News in brief: Union calls for census postponement over safety concerns

The rehearsal census form sent to some households in Wales

The UK’s biggest civil service union has called for the 2021 census to be postponed because of safety concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic and problems over an £45m outsourced contract to recruit thousands of field staff across England and Wales.

The census, which is due to be carried out on 21 March, is conducted in Wales and England by the Office for National Statistics, which says postponing the survey could cost an estimated £360m.

The agency also claims the impacts of coronavirus and Brexit mean it is more important than ever to conduct the census as planned.

National Records of Scotland announced last year that it was postponing the census in Scotland until 2022 due to the pandemic.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency intends to carry out the census there on 21 March.

The ONS is hoping that at least 75% of household will complete the survey online but has also recruited thousands of fieldworkers, who will visit homes across Wales to remind people to complete the survey. The fieldworkers will be tested for Covid-19 twice a week to ensure they don’t have the virus and will also be issued with PPE.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents hundreds of ONS employees, says the pandemic makes it unsafe to conduct the survey and urged the ONS to follow Scotland’s example by delaying the census by a year.

The PCS also called on ministers to remove private firms from involvement after issues arose over the recruitment of census staff by the Swiss company Adecco, who were given the contract to recruit up to 30,000 field workers by the UK Government.

‘Irresponsible’

A PCS spokesman said: “It is deeply irresponsible to recruit 30,000 people for door-to-door questioning of the public, when there are new, highly infectious variants of the virus emerging.”

“We have raised serious concerns over safety around the upcoming ONS census and taking into account Scotland has postponed its census, England and Wales must follow suit.”

“Ministers must also remove Adecco from any rescheduled census work next year as private contractors have no place delivering public services which can be done in-house.”

In a written statement, Rebecca Evans MS, Minister for Finance and Trefnydd  said: “The Welsh Government is working with the ONS to ensure the safety of the public and field staff during the 2021 Census, so that everyone can be safely counted.

“The ONS is continuing to monitor the pandemic and adjust their plans in line with the latest Welsh Government and UK Government guidelines.

“Data from the 2011 Census has played an essential role in understanding how the coronavirus pandemic has affected people in different ways.

“It is vital that we have fresh, granular information to improve our understanding of the pandemic. It will also help to make sure that the services that everyone uses meet the needs of our changing society.”

Full censuses have taken place across the UK every ten years since 1801. The most recent took place in 2011.

Coronavirus cases in Wales

Covid case rates in Wales drop the levels last seen in September

The number of new cases of Covid-19 is the lowest since September last year, according to the latest figures from Public Health Wales.

Over the last seven days 98.7 people per 100,000 of the population have tested positive for the virus, the lowest number recorded since the week ending 27 September.

During the winter peak, in the run up to Christmas, the nationwide case rate was over 600 per 100,000 people.

The positive test proportion is also continuing to drop since the peak in December when over 25% of 100,000 tests were returning positive results. The weekly rate currently stands at 8.5%, the lowest since the first week in October.

Wrexham remains the local authority with the highest case rate in Wales at 186.1 but overall, 13 of 22 local authorities are now reporting case rates under 100 per 100,000 people.

Since yesterday’s update from PHW there have been 22 further deaths and 400 new cases of the virus.

Of the new deaths, six were in the Cardiff and Vale health board area. Swansea Bay health board recorded five and there were four in Hywel Dda. Three deaths were reported in both Betsi Cadwaladr and Cwm Taf Morgannwg and Aneurin Bevan reported one.

Cardiff (56) recorded the highest number of new cases in the 24 hour period cover by the report. Flintshire and Neath Port Talbot both recorded 31 and there were 30 in the Vale of Glamorgan.

A total of 749,445 people in Wales have now received a first dose of the Covid vaccine, up 33,000. since yesterday and representing over 20% of the population.

Dr Chris Williams, Incident Director for the Covid-19 outbreak response at Public Health Wales, said: “We welcome the news that the vaccination programme in Wales, carried out by Welsh Government and the local health boards, has reached the significant milestone of 20 per cent of the population having had their first dose of the vaccination.

“This is a great achievement and is a big step towards ensuring the reduction of serious illness, and deaths, from Coronavirus.

“Vaccinating the adult population of Wales, to protect people from severe disease, is a significant task and the vaccine will take time to reach everyone.

“The effects of the vaccines may not be seen nationally for some time and everyone – including those who have been vaccinated – must continue to follow the advice on keeping Wales safe. “

A woman receives the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at Pontcae Medical Practice on January 4, 2021 in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.

New target date for over-50s vaccinations to be confirmed

The government is expected to announce a target date for giving all people aged over 50 in Wales their first Covid-19 vaccine injection in the coming days.

All over 70s are due to get a vaccine or appointment for a jab by tomorrow, with Wales becoming the first UK nation to have offered the top four priority groups a Covid jab.

Currently those over 50, and younger people who have serious health conditions, are due to be vaccinated by spring but First Minister Mark Drakeford said a more detailed target will be set imminently.

“We will say something more specific than we have said so far.

“Once we have got through this next couple of weeks, and we’re completely certain that the first four groups are behind us, then we will say something a little more definite about when we expect the next five groups to be completed,” he added.

Dr Sally Lewis, who is leading Wales’ vaccination programme says the programme will continue to immunise the most vulnerable first, but Mr Drakeford indicated there could be more flexibility over the next phase of the rollout.

