News in brief: Health chief’s warning as government considers easing social mixing restrictions
Wales’ Chief Medical Officer has warned of the dangers of increased social mixing indoors and says lockdown restrictions in Wales shouldn’t be lifted too quickly.
Following yesterday’s government review of the coronavirus restrictions, from today up to four people from two households will be allowed to meet in private gardens.
First Minister Mark Drakeford acknowledged that mixing inside people’s homes is “one of the most dangerous things” with coronavirus but at yesterday’s coronavirus press briefing indicated a further loosening of constraints could be introduced by the middle of next month.
“On the journey that we are on, in the second half of April – if everything continues to go well – we will consider what we can do to allow people to meet in the way that I completely understand people miss and want to be able to resume,” he said.
However, in his statement responding to the easing of the government’s health protection measures, Dr Frank Atherton said the importance of restrictions on social mixing “cannot be overemphasised”.
“We should continue to use both legislation and advice to ensure that indoor mixing between households does not – increase,” Dr Atherton said.
“The importance of public adherence to this restriction cannot be overemphasised; our modelling shows household mixing to be the single greatest determinant of whether we are likely to experience a substantive third wave.
“Implementing the personal, procedural, engineering and societal mitigations to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2 virus remains a vital part of our approach, but the new variant, being more transmissible, requires a step change in the rigour of application given the increased risk of spread.
“Most importantly, our public messaging should explain why continued restrictions on meeting up with family and friends inside our homes, caravan parks and holiday lets, continue to be necessary.”
Dr Atherton acknowledged the success of the current lockdown in driving down infection rates but warned that easing current constraints to quickly could risk triggering a third wave of Covid-19.
“Keeping the prevalence of Covid-19 low is an important preventative strategy both for the avoidance of direct harms and to guard against the emergence of new variants,” he said.
“The maintenance of low prevalence requires the slow release of lockdown restrictions; lifting them too early or too quickly will lead to an epidemic resurgence. Our modelling scenarios suggest that overly rapid relaxation combined with increased transmissibility of the now dominant variant and low public adherence to restrictions could lead to a third wave of virus circulation in late spring (May/June).
“If we are unable to avoid this scenario then it is likely that, despite the success of our vaccination programme, we would see a return in Wales to a period of high viral transmission with increased hospitalisations and deaths.“
Spike of Covid cases in Merthyr continues
The surge in new cases of Covid-19 in Merthyr Tydfil is continuing, according to the latest figures from Public Health Wales.
There have been 79 cases in Merthyr in the last week and the council set up a mobile testing unit yesterday after identifying a “Covid-19 cluster of significance” in the Swansea Road area.
The weekly case rate in Merthyr has shot up to 131 per 100,000 people from 104.4 yesterday as PHW confirmed 15 new positive tests in the last 24 hours.
It also currently has the highest weekly positive test proportion in Wales at 11.6% up from 9.6% yesterday.
The average weekly case rate in Wales is 41.7 per 100,000 people after 210 new cases were reported today and the national positive test rate is 4.2%.
PHW also reported six further deaths due to coronavirus since yesterday’s update.
Betsi Cadwaladr and Cardiff and Vale health boards both recorded two deaths and there was one further death in both the Aneurin Bevan health board area and Swansea Bay.
A total of 1,084329 people have now received a first dose of vaccine and 250, 026 have had both jabs.
Site announced for Holyhead Border Control Post
One of two new Border Control Posts in Wales will be sited at Parc Cybi in Holyhead, the Welsh Government has confirmed.
A total of 30 BCPs are being built across the UK to enable physical checks to be carried out on certain goods entering the UK from the EU as required under the trade deal the UK Government agreed with the EU at the end of last year.
Further controls on imports are due to be introduced in phases by the UK Government.
At Holyhead inspections will be carried out on goods such as animals, plants and products of animal origin entering Wales from the Republic of Ireland.
All BCPs must be biosecure so that inspections of live animals, meat and plants can take place without risk of contamination and must also have vets on site to carry out inspections. They must also offer large parking areas for HGVs.
