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Analysis

Wales finds greater belief in self-government amid pandemic response

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This is the third part of an FT series asking whether the UK is heading for break-up. Follow UK politics & policy with myFT to be alerted when new parts are published.

Lleucu Haf Wiliam is getting a special birthday present this year: her first vote.

On May 6, the day she turns 16, she will use it to support Welsh independence. The schoolgirl will cast her vote in elections to the Welsh parliament for Plaid Cymru, the party calling for Wales to leave the UK.

Wiliam, who lives in Barry, a seaside resort in south Wales, said the UK was “London-centric”, with policies framed to help the capital city. “By being able to manage our own finances and resources we will be able to manage things more efficiently and fairly,” she added. “Other countries do.”

Opinion polls show younger people expressing support for Welsh independence, as surveys also suggest Plaid Cymru could secure a power-sharing role alongside the Labour party in the country’s government after the elections next month. Such an outcome in Cardiff would add to pressures on UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who is braced for the pro-independence Scottish National party winning parliamentary elections in Scotland on May 6.

Support for Welsh independence currently stands at 24 per cent, according to the Financial Times’ poll tracker. A Savanta ComRes poll published last month found a record 35 per cent in favour of Wales leaving the UK.

Lleucu Haf Wiliam
Lleucu Haf Wiliam, 16, will cast her vote for Plaid Cymru © Charlie Bibby/FT

Although support for Welsh independence is nowhere near a majority view, the coronavirus crisis appears to have given Wales a much greater belief in the virtues of self-government.

Mark Drakeford, first minister of Wales and leader of the Welsh Labour party, has won plaudits for much of his work overseeing the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is reflected in how Drakeford’s approval ratings in surveys are far higher than Johnson’s.

It is a stark contrast with Wales’s past attitude to self-government. In a 1979 referendum, the people of Wales voted four to one against having their own legislature. In 1997 they narrowly voted for such a parliament.

The pandemic has highlighted the sheer relevance of the devolved administration led by Drakeford to people’s lives: it has set the terms of coronavirus restrictions, as well as provided financial support to businesses.

And at the same time as the Welsh government has come to the fore in the pandemic, London has been imposing itself on Cardiff following the UK’s full exit from the EU at the end of last year.

For example, the UK government pulled out of the EU Erasmus scheme allowing British students to study in the bloc’s universities without consulting Cardiff, even though education is a devolved matter. The Welsh government has responded by creating its own scheme.

While Wales voted to leave the EU by 53 per cent to 47 per cent in the 2016 referendum, Johnson’s hard Brexit has galvanised younger voters to consider independence for their country, said Lord Peter Hain, who had a leading role in establishing the Cardiff parliament as a member of former Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s government in the late 1990s. 

“Boris Johnson is acting as the prime minister of England, not the UK,” he added.

Chart showing support for Welsh independence as at March 19 2021

Support for Welsh independence was until recently concentrated among Welsh speakers in rural west Wales.

But the cause is becoming a young, urban phenomenon. A ComRes poll last month found 45 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds favoured independence, while a YouGov survey pinpointed support in the M4 motorway corridor around Cardiff and Newport.

Yes Cymru, a cross-party campaign for independence established in 2014 and now claiming more than 18,000 members, has brought fresh momentum to the cause.

Mark Hooper, Yes Cymru’s Cardiff organiser, said Wales’s union with England had failed to tackle deep poverty and inequality in his country. Gross domestic product per person in Wales is about 75 per cent of the UK average. 

He said Wales, by having its own central bank, currency and trade deal with England, could “make sure the economy works for everyone”.

Labour hopes to counter increased support for independence by pressing Johnson for greater powers for the Welsh parliament, while emphasising the benefits of the UK to Wales.

Drakeford told the Financial Times that Wales could never have secured so many Covid-19 vaccines as a small independent nation, and also questioned how the country could have its own currency, given the 160-mile long border with England was crossed by hundreds of thousands of people each day.

Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford
First minister Mark Drakeford has won plaudits for much of his work overseeing Wales’s response to the pandemic © Charlie Bibby/FT

Then there is Wales’s weak fiscal position: in 2018-19 the country had a deficit of £13.5bn, according to the Office for National Statistics. Wales raised £2,147 per head less in tax than the UK average, and spent £863 more.

