public are more concerned with “traffic, parking, and rubbish”, and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

 

Ms Marsh-Rees, who lost her father to coronavirus, told The National: “We’re furious - we’re absolutely furious.

“We’ve met him face-to-face four times, and we’ve been calling for a Wales inquiry for months now - we’ve campaigned relentlessly, told our stories.

“It’s easy to say that nobody on the doorstep wanted a Wales inquiry - but did he ask them?

“Or did he just ask if they were worried about the cost of living - because of course, if he asks about that, he can just blame the UK Government.

“It’s a ridiculous thing to say, and it’s disrespectful.

“The NHS in Wales is falling apart - it was before, and Covid made it worse.”

She added: “He’s trotted out the same line about the Wales inquiry so many times now - he’s a clever man.

“He never says he doesn’t want a Wales inquiry, he always says that the Wales inquiry will be done as part of the UK inquiry - but we don’t have any confidence that Wales will be scrutinised in the UK inquiry as it would be here.

“I don’t think [Mark Drakeford] will change his mind.

“I think the story here now is - could that same High Court ruling be applied in Wales?”

Scottish ministers announced that their government would hold a Scotland-specific Covid inquiry last summer.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Thursday that the human consequences of the coronavirus pandemic are “embedded in [her] soul”.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “From early in the pandemic a wide range of support was put in place for residents in care homes, including providing extra nursing staff where necessary, supporting with infection control measures and providing free PPE for all private and public care homes in Wales.

“Since the start of the pandemic, our approach has been guided by the latest available scientific advice to keep people safe, wherever they live.

"As the international evidence base about coronavirus evolved, we have continued to update our approach to learn lessons for the future, and ensure we continue to do everything we can to keep people in Wales safe.”

Additional Reporting: PA Wire

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