Health Minister Vaughan Gething has rounded on the British Medical Association Wales after it questioned the safety of extending the gap between administering doses of Covid vaccine from three weeks to three months.
There has been growing opposition within the medical community to the change, which was announced by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation last month, but the minister defended the move, saying there is a “very clear public health rationale” behind the strategy.
The JCVI backed the delay, predicting that more lives will be saved by extending the gap before the second dose of both the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, enabling more people to get a first dose rather than giving a smaller number of people both.
But BMA Cymru says the delay is “entirely unacceptable and potentially dangerous” and should be halved to six weeks.
Mr Gething described its concerns as an “extraordinary position” for the professional body for doctors and medical students in Wales to take.
“The outstanding advice is from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, otherwise known as the JCVI.
“It is an independent expert group that advises all four governments, and in all my time as a health minister I’ve never gone outside one of their independent expert recommendations,” Mr Gething said.
“It’s normally the case that the BMA would say that the health minister should follow that advice of the JCVI and should follow the public health advice of our chief medical officer.
“We’re now in a pretty extraordinary position where there’s an active campaign to turn over the JCVI advice on vaccination and to turn over the advice of the chief medical officer and Public Health Wales.
“There’s a very clear public health rationale for protecting as many people as quickly as possible, including BMA members, but also people across the country. So, I’m not going to change the position because the evidence doesn’t support a change.”
International organisations such as the Centre for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) in the US and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) have advised against the changes to vaccination schedules in the UK.
Last week an article in the British Medical Journal described the current vaccine strategy in the UK as “a non-randomised, uncontrolled population experimental study without pilot data ” and called on the JCVI to “revisit and, if necessary, reverse their decisions based on emerging scientific evidence”, citing a recent study in Israel that found protection from a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine was lower than anticipated.
Covid death toll in Wales passes grim milestone
Deaths due to Covid-19 accounted for nearly 40% of all registered deaths in Wales over the second week in January, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The number of registered deaths involving Covid increased from 454 the previous week to 467, the highest recorded at any point during the pandemic.
Overall, the total number of registered deaths for the week was 314 higher than the five-year average as the number of total deaths from all causes exceeded the first wave peak of 1,169 in the week ending 17 April 2020, for two weeks in a row.
The number of deaths over the week decreased from 1,198 in the week ending 8 January, which was the highest recorded during the pandemic, to 1,170, which was 314 deaths (36.7%) higher than the five-year average for the week.
Including deaths that occurred up to 15 January but were registered up to 23 January the ONS calculates there have been 6,074 deaths in Wales involving the virus since the start of the pandemic.
Deaths counted by the ONS are when Covid-19 is mentioned by doctors on the death certificate and which occur in all settings – including hospitals, care homes, hospices and people’s homes.
The daily figures release by Public Health Wales only include the deaths of a hospital patients or care home resident where COVID-19 has been confirmed with a positive laboratory test and the clinician suspects this was a causative factor in the death.
According to PHW’s latest figures there have been 4,561 deaths due to the virus since March last year, including eight newly reported deaths since yesterday.
In the last 24 hours another 570 people have tested positive for coronavirus. Cardiff (67) reported most new cases, followed by Wrexham (54) and Flintshire (52).
Wrexham has the highest weekly case rate at 539.1 per 100,000 people, over twice the national average of 218.6.
£25m boost for NHS digital services
The Welsh Government is to make an additional £25m investment to the NHS to help continue the expansion of more digital services.
The funding boost is part of the draft Budget for 2021-22 and is supporting the response to the coronavirus pandemic, including contact tracing and the vaccination programme, as well as the rollout of new video consultations and remote working in the NHS.
The extra £25m will speed-up the use of digital ways of working and help the NHS and social services adopt new technologies to improve services.
It will also support the transformation of digital systems in hospitals, the ambulance service and social care sector and enable continued targeted funding for vital services, such as intensive care, cancer, and eye care.
Announcing the new funding, Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething said:
“Stepping up our digital investment at this pace and scale alongside our response to the pandemic and other pressures has been a challenge but it is a priority.
“The additional funding announced today will help us to invest in mobile devices, remote working and video consultation, and accelerate other strategic transformation projects.
