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Senedd roundup: Committee says care homes ‘badly let down’ by lack of testing for Covid-19

08 Jul 2020 14 minute read
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash.

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

NHS Wales Chief Executive Dr Andrew Goodall says the Welsh Government will “review” and respond to the recommendations of a report from the Senedd’s health committee that has criticised the Covid-19 testing strategy for care homes during the early stages of the outbreak.

Over 1000 patients were discharged from hospitals to care homes without being tested for Covid-19 as the pandemic hit, and the government failed to introduce testing of care home residents with symptoms, and those being discharged from hospital until 29 April.

From 16 May it introduced testing for all care home residents and staff, regardless of whether they had symptoms.

Deaths in care homes make up 28% of the 2,438 deaths from coronavirus in Wales since the start of the outbreak in March.

The report says that care homes had been “badly let down” by the lack of testing and the government was too slow to respond to the crisis.

Speaking at Wednesday’s coronavirus press briefing NHS Wales Chief Executive Dr Andrew Goodall said health officials had “really tried” from the outset to make sure that there was a focus on care homes and had always been “very open” about learning from the virus as it progressed.

“It’s been really important to make sure that we’re able to continue to provide policy guidance, advice into the system, base it on the latest learning and experience and make sure that we were looking at that both holistically across both the NHS and the care system,” he said.

Dr Goodall also reported there are currently 529 patients being treated in Welsh hospitals for issues related to coronavirus, more than 60% lower than the peak in April.

There are 12 people are being treated in critical care – the lowest number since the pandemic started.

The number of deaths in Wales due to Covid-19 has increased to 1,538 as four more deaths from the virus were confirmed over the last 24 hours.

Public Health Wales also reported 13 new cases, taking the total number of people infected to 15,913. 

On Tuesday 3,625 tests were carried out across Wales.

Test swabs. Photo by Vesna Harni from Pixabay

Wales only using a fifth of Covid-19 testing capacity.

First Minister’s Questions

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.), has serious concerns about coronavirus testing rates in Wales:

“….we know that the total number of tests in the last 24 hours was 3,054, which means that just a fifth of capacity has been used. And more worrying, according to official figures, no extra tests were carried out between 28th June and 5th July for healthcare workers across Wales. Clearly, this shows that more testing could and should be done.”
– Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS

On the possibility of future local lockdowns, he added that if local lockdowns were introduced, then the public would have a right to clear reasoning from the Welsh Government – including appropriate scientific evidence.

The First Minister said the fact that there was capacity to carry out 15,000 tests was a good thing, but there was an assumption that “more tests are better” when it’s more complicated than that; they need to be carried out for the right reasons and a low number of tests is an indication that new cases of Covid-19 are at a low level.

On local lockdowns, the First Minister is pressing the case for Wales to play a full part in a future joint UK biosecurity centre to pool intelligence and evidence from across the UK. That evidence would form the basis of any decision to introduce local lockdowns if needed.

Care workers still waiting for their Welsh Government £500 bonus

Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) turned to the pledged £500 bonus for care workers in Wales – which still hasn’t been paid out yet due to a dispute over whether it’ll be taxed by the UK Treasury.

“I’ve been contacted by the owner of a care home in my constituency. His employees….are hard-working and undervalued, and he urgently wants the Welsh Government to honour the promise made in May that every worker in a care setting would receive £500. Now, waiting for Westminster has never served us well in Wales and, yes, the UK Treasury needs to find its moral compass by making the payment tax-free.”
– Adam Price MS

He went on to say that care work has been dogged by “low pay and zero-hour contracts” for decades. Was it now time to ensure care workers had a proper living wage as the first step towards receiving the same pay as NHS staff?

The First Minister confirmed that “constructive discussions” were ongoing with the UK Government to ensure the bonus was tax-free.

On pay and working conditions in the care sector, he described it as a “challenge for all of society” to properly value and fairly reward those working in an otherwise neglected and undervalued occupation.

“I want to be positive in my reply to Adam Price’s question because I agree with him that the result of coronavirus ought to be that, as a society, we have to be prepared to find the money to make this a sector that recognises the significance of the work that it does every single day.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

Tories join push for mandatory face coverings

The Welsh Conservatives have joined Plaid Cymru in calling for the government to introduce the mandatory wearing of face masks in public places.

