Senedd roundup: Calls for routine testing of all care workers rejected

Vaughan Gething speaking and todays’ Coronavirus briefing.

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Health Minister Vaughan Gething confirmed the weekly coronavirus testing programme for care homes would continue for another four weeks at Wednesday’s press briefing but said care workers visiting people’s homes will only be tested if they have symptoms.

The most recent statistics show there have been a total of 28,763 tests on care home residents. Just three residents tested positive last week. Overall, 95.6% of tests have been negative.

Over 60,000 staff have also been tested and 98% of those tests were also negative.

“If low prevalence trends continue during this period, we will move to a fortnightly regime for antigen testing. Alongside this, we will roll out a surveillance programme of antibody testing for social care and domiciliary staff”, Mr Gething said.

Before Wednesday’s announcement Age Cymru’s chief executive Victoria Lloyd had called for routine testing for all care staff.

“We have been clear about the need for adequate and practical access to fast testing for all social care staff to support infection control measures, she said.

“As such we would support a programme of regular testing for domiciliary care staff.”

But the minister said: “The evidence that we have had and published today doesn’t support testing the whole sector as the right approach.

“It does underpin though, as I’ve said, everyone who has symptoms should get a test and self-isolate.

“It also underpins actually the importance of a move from the UK government on statutory sick pay or supportive pay where people are advised by the contact tracing service to self-isolate as they have in Germany.”

Responding to Mr Gething’s comments,  Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for Health, Rhun ap Iorwerth MS, said: “…we need to make sure that those care workers most at risk – either in terms of their own health or the health of others they come into contact with – are tested regularly.

“This must also include carers who visit people’s homes. A carer will visit many people over the course of a working day. Testing is the core of the early warning system that helps nip new outbreaks in the bud to keep people safe.”

Mr Gething also outlined the government’s new testing strategy which will be focused on:

  • Contact tracing
  • Delivering NHS services
  • Protecting vulnerable groups
  • Using surveillance and new technologies to improve understanding of the virus.

“We now have a national testing infrastructure that means anyone who needs a test can access one. This enables our contact tracing system to help control the transmission of the disease as lockdown measures are eased, he said.

“Our NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service is fundamental to helping us to find a way to live with the disease until a vaccine or treatment is available.”

“An enormous amount has been achieved over the past few months and I would like to thank everyone for their contribution. But we now need to prepare ourselves for this next phase – and for what might be a difficult win.”

There have been two more deaths reported by Public Health Wales in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of deaths to 1,545.

The total number of cases has increased to 16,854, after 18 new cases were confirmed. On Tuesday 3,966 tests were carried out in Wales.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

First Minister’s Questions

Wales being “too cautious, too slow” on mandatory face mask use

In the continued debate over the compulsory use of face masks in crowded public places, Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) cited evidence that alongside England and Scotland, 60% of the world’s countries require mask-wearing. Also, research from the University of Washington suggests that the use of face masks could save up to 20,000 lives in the UK.

“Your careful approach, in terms of the easing of restrictions, has served well in many ways, but you now….risk treading the line between being too cautious and being too slow on this issue. Why is Wales lagging behind when so many other countries have acted so decisively?”
– Adam Price MS

In a detailed answer, the First Minister made several points in defence on the decision, as of yet, not to introduce face masks. Firstly, the rate of new infections is now very low, even zero, in most of Wales without the use of face masks.

Secondly, unlike England, a 2-metre social distancing requirement is compulsory for retailers in Wales and, finally, mandating the use of face masks could have unintended consequences:

“Our Chief Medical Officer’s advice has not changed: (masks) have a marginal utility but they also have identifiable downsides. Some people behave more riskily because they are wearing a face covering. Some people can’t wear face coverings: people with lung conditions, people with asthmatic conditions. Some people are disadvantaged when others wear face coverings: the visually impaired, people relying on lip-reading. And, once it’s compulsory, it will have to be enforced.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)

He added that the situation would remain under review and the advice is that face masks/coverings should be used if a 2-metre distance can’t be maintained (i.e. public transport) or if someone simply feels more comfortable/secure wearing a mask in public.

