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Over the last few weeks, a huge amount of scrutiny has been directed at the Government (in addition to “partygate” reports) around the lack of Coronavirus restrictions in England. It has been accused of being careless, callous and so forth for not introducing these as cases of the Omicron variant rose, while Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which upped their measures, could take the moral high ground.

But as more data has become available about Omicron, which appears less severe than Delta, leaders in the devolved administrations that are increasingly having to explain themselves. Should they have closed nightclubs? Was it right for Wales to only allow six people to gather in venues? Or, as Northern Ireland did, to ban dancing in hospitality venues? When do all of these restrictions end and have they done more harm than good? The list of questions goes on and on.

Mark Drakeford didn’t take too kindly to being pressed on these matters over the weekend. In an interview with Sky News, the Welsh First Minister went on the offence, accusing the UK Government of being “politically paralysed” and of not “following the science”.

When asked why Wales had not followed England, he said the latter was a “global outlier”, unlike the devolved administrations and the rest of Europe, though also adding that it was “misleading” to compare the two countries.

There was an inherent contradiction in Drakeford’s words; can you criticise a country for going against the grain, while saying it is not “the grain”? But let’s run with the idea that Boris Johnson has behaved recklessly in not introducing more measures. Far from confirming this, the statistics across the four nations of the UK show a less clear-cut picture.

Overall, the snapshot for Coronavirus cases looks good, with them falling for the fifth day in a row across the UK. But there are no obvious “winners”, with regard to which government’s Covid strategy worked best.

Statistics from yesterday show that cases (by date reported) have dropped in England, from 115,998 on January 10 to 104,833 on January 11, while they have increased in Northern Ireland (2,706 to 3,420) and decreased in Scotland (10,392). 

Although cases in Wales appeared to have decreased, they had been on an upwards trajectory previously, rising three times faster (by 93 per cent since December 26) compared to England’s (34 per cent).

Furthermore, in terms of hospitalisations, numbers have decreased in England since yesterday, and increased in Scotland. While Northern Ireland and Wales haven’t released their daily data yet, the latter has had rising hospitalisations. Scotland is expected to reach its Omicron peak this week, with Northern Ireland expected to follow in the next two weeks.

Looking at this data, can it really be said that Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales’s restrictions did the trick? Or that England made a terrible mistake in not escalating its measures? Clearly not. And even if such a claim was true, they will take months/ years for analysts to prove.

Where Drakeford has a point is that it is “misleading” to compare countries, as I have cautioned on this website throughout the pandemic. From population density, to the average age of the population, to differences in the average age, there are vast variations across the four nations that would have to be “controlled” for in any sound analysis.

England, for example, as of mid-2019, has a population density of 275 people per square kilometre compared to Wales (152), Scotland (70) and Northern Ireland (137), which obviously impacts on how Coronavirus spreads. Northern Ireland has the lowest median age, which could be interpreted as an “advantage”, when it comes to a virus that affects the elderly more. It is a fallacy to consider them like-for-like.

But, unfortunately, as Drakeford has shown, leaders are all too happy to play the comparison game when they can point the finger at other countries/ administrations. Less so when their own data is problematic. He has since said his administration would look to relax restrictions in Wales next week if cases continue to fall. Perhaps it’s the biggest sign yet that it isn’t bad to be an “outlier” after all.