News in brief: Covid-19 case rate in Wales drops to lowest level since November firebreak
The rate of Covid infections in Wales has dropped to levels last recorded following the end of the national firebreak lockdown in November, according to the latest figures from Public Health Wales.
The seven-day rolling case rate is currently 190.2 per 100,000 people, down from 203.8 yesterday and the lowest since the week ending 15 November, when the rate was 170.6.
Wales’ strict 17-day firebreak lockdown ended on 8 November .
PHW has also confirmed 56 further deaths and 705 new positive tests for Covid-19 since yesterday’s report.
A total of 336,071 people in Wales have now received their first coronavirus vaccine dose, up by 23,766 since yesterday. 674 have received both doses.
Wrexham (106) had the highest number of new cases, followed by Flintshire (80) and Cardiff (57).
Wrexham continues to have the highest weekly case rate in Wales at 477.4 per 100,000 people, down from 503.1 yesterday.
Study maps changes in symptoms for new Covid variant
A new survey by the Office for National Statistics has found that people reported more coughs, sore throats, fatigue and muscle pain when infected with the new Kent variant of Covid-19 than with the strains that fuelled the first wave.
According to the survey, reports of coughs rose from about 27% to 35% in those infected with the Kent variant. Reports of fatigue, muscle pain and sore throat also showed a big increase.
“Loss of taste and loss of smell were significantly less common in new variant compatible positives” than in older variants, the ONS survey notes, “whereas other symptoms were more common in new variant compatible positives”. There was no evidence of differences in gastrointestinal symptoms, shortness of breath or headaches, the survey found.
The new variant originated in the southeast of England last summer and is up to 70% more transmissible.
It is now the dominant strain across Wales, according to the Welsh Government’s chief scientific adviser for health.
The mutation named B117, was first detected in Kent in September and since then has spread rapidly across the UK and around the world.
Dr Rob Orford said this strain is more contagious than the form of the virus previously circulating in Wales but doesn’t appear to have any increased impact on younger, healthy people than the original wild strain.
“It is now present in all parts of Wales with levels of at least 50% or more. It is highest in north Wales,” he said.
In a press conference last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested the new strain could be more deadly than the original by up to 40%, however Dr Orford said that so far, studies of death rates “have not been able to say that definitively”.
“It doesn’t seem to have any difference in the way it infects people across the ages, which is really positive”, he added.
Dr Orford said three other new variants were being tracked – one which originated in South Africa and two from Brazil.
He said there had been 10 cases of the South African variant identified in Wales, all of which were “imported cases from people who have travelled abroad”.
Scientist monitoring Covid mutations have been particularly concerned that the vaccines currently available might not be as effective in protecting against the new strains.
Echoing those fears, Dr Orford said the variants posed new challenges because of their potential to speed up the rate of transmission and quickly increase the number of people infected.
“The biggest worry, of course, is that a new variant could emerge which won’t respond to our treatments or vaccines – putting us back to square one again,” he added.
Ministers announce £6.5m of flooding support
Welsh Government Ministers have announced £6.5million to support local authorities and people affected by recent flooding in the north and south of Wales.
People were forced to leave their homes and a major incident declared after Storm Christoph struck last week.
About 80 people were evacuated during the flooding in Skewen, Neath, while 30 were also evacuated in Bangor-on-Dee, Wrexham.
The funding will allow local authorities to claim for the costs of responding to flooding including support to residents to address the immediate cost of water damage and replacing necessary belongings.
The government has already announced it will support households who have suffered flooding in their homes or were evacuated with payments of £500 and £1,000, similar to the support provided during storms Ciara and Dennis last year.
Housing and Local Government Minister Julie James said: “Dealing with the damage caused by flooding is difficult enough but having to deal with it in the midst of a pandemic is extremely challenging. This fund will enable local authorities to make payments to individuals to assist them to stay in their own homes safely, to minimise contacts and the spread of the virus.
“Local authorities are working extremely hard to support people whose homes have been devastated by flooding and I want to offer my sympathy and support to everyone who has been affected.”
