UK Politics

Devolution, vaccines and lockdown

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Over the coming months, Backbench will be partnering with Torrin Wilkins, Director of Centre Think Tank for a series of comment pieces. In his column, Torrin will explore prominent policy issues – some of them related to the latest news and others related to his longer-term projects. We’d love for Backbench readers and commentators to respond to Torrin’s policy analysis and ideas, so if you would like to contribute a response, please email editor@bbench.co.uk.  

Please note that all the views expressed in Torrin’s articles are those of Torrin himself and do not necessarily represent the standpoint of Backbench. 

The Welsh-English border isn’t something people talk about much. Part of the reason for this is that its not like a normal border with crossing points and border guards. Instead, it’s easy to travel across and forget you have even crossed into Wales.

Yet during this pandemic I have seen just how real the border is, border controls or not. The first instance happened when I wanted to come back from university and we were told to “stay at home and save lives”. Unfortunately, my accommodation lease would soon run out and I needed to get home at some point.

My parents asked if crossing the border to pick up a university student was ok, the answer was no. So, there I was in Wales unable to get home and it wasn’t until my university gave us guidance that we could go home that I actually managed to leave.

The other instance was at the other end of the pandemic when I got my vaccine. I was visiting Wales when I was told they were running walk in vaccinations. This was especially helpful as I hadn’t managed to re-register with my GP at home after leaving Wales.

Sadly, it wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped. Despite the reassurance that I would be fine and it would be logged on to the system it wasn’t quite that easy. When I got my second dose on the other side of the border in England, I was then told they couldn’t log my vaccine dose on their system. The reason was the Welsh and English computer systems wouldn’t communicate with each other.

In both situations crossing the border meant that I was crossing over into different sets of rules and systems. It really shows how far Wales has diverged from England whilst remaining very much part of the UK.

To solve these problems, we need to do a few things. The first is to implement a national NHS IT system rather than relying on multiple systems where transferring data between them takes a huge amount of work. This wouldn’t stop Wales from leaving the system, but it would make things easier as part of the UK for patients traveling across the border.

The second thing we need to do is to always ensure that if another lockdown or large-scale response to the virus is ever needed, we write the rules better. This could include specific guidance for groups who may otherwise be stuck on one side of a border.

These would both help to smooth the divergence in law between the UK and Wales, at least for heath matters. It will help devolution to remain popular and will ensure people don’t get stuck on one side of a border when they need to be on the other.

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