News in brief: New Covid strain behind spike in Gwynedd infections
Gareth Williams, local democracy reporter
The newer mutant strain of Covid-19 is largely behind a sharp rise in the number of cases in north west Wales, council bosses have warned.
With 255 new cases of COVID-19 being reported in Gwynedd between January 8 and 14, this represents a substantial jump from the 164 recorded over the seven previous days (January 1-7).
In line with patterns already seen in the north east of Wales, they say that the majority of these cases are down to the new and more transmissible strain of the virus.
This mutant strain was first identified in December and is thought to be 70% more transmissible, with children far more likely to catch and spread it than was the case with the previous wave.
The warning follows a separate appeal by Anglesey Council on children to avoid mixing with other children outside their household or support bubble, following a rise in positive cases amongst youngsters on the island – also blamed on the newer strain.
Dafydd Williams, Gwynedd Council’s Head of Environment and Chair of the Gwynedd Prevention and Surveillance Group, said “Cases in nearby parts of Wales are at an all-time high, with hospital services close to breaking point. We must all act now to prevent Gwynedd communities from being next in line – I’m afraid that this is a matter of life and death.
“The new strain of the virus is far more prevalent in north Wales and testing data suggests it accounts for up to 70% of new cases.
“This variant is far easier to spread to those that we are in close contact with, and we are seeing whole households being infected because it transmits so easily. Remember that some people do have COVID-19 but do not show symptoms.”
Last week, the Welsh Government confirmed that the strain had taken a “firm foothold in north Wales”, having already become the the leading cause of infections in the south.
“We are very concerned there is a risk the NHS could become overwhelmed because so many people are falling ill,” they said in a statement.
“We all need to stay at home again and protect our NHS.”
While Anglesey’s overall number of cases fell slightly compared to the previous week, 32 children tested positive between January 1-17 – more than double the number recorded over the same period in December.
Also blamed on the new variant of the virus, this led council bosses to stress how vital it was that youngsters do not mix outside their home or bubble.
Mr Williams, the chair of Gwynedd’s Prevention and Surveillance Group, concluded: “We can all be proud of the way that most people in Gwynedd have followed the rules throughout the pandemic. By doing so, they have helped to ensure that most people in this area have stayed healthy.
“We have now started the work of vaccinating local people, and this process is gathering pace. Given the sacrifices that have been made, it would be tragic if we lost control of the situation at this stage when there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“Statistics show that people believe that they are most likely to catch Coronavirus from a stranger. In fact, we are far more likely to catch the virus by bending or breaking the rules with people we know, such as meeting-up with friends or family from outside our households.
“The best way we can break the chain of death and illness is to act as if we and those around us have the virus – stay at home, keep at least 2 metres apart at all times if you have to leave the house, wash or sanitise your hands regularly, and wear a good quality face covering. It is also important to note that those who have had the COVID-19 vaccination still need to take these steps.
“If we all play our part now to protect our NHS, we can then rely on it to be there for us if and when we need it.”
Meanwhile, a further eight people have died with coronavirus and 1,106 new cases of the virus have been confirmed in today’s update from Public Health Wales.
There were three newly reported deaths in Cwm Taf Morgannwg and Swansea Bay health boards areas, and two in Aneurin Bevan.
The highest number of new cases since yesterday’s report was in Cardiff (118) followed by Flintshire (113) and Wrexham (104).
Wrexham still has the highest weekly test rate in Wales at 698 per 100,000 people, down from 792.2 yesterday but overall case rates across the country have dropped to 295, the lowest since the first week of December, and the positive test proportion has declined to 17% per 100,000 for the last seven days, the lowest since the final week of November.
The number of people to have received their first jab of the vaccine in Wales now stands at 161,932, up just over ten thousand since yesterday.
Welsh Government endorses transport commission report
The Welsh Government has endorsed the recommendations of the South East Wales Transport Commission report that was published in November and called for greater investment in public transport to ease M4 congestion.
In a line-by-line response to the report, the government accepted in principle all of the recommendations and has established a dedicated “development unit” in Transport for Wales to provide ongoing advice on the recommendations and develop a delivery programme.
Proposals in the report included improving rail provision between Cardiff, Newport and Bristol by upgrading the existing four tracks of the South Wales Main Line, so that these tracks can be used by more trains with more flexibility.
It also suggests an “ambitious” rail station building programme, which would add six new rail stations between Cardiff and the River Severn.
