News in brief: Jump in Delta variant cases continues with 40% of new infections across north of Wales
Cases of the Delta variant have jumped by almost 53% in the last week according to the latest figures released by Public Health Wales.
A total of 1,935 new infections have been recorded in the seven days up to 13 July, taking the total number of cases to 5,601, with 40% of those in the north of Wales.
Betsi Cadwaladr health board, which covers Anglesey, Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Gwynedd and Wrexham, has recorded 749 new cases in the past week and has reported 2169 cases over all since the Delta mutation was first identified in Wales.
Just 14 cases of the previously dominant Alpha variant have been detected in the past week.
Despite the surge in cases, the number of hospitalisations remains low, however Wales’ Chief Medical officer, Dr Frank Atherton, has warned they are likely to rise if the spread of the variant matches a similar pattern to England and Scotland.
“We can anticipate that people requiring hospital treatment will be younger and less ill with the current wave, but the numbers may be high, and some harm will be inevitable. NHS bodies should anticipate the need to care for this expanding group as restrictions ease,” he noted in a written statement.
“Vaccination coverage in the over 40s is high; this appears to have altered the relationship between community transmission and harms. We need to encourage greater uptake in 18-40 year-olds and in groups with lower uptake levels such as those in under-served or vaccine hesitant communities.”
Meanwhile, today’s figures from PHW have confirmed no further deaths due to Covid and 861 new cases of the virus.
Wrexham continues to have the worst weekly case rate in the country at 318.5 per 100,000 people, unchanged from yesterday the positivity testing rate remains at 14.2% per 100,000 tests.
Cardiff (89) recorded most new infections in the past 24 hours, followed by Rhondda Cynon Taf (71) and Wrexham (69).
The national case rate has climbed to 150.5 from 145.3 since yesterday and the test positivity rate has risen from 7.6% to 7.9%.
Government to fund high-rise safety checks
The Government has announced it will fund fire safety surveys for all multi-occupied buildings over 11 metres tall in Wales.
The safety checks will be paid for out of the Welsh Building Safety Fund and as well as identifying any issues related to cladding will also assess the internal safety of structures.
All buildings over 11m will be eligible for the checks with priority initially applying to high rise buildings over 18m.
In the aftermath of the Grenfell fire disaster in London four years ago, councils and the Welsh Government moved quickly to ensure council-owned buildings were safe, alongside making sure registered social landlords could do the same but many privately owned blocks of flats across the country still have flammable cladding and other wide-ranging fire safety issues such as poor compartmentation and fire breaks that stop fires from spreading within buildings.
Many also employ a waking watch, at an average cost of over £10,000 per month, to keep residents safe if a fire does break out.
“It is critically important that we are able to understand the true scale of the problem in order to properly address it” Julie James, Minister for Climate Change, with responsibility for housing, said.
“Every building is different and the fire safety surveys will identify what measures and actions are required to make a multi-residential building as safe as it can be and protect lives and property in the event of a fire.
“Steps have already been taken to address these complex challenges, including ensuring all identified buildings in Wales with ACM cladding have been remediated at no additional cost to leaseholders. We also made £10.5 million available last year to remediate affected buildings in the social sector which saw 12 buildings access this support.”
The findings from the surveys will be used in the creation of a ‘Fire Safety Building Passport’ which will set out what defects have been identified, what remedial action is required and when fire safety measures need to be implemented.
The scheme will be open for applications from responsible persons, building owners and/or management companies this autumn.
Travel warning issued as holiday hotspot moves off quarantine-free ‘green list’
Health Minister Eluned Morgan has reiterated warnings of the risk of travelling abroad this summer after confirming the Balearic Islands have been removed from the quarantine-free “green list” – meaning holidaymakers will be required self-isolate for up to 10 days upon their return to Wales, unless they are fully vaccinated.
In the latest changes to the Covid restriction on international travel, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hong Kong and Taiwan will move from the amber list to the green list.
The Balearic Islands and British Virgin Islands will move from the green list to the amber list and Cuba, Indonesia, Myanmar and Sierra Leone will move from the amber list to the red list.
All changes will come into effect at 4am on Monday 19 July.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that from that date fully vaccinated adults returning from amber list countries, and under-18s, would no longer need to self-isolate upon returning to England.