Call for extra support for the hospitality sector

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.), noted progress in containing the virus in Wales and with restrictions easing on the hospitality sector over the coming weeks, it was time to consider what additional support was needed.

“….the gradual reopening of the hospitality sector provides further opportunities for people to socially interact outside their households. I recently met with local hospitality businesses to discuss the ongoing impact of Covid-19 and the Welsh Government’s regulations, and the message was clear: this year, most hospitality businesses are simply focusing on survival. Therefore, as restrictions continue to ease, it’ll be crucial that we maximise the amount of spending locally, and I sincerely hope that the Welsh Government is refocusing its procurement practices to help our businesses recover.”
– Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS

Without giving a specific figure, the First Minister said “tens of millions of pounds” has been given to the tourism and hospitality sectors above any support they also received from the UK Government.

Many people have already been spending more money locally due to guidance to “stay local” – which was recently lifted. He agreed that many businesses were now in “survival mode”, but that survival to date has only been possible because people stayed local.

Mark Drakeford AM. Picture by the National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

First Minister outlines final legislative programme of the Fifth Senedd

The First Minister has announced the Welsh Government’s final legislative programme before next year’s scheduled Senedd election.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a noticeable impact on the legislative timetable and legal resources, with 50 laws (mainly regulations) having been introduced or changed to deal with it.

Additionally, work will need to proceed at speed to ensure deadlines for Brexit-related legislation are met before the end of the Brexit transition period in December 2020.

Laws which will be carried forward in September include:

Bills which have been paused include:

  • Bus Services Bill – because of the impact coronavirus has had on the industry. The First Minister said he was particularly disappointed that this is being delayed.
  • Tertiary Education and Research Bill, which will replace HEFCW with a new university funding system, has been published as a draft Bill for consultation. The same will happen for the Social Partnership Bill.

Other legislative priorities (which may require new laws or regulations) include:

  • Extending public smoking bans outdoor hospital grounds, school grounds and local authority playgrounds.
  • Placing a duty on public bodies to consider ways to reduce socio-economic disadvantages.
  • Implementing a new additional learning needs system.
  • Ending third-party sales of puppies and kittens (aka. “Lucy’s Law”).
  • Working with local authorities to extend 20 mph zones (a debate will be held on this later today – more on this tomorrow).

Offering to work constructively with the government for the remainder of the term on legislation, Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.), couldn’t help noting his disappointment at the government’s failure to use legislative tools to address climate change – namely a Clean Air Act – and to boost employment opportunities.

Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) thought the government’s legislation lacked ambition too. Picking up on some of the arguments around the Curriculum Bill, he thought the government was working against the objectives of Cymraeg 2050 in terms of the role of the Welsh language in the curriculum.

Bethan Sayed. Picture by the National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Call for more support for new parents

Plaid Cymru MS Bethan Sayed has called on the government to ensure that all new parents and their children have had an equivalent to a 6-week check and to do more to raise awareness of the mental health support that is available.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic many neo natal support services have stopped or changed considerably, meaning many new parents have not have the support they might otherwise have expected.

Ms Sayed says she has been “overwhelmed” by the number of parents who have contacted her to say that they haven’t had the support that would usually be available to them, and warns that the isolation may have an “untold” negative impact on the mental health of new parents.

“As a new parent myself, I’ve been contacted by many in the same situation as me, and while we’ve had much to celebrate and had much support in the hospital from midwives and maternity staff, the overwhelming sense I’ve been left with is that so many new parents have felt isolated, she said.

“Given that the first three months we were unable to mix with other households, and most health appointments have been over the phone, new parents have been largely on their own, without the support network they’d usually benefit from. This isolation means that any problems that remain undiagnosed are only going to get worse during this pandemic, and some new parents are in danger of being left behind.”

Photo by Queven from Pixabay

Minister open towards a hardship fund for businesses that missed pandemic support

Here’s a summary of this afternoon’s questions without notice to Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South).

Cautious approach to reopening businesses defended

Fearing that Wales was heading for a deeper recession than the rest of the UK, Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George MS (Con, Montgomery) asked what assessment had been made of the impact of the slower reopening of businesses in Wales?

