Senedd roundup: Calls for immediate testing of all meat processing workers

Swab test. Photo by Ewa Urban from Pixabay

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Llŷr Gruffydd MS, Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Minister for Environment and Rural Affairs, has called for universal testing of all workers across all meat processing plants in Wales following the recent outbreaks of Covid-19.

Within the last week there have been 200 confirmed cases at the 2 Sisters chicken processing plant on Anglesey, 70 workers have tested positive for the virus at Rowan Foods in Wrexham and there have been 34 confirmed cases linked to Kepak in Merthyr Tydfil.

Outbreaks of the virus in meat processing centres have been a feature of the pandemic around the world, with the USA, France and Germany recently reporting cases.

It is thought that conditions within the plants make it easier for the virus to spread: Cool, damp conditions, lack of ventilation and lots of smooth surfaces which means the virus can survive longer. In addition, workers often have to work in close proximity to each other, and a noisy environment results in workers projecting their voices to make themselves heard – adding to the risk of the virus being transmitted by air.

While the Welsh Government has called for a review of all meat and food processing businesses, including abattoirs, Mr Gruffydd has called for the testing of all workers in meat processing plants now to ensure coronavirus is prevented from spreading through the workforce.

Mr Gruffydd says he is “at a loss” why this hasn’t been done already, saying that this is a “simple step” to preventing further casualties to the Welsh economy.

“I understand the need of full reviews, but when we have a clearly identified risk and a rather obvious immediate solution, what are we waiting for? I’m calling on Welsh Government to test all workers at meat processing plants, including those who are asymptomatic. At a time when the economy is at a cliff edge, we have a chance to help keep this important part of the Welsh economy functioning safely, rather than waiting more days for the results of a review. I am at a loss as to why Welsh Government hasn’t insisted on this already.”

Public Health Wales has confirmed six more deaths from Covid-19. The total number of deaths has now risen to 1,497.

There were 125 new cases reported, taking the total of confirmed infections since March to 15,466. On Wednesday 3,095 tests were carried out across Wales.

Blast Furnace located at the Port Talbot steelworks

Minister welcomes Tata bailout reports

Reports of a potential bailout for Tata Steel by the UK government have been welcomed by Finance Minister Rebecca Evans.

The company owns the Port Talbot plant, the largest steelworks in the UK, which employs approximately 4,000 people.

Tata Steel is seeking about £500 million to help it survive and is hoping to secure funding under a scheme that has been set up to protect strategically important companies from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials at the steelmaker claim a decision is imminent but according to a UK government source, discussions are still ongoing, and a final decision may not be made for days or even weeks.

“If what we’re hearing is true about a potential package from the UK government that’s very much to be welcomed,” Ms Evans said at Thursday’s government press briefing.

“We’ve been calling for it for many years and it’s a shame it’s taken a crisis for it to crystallise.

“If there is more that the Welsh Government can do to support Tata and to be supporting these really important and strategically important businesses, then obviously we would love to do so.”

The Welsh BAFTA awards at the WMC. Photo Nation.Cymru

Wales’ soul to be a victim of coronavirus pandemic without proper support for the arts

One sector hardest hit by the pandemic lockdown is the arts.

Days after the recent publication of the Culture Committee’s report on the impact of the pandemic on the sector (summarised here), the Wales Millennium Centre announced it’ll close until January 2021. The report mentioned that the centre faced a £20million loss this year.

Acting Chair of the Culture Committee, Helen Mary Jones MS (Plaid, Mid & West Wales), laid out the stark picture of the sector’s finances, saying arts organisations may require government support for several years to come.

The social value of the arts had been proven through the crisis, so it was time to reaffirm commitments to the sector. In light of the Black Lives Matter protests, improving the representation of minority groups should be a priority too.

Going into specific detail of the impact, Shadow Culture Minister, David Melding MS (Con, South Wales Central), reminded the Senedd that even if big venues operated at 30% capacity with social distancing, ticket revenues would come nowhere near to ensuring productions can break even.

Rhianon Passmore MS (Lab, Islwyn) believes the cultural loss could be incalculable and both the UK and Welsh Governments will need to set a clear strategic direction and provide the funds to match; future generations were unlikely to forgive those who allow such a loss to take place.

Sian Gwenllian MS (Plaid, Arfon) went a bit further than the report, stating the arts should form a key part of the recovery process from coronavirus by helping people to process, understand and express what’s happened.

Other than supporting what members had said about the arts being at the heart of Welsh life, Deputy Minister for Culture, Tourism & Sport, Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd), reassured the Senedd that work was being done behind the scenes to ensure major national institutions like the Millennium Centre and Theatr Clwyd were taken care of.

He promised to look again at the priorities of major cultural organisations and to make the argument with the UK Treasury for proper financial support.

Former arts manager, Huw Irranca-Davies MS (Lab, Ogmore), briefly intervened, saying the Welsh Government should engage with people running arts venues in communities – such as Awen Trust in Bridgend – not just the major national arts organisations.

