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News in brief: First Minister says government’s pandemic response is a constant ‘balancing act’

11 Dec 2020 9 minute read

First Minister Mark Drakeford described the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a constant “balancing act” at today’s press briefing, where he revealed that further restrictions could be introduced in Wales after Christmas if infection rates don’t go down.

Mr Drakeford announced proposals for a new four-tier plan following the five-day Christmas break, with full details to be published next week.

Holiday accommodation, bars, cafes, restaurants and non-essential retail are all expected to be closed after Christmas unless infection rates decline.

With the weekly infection rate in Wales climbing to over 400 per 100,000 people and a total of 12,732 new cases over the last seven days, he said: “I took this press conference twice last weekend and in both press conferences I was asked repeatedly whether or not we were doing too much.

“This week the question is whether we are going far enough.

“And I think that that just demonstrates that this is constantly a balancing act.

“It is constantly trying to find the right set of measures to address the issues that we are facing.

“I believe that with the restrictions that we announced last week, with the changes we are making this week in the health service, in education, in relation to outdoor attractions that we have a package of measures provided – and this is the most important part – provided in our own life, we all do those things that have the biggest effect of all, but we have to allow that package to have an impact.

“If it doesn’t have it, if we don’t manage to do that, then I’m signalling clearly to people today that more will have to follow.”

Public Health Wales has confirmed a further 29 deaths due to COVID-19 and 2,234 new cases of the virus in today’s update.

Eight of the newly reported deaths are in the Aneurin Bevan health board area and six each in Betis Cadwaladr and Cardiff and Vale.

Cardiff (254) had the highest number of new positive tests as Swansea, Caerphilly and Rhondda Cynon Taf all reported over 200 new cases since yesterday.

Neath Port Talbot has the highest infection rate over the last week, up from 697.1 per 100,000 people yesterday to 718 and Merthyr Tydfil has the highest positive test proportion in Wales at 29.5%, up from 28.7% per 100,000 tests yesterday.

Coal tip above Duffryn in the Afan valley. © Copyright Jeremy Bolwell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Government secures £31 million of flood repair funding

Funding worth £31 million to support essential flood repair work in Wales has been agreed with the UK Government.

The Welsh Government has been seeking extra money to meet the costs related to the intense February storms which hit Welsh communities disproportionately hard.

Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans has also reiterated the case for a long term funding settlement to protect Welsh communities affected by coal tips, a legacy of the coal industry where ‘spoil’ was dumped on the hillsides.

One of the worst disasters in the history of Wales, at Aberfan, was caused by a spoil tip that collapsed after heavy rain in 1966. The disaster killed 116 children and 28 adults.

Rebecca Evans said:” I am glad that as a first step, our urgent calls for the initial funding Wales needs to address the intense storms have been met.

“Welsh communities should not be expected to pick up the bill for the remediation of legacy coal tips. The coal tips pre-date devolution, and Wales is disproportionately affected.

“We will continue to push for a long-term settlement and joint programme of work to protect affected communities.

Welcoming the announcement, Janet Finch-Saunders MS, Welsh Conservative  Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Energy and Rural Affairs, said:” The damage wreaked by Storms Ciara, Dennis, and others at the start of 2020 devastated lives, homes, and businesses in Wales, especially communities in former mining areas where the effect on redundant coal tips must have caused great anxiety for residents.

“The funding, therefore, is very much to be welcomed, not least by people living in those areas as coal tip and flood damage remediation work is carried out.”

Photo by Tobias Heine from Pixabay

Eligibility checker launched to aid businesses hit by latest Covid restrictions

An eligibility checker has been launched today to enable hospitality, leisure and tourism businesses affected by the latest coronavirus restrictions find out what financial support they qualify for.

The Welsh Government recently announced £340 million to assist businesses impacted by the new restrictions which came into force on 4 December.

The latest package includes a £160 million Restrictions Business Fund predominantly for businesses paying non-domestic rates, and a £180 million grant fund specifically for businesses in the tourism, leisure and hospitality sectors.

