As we move forward, through and beyond the next 21 day review later this week, we will continue our cautious and gradual approach towards easing the lockdown restrictions. But this is not a journey ‘back to normal’.
Although the rate of infection continues to fall and the spread of coronavirus has slowed thanks to the actions of people across Wales, the virus has not gone away.
At present, we have few effective treatments for the virus and there is no vaccine; although research is continuing, including here in Wales, where thousands of people are engaged in cutting-edge studies.
But we already know that there will be major changes in the way we work and live to protect all of us from coming into contact with the virus and to respond to its effects.
Coronavirus has had a significant impact on all countries around the world and Wales. As well as the health risks; jobs are at risk; public finances are at risk; our vulnerable communities are at risk.
There can be no doubt that we face huge, unprecedented, challenges. Never before has the bulk of the economy been put on ‘pause’; and while the response of the Welsh Government and the UK Government has been swift and decisive, many more businesses will undoubtedly fail as the Job Retention Scheme is unwound. This means potentially thousands of jobs are at risk. And on top of the economic fall-out from the pandemic it is now certain that the EU transition period will end on December 31st – a little over 7 months away. Even if there is an agreement, this will probably mean enormous disruption in the way our businesses trade with our largest market; an upheaval which few can prepare for in the current circumstances.
And the need to respond to the Climate Emergency – the task of decarbonising our society – is no less urgent for the other challenges we face. In responding to the fall-out from Covid 19, we need to hold our nerve and deliver the “green” recovery that will sustain Wales into the future.
As we plot a course to recovery and reconstruction, our approach will be based on the same values – a commitment to social, economic and environmental justice – and will embed our obligations to those who follow us alongside those that are living through Covid19, under the Well-Being of Future Generations Act.
It is clear that this crisis risks damaging the lives of the next generation: whether the lives of children through long absence from a school environment or those of young people through unemployment. Our response to the crisis must take into account these longer term impacts, and do all that we can to mitigate them. In the longer term, our strategy for recovery must have the future prospects of our children and young people at its heart. They are indeed Our Future Wales.
Our values remain the same, but we will need to be fearless and radical in applying to our established policies the lens of the new post-Covid realities. Many of the things that have worked in the past will no longer be fit for purpose. We will need to show flexibility and imagination in appraising our current approaches and in developing new ones. That is why as well as drawing on thinking from within the Government, we are also determined to look outside for challenge to our established ways of thinking and for fresh inspiration
In May, I issued an invitation to people in Wales to send us their thoughts on how we should support future post-Covid recovery and reconstruction in Wales. There have been over 1000 submissions sent to the dedicated mailbox which we established: [email protected]. The task of reviewing them is underway and our message to people in Wales: keep them coming. Many of these submissions have been both challenging and creative. Analysing and drawing on the ideas received is, and will be, a key part of our work on recovery over the next few weeks and months.
My Ministerial colleagues are also writing to their stakeholders to invite them to submit their views through the same channel. We are asking people to aim to do that by the end of July. That will be far from the end of this crucial national conversation, but we want to help focus people’s efforts in contributing to our understanding and thinking in these early stages.
In addition to hearing from people across Wales, over the last six weeks, I also convened six round-tables with leading experts from Wales and across the world to start a discussion about how we approach the task in hand. I am extremely grateful to all who took part. The discussions were rich and detailed: the list of participants are in the Senedd library and the Wales Centre for Public Policy, who helped convene these meetings, will be publishing summary reports.
Emerging from these roundtables will be a small, core panel of experts to provide ongoing advice and challenge and add to the external perspective on our thinking about how our policies evolve. I am delighted to say that; Torsten Bell from the Resolution Foundation, Rebecca Heaton who is a leading expert in renewables, Paul Johnson who heads the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Miatta Fahnbulleh who leads the New Economics Foundation have agreed to become standing members of this panel, each of them serving in a personal capacity. Other subject-specific experts will also be drawn into the discussions as needed.
My Ministerial colleagues and I have been considering the output of discussions to date in identifying early priorities for our external panel to help us with and on which we want to hear the views of the public. Early matters for consideration will include: how we invest in our people by equipping them with the skills for the post-Covid economy and the adaptability that comes from lifelong learning; how we maximise the use of our natural resources sustainably; innovation in social housing; how we foster the creativity of our indigenous businesses; and how we reimagine our town centres to become vibrant community hubs again. But there are plenty of other challenges, and indeed opportunities, which lie ahead.
I will then be working very closely with Cabinet colleagues and particularly the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd to ensure the first fruits of this national conversation inform the hard choices we will no doubt have to make in setting a budget for 2021-22. These choices – and the choices for the next Welsh Government – must be guided above all by our values and by the evidence of what works in how we apply them in these changed times, not by what we have done in the past.