Drakeford accused Johnson of ignoring the Welsh government, and complained about the UK prime minister’s hoarding of powers repatriated from Brussels after Brexit. “He is the best recruiting sergeant for independence they have,” said Drakeford.

Labour has dominated Welsh politics for a century, and been in government in Cardiff continuously since the devolved parliament was established in 1999. But polls suggest it could lose eight of its 29 seats in the 60-member parliament on May 6, which would be its lowest total ever.

Drakeford, who has been criticised for some of his decisions during the pandemic, admitted it will be a “challenging election”. “Labour . . . has had to take extraordinary decisions that have had a profound impact on people’s lives,” he said.

Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives could both gain seats at the elections, although Labour is expected to remain the biggest party.

Since Drakeford has ruled out working with the Tories in the Welsh parliament, the most likely outcome after May 6 is a coalition with Plaid Cymru, as has happened once before, after the 2007 election.

Drakeford said the previous coalition with Plaid Cymru had worked well. “The key thing is whether there is a policy platform on which we can agree,” he added. 

Plaid Cymru is pledging to hold an independence referendum if it wins the elections, but Adam Price, party leader, did not make a plebiscite the price of a power-sharing deal with Labour.

“You don’t hold negotiations in advance of the negotiations,” he told the FT. He would only join a government that would set Wales “on a very different path”, said Price.

Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price
Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price is not making a plebiscite the price of a power-sharing deal with Labour © Charlie Bibby/FT

Plaid Cymru is promising free school meals for all primary school children, a £6bn green infrastructure programme including electrification of the railways, and financial support concentrated on homegrown start-ups rather than big inward investors.

Andrew Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives, hopes to build on the Tory gains made in the UK general election of 2019, especially in Brexit voting areas.

“Wales does not need five years arguing about constitutional change,” he said. “It needs a government focused on the economy, transport and education.”

Is the UK heading for break-up?

Ahead of elections to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments on May 6, the FT is examining whether the UK’s four nations are likely to stick together.

Part 1: What is the economic cost of Scottish independence and can the country afford it?

Part 2: Has Boris Johnson got a plan to save the UK from break-up?

Part 3: What is the future shape of government in Wales as interest in independence rises?

Part 4: Is Northern Ireland on an inexorable path to a united Ireland?

Richard Wyn Jones, director of the Welsh governance centre at Cardiff University, said more devolution rather than independence was “the sweet spot of the Welsh electorate”.

He added that Labour was being squeezed in a polarised era, caught between a vibrant independence movement and a “recentralising” Conservative government at Westminster.

But Jones said the cause of independence in Wales would be boosted significantly if Scotland chose to leave the UK.

“Young people [in Wales] look at the Conservative government [at Westminster] and do not identify with it,” he added. “It does not reflect the kind of country they want to live in.”



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Analysis

Third Covid wave pushes Poland’s health system to limits

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After Michal Drozdz, a Warsaw paramedic, pulls up outside a hospital, his ambulance often has to queue for hours before his patients are admitted.

“This has been happening all the time for three weeks. Every shift there’s a real threat you’ll have to spend it waiting in front of a hospital,” he said. “Sometimes it’s two hours, sometimes six . . . During that time you can’t help anyone, which is what this job should be about.”

It is not just Warsaw that is struggling. Across Poland, the health system has been brought close to its limits as the central European nation battles through its most difficult days of the coronavirus pandemic so far.

Infections have surged since early March and on April 1 hit their highest daily level since the pandemic began. In the past fortnight, Poland has recorded 989 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, the third highest figure in the EU. Deaths have surged to record levels and the number of people in hospitals and on ventilators with Covid-19 have also touched all-time highs.

“The scale is incomparable [with the first wave],” said Drozdz. “Back then there were a few confirmed cases per district. Now it’s a few confirmed cases per block of flats.”

As elsewhere in Europe, the surge has been caused by the arrival of the more infectious B.1.1.7 strain of the virus first sequenced in the UK, which in recent weeks has accounted for 90 per cent of new cases in Poland.