He went on to add that the lack of clarity over what can and can’t open was causing confusion:

“In my inbox, you will find it’s currently bursting with people telling me how regrettable it is that UK hasn’t moved in the same approach across the UK, and this has caused, sadly, some unnecessary confusion that has put Welsh businesses at a disadvantage. Last week, the First Minister announced that indoor tourist attractions can open, but there doesn’t seem to be much clarity on what can open and what needs to stay shut.”
– Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George MS

Drawing the Senedd’s attention to the significantly higher rate of infections in Blackburn – set to be the latest English council area to go into local lockdown – compared to Wales, the Minister asked whether businesses would prefer to operate there or in Wales?

The cautious approach is there to prevent a far more damaging second wave. On possible confusion, he pointed businesses to the extensive FAQs section on the Welsh Government’s website.

Minister “will consider a hardship fund” for forgotten businesses

Plaid Cymru’s economy spokesperson, Helen Mary Jones MS (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) raised the plight of those businesses which may not have been eligible for either Welsh or UK Government support.

“….taking into account the point the Minister has made in the past that it may not be possible to help everyone, he will be aware that the start-up bursary fund has been very well received and subscribed to. The Minister in the past has made reference to the possibility of a hardship fund for those businesses – relatively small numbers, hopefully – that simply haven’t been able to be helped elsewhere. But there seems to be some confusion now about whether he still intends to do that.”
– Helen Mary Jones MS

The Minister responded positively, saying he remained open to the idea of a hardship fund – pending a review of the Welsh Government’s economic resilience fund as well as the UK Government’s response to concerns about gaps in business support.

Many of the people being directed to the Welsh Government are, in fact, eligible for the UK Government’s self-employment support scheme. The latest statistics showed that 16% of people in Wales eligible for that support haven’t yet made an application.

£9 million to support town centres recover from coronavirus pandemic 

The Welsh Government has made up to £9 million available to support town centres recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Up to £5.3 million from the Transforming Towns programme will be used to fund adaptions in town centres to support traders and improve public safety in response to coronavirus.

A further £3.7 million of Valleys Taskforce funding will be invested to enhance small town centres in the Valleys region.

During a visit to Rhyl, Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government, Hannah Blythyn said the £5.3 million repurposed capital funding from the Transforming Towns programme, will be used to fund adaptions in town centres to facilitate trading and public safety in response to coronavirus. This will include introducing outdoor awnings, outdoor tables and chairs, outdoor heating, outdoor screening, bollards, planters, small green infrastructure schemes, electricity supply and lighting to outdoor trading spaces and the temporary use of vacant buildings and the establishment of local markets.

The £9 million fund will complement other support targeting town centre recovery including:

  • £15.4 million Local Sustainable Transport fund to provide better active and sustainable travel infrastructure to make it safer and easier for people to get around their local town
  • Funding to support Business Improvement Districts’ running costs for three months

Ms Blythyn said: ”As we plan to reopen our public spaces and town centres, we have a unique opportunity to re-think and to re-imagine our town centres as we would like them to be – greener, cleaner, more connected.”

Responding to the announcement Darren Millar MS, the Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Covid Recovery, described the funding as “woefully insufficient”.

“The Welsh Labour-led Government’s plans are woefully insufficient and fall short on almost every count. They are temporary and will not address the real issues facing towns and communities left reeling from the economic impact of the pandemic; towns and communities which are already among the most vulnerable because of decades of Labour Party rule,” he said.

Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash

Smoking and vaping ban “draconian”

Plans announced on Tuesday to introduce a ban on smoking and the use of ‘vape’ products at almost all outdoor venues in Wales has been described as “draconian”.

Health Minister Vaughan Gething said he intended to ban smoking outdoors in places such as restaurants as well as city and town centres if Labour is re-elected to government next year.

A ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces was introduced in Wales in 2007.

Angela Burns MS, Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Health, said: “The health of our nation – and the corresponding strain that ill health puts on NHS Wales – is of course a massive concern for everyone.

“This proposal will be perceived by many as Draconian and before acceptance we would need to see what additional measures the Health Minister would offer for people who want to quit, and what increase in smoking cessation services will be provided.

