In the past year, Vaughan Gething has become one of the most recognisable politicians in the UK. The job of Welsh health minister did not used to attract much UK-wide attention. But as a result of Covid, and the focus that has placed on the devolved nations, it does now.
“Some government colleagues ask me: ‘How do you do that job? It’s awful.’ Of course it’s difficult, but you make a difference and you meet remarkable people who benefit from the health service and remarkable people who deliver it.”
But with recognition also comes abuse. Gething, like many other politicians, now regularly gets vitriol from the public, none more so than after “Chipgate”, when the Sun carried a picture during the first lockdown of Gething sitting on a bench eating chips with his family in a park. He insists he broke no rules.
“There’s much more attention, and attention that is personal. That’s difficult, the feeling that you’re being watched and not in a kind way.”
But what keeps Gething, 46, going is that decisions he makes during the Covid crisis can be the difference between hospitals being able to function or being overwhelmed, between the economy creaking on or collapsing, between life and death.
The latest figures suggest the number of coronavirus patients in Welsh hospitals could soon be double that seen during the first wave of the pandemic. On Wednesday, Public Health Wales reported another 76 deaths – the highest daily total since the start of the pandemic, although not all deaths happened on the same day. It took the total deaths in Wales since the start of the pandemic to 3,738.
Speaking shortly before the latest surge, Gething said: “The lockdown choices are not trivial; they have a huge impact on people. And there are people who potentially won’t be alive because we’ve chosen to act or not act. I don’t think I’ve been overwhelmed but I’ve been deeply troubled by the choices I’ve had to make at various times.”
He pays tribute not just to health and social care staff. “It’s the volunteers, the taxi drivers who take shopping to people who can’t get out, it’s the community groups who made an effort to look after other people. That is what gives hope and optimism for the future.”
Gething accepts the crisis has exposed some “fragility” in parts of the system and highlighted deep health issues in the Welsh population. “This virus affects older people with underlying health conditions. There’s a very direct link between that and how well off you are. The poorer you are the more likely you are to be unwell. The ONS figures show it’s our poorer communities that have had the biggest impact. It’s highlighted a need to look again at what we do, that’s not just a health challenge but a whole society challenge.”
But Gething argues some good things have come out of the Covid crisis such as partnerships between health and central and local government. “Necessity forced the relationships to improve to take another leap forward.” And the speed with which some innovations such as video consultations have come in. “Previously that would have taken years to roll out. It was done in months. There’s been a real can-do attitude. ”
As a result, “there’s much more UK attention on Wales and devolution. Not every UK-wide news organisation has a benevolent view of devolution or of politicians who don’t agree with the UK government. Some of that has been personal and pretty fact-free.”
After Chipgate, “a couple of months ago I went on a bike ride with my son and it’s a nice thing to do together, have a chat, have a snack. But someone tweeted about seeing me on the bike ride and claimed I was breaking the rules.” On another occasion he went to a food festival with his family, following all the rules. Again a picture appeared on social media suggesting he was doing something he shouldn’t.
“That’s hurtful. They can see you’re out with a child of primary school age child they are still prepared to lay in and invite other people to be unkind, never mind the facts.”
In 2013 Gething became the first black minister in the devolved UK administrations. Before that he was the first black president of the National Union of Students Wales and the first black president of the Trades Union Congress in Wales.
He says that some of the abuse he receives is racist. He says he has nothing like the “sewer of filth” the likes of his Labour colleague Diane Abbott is subject to. “But some of what comes is because I’m black. There’s no getting away from that.”
Despite the stress of his current job, Gething still harbours ambitions of becoming Welsh first minister one day.
“I haven’t given up on my desire to lead the country but that will be a matter for another day. We have a lot to get through before then – not just the Covid pandemic but an election [there are due to be Welsh parliament elections in 2021] and a lot of uncertainty. Who knows what the world will be like in another few years.”