“Remote working and video consultation technology have enabled NHS services to continue throughout the pandemic, reducing the need for face-to-face contact.
“As we continue to face the challenges of this evolving pandemic the Welsh Government will be working closely with digital leaders across NHS Wales to identify existing programmes that can be accelerated thanks to these additional funds.”
Cardiff council denies it’s not doing enough to keep workers safe from Covid
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
Cardiff council has denied claims not enough measures are being taken to keep council workers safe from coronavirus.
A council worker in Cardiff, who asked to remain anonymous, has claimed they were “stonewalled” when asking for a risk assessment.
The Welsh Government recently announced employers must strengthen their safety measures in workplaces to reduce the spread of Covid-19, including carrying out specific coronavirus risk assessments.
Responding to the claims, Cardiff council said employees’ safety was taken seriously, and information on how to work safely was shared with all employees. Trade unions representing council workers also denied the claims.
The anonymous council worker alleged that they had not seen a coronavirus risk assessment, despite repeatedly asking management for one.
The same worker also claimed vaccines were used as an incentive for staff to work overtime and given to supervisors working from home. The council refuted these allegations last week.
The worker said: “The Welsh Government announced that workplaces are required to update Covid risk assessments in workplaces. This definitely is not happening, even in Cardiff council where I work.
“Quite a few of us are worried about our health. It doesn’t seem like the council is taking it seriously. It makes you a bit fearful. These risk assessments just don’t seem to exist.
“It feels inevitable we’re going to catch Covid at work because not enough is being done.”
In response, a council spokesperson said: “We implement Welsh Government and Public Health Wales guidance which includes engaging and communicating with our employees.
“As we don’t know which area this employee is referring to, we can’t directly answer the claims about their risk assessment not being made available to them — although we do find this allegation surprising. If they have concerns we would ask them to raise them with HR or their union who will look into the matter.
“We take the safety of our employees very seriously and have introduced a wide range of measures to ensure their safety during the pandemic.
“Staff who can’t work from home have clear guidelines to follow on how best to decrease the chance of infection spreading in the workplace and that guidance requires all service areas to undertake a Covid risk assessment. Information on how to work in a safe setting and in a safe way is shared with all employees.”
An example the anonymous worker gave that caused their concerns was the sharing of vehicles and mixing of teams. They claimed different staff members mix teams frequently and share vehicles often.
They said: “You’re expected to share a work vehicle with someone else, as though Covid doesn’t spread in workplaces.
“There’s no need for two people to be in a vehicle. But I suppose more vehicles would cost them more money.
“Is it more important to have a job or more important to not catch Covid? It’s a difficult balancing act.”
The council said there was “very specific guidance” for staff who work in vehicles, and plans are ready in case of outbreaks.
The spokesperson said: “There is very specific guidance for staff who work in vehicles and managers are reminded of their duty of care to their employees at all times.
“Covid-19 and the new variant is extremely infectious and staff could catch Covid at any point living their daily life, but we have plans in place to manage outbreaks and to advise staff on how best to protect themselves and their loved ones.
“We don’t know the specifics of where this employee works so we can’t answer this directly, but where PPE is a requirement the council ensures that all officers have the correct equipment to carry out their work as safely as possible, this includes guidance and PPE when sharing vehicles.
“If more than one council officer has to work from a vehicle at the same time as another officer we try to ensure that the same operators always work together, reducing the risk of infection spread among the department if someone was to catch Covid. We also give staff the opportunity to use their own vehicle where possible and offer paid mileage for the expense.”
Two trade unions representing Cardiff council workers also denied the claims of a lack of coronavirus risk assessments.
GMB and Unison representatives at the council issued a joint statement, saying: “GMB and Unison would urge any member who has concerns to raise them with their line manager or union. Health and safety meetings are held every week where members’ concerns are brought forward and addressed.
“Both GMB and Unison are working well with the council’s health and safety teams and there is a very clear focus on keeping all our staff safe. Health and safety is paramount and all risk assessments are available to any staff member.
“We are disappointed to hear that someone still has some concerns and would urge them to contact their trade union immediately to discuss them.”