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News in brief: Pressure builds on private testing companies condemned by Welsh Government

11 Aug 2021 8 minute read
Photo by HM Treasury and licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

UK Government ministers are being urged to intervene following mounting criticism of the quality of service provided by some private companies offering PCR Covid tests and listed on the UK’s test booking portal.

Last month visitors to Wales from abroad were told they must book their mandatory PCR Covid tests via the NHS due to concerns about companies listed on the portal.

The government has also been accused of profiting from the private testing scheme by charging 20% VAT for tests which cost a minimum of £50.

Although the listed sites are not endorsed or recommend by the UK government, these providers often offer PCR testing at cheaper prices than the NHS and Eluned Morgan, Minister for Health and Social Services, says users reported issues, “including booked tests not being delivered and people not being notified of results.”

The consumers’ association Which has also reported problems with misleading prices, results not being delivered on time and people being unable to book tests altogether.

‘Not working’

“The system isn’t set up for large numbers, and now many people are travelling the system is not working properly,” Rory Boland, travel editor at Which? told The Guardian.

“The government might now say it is looking into the prices of tests, but it’s very late in the day and these problems were foreseeable.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are clear that all private providers must meet a set of required standards, and each provider is held to account, with companies that fail to meet high standards being removed from the list of approved suppliers.

“The health and social care secretary has requested advice from the CMA (Competitions and Market Authority) to stamp out any exploitative behaviour or poor provision in this market. We are also working with the travel industry and private testing providers to further reduce testing costs.”

In the statement issued by the Welsh Government highlighting problems with private tests, Eluned Morgan said, “Protecting public health remains our main priority.

“We are working with the UK Government to seek assurance that only those companies who reach specified key performance indicators will be allowed to provide tests,” she added.

“When we are assured the right systems are in place to protect the Welsh public, we will review the position so that people could access tests from private companies.”

Under current Covid restrictions, travellers must book and pay for mandatory PCR tests to be taken following their arrival to Wales.

All travellers returning from green- and amber-list countries must take a test before they depart for the UK, and a further PCR test on their second day after arriving home.

Those who have not been fully vaccinated must also self-isolate and take a test on day eight if they visited an amber-list country.

The price for NHS tests is the same across the UK and is set by the UK Government. NHS tests are processed through the UK Lighthouse Laboratory network, which means positive cases can be linked directly to the Welsh Test, Trace, Protect system.

Paul Davies. Picture by the National Assembly (CC. 2.0)

Calls for government response following development bank’s record loss

The Welsh Conservatives are calling for a statement from Economy Minister Vaughan Gething after the Development Bank of Wales posted a record investment loss.

The bank invested £3.25 million in battery technology firm Oxis Energy three years ago but in May the company announced it could not “raise the investment required to continue its product development” and was placed into administration.

Following the collapse of the company, a spokesman for the bank said: “As a minority shareholder the development bank does not expect to realise any return from this process.”

“Investing in new and innovative technologies in parts of Wales that require rejuvenation is exactly what the Development Bank is meant to do. However, as a guardian of taxpayers’ money, there is a duty on the Bank to ensure that funds are spent wisely and productively,” Shadow Economy Minister Paul Davies MS, said.

“On the, hopefully rare, occasions where investments fail, it’s vital the Bank makes efforts to recoup as much of its cash as possible. Therefore, it is disappointing that the Bank admits it does not expect to realise any return from the process.

“I believe it is only right that Labour’s Economy Minister delivers a statement as soon as possible explaining how the firm’s collapse came about, why no money can be recovered, and what lessons have been learnt for future investments.”

Energy Park
The site where the power bank will be built.

Norwegian energy company get approval for energy park plans

Richard Youle, local democracy reporter

An energy storage facility to help the power grid deal with increasing amounts of renewable electricity is to be built in Swansea.

Norwegian Government-owned Statkraft UK expects to start work in 2023 and take around nine months to complete the project, which will be operated remotely once up and running.

It describes the facility as a greener grid park, comprising batteries, inverters and other equipment within a 109m by 100m compound.

Guy Nicholson, head of grid integration at Statkraft UK, told Swansea Council’s planning committee that integrating larger quantities of renewable electricity  into the power network was a challenge.

Greener grid parks like the one for Swansea would, he said, help enable a “greater and faster decarbonisation of our energy supplies”.

He said Statkraft UK had won four contracts from the National Grid to help stabilise the electricity network, without burning fossil fuels. It is building a grid park in Scotland which is due to become operational this autumn.

Mr Nicholson said the Swansea site, off the B4489 near Felindre, was particularly suitable as four electricity power lines converged there.

Planning agent Naomi Heikalo, speaking on behalf of applicant, said the project would incorporate new areas of native woodland, grassland and hedges, and that it would not have any unacceptable effects on the environment or residential amenity.

Adjacent to the site is an existing National Grid substation and gas compressor station. A gas-fired power station also has planning consent just to the east, and Mr Nicholson said Statkraft UK was committed to working with the power station developers.

Planning committee members asked how long it would take to build the grid park, what would happen to a public right of way which crossed the proposed access, and how many jobs the scheme would bring to the area.

A planning officer said the construction period was around 43 weeks, and that the applicant would have to install a permanent right of way crossing at the access point.

The officer added that 77 full-time equivalent jobs were expected to be created during the peak of construction, but that the facility would be operated remotely by 11 full-time equivalent staff.

Speaking after the committee meeting, Lucy Kent, Statkraft UK’s development project manager for the project, said it was delighted with the planning approval.

She said: “The project will help to stabilise the electricity grid which will in turn allow a wealth of renewable energy to be utilised, and ultimately save consumers money.

“This consent is a great milestone for the project as well as Swansea Council’s commitment to securing a low carbon economy and to the UK’s zero carbon target, but there is more to do before we can start construction, which we anticipate would be some time in 2023.”

Babs’ at Pendine Museum of Speed. Photo by Reading Tom, licensed under CC BY 2.0

New funding round for museums, archives and libraries opens

The government is inviting expressions of interest for its next round of funding from the Capital Grant Programme for museums, archives and libraries.

Following the last round of funding, eight museums and libraries across Wales, including Treorchy Library, the Rhayader museum and gallery and the Pendine museum of land speed, benefited from £1.1 million of grants.

“The Welsh Government remains committed to supporting these important services, which will be so important in helping Wales to recover from the impact of the pandemic,” Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport, Dawn Bowden, said.

“The Capital Transformation Fund helps to widen access for our communities, promoting cultural engagement, providing learning opportunities and supporting community cohesion and prosperity, which is needed now more than ever.”

Information about the grant scheme, which covers 2022-2023, is available here and expressions of interest must be submitted by midday on 13 September.

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