“For such a measure to be successful, more resources to encourage people away from smoking must be done, and we would disagree with any ban on the use of vaping products, which have turned so many people way from cigarettes.”

Photo by Ruben de Rijcke licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Committee: Wales needs to get a move on to decarbonise transport

Economy & Infrastructure Committee
Decarbonisation of transport (pdf)
Published: 14th July 2020

“This report reflects evidence received well before the current health and economic crisis, which saw the transport network grind to an almost total halt, and carbon emissions fall significantly. Global daily carbon emissions fell by 17% at the peak of lockdown, with almost half of that due to fewer car journeys. The climate emergency hasn’t gone away, and the economy must now re-open under new and extremely challenging conditions.”
– Committee Chair, Russell George MS (Con, Montgomery)

  1. The pace of change in infrastructure and planning is far too slow

Surface transport is the largest single contributor to carbon emissions in the UK with 23% of emissions coming from land-based transport.

Both the UK and Welsh governments are setting priorities to cut this, including the phasing-out of new petrol and diesel vehicle sales, new standards for low-emissions vehicles and improvements to and expansion of electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

There was no clear consensus on whether this would be enough by itself to hit emission reduction targets, with problems relating to the price of electric vehicles (currently only accessible, by and large, to the wealthy) and the high up-front capital cost of things like electric buses. Green Alliance said retrofitting diesel buses in Germany to higher emissions standards worked out to be 50% cheaper than buying new electric buses.

As for taxis, the Committee was told that licensing and national standards – possibly even a grant scheme – would need to be reformed or looked at before taxi drivers could make a switch to electric. Additionally, Cardiff Airport said short-haul electric aircraft are becoming available and could be used for Cardiff-Anglesey flights.

It was unclear whether the grid could cope with a wholesale switch to electric vehicles – something the Committee recommended the Welsh Government clarifies.

  1. There’s no clear consensus on how to pay for decarbonisation of transport

The Future Generations Commissioner said up to £240 million would be required for 2020-21 alone to make the necessary investments in active travel, public transport and improving uptake of electric vehicles.

Other alternative funding models put forward by witnesses included electric vehicle subsidies, lease and loan arrangements for electric bus batteries and electric buses and public-private partnerships to install charging infrastructure.

The Welsh Government are seeking to invest in low carbon public transport infrastructure projects, with £29 million allocated – but public caution around using public transport in light of the coronavirus pandemic may force the government to rethink this in order to prevent a mass shift back to cars.

  1. Road freight will be difficult to decarbonise, though the process may force rail electrification to be sped up

The Committee was told there were no clear answers on how road haulage could be made low-carbon. The battery requirements for electric HGVs would be significant, while other possible solutions – such as overhead wiring for electric HGVs – may be impractical.

Amongst the suggestions was for delivery companies to use low carbon vehicles for “last mile” legs of the delivery process, or using excess space on public transport to move parcels for home delivery or click-and-collect. Another suggestion was improving route efficiency through computer software.

The general issue of freight and decarbonisation may speed up the electrification of the railways (particularly along key freight routes) – though the policy levers are largely non-devolved. Transport for Wales said their plans to power the South Wales Metro with 100% renewable energy, together with new rolling stock, will cut rail emissions in Wales by 25%.

Hydrogen is a possible alternative, but there are practical limitations; hydrogen-powered trains can’t use long tunnels and fuel storage is a problem for both trains and HGVs.

 

Photo by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Driving lessons get green light

The government has confirmed driving lessons will be able to take place in Wales from 27 July.

Theory tests will restart on Monday 3 August, along with vocational, motorcycle, car and trailer tests, and tractor driving tests.

Driving tests will start from Monday 17 August, as well as the restarting of driving instructor testing and standards checks.

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) will update guidance shortly to facilitate the safe return of lessons.

Driving lessons have been suspended since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in March

DVSA Chief Executive Gareth Llewellyn said: “Tests for critical workers have continued during the lockdown and I would like to thank all those instructors and examiners who have continued to work to help deliver tests for those who have done so much to help us during this terrible pandemic.”

 

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