Senedd roundup: Calls for government to prioritise finances to address pandemic
Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
First Minister’s Questions
For the foreseeable future, activity at the Senedd is going to be pared-back quite a bit, with a weekly ministerial statement on the coronavirus pandemic set to take place every week – including during the Easter recess, which starts next week. I’ll cover that of course.
Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.), said that there was an absolute necessity for the Welsh Government to reprioritise its finances to address the pandemic, suggesting that funding should be diverted towards those organisations on the frontline.
He was also critical of some local authorities which have ignored UK and Welsh Government definitions of “key workers” regarding accessibility to emergency childcare.
The First Minister said the Welsh Government was considering every department budget to fund new and urgent priorities and a supplementary budget will be brought forward. On emergency childcare, some local authorities were reconsidering their initial cautious approach due to low numbers of children attending.
“There was anxiety over the weekend that the number of parents who would bring children to the new (emergency childcare) provision on Monday would exceed the 20% of children that is the maximum we can allow into those facilities….And some local authorities decided to take a precautionary approach at the start of the week to make sure that that didn’t happen. In practice, those difficulties didn’t arise. The numbers were at the lower end of what might have been anticipated yesterday, and I know that those local authorities will now be recalibrating their plans.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)
He also said the public, whilst understanding their frustrations, shouldn’t take them out on retail workers, pharmacy staff and the like:
Clarity sought on travel restrictions, learning at home
On behalf of Plaid Cymru, Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) noted that the self-employed and freelancers are more likely to be travelling around out of necessity despite UK Government advice on working from home wherever possible. In construction, many employers will be reluctant to send workers home unless there was a government order shutting down sites.
There was also a “huge concern” amongst NHS workers and others working in care that they lack the necessary personal protective equipment. In addition to seeking clarity on how free school meals would work, there was also the issue of continuity of learning:
“There is much activity that can happen online and we are very grateful to the teachers providing that material. But, of course, not every child and not every pupil will have their own laptop. They often have to share. If it had happened at my house, with four children and myself all working from home, then it would have been very difficult for everyone to get by using just the one laptop. And not every home has broadband, of course. Not every home has an internet connection. So, do you agree with Plaid Cymru that every child that doesn’t have a laptop should be given one and every home should have a connection to the internet?”
– Sian Gwenllian AM
The First Minister said some sort of announcement from the UK Government on the self-employed was expected this week – though he didn’t know much more beyond that. On free school meals, his preference was for families to receive money, but vouchers may come into play.
He confirmed the Education Minister was working to find ways for young people who, for whatever reason, can’t access the internet are still able to maintain their learning.
- Dawn Bowden AM (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) asked for measures to clamp down on panic buying and stockpiling based on measures taken in France (one way systems, one person per trolley). The First Minister said discussions are happening at UK level on measures that could be introduced.
- The Brexit Party’s Caroline Jones called for additional measures to protect the safety of key workers who still have to used public transport despite reduced services. Talks are taking place with Transport for Wales “to get the balance right”.
- Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) was critical of the lack of Wales-specific advice provided by broadcasters during the crisis.
- Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) asked for clarity on what an “essential business” is.
- Neil McEvoy AM (WNP, South Wales Central) asked for wider testing for the virus as people who don’t have the virus are perhaps self-isolating unnecessarily.
- Dr Hefin David AM (Lab, Caerphilly) asked about how MOTs will be dealt with during the shutdown and support for children with special needs. The First Minister said garages remain open so MOTs are unaffected, while the Education Minister remains in talks with councils on services for ALN children.
Final year medical, nursing and social work students to be offered temporary full-time placements
There was due to be several statements from ministers on their respective departmental responses to the coronavirus pandemic, but the only oral statement given today was from the Health Minister. The others were issued as written statements – more on that tomorrow
- Think before stockpiling or panic-buying as it may mean more vulnerable people, social care staff and emergency service workers might not be able to get the basics in stores.
- As of March 23rd, occupancy of intensive care beds was at 45% with 15% of patients having suspected or confirmed cases of coronavirus/Covid-19.
