News in brief: Officials warn of pressure on the NHS despite decline in Covid cases

Picture by DFID – UK Department for International Development. (CC BY 2.0)

Dr Giri Shankar, Incident Director for the Covid-19) outbreak response at Public Health Wales, has welcomed the recent decline in the number of new Covid cases across the country but warned pressure on NHS services remains high and people must remain vigilant.

At today’s government press briefing, the Chief Executive of NHS Wales, Dr Andrew Goodall confirmed there are currently around 2,200 Covid-related patients in Welsh hospitals, around 25% lower than the peak last month but there are still nearly 50% more patients with coronavirus in hospital beds than at the peak of the first wave in April.

There are also 84 people with coronavirus in critical care units, nearly 25% lower than last week, but representing the equivalent of 116% occupancy.

Wrexham (217.7) and Flintshire (203.7), both in the Betsi Cadwaladr health board area, have the highest number of cases per 100,000 in Wales and are the only local authorities in Wales registering over 200 per week.

Wrexham also has the highest proportion of positive test per week at 14.3% per 100,000. Flintshire is second highest with 14.4%.

The overall case rate in Wales over the last seven days is 111.4, down from 116.4 yesterday and the positive test rate is 9.3%, down from 9.8% yesterday.

“Although the data currently shows that on an all-Wales level the numbers of cases are reducing and that the incidence is now below 120 cases per 100,000 population, the rates in some areas – particularly in North Wales – are still at nearly double that, and there have been small increases in others, Dr Shankar said.

‘Pressure’

“It is encouraging to see that the numbers of people being treated for Coronavirus in our hospitals is reducing, there are still a large number of people who are extremely ill, which means that the pressure on services is still very high.

“All of Wales remains in lockdown.  We recognise that complying with the restrictions can be challenging, but Coronavirus is still active in our communities and can cause severe illness and death.  The reduction in the number of cases does not mean that people can meet people from other households (apart from one person for socially distanced exercise), as this can cause the virus to spread.

“As a nation, we have made so many sacrifices throughout the course of the pandemic that we really don’t want to squander the gains that have been made in recent weeks.”

A further 21 people have died due to Covid-19 and 323 new cases have been confirmed in the last 24 hours, according to the latest figures from PHW.

Of the newly reported deaths, seven were in Betsi Cadwaladr health board. Cardiff and Vale and Hywel Dda both recorded five and there were also two new deaths in Cwm Taf Morgannwg and one each in both Powys and Swansea Bay health boards.

Flintshire had the highest number of new cases in Wales, with 32 since yesterday’s update. Cardiff recorded 30 infections and there were 27 in Caerphilly.

Since the start of the vaccination programme in December, 655,419 people have now received their first vaccine. Over 26,000 people were given a first dose yesterday.

Second doses have now been given to 3,687 people.

An empty theatre

Further £8.9m to support creative-sector freelancers announced

Freelancers working in Wales’ creative sectors will receive a further round of support worth £8.9m.

The new round from the Cultural Recovery Fund will mean freelancers already supported through previous rounds will receive an additional £2,500 to help them through this extended period of reduced activity due to the pandemic.

The Freelancers Fund has already helped almost 3,500 freelancers in Wales over three phases of support.

People who have previous qualified for support will receive a self-declaration letter, which they will need to respond to for the funding to be released. The fund will not be open to new applications but anyone who missed out on the funding originally can apply for the Local Discretionary Grant. More details are available on the Business Wales website.

Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism Lord Elis-Thomas said: “The freelance sector plays a pivotal part in the Welsh economy and I am delighted we are able to provide additional support, which acknowledges the important contribution freelancers make to Welsh cultural life.

“The pandemic continues to present challenges for cultural and creative freelancers throughout Wales. We applaud their resilience and creativity during this period.

“We know we will need their professionalism, experience, enthusiasm and vison of to help us come together and rebuild after the public health crisis has abated.”

South Wales Police. Picture by the Welsh Government.

5.5% increase in South Wales Police precept agreed

Anthony Lewis, local democracy reporter

A 5.5% increase in the South Wales Police precept has been agreed with concerns raised about the burden being placed on local council tax payers.

The South Wales Police and Crime Panel voted in favour of the proposed increase by nine votes to three at its meeting on Wednesday, February 3.

The proposals will see an increase of £1.25 a month in the police precept for Band D properties, an 83p increase for Band A and a 97p increase for Band B.

The base precept income will be worth £135.9m and base funding for next year stands at £320.4m with £327.9m needed to balance the books, so there is a £7.5m budget gap which would have been closer to £12m without the pay freeze from UK Government, according to the force’s finance officer.

The report that went before the panel highlights that a majority of council tax payers in most of the force’s local authority areas will pay much less than this, such as 87% of households in Merthyr Tydfil which will pay less than this.

It also said that 68% of the residents in the South Wales Police area are below Band D and the majority would pay between 19 pence and 26 pence extra per week, excluding receipt of any council tax discounts or benefits.

