Has the Welsh government committed a political blunder with its circuit breaker lockdown, and the concomitant closure of non-essential stores and ban on buying non-essential goods in shops that are allowed to open?
That’s the question many are asking: the Welsh Conservatives have put a lot of time and energy into campaigning on the issue, and Ailbhe writes persuasively on why the row is going to cause a real headache for the Welsh government.
As I’ve written before, Wales’s lockdown is a fascinating test case for whether the public’s expressed support for a further tightening of restrictions is “real”, or if, like the public’s support for austerity from 2015 onwards, it exists in theory before fracturing the moment people are asked to experience it in practice.
The only regular guide to public opinion in Wales is the YouGov tracker run jointly by Cardiff University’s Welsh Governance Centre and ITV, so in the absence of that we are left to make judgement calls based on intuition and fairly patchy sources of information.
That said, I am a great believer that you should put your hunches and snap judgements down on paper, the better to learn from your failures and mistakes. In that spirit, I am going to make a guess as to what I think the polls will reveal about support for a firebreak lockdown.
I think it will show that the majority for it will remain intact. It’s easy to forget when we see a very large number (around seven in ten people in Wales supported the idea of a circuit breaker or firebreak lockdown if earlier polls were correct) that three in ten is still quite a lot of people. In the case of Wales, it is 800,000 people, give or take.
That should put the 67,000 and counting who have signed a Welsh government petition calling for an end to the ban on the sale of non-essential goods in stores into perspective. While it has comfortably exceeded the next most successful petition in the history of devolution – a 40,045-strong petition to save Withybush hospital – in terms of numbers, that it has not done much better than a petition to save one hospital should, I think, cause us to treat with great scepticism the idea that we are witnessing a change in opinion, rather than a large minority asserting itself. We should also view both petitions in the context of the more than 200,000 people who have signed the “Revoke Article 50” petition in Wales – not a number, it turns out, that presaged victory for pro-referendum candidates in Delyn (4,766 signatures) or pro-revoke ones in Brecon and Radnorshire (6,221 signatures).
Then we have other sources of information – what the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane calls “fast data” – imperfect but rapid data giving us hints about public opinion. An incorrect tweet by Tesco’s social media team about the restriction of certain goods went viral, but the striking story is how few tweets the big supermarkets have had to send out about the ban on selling non-essential items. We’re talking about a country of more than three million people: if the firebreak has gone from being popular in theory to unpopular in practice, why has Sainsbury’s sent more apologetic tweets about pumpkins than the ban? Why has Tesco sent comparatively few?
I see no compelling evidence to believe my earlier assumption that lockdown would be more unpopular in practice than in theory was correct: and what information we have, such as it is, suggests the firebreak retains public support.