First Minister Mark Drakeford has confirmed that over 600 people in Wales have tested positive for the new aggressive variant of COVID-19 but warned the true number of infections is likely to be much higher.
On Saturday new restrictions were announced in Wales and across the rest of the UK due to the rapid spread of the new strain, which was first detected in the southeast of England in September.
The variant is believed to be to 70% more transmissible than the original virus and scientists have predicted it could increase the R number, which indicates if an epidemic is growing or shrinking – by up to 0.4.
Mr Drakeford told Monday’s press briefing: “The figures we have at the moment that we know of are over 600 cases of the new variant in Wales, but that is almost certainly, as our public health colleagues tell us, a significant underestimation.”
As “only a proportion” of the Welsh tests go to the two Lighthouse labs currently able to detect the new variant “we expect those numbers to be well below the numbers that are actually in circulation”, he added.
Mr Drakeford also revealed he had also asked for updated modelling, so ministers had a sense of “where this new variant might take us”.
Confirming the spread of the new strain across Wales, Chief Medical Officer Dr Frank Atherson said the new variant “is of increasing importance in the pandemic.”
“Whilst there have been several variants of SARS-Cov-2, there is rapidly emerging evidence that the N501Y viral variant is of increasing importance in the pandemic and appears to be significantly more transmissible than the wild type virus.
“Analysis shows that the new variant is spreading across the UK and hospital admissions have increased markedly in areas with higher levels of the variant in recent weeks, despite the existence of level 3 restrictions in the community,” he added.
“Although a small sample size, an ONS study has shown that a significant proportion of COVD-19 infections is Wales are due to the new variant. It is unlikely to be lower than 11% of new infections and could be as high as 60%.
“Some areas could have higher levels than others, but the limited data suggest the variant is present in different parts of Wales, including the North.”
Over the last seven days there have been 19,807 new cases of the virus across Wales and the infection rate has climbed to 628.2 per 100,000 people from 587.2 over the weekend.
Between 23 and 29 November the case rate was just 231.6 across the country.
A further 10 people have died due to coronavirus and 2,563 new cases of the virus have been reported in today’s update from Public Health Wales.
Aneurin Bevan and Hywel Dda health board areas registered three deaths and there were also two further deaths in Cwm Taf Morgannwg. Betsi Cadwaladr and Cardiff and Vale both registered one new death.
Cardiff (301) had the highest number of new cases, followed by Swansea (265) and Bridgend (254).
Merthyr Tydfil continues to have the highest case rate in Wales at 1,269.8 per 100,000 people but both Bridgend and Blaenau Gwent also have case rates of over 1,000.
Neath Port Talbot has the highest weekly positive test proportion in Wales at 31.8% per 100,000 tests.
NHS staff in Wales ‘stretched to the limit’ by Covid surge
First Minister Mark Drakeford says the NHS in Wales is under severe pressure due to the acceleration of COVID-19 cases across the country.
Speaking at today’s government press briefing, he said: “A month ago, there were just under 1,700 people with coronavirus symptoms in our hospitals; today there are more than 2,300 and rising.
“Our critical care units are operating far beyond their normal capacity and our NHS staff are stretched to their limit.
“And, very sadly, over this weekend alone, Public Health Wales reported more than 100 deaths.
“That’s 100 families mourning the loss of a loved one this Christmas. My thoughts are with them all.
“Unless we can regain some control of the spread of coronavirus, I am sorry to say we will see more deaths.
“If we continue to see cases rise unchecked – fuelled by this new, highly infectious strain of the virus – the effect on our NHS will be profound.”
Draft budget focuses on schools, social care and local services
Finance Minister Rebecca Evans has unveiled a draft Welsh Budget with plans to invest an extra £420 million in health and social services.
In the first budget since the pandemic, the package allocates an extra £176 million for local government to support schools, social care and local services that have been at the frontline of the response to the pandemic.
Investment in affordable and social housing will grow to £200 million next year, providing 3,500 additional new homes and the government’s strategy to address homelessness will be boosted by an extra £40 million for the Housing Support Grant.
Social housing investment will be supported by a 1% increase in the higher residential rates of Land Transaction Tax from the purchase of additional properties, such as second homes and buy to let investments.
A targeted tax reduction will also help businesses recovering from the worst of the pandemic. Most businesses purchasing non-residential properties costing less than £225,000 won’t pay any Land Transaction Tax, as the threshold is raised by 50%.
Together these changes will generate around £13 million per annum for investment in social housing priorities.
Finance Minister Rebecca Evans said: “As we plan for our first steps beyond the pandemic, this budget is designed to protect health and our economy, build a greener future and create change for a more prosperous, more equal, and a greener Wales.
“Despite the most challenging circumstances we have ever faced as a government, I am proud to announce a budget that delivers on our values and provides sound foundations for the next administration.
“While like for like funding per person in Wales remains below 2010 levels, our priorities will steer a course for stability, protecting what matters most and creating the change that is essential to a good recovery.”
Responding to the draft budget, Welsh Conservative Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay MS, said it was “a missed opportunity to build back better” and “failed to deliver a recovery plan for Wales.”
Mr Ramsay said: “This budget is clearly a missed opportunity to build back better and represents more of the same from this tired Welsh Labour Government.
“The Welsh Government had an opportunity today but has failed to deliver a recovery plan for Wales.
“Instead of promoting aspiration and opportunity, they want to go back to taxing homeowners when they buy a house worth between £180,000 and £250,000.
“And instead of supporting our young people by giving them the funding they need, the Welsh Government is spending £8.3 million on curriculum reform in Wales, and not delivering the basics to improve our education rankings on the UK and international stage.”