- The number of intensive care beds has been doubled to just over 300 and 600 extra ventilators have been bought with further options being explored.
- The new Grange University Hospital near Cwmbran will be partially opened to provide an additional 350 beds by the end of April 2020 and talks are ongoing with private health providers to secure additional capacity, said to be up to 150 beds.
- A “significant push” of personal protective equipment will increase supplies to the seven local health boards, ambulance service and Velindre trust. PPE has also been supplied to all GP clinics, out-of-hours providers and pharmacies.
- Final year medical, nursing and social work students are being offered temporary full-time placements to work on the front line with full and proper induction and training and will be paid properly.
Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) queried whether there was enough extra capacity available, with the Hywel Dda health board alone estimating they may need an additional 1,600 during the peak. There was also likely to be a similar gap in provision for ventilators despite moves to procure more.
Returning to the issue of testing, Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) asked for an explanation as to why the Welsh and UK governments aren’t following World Health Organisation advice to rapidly expand testing. Also, there was the matter of testing the families of key workers as it was resulting in experience NHS staff having to self-isolate, when there may be nothing wrong with them, because of the symptoms of other people in the household.
Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) condemned people selling medicines, like paracetamol, online for £3, while panic buying was resulting in essential staples like baby formula disappearing from shelves.
To that end, the Minister issued a warning:
Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) said that while volunteering carries risks due to the nature of the emergency, it was essential. He called for guidance to be issued to ensure volunteers carried out tasks safely.
Virus testing of NHS staff to be expanded; protective equipment available to social care staff
Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), has said capacity for testing NHS workers and patients with suspected coronavirus/Covid-19 will be ramped-up over the next fortnight.
According to the latest guidance (pdf), patients admitted to hospital with pneumonia, respiratory distress and flu-like symptoms will be tested.
In terms of staff, frontline workers in acute care, A&E departments, intensive and critical care, primary care (GPs etc.) and ambulance services staff will be the highest priority.
By 7th April 2020, the Minister said Public Health Wales will have the capacity to carry out 8,000 tests a day.
Additionally, the Minister said that personal protective equipment (PPE) will be provided to social care staff providing face-to-face care in-home and residential care settings – though the guidance says PPE should only be used when providing care to someone showing symptoms of coronavirus/Covid-19.
Hopes makeshift emergency ventilator will save lives
A hydraulics company in Carmarthenshire, CR Clark – working with consultant anaesthetist, Dr Rhys Thomas – have started production of a makeshift ventilator device (CPAP/Covid Emergency Ventilator) based on designs used in Italy during the pandemic.
With concerns about a lack of available ventilators and calls by government for manufacturers to switch production to making the machines, Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr), put Dr Thomas and the company in contact with each other.
The CPAP device has already reportedly been used on a patient at Llanelli’s Prince Philip Hospital and the Welsh Government have given the go-ahead for production to be expanded, with 100 being made daily.
“Although it won’t replace an ICU ventilator, the majority of patients won’t need intensive care if they are treated with this ventilator first, releasing ICU ventilators for more serious Covid-19 cases and other general medical cases. The machine has other benefits in that it will clean the room of viral particles and only supply purified air to the patient. The patient can self-care as specialist nurses are not required releasing them for other duties.”
– Dr Rhys Thomas
Adam Price said: “This has been a truly amazing achievement. I cannot praise too highly Dr Rhys Thomas for his skill, his dedicated staff at Glangwili hospital who tested the device, as well as CR Clark & Co for responding so swiftly. It’s fantastic that we have such brilliant expertise in Carmarthenshire to create and deliver this new device in volume at such short notice.”
Welsh Government business support extended
Following further emergency announcements by the UK Treasury, the Welsh Government has extended support for businesses.
- Businesses in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors will have a year-long “holiday” from business rates. Grants will also be offered of up to £25,000 for businesses in the same sector with a rateable value of between £12,001-£51,000.
- £10,000 grants will be available to all businesses eligible for Small Business Rates Relief (ratable value of £12,000 or less).
Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South) said the self-employed and businesses without rateable premises was a priority for the next round of support.