Senedd roundup: Chief medic warns ‘this virus is not finished with us yet’

Dr Frank Atherton. Photo by Life Sciences Hub Wales Via YouTube

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Dr Frank Atherton, the Chief Medical Officer for Wales has reported a reduction in coronavirus transmission rates in the community but warned higher levels continue in “more closed settings” including “hospitals and care homes”.

Speaking at the Welsh Government’s daily coronavirus press briefing on Thursday Dr Atherton said: “Over the last few weeks, as a result of the efforts people in Wales have been making to comply with the stay-at-home rules, we have seen a reduction in the level of coronavirus circulating in the community.”

However, he warned this did not indicate an imminent lifting of the current lockdown was likely: “There is a real risk that if we lift the restriction measures too early or quickly, there could be a resurgence.

“This virus is not finished with us yet.”

Dr Atherton also highlighted the importance of developing plans to track and trace virus cases in the community in moving towards easing restrictions, adding: “We need to have much better surveillance – a much better understanding of how the virus is moving around in our populations and in those closed settings.

“We need a clear model on tracking and tracing cases – using a combination of digital means and old-fashioned public health shoe leather and contact tracing.

“We need to watch other countries in how they’re lifting measures”.

Public Health Wales announced another 22 deaths from coronavirus on Thursday, bringing the total in Wales to 908. There were 183 new cases diagnosed as the overall figure for people infected increased to 9,812. There were 1042 tests for the virus carried out yesterday.

Picture by TheShiv76 on Pixabay.

Plaid Cymru press for all healthcare workers to get same Death in Service benefit

Plaid Cymru has echoed calls from BMA Cymru Wales to demand that all NHS staff be given full death in service benefits regardless of whether they are a member of the NHS Pension Scheme or not.

Last week, the Welsh Government announced that all families of healthcare staff that die in service as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic would be eligible to receive £60,000 as a “Death in Service” payment and that this would be in addition to any other benefits that healthcare staff may be entitled to as members of the NHS pension scheme.

However, the families of medical students and graduates, junior doctors, locums and retired doctors who have all either returned or been fast-tracked to the frontline may not receive the same level of financial support because they were not on the NHS Pension Scheme.

Shadow Health Minister Rhun ap Iorwerth AM said: “Plaid Cymru joins BMA Cymru Wales in calling for the Welsh Government to guarantee ongoing support to the dependants of healthcare workers who do not currently qualify for additional benefits due to the status of their NHS pension.

“We will forever be indebted to our healthcare workers who have worked so heroically during this time of crisis to keep our country as safe and as well as possible – the least Welsh Government can do is ensure all healthcare staff and their families are protected during these challenging times.”

The Senedd during the coronavirus lockdown. Photo Nation.Cymru

 

Here’s another round-up from the virtual Senedd.

First Minister: One-in-five offers of help with healthcare materials turns out to be of a poor standard or fraudulent

Key Points:

  • Additional PPE procured by the Welsh Government was recently flown-in from Cambodia; supplies will be shared with the rest of the UK as mutual aid if it’s needed. Wales is said to be close to self-sufficiency in scrubs, making 5,000 a week.
  • Not every offer of help turns out to be a genuine option; one in five offers tested at the Surgical Materials Testing Laboratory falls short of the required standards or are outright fraudulent.
  • Businesses will start receiving Welsh Government economic resilience grants “by the end of this week”.
  • Discussions have started on how to bring Wales out of the lockdown subject to the right public health measures and monitoring being in place beforehand.
  • Wales was given specific powers to make lockdown regulations for Wales in the Coronavirus Act and other laws. We haven’t diverged from any regulations at a UK level nor had different regulations from England “for the sake of it”. An extension to the lockdown regulations was subsequently approved by 51-6 through the Emergency Senedd’s bloc voting system

Bringing up the recent under-reporting of coronavirus deaths at two health boards, Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.), described it as a national embarrassment. The public need to have confidence that the latest information is accurate and up-to-date and he also criticised the fact it took a month to become public.