“One of the biggest risks to the progress we have made in reducing the terrible effects of the pandemic on our lives is the importation of new variants of the virus, which our vaccines would provide less protection against. This is why we continue to caution against international travel for non-essential reasons this summer,” the minister warned in a statement confirming the changes.
“…we regret the UK Government’s decision to remove the requirement for adults who have been fully vaccinated to self-isolate when returning from amber list countries.
“However, it would not be practical for us to introduce a separate border health policy. Therefore, from 19 July, fully vaccinated adults returning from amber list countries, and under-18s, will no longer need to self-isolate.
“They will need to continue to take a pre-departure and PCR test on day two following their arrival in the UK, and it will be very important to take care about physical contact with others. Visiting people in a hospital or care home during the first 10 days back should be avoided.
“If they test positive for the virus or have any symptoms of coronavirus on their return, they will be required to self-isolate to help prevent further onward transmission.”
“The four UK governments keep the traffic-light ratings of countries under continuous review, and it is possible for a country to move from the amber list to the red list at any time.” She added.
“If this happens, travellers must spend a minimum of 10 days in hotel quarantine on their return to the UK at a cost of around £2,000 per person.”
MS calls for probe into high-taxing local authorities
Hannah Neary, local democracy reporter
The Welsh Government is being urged to investigate council tax rates in Neath Port Talbot (NPT), which are among the highest in Wales.
Sioned Williams, Plaid Cymru MS for South Wales West, wants the government to look into councils that charge higher rates and aim for more equal charges across the country.
Speaking at the Senedd on Tuesday July 13, Ms Williams said NPT Council “consistently sets one of the highest council tax levels in Wales”.
“Residents simply can’t understand why it costs NPT Council so much more to deliver services compared to neighbouring counties. There’s an issue of fairness at the heart of this,” she added.
Ms Williams asked Mark Drakeford what the government is doing to make sure councils review their expenditure levels and whether it will investigate “higher-taxing authorities” like NPT Council to achieve “more consistent” levels across Wales.
Mr Drakeford said: “The Member’s constituents in Neath Port Talbot will be pleased to know that living in that area, with a Labour authority, the rise in their council tax this year is 3.1 per cent; that’s lower than in Anglesey, lower than Gwynedd, lower than Ceredigion, lower than Carmarthenshire, where the Member’s own party is in charge.”
It appears the First Minister misquoted the council tax increase for 2021/22, which is 2.75%. In 2020/21 the increase was 3.79%.
The First Minister also said NPT council has “very unusually” “exceeded its expectations” of council tax collection rates, which is “good news” for local constitutents because the council will have more resources than expected “to provide the services that residents of Neath Port Talbot require and rely on every day”.
“There are reasons why some local authorities have higher council tax rates than others,” he added. “And they essentially rest in the make-up of those local populations. Those factors are well known to local authorities and are rehearsed every year in the independent group that we established in order to review plans for the council tax.”
Councillors agreed to increase council tax levels in NPT by 2.75% for the year 2021/22 during a meeting held in March. The increased rates will cost residents living in Band D properties an extra £44.43, totalling £1,660.02 per year. Around 80% of local residents pay council tax fees below the Band C amount of £1,475.57.
The council’s Plaid Cymru group advocated a freeze on council tax rates for 2021-22. At the meeting in March, 39 councillors voted in favour of the 2.75% increase, 17 voted against and three abstained.
Council tax, which funds 25% of the council’s net expenditure, is expected to bring in around £80m next year. The local authority gets the remaining 75% of its funding from the Welsh Government.
An NPT Council spokesman said the local authority “works hard to keep council tax increases to the lowest possible level, balanced against the need to provide the vital services so many of our residents and businesses rely on”.
They said 80% of taxpayers in the county borough pay council tax on bands A to C, which are below £1,996 (Band D) and the average council tax per dwelling is £1,493 “the 16th lowest in Wales”.
They added: “As the First Minister pointed out in the Senedd, Neath Port Talbot Council’s percentage Council Tax rise of 2.75% this year was among the lowest in Wales.
“In 1996 when the old West Glamorgan authority was split into Neath Port Talbot and Swansea Councils, Neath Port Talbot suffered from an unequal apportionment of debts and liabilities from the previous council which it has been battling with for more than 20 years.
“Despite this, Neath Port Talbot Council fights year on year to give the best value for money for its services which has meant council tax increses over the past four years in Neath Port Talbot have been the second lowest across authorities in Wales.”