Difficult road ahead in Wales’ journey to coronavirus economic recovery

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Recognises that the coronavirus pandemic is both a public health and an economic emergency.
  • Welcomes the economic benefits afforded to Wales as a result of being part of the UK during the pandemic, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme.
  • Notes with concern the Centre for Towns report ‘Covid and our Towns’ which suggests the economies of towns in the valleys and on the north Wales coast will be among those hardest hit by the pandemic.
  • Calls upon the Welsh Government to establish a Covid Community Recovery Fund to provide targeted economic support for those communities most adversely affected by the pandemic.

Difficult to quantify the economic impact of coronavirus

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.) told MSs it was still early days in determining just what economic damage the pandemic has done, with a third of working-age people in Wales on the UK Government furlough scheme and the UK economy contracting by 20% in April 2020.

While many businesses were working hard to adapt to trading under social distancing, this is proving difficult for the hospitality sector and pubs. Towns with a high proportion of people working in hospitality were expected to be hardest hit by the pandemic’s economic downturn; similarly, tourism.

Janet Finch-Saunders MS (Con, Aberconwy) said smaller companies will need to lead the recovery and called on the Welsh Government to provide funding to encourage smaller companies and freelancers to collaborate. Angela Burns MS (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.) thought the green economy needed extra support and also calculated risks on the part of the government.

Plaid Cymru wasn’t opposed to a recovery fund in principle, though Helen Mary Jones MS (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) believes there had to be a wider all-Wales transformation, as well as additional fiscal powers for the Welsh Government to help them react properly to economic shocks.

Echoing an earlier debate, Jenny Rathbone MS (Lab, Cardiff Central) believed the recovery in town and city centres could be led by cultural venues.

Meanwhile, Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George MS (Con, Montgomery), argued for a more “common sense” approach to the 2-metre rule, which would involve trusting businesses and the public to act responsibly as a step towards reopening more parts of the economy.

“The worst thing that can happen is a second spike”

Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), told MSs the worst thing that could happen to the Welsh economy is a second spike in coronavirus cases, which is why the Welsh Government is taking a cautious approach to easing lockdown.

He ran through the different measures of support provided by the Welsh Government during the pandemic. He noted with frustration that there were limits on how much money the Welsh Government can carry forward from one financial year to the next and also that reserves are capped at £300million.

He pointed to pre-existing regeneration projects in Welsh towns, some of which have been listed amongst the most economically-vulnerable post-pandemic:

“Colwyn Bay is benefiting from a further £3 million of regeneration investment; rail is seeing huge investment of around £20 million; and in Holyhead, a project worth more than £4 million has transformed the historic market hall. In addition, in the South Wales Valleys, the task force chaired by the Deputy Minister has met regularly since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, and are currently reviewing priorities in light of this pandemic.”
– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates

Vote

The Conservative’s motion was was defeated by 39 votes to 15. The Welsh Government’s amendments – essentially listing all pre-existing regeneration programmes and calling for greater fiscal flexibility and a UK-led stimulus package – were approved.

 

Government publishes first results from major new COVID-19 survey

New research showing how people across Wales have been affected by the coronavirus crisis has been published for the first time today.

The new monthly telephone version of the National Survey for Wales asked 3,000 people  questions on wellbeing and loneliness, employment, finances, food poverty, GP appointments, social care, and education to find out the how the pandemic has affected their lives.

Of respondents currently working, 80% say coronavirus has caused problems for their work life. Overall, 24% say coronavirus has already caused problems for their household finances and 5% said that they have not had a substantial meal due to a lack of money for at least one day in the last fortnight.

The survey also shows that people in Wales are generally happy with a good sense of community spirit but are understandably more anxious than normal.

Other results from the survey carried out last month show:

  • 93% of parents with a child at primary school and 85% of parents with a child at secondary school are content that the school is finding ways to support children with their learning.
  • 75% of people say they are generally happy with 41% of people saying they had experienced anxiety during the period.
  • 85% of people feel they belong to their local area (+13% from last year)
  • 4 out of 5 working people say they would get full pay if self-isolating, and 44% say they can do most or all of their work from home.

Finance Minister Rebecca Evans said: “This survey is invaluable as it provides us with a snapshot of how the lives of people from across Wales have been affected by the pandemic. Listening to these views will help us to make decisions based on sound evidence as we begin our road to recovery.”

The telephone survey involved over 3,000 people in May and covers a representative
random sample of people aged 16+ across Wales, including people who are more difficult to reach and people who don’t use the internet.

Nick Ramsay AM. Photo The National Assembly for Wales.

Supplementary Budget a “missed opportunity”

The Welsh Conservatives have renewed their calls for a full Emergency Budget to address the economic crisis caused by coronavirus following Wednesday’s Senedd debate on the Supplementary Budget.

Nick Ramsay MS, the Shadow Minister for Finance, described the Supplementary Budget as a “missed opportunity”, and warned it “doesn’t do enough to protect both lives and livelihoods”.