To complement existing stations at Cardiff Central, Newport and Severn Tunnel Junction, the proposed new stations would be:
- Newport Road (Cardiff)
- Cardiff Parkway (St Mellons)
- Newport West
- Newport East (Somerton),
- Llanwern and Magor.
The rail backbone would be supported by new rapid bus and cycle corridors across the region, especially within Newport.
Beyond infrastructure, the report recommended:
- New ways to organise transport services, speeding up interchange, coordinating timetables and integrating ticketing
- A new governance model so there is a ‘single guiding mind’ to organise the whole public transport network
- Local authorities consider introducing a workplace parking levy to influence travel choices, once public transport improvements have been made
- A transport-focused approach to planning, ensuring developments are built around the public transport network rather than the motorway
On the Commission’s recommendation to increase the number of train stations and services in the region, Welsh Government has confirmed it will work with partners to increase capacity, reduce journey times and improve network resilience. These partners include Transport for Wales, Network Rail and the UK Government, which remains responsible for rail infrastructure under the current devolution settlement.
A memorandum of understanding has also been signed with Newport City Council to advance bus and active travel measures in the city, supported by Transport for Wales.
Ken Skates, Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, said: “Tackling congestion on the M4 around Newport remains a priority of this Government, whilst also being mindful of the need for decarbonisation, improved air quality, transport equity and a robust response to COVID-19.
“Progress is underway on taking forward many of the suggestions raised by the Commission. It is an ambitious set of recommendations that will lead to significant improvements for the region, and we take them forward with a sense of urgency and the knowledge that action is needed.”
Shadow Minister presses for Rural Crime Taskforce after horrific dog attack
Janet Finch-Saunders, Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Rural Affairs, has reiterated her calls for the founding a National Rural Crime Taskforce for Wales following a serious dog attack on livestock over the weekend.
50 ewes were killed in a horrific attack in North Monmouthshire on Sunday according to Gwent Police, who are currently investigating the matter.
We are investigating the death of 50 ewes in North Monmouthshire, following a livestock worrying incident where the sheep were forced into the corner of a field and died there. This is taken seriously by all #ruralcrimeteams @FarmWatcherUK
Report all livestock attacks on 101 pic.twitter.com/bktm0oyaMV
— Gwent Police | Rural Crime Team (@GPRuralCrime) January 16, 2021
The existing Wales Wildlife and Rural Crime Group does not currently include key stakeholders such as Local Authorities and Town and Community Councils.
A survey conducted by the Countryside Alliance last year found that nearly a quarter of rural crimes were not reported to the Police.
“Following an incredibly concerning and brutal attack on Welsh livestock over the weekend, I have once again called on the Welsh Government to liaise with the law officers in the UK Government with the aim of founding a National Rural Crime Taskforce for Wales.” Mrs Finch-Saunders said.
“This new policing approach should look to involve all stakeholders, such as Town and Community Councils.
“Whilst the sector readily accepts that there is no immediate remedy to prevent these appalling attacks from occurring, a new National Rural Crime Taskforce for Wales will ensure that the solution houses the correct and required mix of education, campaigning and proposed legislative changes.”
“While I pay tribute to the work of the Wales Wildlife and Rural Crime Group, recent livestock worrying has shown that is time for an urgent and significant change. This new taskforce would also ensure that authorities better reflect rural Welsh communities, so as to increase confidence in efforts to confront rural crime.”
Car manufacturer defends scrapping plans for Bridgend plant.
The car company owned by Brexit-backing billionaire Jim Ratcliffe has defended its decision to scrap plans to build cars in Wales and buy a factory in France, and denied Brexit played a part the switch.
Economy Minister Ken Skates accused the company of reneging “on its very public commitment” when plans to build the Ineos 4×4 Grenadier in Bridgend were suspended last year.
The firm had previously said it expected to create 200 jobs at the Bridgend factory initially and 500 in the long term.
After Ineos announced the acquisition of the Hambach site in Moselle from Mercedes-Benz last month, the leader of the UK Labour Party Keir Starmer blamed the lack of a Brexit deal for the switch.
Ineos director Tom Crotty told BBC 5 live claims the decision was due to Brexit were “absolute nonsense” and said “It’s a very simple business decision.
“The reality was a better opportunity arose outside the UK. But let’s be quite clear – we would have employed 200 people in Wales, we currently employ 6,500 people in the UK on our chemical plants,” Mr Crotty added.
“We are producing huge numbers of high-quality jobs. And that’s the direction forward for UK manufacturing.”