Currently the Welsh Government has only recommended that people wear three-layer face coverings on public transport and other situations where they cannot avoid being closer than 2 metres.

First Minister Mark Drakeford told the Senedd today that he was keeping the issue “continuingly under review.”

“If the advice changes our position in Wales will change as well,” he said.

“Wearing a face covering is not by itself a magic bullet that prevents people from contracting or spreading coronavirus.”

Darren Millar MS, Welsh Conservative Shadow Covid Recovery Minister says masks should be mandatory on public transport and in shops.

“As more people return to work and our high streets get busier, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain and enforce the current two-metre social distancing rules,” he said.

“In recognition of this, the Labour-led Welsh Government must act now to make the use of face coverings mandatory on public transport and for visiting shops.”

Plaid Cymru Shadow Health Minister Rhun ap Iorwerth MS said yesterday: “Evidence continues to grow about the effectiveness of face coverings in limiting the transmission of the Coronavirus. Just as Scotland has now made face masks compulsory in shops and public transport, Welsh Government should provide a clear, unambiguous directive and make the wearing of face coverings a requirement in certain public places.

Picture by the Welsh Government

Announcement “expected later this week” on September school reopening

Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies MS (Con, South Wales West), congratulated schools, staff and local authorities for arranging the three/four-week catch-up period before the summer holidays.

All eyes are now on what happens at the start of the autumn term, with a petition recently launched calling for a full reopening of schools in September. She said draft guidance based on transmission rates of Covid-19 was already in circulation, though the Minister responded by saying she didn’t want to be overtaken by events before making a final decision:

“I think it’s really important that we build confidence amongst staff and parents that we are acting on the very latest scientific advice. Throughout this process, we have said that our aim would be to maximise face-to-face contact for our children and to minimise disruption, and I know that schools have prepared operational guidance for a range of scenarios, and those plans will have to be kept under review regardless of what statement I’m able to make by the end of this week because how the disease behaves in our community is key to unlocking educational opportunities for children.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor)

The Minister went on to say that “blended learning” (a mix on in-person and online teaching) was likely to remain a feature for some time to come. Acknowledging that some schools have been able to deal with this better than others, additional training and advice was being prepared to share the best ways of doing it with school staff across Wales.

Preventing a wider attainment gap a priority from September

Also focusing on the September school plans, Sian Gwenllian MS (Plaid, Arfon) asked what would be done to ensure the pandemic lockdown doesn’t widen the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students?

“Plaid Cymru did publish a plan some weeks ago that would include employing more teachers, attracting recently-retired teachers back into schools. So, what will your aim be for children and young people who haven’t been supported during the pandemic, those that are most disadvantaged and therefore the greatest challenge? What exactly are your plans for that cohort of children?”
– Sian Gwenllian MS

The Minister told the Senedd that the expected Barnett Formula consequential as a result of English school catch-up programme is expected to be just £30 million, with the rest coming in the new financial year and unavailable at this time.

She went on to say that different children will be impacted in different ways; some will simply need to catch up on curriculum content, while others may have emotional and mental health issues they need to work through as a consequence of the pandemic (i.e. bereavement or witnessing serious illness).

One of the main barriers, however, is digital exclusion:

“….those children that….don’t either have a device, a suitable device, or indeed connectivity at home. That’s why we’ve spent £3 million on trying to address that situation. I’m very grateful to colleagues in local government, who have worked in partnership with us, to give out over 10,000 pieces of equipment, and over 10,000 MiFi devices. Again, this is a record I think we can be proud of in Wales, compared to the ability to get kit out of the door in other nations, where they have struggled to do so.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams

Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

Call for rescue plan to speed-up cancer diagnoses and treatments

With a nod to some of the findings of the Health Committee’s report on Covid-19, Shadow Social Care Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders MS (Con, Aberconwy), asked whether the impact of discharges to care homes will be properly accounted for in future reports?

She noted the Older People’s Commissioner’s request for step-down facilities to enable safe discharge from hospitals and concerns over the limited availability of testing.

Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth) said a revised testing strategy would be published by the end of next week.

He repeated that the decision to discharge care home residents from hospitals was based on the available advice at any given time:

“When it comes to the discharges without coronavirus tests, as I’ve said on a number of occasions, that was because that was the state of the current advice. The decision that I took was based on that advice, that at that point in time people without symptoms should not be tested. However, it is worth all of us remembering that a range of those people were being discharged to their own home. I think it’s important that we support people to return and be cared for in their own home as we look to support the wider care home sector.”
– Health & Social Services Minister, Vaughan Gething

Rhun ap Iorwerth MS (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said there had been a very worrying decrease in cancer diagnosis rates since the lockdown started:

“The crisis has led to a number of very worrying predictions that excess deaths from cancer are likely to occur this year as a result of screening programmes being cancelled, people being too afraid to visit the NHS….and treatment being postponed….So, will you therefore adopt a cancer rescue plan that has more ambitious targets for testing and treatment than have previously been the case because of the probability that the NHS will be identifying cancers at a later stage?”
– Rhun ap Iorwerth MS

Although part of the Minister’s answer was cut off/inaudible, he said reforms to the cancer treatment process in Wales will give a clearer picture of how many cancer treatment referrals have been impacted by the pandemic.

He cited a suspension (during lockdown) and subsequent restart of endoscopy services as an area which will benefit from the more accurate figures the new treatment pathway will provide. He accepted that the pandemic has caused significant challenges in cancer treatment and pledged to be “open and transparent” about what the Welsh Government were doing.

Photo by ampersandyslexia and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0Great Western threatened by coronavirus passenger slump

FirstGroup, the UK’s largest bus company and operator of rail franchises including Great Western Railway, has reported it may not be able to continue trading because of the impact of the coronavirus on its business.

On Tuesday, the company reported losses of just under £300m for the year to the end of March.

Since the coronavirus lockdown began in March, passenger numbers have plunged across its rail and bus divisions, which are now relying on support from government to continue running.

The company said that while emergency subsidies had kept its operations viable, there was “material uncertainty as to the continuation of these measures” and “no way to predict” the impact of coronavirus on passenger numbers.

Great Western operates Intercity services to Cardiff and beyond from London Paddington.

Photo by rafzin p on Unsplash

Video consultations extended to pharmacy, optometry and dentistry in Wales

Health Minister Vaughan Gething has announced that video consultation services will be extended to dental practices, opticians and community pharmacies.

The move follows the roll-out of these service in primary care, community and secondary care during the coronavirus pandemic.

To date over 6,400 GP video consultations have been undertaken and over 8,800 video consultations to support community and secondary care. 97% of patients who have used the service have rated it as excellent, really good or good, according to government figures.

Video consultation has enabled essential services to continue during the pandemic, whilst also protecting patients and NHS employees from increased risk of infection.

A pilot programme will operate this month to extend the services to dentistry, optometry and community pharmacies who have all experienced an increase in demand for additional services, including people seeking advice for common ailments.

The introduction of social distancing has also meant that some services have not taken place and video consultation will help support the reintroduction of these.

Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire. Picture by the Welsh Government

£4 million made available to help protect vital habitats and threatened species

A grant scheme of at least £4m has been launched to help improve sites of natural significance around Wales.

The Welsh Government, in partnership with Natural Resources Wales, has opened a new round of grant funding for large-scale capital projects to maintain and improve Natura 2000 sites.

Natura 2000 sites were set up in 2011 with the aim of ensuring the long-term survival of valuable and threatened species and habitats across Europe. They form part of the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world.

Natura 2000 sites in Wales include Skokholm, Skomer, Afon Teifi, Cadair Idris and Cors Caron.

Lesley Griffiths, the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, said:”This funding will provide focused support to help save nature in crisis, and improve ecosystem resilience helping us respond to the climate emergency.

“Funding our response to the climate emergency remains one of our top priorities, and we will keep funding under review as we continue to understand the scale of the remedial work needed.”

Organisations and individuals who can demonstrate action to improve Natura 2000 sites by March 2021 are encouraged to apply. The grant window will be open for five weeks.

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