Exports into the EU from the UK have been subject to controls since 1 January under the terms of the post-Brexit trade agreement, but the British government had delayed putting import controls in place until 1 July to give businesses time to prepare for the new measures.
It was confirmed yesterday that the UK Government had delayed the introduction of checks on imports from the EU by six months, because the network of border posts being built to inspect incoming goods will not be ready in time.
A planning consultation under a Special Development Order for the site will begin shortly.
The government also confirmed that work is ongoing to identify a site for the second BCP in South West Wales.
“The Welsh Government will be responsible for checks on animals and plants arriving from the Republic of Ireland and we are moving ahead with arrangements for Holyhead while continuing to work at pace to make similar arrangements for the south west,” Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs Lesley Griffiths said.
“We were clear of the consequences of leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, and we must now ensure that the Welsh ports are prepared for the changes which will be introduced.
“Whilst we welcome the recognition from the UK Government yesterday that the original timescale for introducing border checks was too challenging we remain in discussion with them to ensure that enough time is provided to adapt to the new circumstances in an effective manner, minimising disruption for business
“I would like to thank the Isle of Anglesey Council for their support to date and look forward to working with them as we now move ahead through the planning consultation process.”
E-bike pilot scheme to launch in Wales
The Welsh Government has confirmed it will will fund pilot schemes to accelerate the uptake of electric bikes (e-bikes) and electric cargo bikes (e-cargo bikes) across the country.
The pilots will see four e-bike ‘hubs’ established in Rhyl, Swansea, Aberystwyth (with links to Newtown) and Barry, offering low-cost hire and long-term loans of e-bikes.
Two e-cargo bike ‘libraries’ will be also established in Aberystwyth and Swansea, offering free trials of e-cargo bikes as well as advice and training for local businesses and residents.
E-cargo bikes offer the potential to reduce van traffic, for example being used for last mile deliveries.
The schemes, which will run over two years, will be open to the public and businesses in the summer.
“We want to give people more options of how to get around, and in particular we want to make greener forms of transport more convenient and accessible,” Lee Waters, Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, said.
“Sustainable travel requires a culture change and the pilots are another step towards delivering our goal.
“There is a strong link between e-bikes and active travel as more people get used to being on bikes. There are also specific benefits in rural communities where longer distances are more common, with e-bikes making cycling viable for more people.
“These pilots will be used to gather evidence and inform policy, with a view to a wider rollout in the future.”
Ceredigion set to become the latest council to quit education body
Katy Jenkins, local democracy reporter
Ceredigion will be the latest local authority to leave the educational regional working consortium at the end of the month.
The ERW has an annual budget of close to £35 million and was created in 2014 to help improve schools in Neath Port Talbot, Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Powys and Ceredigion.
A report on ERW’s impact on school improvement and value for money was presented to members of the learning communities overview and scrutiny committee on March 11 with the final decision on withdrawing from the consortium to be taken at cabinet next week.
Ceredigion County Council gave notice of its decision to withdraw in March 2020 and a new scheme has been prepared to support teachers, schools, education and curriculum from April 1, 2021.
This strategy – which will include work with other local authorities when necessary – has been approved by headteachers and Welsh Government the council’s lead officer for schools Meinir Ebbsworth said.
Ceredigion will maintain its curriculum support in literacy, numeracy and ICT as well as the options for teachers to develop skills, such as those used during covid-19 closures and remote learning, and it will all be available in Welsh, which was not the case with ERW.
Ms Ebbsworth added that there was a “financial risk” to leaving ERW as the council would oversee NQT for newly qualified teachers but the “indicative grants figure” from Welsh Government is felt to be sufficient.
It will also allow the opportunity to “invest heavily in our workforce” with a plan to provide early career support for a teacher’s first few years in the job, not just the one NQY year, in recognition of the fact many “teachers who start their career in Ceredigion, end their career in Ceredigion.”
Cllr Wyn Thomas said: “The important thing we have said is we are not going to be isolated as a result of this decision.”
Council leader Cllr Ellen ap Gwynn said ERW had “been quite troublesome since it was established” and she was looking forward to April 1.
“It will be a good day, it won’t be an April fool,” she added.
Neath Port Talbot has already left ERW and discussions at other authorities including Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire are underway.