The First Minister explained the reasons behind the issue which essentially boiled down to health boards thinking their fatality figures were counted as part of the all-Wales figure when they weren’t. Several measures have been put in place to deal with it and Betsi Cadwaladr health board is now using the same electronic reporting system as the rest of Wales.

Several AMs were seriously worried about the decision not to offer virus testing as standard to all social care residents and staff, instead restricting it to those showing symptoms. The First Minister tried to explain the reasoning behind that too:

“The reason we don’t offer tests to everybody in care homes, symptomatic and asymptomatic, is because the clinical evidence tells us that there is no value in doing so….We offer the testing where the advice to us is that it’s clinically right to do that. Testing people who have no symptoms today – for that to be a reliable message to them – you’d have to test them again tomorrow because you can go from having no symptoms to having the symptoms in 24 hours.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)

Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) said Wales was on track to have one of the worst death rates in Europe and asked why that was the case?

First Minister accepted that he wasn’t qualified to answer that question, but it could’ve been far worse – concerns that the virus would overwhelm the NHS have eased somewhat – and it didn’t take anything away from the efforts of people on the ground.

Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth): If you need emergency (non-virus) treatment, don’t be afraid to seek it out

Key points:

  • There’s been a 29% fall in ambulance journeys to hospital compared to April 2019 and a 50% fall in A&E visits. There’s a real risk of harm if people with medical emergencies don’t seek treatment because of virus concerns; anyone who needs emergency treatment should contact 999 or go to A&E as they otherwise would do.
  • PPE remains his “number one priority”; as mentioned, the Welsh Government has sourced PPE from abroad, including masks and fluid-resistant gowns from China and Cambodia.
  • Testing is available for critical workers and their families and 2,000 tests a day can be carried out. The Welsh Government are encouraging take-up of tests.
  • Care home residents who are discharged from hospitals will be virus tested whether they have symptoms or not.
  • PPE guidelines apply for dentists, who can still provide emergency treatment during the lockdown.

There were two main areas of concerns.

Firstly, the situation in care homes. Shadow Social Services Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) said the care sector was facing a fall in bed occupancy which was bringing the viability of care homes into question.

Both herself and Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) mentioned the high death rate in care homes too, with the latter questioning the aforementioned decision not to offer virus testing as standard in care settings, asking whether the Minister was “ashamed that you said this morning that providing tests to residents and staff of care homes would not be the best use of resources?”

The Minister repeated what the First Minister said in that testing doesn’t necessarily offer assurances because the virus could appear in a short space of time. He then accused Delyth Jewell of deliberately misquoting him.

The Minister also denied a claim from Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) that ventilators destined for Wales (totalling 415) were redirected to English field hospitals. The minister said there were “no missing ventilators” and, fortunately, Wales hasn’t needed the additional ventilator capacity.

Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor): Recycled school IT equipment to help digitally-excluded students through the closure period

Key points:

  • Logins to the Hwb online learning platform have increased to 150,000 a day. Thanks to deals with Microsoft and Adobe, every learning in state schools has access to Microsoft Office and 500,000 students and learners can use Abode Spark.
  • An announcement was made today (30th April) on digitally-excluded students, with existing IT equipment in schools set to be recycled and sent out for those students to learn from home.
  • Schools will reopen in phases, but there’s no set timescale for that to happen.
  • Work is continuing across the UK on higher education visa requirements, university admissions and professional body requirements.

Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) sought clarity on the position of vocational learners. The Minister said those taking part in apprenticeships with an essential skills qualification will be awarded a grade. Resources for further education students will also be made available on Hwb.

Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) probed further on the issue of digital exclusion, to which the Minister said:

“I’ll be making a statement tomorrow on how we will use Welsh Government investment to provide additional hardware to students who do not have it at the moment, and MiFi (mobile broadband) connections to allow them to have the data connections that they will need to be able to utilise other platforms going forward, and that will be to all children – not to a selected group of children, which appears to be the case across the border….”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams

Minister for Local Government & Housing, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West): Rough-sleeper numbers fall to single figures in every council area; condemnation for grass fire arsonists

Key Points:

  • A £536million advance has been given to local councils and work is ongoing on determining the ongoing costs to local government of the pandemic.
  • The Minister was proud that local government has maintained kerbside waste and recycling services with minimal changes.
  • 500 homeless people have been helped into accommodation and rough-sleeper numbers have fallen to single digits in every local authority area. The pandemic has offered the opportunity to work with people who were unreachable before it.
  • Absence rates in fire and rescue services are as low as 4%, but recent grass fires are very disappointing and put some communities in genuine fear.

Following questions from David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), the Minister clarified that the “single figures” for rough-sleepers was nil in many local authorities and “low single figure” levels in the cities.

Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) said the fact 25% of all confirmed cases of Covid-19 in prisons were in Welsh prisons was “hugely worrying”, to which the Minister said there were specific arrangements in place for prisoners to be treated, which includes postponing the release of early release prisoners if they show symptoms, as well as arrangements for prisoners near the end of their sentence to self-isolate.

Photo by Ev on Unsplash

Call for post-lockdown help for rough sleepers

The Welsh Conservatives Shadow Minister for Housing, David Melding AM, has urged the Welsh Government to implement measures to ensure rough sleepers will not return to streets once the current lockdown begins to ease.

Last month £10 million was made available by the government to enable local authorities to secure the accommodation needed to ensure those without a home could be protected, supported, and isolated if necessary.

Mr Melding said: “As I welcome the initiative, it is now crucial that the Welsh Government turns its attention to what will happen once the current lockdown is eased. It is paramount that rough sleepers do not return to our streets and to achieve this the Welsh Government should legislate to make housing a basic human right, as I outlined in my 10-point plan on eradicating homelessness.

 “It is shocking that people sleep on the streets in the 21st century and that’s why prioritising measures to help those people must be at the forefront of the Welsh Government.”

The plan, published last year, called on the government to:

1. Legislate to make Housing a basic human right in Wales

2. Commit to ending rough sleeping in Wales by 2026

3. Launch an ambitious house building programme to build 40,000 new social homes over 10 years.

4. Undertake an extensive 12-month programme of data collection and analysis into the actual extent of rough sleeping across Wales

5. Immediately bring 150 empty social housing properties back into use specifically for military veterans who are at risk of homelessness

6. Introduce statutory housing and homelessness awareness classes into all secondary schools in Wales

7. Undertake post legislative scrutiny of the Housing Act (Wales) 2014 in order to work with the sector to strengthen its implementation and to address homelessness

8. Work with the UK Government to scrap the Vagrancy Act for England and Wales.

9. Ringfence the funding for the Supported People Programme Grant for a period of 3 years.

10. Appoint a Homelessness Tsar, ideally someone with lived experience of homelessness

Extra £3 million to support ‘digitally excluded’ learners in Wales

The Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, has announced up to £3 million to support ‘digitally excluded’ learners during the coronavirus pandemic.

A ‘digitally excluded’ learner is defined as a student who does not have access to an appropriate internet-connected device to participate in online learning activities from home.

Local authorities, working closely with their schools, will use the funding to provide digitally excluded learners with repurposed school devices and 4G MiFi connectivity where required.  Replacement devices will then also be funded for schools out of the wider Hwb infrastructure programme.

Schools are identifying digitally excluded learners by contacting parents and carers. Meanwhile, local authorities are identifying devices which can be repurposed with up-to-date software.

Kirsty Williams said: “It is my priority that no child or family is left behind during this crisis and all children have the opportunity to continue learning. By repurposing school kit, we will ensure that children and families get the support they need as quickly as possible.”

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j Humphrys

I hope AM Melding’s plan aids our WELSH homeless. Reports of prisoners from elsewhere “hanging about” after release from Welsh prisons creates feelings of insecurity here. Also, if another “Super Prison” is inflicted upon us, this will surely get much worse. 48 homeless organisations in Cymru is 47 too many. Whatever, I hope the WNP bins the whole Third sector.