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News in brief: Government ‘ducking scrutiny’ by ignoring calls for an independent Welsh Covid inquiry

07 Jul 2021 9 minutes Read
Picture by John Jones (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Plaid Cymru has accused the government of “ducking scrutiny” by refusing to set up an independent inquiry into its handling of the Covid pandemic in Wales.

The criticism comes after new research by Welsh language news programme Newyddion S4C  revealed a quarter of Welsh Covid deaths since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 resulted from infections contracted in hospital.

This was followed yesterday by a group of doctors and health professionals from across Wales publishing an open letter pressing for an “urgent investigation” into the handling of the pandemic.

‘UK-wide’

“For over a year Plaid Cymru asked for a Wales-only public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. The Labour Government has instead opted to have a Welsh chapter in a UK-wide inquiry,” Plaid Cymru Deputy Leader and Health Spokesperson Rhun ap Iorwerth MS said.

“That opens them up to a charge of ducking scrutiny. If they take responsibility, they have to be ready to be judged on their actions, good and bad. And by refusing a Welsh-specific inquiry, Welsh Government is effectively agreeing to Boris Johnson’s delays.

“A quarter of Covid deaths resulted from infections that were contracted in hospital something highlighted in new research being reported today. Surely that alone merits a Welsh specific inquiry.

“And it isn’t just Plaid Cymru calling for a Welsh specific inquiry. Welsh doctors and allied health professionals are also calling for one. The Labour Government has rightly said that they follow the science when making decisions, so why won’t they now follow the advice of these doctors and launch an independent Welsh inquiry now whilst memories are still fresh?”

The Welsh Conservatives are also pressing for a Welsh-specific inquiry, with Shadow Health Minister Russell George saying, “Decisions made in Wales had a direct impact on lives here in Wales, and they should be put under the microscope of an independent public inquiry here in Wales.

“Ministers can no longer shirk away from such a process as we owe it to the families who lost loved ones to ensure they have answers, and that Wales learns the lessons from the past 18 months and is fully prepared for any future pandemic.” 

Rapid antigen test. Photo by Steve Nomax on Unsplash

11 Welsh local authorities record three-figure Covid case rates

Half of the 22 local authorities in Wales have weekly Covid case rates of over 100 per 100,000 people, according to the latest figures from Public Health Wales.

Today’s update has confirmed no further deaths due to the virus, but another 663  positive tests for Covid across Wales in the last 24 hours.

Cardiff (88) had the highest number of new cases, followed by Wrexham (79) and Flintshire (45) – helping the number of cases over the last week to 3,455.

Wrexham continues to have the highest case rate nationally at 245.5, up by over 15 points since yesterday, and it also has the worst weekly positivity rate at 11.5% per 100,000 tests, an increase of 0.8% in the last day.

Anglesey, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Gwynedd, Monmouthshire, Torfaen, and Rhondda Cynon Taf also have case rates in three figures.

The national case rate has risen to 109.6 from 103.2 since yesterday’s report and the positivity rate is up by 0.2% to 6.0%. 

Education and Welsh Language Minister, Jeremy Miles

Schools get option to delay new curriculum roll out

Secondary schools in Wales have been given the option to delay the introduction of the new curriculum in secondary schools due to concerns over the impact of the Covid pandemic.

The rollout in primary schools and non-maintained nursery settings will commence as planned from rom September 2022 but the minister has announced that secondary schools would have the option to continue with their existing plans to start in 2022 with Year 7 or start in 2023 with Years 7 and 8 together.

“I recognise that secondary schools have faced specific challenges such as managing qualifications, which, in some instances, have affected their readiness for curriculum delivery,” Mr Miles said.

“I understand these concerns and have taken the decision to provide some additional flexibility for schools where they judge that they need it.”

“I would encourage secondary schools who are able to implement their new curricula in Year 7 from 2022 to move forward with their plans, supported by their regional consortia,” he added.

Other measure confirmed by Mr Miles include:

  • The establishment of a National Network that will support implementation of the new curriculum.
  • An extra £7.24m for schools to support their curriculum reform plans, including engagement with the National Network.
  • The removal of the requirement to undertake end of foundation phase and end of key stage assessments, in the 2021 to 2022 academic year, for year groups that will be transitioning to the new curriculum in September 2022.
  • An update of the ‘Curriculum for Wales: The journey to 2022’ document, recognising the current context and the different points many will be starting from. It will provide a comprehensive one-stop-shop for schools and settings.