A nurse attends to patients at an emergency ward in Bochnia, Poland. The country has the lowest number of practising physicians per capita in the EU © Omar Marques/Getty Images

But critics say the government also made errors that let the strain spread more quickly: first, by not enforcing rigorous enough checks on the thousands of Poles who returned from the UK for Christmas; and second, by loosening restrictions in mid-February once the British variant was already circulating.

The huge inflow of patients has left the health system reeling. Although about a quarter of Covid-19 beds and 20 per cent of ventilators are still free, they are not always in the same place as the people who need them.

Some 150 patients had to be moved from the southern Silesia region to other areas this month after local hospitals were overwhelmed. In the Mazovia region, officials were so worried about oxygen supplies before Easter that doctors were asked to limit the use.

The biggest problem, however, is a lack of staff, the result of years of high emigration and chronic health system underfunding. A Eurostat study in 2018 found that Poland had the lowest number of practising physicians per capita in the EU, with just 238 per 100,000 inhabitants.

“It’s not just Covid that’s the problem. It has just highlighted how insufficient our health system is,” said one young doctor recently sent to work with Covid patients in a Warsaw hospital.

In an effort to regain control of the situation, the government imposed new restrictions in mid-March, which it extended last week to April 18. It has also used powers allowing it to oblige medical professionals to switch from their normal jobs to treating coronavirus patients, and repeatedly expanded the number of Covid beds and ventilators in Poland’s hospitals.

Medical staff at the intensive care unit of Krakow University Hospital. The government has used powers obliging health professionals to switch from their normal jobs to treating coronavirus patients © Omar Marques/Getty Images

Adam Niedzielski, health minister, said on Friday there were signs that the surge in infections was beginning to ebb and that a peak in hospitalisations was imminent. He added that Poland would now also speed up its vaccination drive by broadening the groups of people allowed to give jabs.

“[Accelerating vaccinations] is the only possible answer, given the available resources, to fight the pandemic and get out of the third wave,” he said. “It is a very difficult time and therefore special solutions are needed.”

Yet doctors in hospitals in hard-hit areas are still scrambling to cope, with small teams juggling large numbers of seriously ill patients. The Warsaw doctor said a particular challenge for new staff was helping patients who needed intubation because their oxygen levels were dropping — a procedure normally carried out by specialists.

“You just have to wait for the call from the anaesthetist,” she said. “You don’t get emotional because that’s what we do on a daily basis — but you feel a bit insufficient as a doctor . . . You feel helpless.”

The shortages have left medical staff with huge workloads. “[My colleagues] are exhausted. You don’t have to ask, you can see it when they come off their shifts. I’ve just done my first few shifts and that was the hardest day and a half in my life,” said a second doctor recently deployed to a hospital for Covid patients in Warsaw. “Those who have been working here since February look as if they were seriously ill already.”

To boost their energy, some medics have resorted to giving themselves oxygen and intravenous drips, according to Polish media. Asked about the accounts by Radio RMF24, Niedzielski acknowledged that staff shortages were “noticeable” and described Poland’s medics as “heroes”. “This really is a war and the situation requires non-standard behaviour,” he said.

On top of the exhaustion, medics also have to deal with the psychological pressure that comes with confronting death so frequently. Treating couples where one partner was far sicker than the other, or parents who would not survive, was particularly tough, the second doctor said.

“Sometimes it is easier not . . . to build up links with patients because then when they die I feel like I have lost someone close myself, someone whom I fed and gave stuff to drink, whose hand I held,” she said.

“But on the other hand . . . I cannot imagine cutting off all these emotions completely. You have to find the golden mean. But it’s not easy.”



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Analysis

Iranian TV action thriller delivers warning to Zarif

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It is hardly surprising that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and nuclear negotiator, is not a fan of Gando, a popular television drama that depicts an incompetent minister who scuppers nuclear talks with world powers by hiring dual nationals who turn out to be spies for MI6.

The series — made by an institute believed to be affiliated to the elite and hardline Revolutionary Guards — “is a lie from the beginning to the end” that “damages foreign policy more than me” by fuelling public mistrust, Zarif said.