Under this latest round of support a typical hospitality business in Wales with the equivalent of six full-time staff could be eligible to receive between £12,000 and £14,000 to help them through this period of restrictions and into the new year.

The £160 million Restrictions Business Fund will see businesses that pay non-domestic rates within the hospitality, tourism, leisure, retail sectors and their supply chain qualifying for a one-off payment of between £3,000 and £5,000.

Hospitality businesses that received non-domestic rates funding under the previous firebreak restrictions can expect this payment before Christmas. However, all other eligible businesses will need to register in the new year to receive their payment.

Firms, including those not paying business rates, can also apply for a share of the £180 million Sector Specific Fund. This part of the package, which is calculated on a business’ staff count and turnover, is expected to support up to 8,000 businesses in sectors impacted by the restrictions and potentially a further 2,000 in related supply chains.

Broadband router. Picture by MediaDS

Targets for fibre broadband roll out “unrealistic”

A new report from the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales says the UK Government’s target of having fibre to every home by 2025 is unrealistic and that too much attention has been paid to promoting fibre to the home, and not enough on improving mobile broadband provision.

The report expresses concern the focus on the roll out of fibre fails to take into account the particular challenges of deploying it in Wales – where population density is lower, demand weaker and the topography more challenging and means that Welsh households and businesses will find themselves at the back of the queue.

The report also recommends the formation of a taskforce, led by a senior Welsh Government official and working with local authorities and other stakeholders, to be responsible for changes including:

  • Discussing ambitious targets for 4G and 5G ‘home’ mobile infrastructure with the mobile industry. This would include the offer of Welsh Government funds to support mobile infrastructure under a new, more flexible, ‘Gigabit Cymru’ programme
  • Serious consideration of planning rules that are more favourable towards mobile infrastructure than those seen elsewhere in the UK
  • Investing heavily to improve the adoption of new digital technologies where the infrastructure is already available, but only after Audit Wales has reviewed the effectiveness of the programmes that already exist.

Commission Chair, John Lloyd Jones OBE said:” Businesses and households stand to gain substantial economic benefits from both fibre to the home and 5G. The quality of digital communications is critical in determining where new, high growth businesses locate and where young people choose to live. They cannot afford to wait and will move to where fast, reliable broadband is available.

“Yet too many parts of Wales still lack adequate broadband connectivity and opportunities are already being lost. Achieving rapid advances will require more direction from the Welsh Government.”

Colwyn Heights chosen as the first area in Wales to trial a digital deposit return scheme on plastic bottles

Jez Hemming, local democracy reporter

A leafy area of Colwyn Bay will be the first in Wales to trial a digital deposit return scheme on plastic bottles.

The four-week pilot, a partnership between Welsh Government, Conwy county council and Polytag Ltd will start next spring.

Homeowners in Colwyn Heights will receive plastic bottles filled with Prince’s Gate spring water and stamped with special QR codes.

All residents need to do is enjoy the water and throw the empty bottles into their recycling as normal.

The company then hopes to scan and track the waste and residents will receive 20p for every one located and recycled. That cash will then be donated to local primary school Ysgol Pen y Bryn.

Welsh environment minister Lesley Griffiths said: “Measures such as these will allow a more flexible system for consumers than having to return bottles or containers themselves, and will link well with existing infrastructure already in place at household recycling collection systems run by local authorities.”

Deposit return schemes are rife in continental Europe but normally rely on people taking bottles back to retailers or special vending machines. What makes this different is the system relies on digitally scanning codes.

Digital DRS schemes allow local authorities, brands and regulators to monitor
household habits and rates of recycling.

Polytag, based in Deeside has already proven the technology works following a trial in the village of Greasby on the Wirral where 91% of tagged packaging was successfully recycled.

Cllr Greg Robbins, Conwy county council’s cabinet member for environment, said: “We’re delighted to be taking part in this pilot recycling scheme. It’s an exciting opportunity to use technology to track and make the most of recyclable materials while raising money for the local school.”

It is hoped by making it easier for people to gain a deposit it will encourage people to recycle more plastic bottle waste, which is one of the more valuable recycling commodities.

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