Beyond 2023, the roll out of the curriculum will follow on a year-by-year basis, and the first qualifications designed specifically for Curriculum for Wales will be awarded in the 2026/27 academic year as planned.

Vale of Glamorgan Council HQ. Photo via Google.

Tax hike questioned after council coffers gets £13.5m profit boost

Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter

This year’s increase in council tax in the Vale of Glamorgan has been questioned as the council’s reserves have shot up by £13.5 million.

Council tax increased in April for residents living in the Vale by 3.9 per cent.

Vale of Glamorgan council previously said the tax hike was needed to cover a budget shortfall of £13,545,000.

But new figures reveal that the council’s reserves increased last year by roughly the same amount, £13,513,000, raising questions over whether the tax hike was actually needed.

The council’s cabinet considered the ‘closure of accounts’ on Monday, 5 July. This looks at how much money the council spent and received over the last financial year, from April 2020 to March 2021.

The closure of accounts showed a net transfer to reserves of £12,206,000, a surplus of £4,052,000 for the housing revenue account, but a drawdown of £2,745,000 from capital reserves.

Plaid Cymru Councillor Ian Johnson said: “We all know that Covid-19 has created difficult circumstances, so it is quite astonishing to see Vale of Glamorgan council make a £13 million profit last year.

“Plaid Cymru has long criticised the large amount the Vale holds in reserves—which Audit Wales say is the highest percentage of usable reserves in Wales—while Labour constantly pushes sky-high council tax rises.

“When council tax was set in March, we were told that the council faced substantial losses. In the end, though, the final out-turn is more than £30m better than the figures presented to councillors.

“Labour have protected the council’s reserves whilst pushing the costs of Covid onto local residents. Those residents won’t forget that at next year’s local elections.”

Conservative Cllr George Carroll said: “The pandemic has caused unprecedented financial pressures for many residents, and this year’s inflation-busting council tax rise will only add to them.

“That’s why Conservatives on the council voted against the increase. Instead, we proposed a real terms freeze, to be funded from reserves.

“It’s of course important to be prudent, but these figures show that it would have been affordable to help residents in these exceptional circumstances. A Conservative-run council will keep council tax low to ease the pressures on residents across the Vale.”

Previously Labour councillors argued, when setting the council tax increase in March, that it would not be sensible to spend money from the council’s reserves, partly due to the uncertainty around coronavirus and new variants.

During the cabinet meeting this week, council leader Neil Moore said the pandemic meant some money could not be spent on work which had to be postponed, and the Welsh Government has provided a lot of financial support to councils to help with coronavirus.

Cllr Moore said: “Some of the transfers into the reserves were made due to the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic and the fact that Welsh Government has given some extra money to places like schools, for example.

“[The increase in the housing revenue account] was partly due to the fact that they couldn’t carry out some of the work that they intended due to Covid-19. They weren’t able to carry out repairs and changes in people’s houses. We also wanted to build some extra facilities, which we weren’t able to do.

“The revenue position for 2020–21 was particularly challenging, both operationally and financially as a result of Covid-19. But since March 2020, the Welsh Government has provided financial support via the local authority emergency hardship grant. Between March 2020 and March 2021, the council received £15 million from the Welsh Government.

“Covid-19 was a particularly difficult year and I have to say the Welsh Government played trumps in supporting all local authorities.”

According to Audit Wales, the Vale council had £83 million of usable financial reserves, as of March last year. That’s about a third of the council’s annual spend on services, which is the highest rate of all 22 councils across Wales.

Responding to the opposition councillors’ comments after the cabinet meeting, Cllr Moore said: “As detailed in the closure of accounts report, the cost of Covid-19 has not been passed on to tax payers as Welsh Government grants covered most of this outlay.

“A council tax increase of 3.9 per cent was agreed in early March last year. This was modest compared to many other areas of Wales and necessary to protect vital services following years of local authority underfunding. The ability to make transfers into reserves was due to the receipt of a large number of Welsh Government grants very late in the financial year.”

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