“It was agreed in early March before the full extent of the pandemic was known, and since then, the Budget has grown by some 10 percent including the huge £2.2 billion from the Treasury to tackle the Coronavirus – although so far only £1.8bn appears to have been allocated,” he added.

“It was an opportunity for the Welsh Government to show a complete change in gear in how it prioritises its finances.

“Instead, it’s another missed opportunity because it seems that the Welsh Labour-led Government hasn’t grasped that Covid is both a health and an economic crisis, and consequently, Labour has let Wales down.”

Senedd backs massive in-year budget changes

Yesterday, the Senedd passed the Welsh Government supplementary budget – an emergency budget in all but name – to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The scale of the changes is unheard of in Wales, topping £2.4 billion, and was covered in more detail here.

Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower) said the first priorities were health as well as funding services to extend support to vulnerable people, such as the homeless and children eligible for free school meals. Another priority was business, with 7,000 small and medium-sized companies benefiting from grants and loans.

Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd MS (Plaid, North Wales), ran through his committee’s hastily-drafted report (pdf). One of the main recommendations was to lobby the UK Government to allow capital funding (used for new/one-off projects) to be re-directed to fund day-to-day services (revenue funding).

Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay MS (Con, Monmouth) recognised the challenges the Welsh Government faced, but argued that more of the Welsh Government’s own money could’ve been re-directed to support coronavirus efforts.

He warned that the longer Wales and England diverged in their response, the more likely that gaps in funding will emerge if spending in England changes and impacts the Barnett Formula.

While there was broad acceptance at the challenges the Welsh Government have faced, there were calls from several MSs to consider the medium to longer-term impact on frontline services, such as domestic abuse services, universities and efforts against climate change.

Both Alun Davies MS (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) and the Minister herself argued for a needs-based replacement for the Barnett Formula, though the Minister added – regarding the impact of coronavirus on devolved tax revenues – there was some measure of protection in the funding formula from UK-wide economic shocks.

Photo by UGA CAES/Extension and licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Urgent need to protect green belt land from speculative developments; local lockdowns not ruled out

Here’s a summary of questions to Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West).

Local lockdowns not ruled out

In light of localised outbreaks of Covid-19 focused on meat processing plants, Delyth Jewell MS (Plaid, South Wales East) asked what additional support was being provided to local authorities where an outbreak has occurred?

The Minister told the Senedd that while there was no need yet for a local lockdown, options are being kept open.

“….the Prime Minister said that they are working on local lockdown plans now as England comes out of its easing procedure. So, we’ll be working alongside them on the things that we rely on the UK Government for and in the meantime we are putting in place a series of regulations here that allow specific things to happen in particular areas if there is a need to do that. I would like to emphasise that we don’t think that there is a need just now, but we’re keeping a very careful eye on it.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James

Local authorities were also playing a major role in the Welsh Government’s track and trace programme and Delyth Jewell warned that due to issues such as insecure work and welfare reform, many employees may be pressured into returning to work when they should self-isolate; what extra support could be provided to ease pressure on local authorities when they coordinate track and trace?

The Minister said many of the key tools – such as speeding up welfare applications – are beyond the Welsh Government’s control. There couldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach as the circumstances behind localised outbreak will be different; many of the people involved in the meat processing outbreaks, for example, live in HMOs – so guidance is being updated there.

Urgent measures needed to protect green belt from speculative developments

Mark Isherwood MS (Con, North Wales) believes green belt land needs more protection from speculative planning applications (planning applications which don’t fit the local development plan) after a complaint against Flintshire Council’s decision to approve such a development was upheld.

He went on to say that planning departments were facing increasing difficulty to protect the green belt given delays to the preparation of Flintshire’s Local Development Plan. Coronavirus regulations have also limited communities’ ability to challenge new developments, with consultations and site visits moved online-only.

The Minister bemoaned cutbacks to “non-essential” departments, which often includes planning, with a resulting loss of skills. There was work ongoing behind the scenes to ensure LDPs are completed to stave off developers:

“….as we ease out of the lockdowns, we’re working with each local authority to make sure that we get a reviewed and properly resourced plan to get their LDP in place. And the reason for that, Mark, is exactly what you pointed out: that authorities that don’t have a plan in place tend to be subject to speculative developments that they find more difficult to fend off because they don’t have an adopted plan.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James

Photo by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

Contractor shortlisted for final stages of A465 dualling project

The Future Valleys consortium – made up of Alun Griffiths, Atkins, Roadbridge and others – has been selected as the preferred bidder for work to complete the A465 dualling project.

The works will cover Sections 5 and 6 between Hirwaun and Dowlais Top. A final contract is set to be rewarded in October 2020.

The A465 dualling project was originally supposed to be completed by this year and has been affected by high-profile cost overruns.

Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South) said he expects the project to be worth £675 million to the Welsh economy, with at least £400 million directly spent within Wales. The current estimated completion date is some time in 2024.

 

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