It added that South Wales Police will continue to have below average cost for policing in Wales in terms of Band D property and is mid table in terms of percentage of precept to budget, across England and Wales.

The report also said that the Home Office has given “flexibility” to police and crime commissioners in England to increase the precept by £15 for a Band D property, without the need for a local referendum.

The total police precept on council tax in 2021/2022 for South Wales Police will be worth £144.2m

During the budget presentation, Umar Hussain, the force’s director of finance, said they had received a cash flat core grant from UK Government of £161m

He said the police uplift programme for additional officers and staff of £22.7m was also funded and it won’t have a negative impact on the current year’s precept.

On the apprenticeship levy and training, Mr Hussain said they are still waiting to hear about how the costs of this will be funded but they’ve assumed they will receive around £1m in reimbursement.

He also mentioned that there are unavoidable pay and price cost pressures and unavoidable technology renewals and capital funding with the capital grant having been reduced by 90% with it being around £3.1m pre austerity but it will now be around £300,000.

Mr Hussain mentioned the £58m of cuts that South Wales Police had made since 2010 and he said despite Covid and the challenges they’ve had this year they are forecasting a break even position at this stage.

The cuts that make up that £58m made since 2010 have included reducing the number of contact centres from seven to one, reducing the number of custody units from 16 to four, reducing the number of basic command units from eight to three, created a leaner back office, cut the number of staff by more than 1000, reduced its estate by 33% and reduced its fleet by 20%.

He also highlighted that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, the auditor general and head of internal audit have given the force positive judgements in terms of value for money.

South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Alun Michael said: “I don’t think that it’s right to be shifting the burden of policing from central taxation, the income tax funds that go to central government, on to local council tax.

He later added: “I would have preferred the police grant to increase to reflect the increase in costs that we face rather than for us to have to meet some of those costs out of the police precept from our local authorities.

“There is a shift that has happened over the last few years between a burden on central taxpayers and a burden on local taxpayers. I don’t agree with that.”

Councillor Sherelle Jago of Merthyr Tydfil voted against the proposals because a significant number of the population are on reduced wages because of furlough and added there is a high risk of redundancies when furlough ends.

She said: “I don’t think we are in a position where we can share the financial burden with members of the public this year because so many families are struggling so very much due to Covid.”

In voting for the proposals, Councillor Bernie Bowen-Thomson of Cardiff said she supported the increase although it is a difficult decision to make given the current economic climate but said they need to maintain the officers.

Councillor Ben Gray of the Vale of Glamorgan also supported it and said: “Like many I’m disappointed that central government grants remain flat and that this measure is necessary.”

He said it’s “unacceptable” that central government is telling local council tax payers that this is how they are going to fund the police service.

Councillor Richard Young of Bridgend who chairs the panel said he is going to reluctantly vote for the recommendation.

He said: “We are seeing a change from central government in attitude towards police financing.

“Last year we saw the abdication of their responsibilities as far as I was concerned in moving the tax burden on to the council population but I think this year we’ve seen a move to central control where police forces are being told that the recommendation from central government is going to be £15 on a Band D council tax but you can have lower if you wish.

“Now I’m afraid under those circumstances I find that the commissioner’s hands are tied.”

He also mentioned how Cardiff had yet again not received the extra capital city funding.

Roadworks. Photo by William Buist on Unsplash

A5 River Ceiriog Viaduct essential work to begin

Essential work is to take place on the A5 River Ceiriog Viaduct to replace the major bridge deck movement joint.

The works, which are being carried out in consultation with Highways England, will begin on 22 February and are programmed to take eight days.

Built in 1990, the viaduct spans 500m from the northern side of the Ceiriog Valley in Wales to its southern side in England. After 30 years, the large expansion joint at the southern end of the viaduct is reaching the end of its operational life and must be replaced.

The works will include the demolition and re-construction of the reinforced concrete viaduct where it joins its support on the southern side of the Ceiriog Valley. Planned routine maintenance and bridge investigation works will also take place to make the most of the closure. Highways England will also carry out work on their section of the road between the southern end of the viaduct and the Gledrid roundabout.

The A5 will be closed over a length of 3.6km between the Halton and Gledrid roundabouts for the duration of the work, with traffic diverted through the town of Chirk along the B5070.

Temporary traffic lights will be installed on the B5070 Chirk Road bridge over the River Ceiriog. The bridge must be restricted to single lane working for the duration of the works to ensure that the bridge can carry heavier vehicles without being over-loaded.

To minimise disruption the work will be carried out 24 hours a day at a time of year when traffic flows are historically lower. The work site is small enough to be protected against the worst of the winter weather, reducing the risk of adverse weather delaying the completion of the project.

Road users can find out the latest traffic information and project updates on the Traffic Wales website or Twitter channels: Traffic Wales North & Mid and Traffic Wales South.

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