Julie James, Minister for Housing and Local Government
The ordinary general election for membership of the Senedd is due to take place on 6 May 2021, alongside Police and Crime Commissioner elections and any postponed local government by elections fixed for that date by Returning Officers.
The elections will take place in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. Although most indicators are moving in the right direction and the vaccination programme is making very significant progress, it is difficult to be certain what the position will be in early May.
The Welsh Government’s firm intention is that the election will proceed on 6 May 2021 and a postponement of the election would only be used as a last resort if the public health situation required it. We are supporting Returning Officers and electoral administrators to take action to mitigate risks associated with running the election during the pandemic. Social distancing and hygiene measures will be in place at polling stations and counting venues, and voters will be encouraged to consider postal and proxy voting. Emergency proxy votes will be available to those who need to self-isolate close to polling day.
The Welsh Elections (Coronavirus) Bill makes provision to respond to the potential risks to the election arising from the coronavirus pandemic with the objective of ensuring the election can be administered and proceed safely and that the electorate can participate and vote, or, in extremis, that the election can be postponed if necessary.
The decision to postpone an election is not one that should be taken lightly, and in making a proposal to postpone the election, the Welsh Government must consider the public health position and how an election could have a negative impact upon those participating and contribute to an increase in infection rates. Along with any public health concerns, we must also factor in the impact this has on the ability of electoral administrators to effectively hold the poll. This must all be evaluated against the impact on Welsh democracy of postponing an election and the consequences of delaying the fundamental right of those enfranchised to vote.
The Welsh Government will use the following criteria when coming to a decision on whether the postponement of the election is necessary. The criteria set out broad principles which will be used to inform balanced judgements and are designed to allow for the flexibility needed in the pandemic response.
Criterion 1: Public Health situation
The prevalence of the virus and the capacity of the NHS to deal with it will be fundamental to any decision to postpone the election. Not only will the virus have an impact upon the ability to safely and fairly hold an election, but running a poll could lead to increased interaction with others in indoor environments, despite best efforts to reduce contact, and subsequently lead to an increase in the spread of virus.
The following indicators will be used to assess whether the public health situation is sufficiently fragile and the risk to public health is sufficiently high to justify drastic action, such as postponing the election, in order to prevent further spread of the virus.
- Confirmed case rates.
- Hospital capacity.
- Feedback from local health professionals (including incident management teams or outbreak control teams).
- Feedback from local authority leaders and other local partners.
- Rates of change in the Alert Level Indicators..
- The progress of the vaccination programme .
- Incidence of variants of concern.
Further detail on the non-mechanical key indicators considered by Welsh Government when moving between alert levels in Wales was published in our Coronavirus Control Plan in January 2021.
Criterion 2: Status of Preparations for the Election
In addition to the public health indicators, we will also need to consider whether the prevalence of the virus is such as to make it unlikely that a fair and safe poll can be held. Our aim is to seek an election where voters have the confidence to participate and thereby ensure that turnout levels are sufficient to safeguard the credibility of the poll. An election where voters feel unsafe and run a significant risk of becoming infected as a result of voting would be unacceptable. The prevalence of the virus could have a direct impact on the practical preparations that electoral administrators are undertaking, despite their best efforts to mitigate for the risks it poses.
The Welsh Government is working closely with Returning Officers and other stakeholders to monitor the status of preparations. As set out in the Welsh Elections (Coronavirus) Bill, the Electoral Commission has a duty to provide advice to the Welsh Government on this matter when requested.
The following indicators will be used to assess whether the pandemic is such that it poses significant threat to the practical arrangements for the safe and fair running of the Senedd election.
- Advice from the Welsh Government’s Chief Medical Officer regarding the impact of the current spread of the virus on the safe running of the poll.
- Feedback from Returning Officers, the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders on the impact of the pandemic on the logistics of running the election, for example relating to the availability of staff and venues or capacity to process absent votes.
- The timing of the Police and Crime Commissioner elections.
The criteria set out above is not an exhaustive list and the Welsh Government will also take into account any other relevant factors that are applicable at the time a decision is required, including such factors as may only become apparent nearer to the election.