Meanwhile, a Plaid Cymru motion calling for a public inquiry into flooding in Rhondda Cynon Taf last year, was defeated in the Senedd yesterday.
Opening the debate, Leanne Wood MS for the Rhondda said: “We don’t know how worse weather will combine with our coal tips and underground mine workings – and we need to know. We need to know urgently.
“When we last debated this, I didn’t get answers to my questions. This time I’ll keep it simple. One question for you – if Labour MPs from RCT are calling for an inquiry into flooding in England, how can you oppose one for Wales where you have the power to instigate one?”
Labour and the Conservatives failed to back the motion, instead passing an amendment which rejected a public inquiry.
Council gives green light to wood-burning power plant despite pollution fears
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
A proposed wood-burning power plant in Splott has received renewed planning permission, raising questions over Cardiff’s climate change goals.
The biomass power plant is planned for land off Rover Way, next to the steelworks and Traveller camp, and would burn 75,000 tonnes of virgin timber each year.
Despite concerns raised over carbon emissions and air pollution from burning wood, Cardiff council’s planning committee renewed permission for the plant yesterday.
The plant initially received permission in 2018, but no construction work has started yet. After delays securing environmental permission for the plant, developers behind the scheme asked the council to extend the time-limited planning permission.
Gareth Ludkin, of Friends of the Earth Cardiff, told the committee the power plant of his concerns over air pollution and carbon emissions.
He said: “Burning virgin wood, transported from abroad, is neither clean, green nor sustainable. Industry claims that wood biomass is a carbon neutral source of energy are demonstrably false.
“Flawed carbon accounting loopholes used by the industry have been widely disproved. A decision to extend this planning permission runs counter to Cardiff council’s climate emergency commitments.”
Cardiff council declared a climate emergency in 2019, pledging to do what it could to get the city to carbon neutral by 2030. This means reducing carbon emissions to net zero.
But as several recent investigations have found, burning wood for energy — while technically counted as ‘renewable’ — adds a significant amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
The Splott power plant, according to planning documents, would potentially burn virgin timber from Latvia. Chopping down trees, transporting them across a continent, and then burning them, all creates carbon emissions.
The argument in favour of burning wood for ‘renewable’ energy is that new trees can be replanted in place of those chopped down. And those new trees would absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, offsetting the emissions. However, this would take decades.
Another concern raised was air pollution. The surrounding area includes the Celsa steelworks, the Viridor waste incinerator, and potentially soon another waste incinerator pending planning approval. Nearby also is Willows High School and a Travellers site.
Mr Ludkin said: “We are deeply concerned that there has been no monitoring of small particulates PM10 and PM2.5 in the locality, despite the nearby steelworks, existing waste incinerator and proposals for a second in Wentloog. And importantly, the proximity of the site to residents, especially the Traveller community on Rover Way adjacent to the planned plant.
“Without such monitoring on Rover Way, it is impossible to know whether legal limits are already being approached or even exceeded.”
An agent for the developers Parc Calon Gwyrdd did not attend the planning meeting. The company behind the power plant has no online presence. And architects for the site did not respond to emails asking for contact details of the developers.
Cllr Ed Stubbs, representing the local ward Splott, also raised concerns about air pollution. He added keeping the site empty and undeveloped for so long could be ‘landbanking’: when developers buy undeveloped land purely as an investment, waiting for its value to increase, with no actual plans to build on the site. Planning permission tends to increase land value.
Cllr Keith Parry said: “I don’t see the logic of importing wood from Latvia to burn in biomass plants in Wales. Surely the people behind this plant have had enough time to get it up and going. I’m a bit dubious.”
Voting for renewing permission for the power plant were: Cllr Keith Jones, Cllr Ali Ahmed, Cllr Ashgar Ali, Cllr Frank Jacobsen, and Cllr Mike Jones-Pritchard. Voting against were: Cllr Iona Gordon, Cllr Lyn Hudson, Cllr Keith Parry, Cllr Abdul Sattar, and Cllr Peter Wong.
As the vote was tied five to five, the chair of the committee, Cllr Jones, had the casting vote. He voted in favour of renewing the permission.