“We won’t be going just ‘five, six, seven’ down the line – people will be called in for vaccination across the five groups,” he said.

“That’s because we have so many hundreds of thousands of people to vaccinate that the system will need a bit of flexibility to make sure that every single appointment can be kept and every single dose of vaccine can be used.”

The landslide at Llanwonno Tip in Tylorstown. Picture from RCT Council.

Concerns voiced over legislation on safety of coal tips safety 

Anthony Lewis, local democracy reporter

Lesley Griffiths the Welsh Government’s minister for energy, environment and rural affairs has released a statement on the safety of Wales’ old coal tips in the lead up to the first anniversary of the landslide at the Llanwonno coal tip in Tylorstown

During February 2020, Wales suffered unprecedented effects from storms Ciara and Dennis which led to the slip in the Rhondda Fach.

At a summit following the land slip at Tylorstown, a joint taskforce was established by the Welsh and UK governments to assess the immediate status of coal tips in Wales and review the existing policy and legislative framework relating to disused coal tip management.

Its role is to look at the number of tips, inspection, maintenance, emergency preparedness, existing policy and legislation and funding.

The Coal Authority was commissioned to undertake urgent ground inspections of coal tips in Wales, identifying any urgent works and the risk status of each tip and a public helpline has been set up.

The first round of tip inspections was completed in July 2020 and the second round of inspections of high-risk tips is due to finish this month with 2,144 tips having been identified in Wales mainly in the South Wales Valleys.

The latest available figures provided in 2018 show that more than 60 were categorised as being the most at risk in Category D. Category D tips need to be monitored every three months.

Rhondda Cynon Taf has the most at-risk tips, with 30, Merthyr has 18, Caerphilly 13, Bridgend 7, Blaenau Gwent three and Neath one.

In RCT, there are also 32 tips in Category C, which means they have the potential to give risk directly to life or property. Merthyr has 41 in Category C. Twelve of the high-risk tips in Merthyr are owned privately.

Many of the highest risk tips in Wales are privately owned. But some are owned by local authorities, Natural Resources Wales also owns one. The Coal Authority classifies its tips differently but has four in RCT that are of the highest risk are inspected every four months.

The current legislation does not mandate regular inspections of disused tips or once a tip becomes disused.

Review

The Law Commission is undertaking a review of current legislation which will run for 15 months and is set to provide recommendations for a future bill.

The consultation should start in spring this year with the final report due in early 2022 and there is potential for a remediation programme.

Negotiations are ongoing with the UK Government over long-term funding but £9m has been secured for this financial year towards coal tip safety.

The coal authority has supported councils by doing some of the inspections on these high-risk tips which have identified the maintenance requirements and the time scales within which they need to be completed.

Ms Grffiths said: “In a small number of cases, the inspections have highlighted works, which are immediately required to ensure the tip is being maintained at a standard necessary to enable routine monitoring.  In these cases, we have urged local authorities to carry out the necessary works without delay.

“In partnership with the Coal Authority, local authorities, WLGA and Natural Resources Wales, the taskforce has made significant progress in gaining a detailed picture of the coal tip landscape across Wales, with 2144 coal tips identified, predominately in the South Wales Valleys.

Inspections

Councils must now ensure any necessary works identified from the inspections are done, working with the Coal Authority and any private owners, to safeguard the structural integrity of the tips within their areas.

A number of councils have commenced works, including at Tylorstown, where the Rhondda Fach River is being cleared to enable the main works programme to start this summer.

Ms Griffiths said: “The complexity and timeliness of this type of work should not be underestimated.  There are a number of factors to be considered in relation to any remediation work, not least environmental.

“A review of the current legislation undertaken by the taskforce concluded it is neither sufficiently robust nor fit for purpose, in relation to inspection and maintenance regimes.”

Ms Griffiths said: “The taskforce is developing policies in parallel to the work of the Law Commission.  The longer term policy objective is to develop a consistent approach for use across Wales for risk assessments and risk categories.  Management controls, including a central database, for all tips will also be developed.

“A robust inspection and maintenance regime will ensure safeguarding our communities remains a priority, with people living near coal tips feeling safe and secure.  The taskforce has also been working with All Wales Risk Group to raise awareness with local resilience forums about coal tip safety links to community risk registers and emergency plans.”

To support the future monitoring regime to continually assess the stability of coal tips, Welsh Government is  providing funding to support the trial of sensor equipment, which can be placed on coal tips and monitor any movement, enabling different methods of action to be assessed to ensure the most appropriate approach is applied across high-risk tips.

“Coal tips are a legacy of Wales’ industrial history, which pre-dates devolution.

“However, the risks and liabilities associated with this legacy are not reflected in the current fiscal framework.

‘Funding’

“The funding required for urgent remediation and maintenance works has been negotiated with UK Government for 2020/21 as part of the funding package to support recovery following the storms last year.

“The £9 million received will be used to support the Tylorstown recovery work and immediate emergency maintenance required at other high-risk tips.

“The long-term remediation programme is likely to run for up to 10 years and will require a comprehensive funding package.”

 “We could still see further heavy rainfall in Wales this winter.  This can increase flood risk as well as posing a risk to tip safety in some circumstances.

“The taskforce’s top priority is to help ensure the necessary checks and planning are undertaken to safeguard our communities but I would ask members of the public to report any concerns about coal tips or get safety advice from the Coal Authority’s 24/7 helpline on 0800 021 9230 or via tips@coal.gov.uk.”

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