By focusing on the nuclear talks, the Guards’ motive goes beyond creating compelling drama, reformist analysts say. Iran is in discussion with western powers about reviving the nuclear deal, a key reformist achievement, and hardliners want to deter the popular foreign minister from declaring his interest in the presidency in what is a crucial election year.

“I’ll be grateful to Gando-makers to let us continue our current job,” Zarif said this month, and commented that he would not run for the presidency.

The possibility of nuclear talks with the US and other powers has complicated an already fraught Iranian political scene ahead of the June election. Many reformists are pinning their hopes on Iran’s top diplomat to reinvigorate the nuclear deal and boost support at the ballot box. Hardliners might prefer to negotiate the deal themselves after the election. The polls are also seen as particularly crucial in case supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 81, dies during the next president’s term.

Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from ‘Gando’
Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. The series title refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies © Bahar Asgari/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The purpose of Gando, which refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies, “is to tell Zarif that should he dare to announce his candidacy, he will be destroyed immediately,” said one reformist analyst. “When the intelligence service of the Guards truly believes in the Gando plot lines, it means even if Zarif decides to defy such warnings, he will not be allowed to run.”

Centrist president Hassan Rouhani is due to step down this year after two terms and it is not yet clear who the presidential candidates will be. Politicians register as late as May and then have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, the hardline constitutional watchdog, which can disqualify nominees. Potential hardline candidates include Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the parliament speaker and a former guards commander; Ebrahim Raisi, the judiciary chief; and Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament. On the reformist side, speculation has centred on Es’haq Jahangiri, first vice-president, Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the founder of the Islamic republic, and Zarif.

A US-educated career diplomat widely respected in the west for his pragmatism, Zarif was instrumental in the historic deal in 2015, under which Iran curbed its nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But Donald Trump abandoned the accord in 2018, imposed sanctions, including on Zarif, and said he would pursue a new accord to contain Iran’s regional and military policies. The US move emboldened hardliners, confirming to them the untrustworthiness of the US.

Zarif’s background in the US both as a university student and as Iran’s head of mission at the UN — during which he met US politicians including then senator Joe Biden — has long made him a source of suspicion for hardliners.

This wariness of both Zarif and the west is evident to viewers of Gando, as is the heroism of the Revolutionary Guards. Mohammad, the action hero protagonist, warns that western negotiators may sabotage refineries as part of nuclear talks. Mohammad works out of elaborate facilities akin to those in a James Bond film. The fictional foreign minister is advised by a media adviser, the main culprit, “to enter into direct talks with the US and accept the conditions of the leader of the global village”.

Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’
Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. State TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run © Hassan Hendi/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The dramatic scenes reflect, in part, the worldview of some of Zarif’s critics. “Reformists, Mr Zarif and his lobby group in Washington [Iranian dual nationals] should be wiped out from Iran’s politics,” said an aide to a senior hardline politician who is a potential presidential candidate. “We have to get rid of this cancerous tumour once for good.”

Gholamali Jafarzadeh, a former conservative member of parliament, said Zarif “is not a good statesman and should not run for president” while “reformists should know that their choices have no chance to be allowed to run”. 

This month, state TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run. Local media said broadcasts would resume when the presidential race was over. Iran’s centrist president Hassan Rouhani, whose signature achievement is the nuclear deal — alluded to the show on Wednesday and said “people’s money” should not be spent on “fabrication of the truth” and “distortion of facts”.

After three years of sanctions, many voters are disillusioned by the infighting and the prospect of real change, whatever the outcome of the election. “Whether Zarif or a figure more senior than him runs or not, I’m not going to vote,” said Hamid, a 40-year-old engineer. “Let the Guards win the election as they are the ones who are running the country anyway. Why shall I make a fool of myself?” 



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Analysis

Rising inflation complicates Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis

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After seven months in lockdown, Michele Marques received some unwelcome news when she returned to work: while she was away the prices of almost all the products she uses as a hairdresser had soared.

“A box of gloves rose 200 per cent. Colouring products increased at least 100 per cent,” said the 37-year-old from São Paulo, underlining how costs were rising while her revenue had collapsed. “I had to raise the price of my services, too.”

