News in brief: Minister claims public backing for cautious reopening of Wales
Health Minister Vaughan Gething has defended the government’ phased approach to easing Covid restrictions and said he believed the people of Wales backed its cautious strategy in lifting the lockdown that has been in place since 22 December.
“There are noises from the fringes of politics that demand to have a more ambitious and more urgent programme – a road map that is driven by dates, not data – but that isn’t where the Welsh Government is and it isn’t where the people of Wales are,” he said at Monday’s government press briefing.
“if we move too quickly, we could throw away all of the hard work and collective sacrifice of people in Wales and other parts of the UK,” Mr Gething added.
“I think people want to know that we’re doing this in a way that is responsible, that follows and respects the evidence and the science, and that’s the approach that we have taken.”
The Minister also refused to speculate on when life could return to “normal” in Wales and predicted there will be restrictions and further cases of the virus for at least the remainder of the year.
“What we are trying to be honest about is that within the next few months, we are unlikely to see an easing of all restrictions and go back to people doing whatever they want when they want,” he said.
“That isn’t the view just of the Welsh Government, that is the view of all scientific advisers right across the UK.
“None of them are saying that you can have zero restrictions and zero cases of Covid this year.”
Latest figures show Covid case starting to slow in hotspots
Public Health Wales has reported no new deaths from Covid-19 in the last 24 hours and 150 new cases of the virus.
According to PHW, 5,488 people have died due to the virus since the start of the pandemic last March.
Anglesey and Merthyr Tydfil remain the only two areas to have weekly case rates in three figures, but both have seen a small improvement in the last 24 hours.
Merthyr’s case rate has fallen from 129.3 per 100,000 people to 121 since Sunday’s report and the rate in Anglesey is down from 114.2 to 107.1.
On Saturday a new walk-in testing centre was opened on the Gurnos estate in Merthyr to help control the outbreak there and Anglesey council has asked residents in Holyhead and Holy Island to take a Covid test to help get the outbreak there under control.
“Public Health Wales, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board and Isle of Anglesey County Council are working to offer additional Coronavirus testing in Holyhead and Holy Island, including lateral flow tests for secondary school students and their linked households, and home-delivered PCR tests for local residents,” Dr Giri Shankar, Incident Director for the Covid-19 outbreak response at Public Health Wales, said.
“This case-finding aims to find undetected infections to control and reduce the transmission in this area.
“In many areas of Wales, the numbers of cases are falling. It is now so important that we don’t throw away the substantial gains that we have made, and I would like to send a clear message to everyone that Coronavirus hasn’t disappeared and there are still a large number of people who have not been vaccinated.
“In order to protect everyone, including the most vulnerable, we must all stick to the rules,” he added.
Meanwhile, the weekly national case rate has now fallen from 42.4 per 100,000 people to 41.8% since yesterday and the positive test proportion has also declined across Wales from 3.6% to 3.5% per 100,000 tests.
Swansea (135) has recorded the highest number of new cases over the last week, followed by Cardiff with 114.
A total of 1,273,186 people have received at least one dose of Covid vaccine, meaning more than half the population of Wales have had a first dose and 346,058 have had both jabs.
Garden centres reopen as lockdown easing continues
Supermarkets can sell non-essential items and garden centres In Wales can open from today as the government’s phased easing of lockdown measures continues.
However, shops that only sell non-essential items will remain closed until 12 April.
Garden centres were ordered to close when the latest lockdown was introduced following a surge of Covid cases in December.
First Minister Mark Drakeford has also confirmed a decision on a phased reopening of the tourist sector will be made later in the week.
“If conditions remain positive, on March 27 we will lift ‘stay local’ and begin the process of re-opening our tourism sector, starting with self-contained accommodation and organised outdoor children’s activities for the Easter holidays,” Mr Drakeford said.
“We are also looking at if outdoor areas of some historic places and gardens can reopen to the public.”
Ministers will consider when gyms and outdoor hospitality in Wales can reopen in its next full review of the lockdown measures.
Funding confirmed for pilot food production project
The Welsh Government is funding an innovative pilot project that will see food being produced sustainably in the heart of four communities across Wales.
The sustainable food production project Crop Cycle is one of the 52 projects supported by the government’s £4.5 million Foundational Economy Challenge Fund.
Crop Cycle, which has received £481,000 from the Fund, will use science and technology through Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) to perfect indoor plant production.
The pilot project, which is being led by registered charity Social Farms & Gardens with support from CEA special interest group NutriWales, could be rolled out across the rest of Wales if successful.
Four agri-tech businesses, Digital Farming Ltd, LettUs Grow, Grow Stack and Farm Urban, are also supporting the project at the four community sites. These are Greenmeadow Community Farm in Cwmbran, Welcome To Our Woods in Treherbert, Xplore! Science Discovery Centre in Wrexham, and Cultivate, in Newtown, Powys.
Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is defined as a combination of engineering, plant science, and computer managed greenhouse control technologies used to optimize plant growing systems, plant quality, and production efficiency.
“Bolstering local food supply is a key focus for this Welsh Government and this project offers a modern approach to truly sustainable food growing,” Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, Lee Waters, said.
“To date approaches to CEA have been vastly different and largely unsupported. Through this unique pilot we will offer real growth potential at a scale that is impactful, replicable and delivers tangible benefits for the four communities involved.”
Ian Thomas, from Welcome To Our Woods, added: “Work is progressing well on the growing facility in Treherbert and we are excited to be bringing such an innovative and progressive project to our local high street. We have already been engaging with the Upper Rhondda community to explore the projects that actively use our woodlands for the benefit of those they surround, and initiatives such as this help give local people an idea of what can be achieved.”
Council sets out plan to leave Civic Centre
Saul Cooke-Black, local democracy reporter
Blaenau Gwent council has set out plans to vacate and demolish the Civic Centre in Ebbw Vale as part of new working arrangements.
A report going before full council this week sets out a new operating model and working arrangements proposed by the council.
Under the plans, the council will permanently vacate the civic centre, create a new ‘democratic hub’ at the General Offices in Ebbw Vale, and a network of community hubs co-located within libraries.
New arrangements will enable staff to work either at home, in council buildings or in the service or community.
A report says the plans have been drawn up following the changes to working practices caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in staff working from home.
A survey of staff showed support to continue working in a more flexible way, finding this had increased productivity and reduced absence due to sickness.
“The realisation that we can run our business and deliver services in a very different way, be more in line with modern working practices and reduce our costs and impact on the environment has opened up new opportunities for us to make a step change now and not to simply return to how we operated before,” a council report says.
The report says the changes would also be in line with Welsh Government ambitions for 30 per cent of the workforce to work from home or remotely in the future.
“The council has an opportunity, now, to be at the forefront of delivering this national ambition by making a step change in how we work, how we deliver services and to improve access to council businesses and services for our residents,” it adds.
The new democratic hub would be located on the first floor of the General Offices in Steelworks Road, with a similar level of office and meeting space for councillors and officers as at the Civic Centre.
It would offer improved arrangements for holding blended meetings and public access, the report says.
The hubs would be located in the main libraries at Abertillery, Brynmawr, Ebbw Vale and Tredegar, providing a range of services including benefits, council tax and community services for residents.
The new proposed working arrangements could bring savings of £1.46-million over a five-year period.
Funding of £180,000 has been agreed to cover the costs of work at the General Offices and to create community hubs.
A further £650,000 has been set aside for the demolition of the Civic Centre, which is expected to be covered by the subsequent sale of the land.
A decision on approving the new model will be made at a full council meeting on Thursday.