It is a dynamic that is playing out across Brazil, adding an extra layer of complexity to the country’s coronavirus crisis, which has already claimed the lives of almost 350,000 individuals and pushed hospital services to the brink.

With much of Latin America’s largest economy being shuttered, inflation is surging to its highest level in years, fuelling a silent scourge of hunger among poorer citizens that has run in parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The high price of staple foods — rice and beans, for example — has led to the disappearance of these items from the table of millions of Brazilians,” said Ana Maria Segall, a researcher at the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security. In the 12 months to the end of March, the price of rice increased 64 per cent and black beans 51 per cent.

“In Brazil currently food inflation has penalised the very poorest, preventing them from having adequate access to food and in many situations leading to hunger,” she said, adding that rising unemployment and the curtailment of social programmes were also contributing factors.

Volunteers hand out food in São Paulo © Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Less than half of Brazil’s population of 212m now has access to adequate food all the time, with 19m people, or 9 per cent of its inhabitants, facing hunger, according to a recent report by Segall’s group.

“I’m doing some odd jobs, but it’s not enough to keep us going,” said Jonathan, a 28-year-old who lost his job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in São Paulo when the pandemic began. He said he now struggles to provide enough food for his three young children and pregnant wife.

On a 12-month basis, inflation in June is expected to surpass 8 per cent, far above earlier estimates. In the 12 months to March, food prices jumped 18.5 per cent, while the price of agricultural commodities in local currency surged 55 per cent and the cost of fuel increased almost 92 per cent.

Line chart of Percentage increase over past 12 months showing The price of rice in Brazil is soaring

The developments pose a fresh challenge to President Jair Bolsonaro, who is already under fire for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Across Brazil’s biggest cities, graffiti has sprung up labelling the populist leader “Bolsocaro” — a portmanteau of his name and the Portuguese word for expensive.

The rising prices are also likely to provide useful ammunition to leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who returned to the political fray last month and may challenge Bolsonaro in elections next year.

“Bolsonaro is to blame for the increase in food prices, he is to blame for everything. They have to remove this guy,” said Maria Izabel de Jesus, a retiree from São Paulo.

Armando Castelar, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Economics, said the government had underestimated inflation both in terms of the numbers and also “how much a concern it should be”.

He attributed the rising prices to the devaluation of the Brazilian currency, triggered in part by the stimulus packages passed by the US government — which helped to bolster the dollar and led to higher Treasury yields — and the brighter economic outlook outside Latin America.

“You have a situation where commodity prices are going up because the global economy is going to grow a lot this year. With the growth in the US, interest rates are going up and the dollar is strengthening. This puts a lot of pressure on the exchange rate in Brazil and emerging markets in general,” he said.

As the spectre of inflation loomed last month, the Brazilian central bank raised its key interest rate by 75 basis points, higher than the half-percentage point many economists had expected. A further rate rise is expected next month.

“The central bank acted correctly, but it cannot stop there. It is important not to be too lenient in dealing with this,” said Castelar.

Silvia Matos, a co-ordinator at the Brazilian Economy Institute, also pointed to Brazil’s weakening currency as a contributing factor to inflation. But she said the slide in the real was triggered by investor concerns over Brazil’s deteriorating public finances.

Following the creation of two separate stimulus packages to mitigate the impact of Covid-19, government debt has risen to about 90 per cent of gross domestic product, a high level for an emerging market economy.

The rollout of the second of these packages began this month, with 45m Brazilians set to receive $50 a month for four months.

Critics said, however, these stipends were not nearly enough to keep people both fed and at home in lockdown.

“It is essential that the emergency aid is of a greater value, so that people do not leave the house but no one also stays at home starving,” said Marcelo Freixo, a federal lawmaker with the leftwing PSOL party.

“We need to reduce the circulation of the disease. Brazil is already experiencing 4,000 deaths per day. We will reach 500,000 total deaths by the middle of the year.”

Matos says that inflation had hit poorer citizens much harder than middle-class and rich Brazilians because a larger portion of their income was dedicated to food, the price of which has increased substantially.

“The only thing that could help right now is to get out of this pandemic,” she said.

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