Senedd roundup: ‘Encouraging signs’ as R rate drops in Wales

Coronavirus cases in Wales

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Dr Andrew Goodall, Chief Executive of NHS Wales says there have been “encouraging signs” that the Wales-wide firebreak lockdown has had an impact on the spread of Covid-19 across the country but warned that hospital admissions are continuing to rise.

Speaking at today’s government press briefing Dr Goodall also confirmed the reproduction rate of the virus has decreased as a result of the 17-day lockdown.

“There are some emerging signs maybe of some stabilisation, in terms of some of the pressures in the hospital side of the system,” he said.

“We currently assess that the reproduction rate is between 0.9 and 1.2, but it’s quite possible that we may see that reduce further as a reflection of the firebreak.”

Across Wales there are currently 1,654 Covid-related patients in hospital, up 8% on last week and of those, 62 are in critical care, which is lower than a week ago.

Normal critical care capacity of 152 beds has been exceeded, with 157 people needing care but Dr Goodall said there were plans to expand capacity if needed.

“The number of people admitted to hospital with coronavirus symptoms has continued to rise.

“There are some signs hospital admissions are stabilising, but this is not sufficient to overcome current pressures,” he added.

Within the last fortnight two vaccines against Covid-19 have released interim test results suggesting protection of over 90% from the virus and if full trials are successful over the coming weeks, they could be available by the end of the year.

Describing the potential roll out of a Covid-19 vaccine across Wales as “the most significant logistic exercise that we will have undertaken under any vaccination programme” Dr Goodall predicted any programme was likely to continue “well into the spring, and therefore it’s really important that we do start with those who are most vulnerable in our society”.

He said every health board in Wales was “working on proposals that will support whatever version of vaccines come through the regulatory process.”

“The opportunity to protect our population, particularly the most vulnerable, allows us to feel that this would really change the nature of our response in Wales, but it will also take us perhaps longer than people want and expect,” he added.

Public Health Wales has reported 41 more deaths from coronavirus and 640 new positive tests for the virus in today’s update.

The highest number of new cases were in Cardiff (79) followed by Rhondda Cynon Taf (67) and Swansea (54).

35 cases were confirmed in Blaenau Gwent, which has the highest infection rate in Wales at 334.9 per 100,000 of the population over the last week, down from 342.1 reported yesterday.

It also has the highest positive test proportion in Wales over the last seven days at 19.6% per 100,000 tests.

Money

UK Government urged to keep funding promise as new investment plans are published

New funding arrangements to replace those previously administered by the EU have been published by the Welsh Government.

With EU funds set to tail off at the end of this year, the government says the new ‘Framework for Regional Investment for Wales’ is “a strategy for achieving prosperity across the nation and a more inclusive economy, with a greater role for our regions in how funds are spent.”

Jeremy Miles, Minister for European Transition, said that in order to deliver this framework, the UK government must keep the promises they made to the people of Wales, that we will not lose a penny of investment, and that the devolution settlement must be respected.

The new framework has been produced in partnership with local authorities, the private sector, research and academia, and the third sector, and has also received the backing of the OECD.

The framework has 4 broad priorities for investment. They are:

  • More productive and competitive businesses
  • Reducing the factors that lead to economic inequality
  • Supporting the transition to a zero-carbon economy
  • Healthier, fairer, more sustainable communities

Mr Miles said the framework was a testament to a true ‘Made in Wales’ approach and urged the UK government to honour its commitment to replace EU funds and for the Welsh Government to retain the devolved autonomy in the development and delivery of successor arrangements so that new investments can re-start in Wales early next year.

Inequalities

“In the past year, like other countries around the world, our economy, people and communities have also been hit hard by the Covid pandemic. This Framework has a crucial role to play in how we recover, particularly in terms of how we tackle inequalities and promote wellbeing,” Mr Miles said.

“The delays and lack of clarity from the UK government on the Shared Prosperity Fund, and particularly the Internal Market Bill, have threatened the years of hard work invested in developing these new arrangements for Wales. It’s time they stepped up too, and deliver on their long-promised funding, so that we can deliver new investments early next year.”

Responding to today’s announcement, Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Minister for Leaving the European Union Dr Dai Lloyd MS said: “Not a penny less and not a power lost. That was Plaid Cymru’s message when we unveiled our Shared Prosperity Fund Plan for Wales last year. That message remains the same today.

“Westminster is still to detail its plans for the Shared Prosperity more than three years after announcing it and four years after bold promises of replacing the approximately £2 billion in funding that Wales received under European structural funds. It must uphold these promises next week.

“Decisions on how the money is spent in Wales must be made in Wales. It should be allocated according to need – not population – and delivered for the communities of Wales. It is vital that Wales gets the funding and co-operation from Westminster to do this – this has regrettably not happened to date.”

Rebecca Evans AM. Photo National Assembly for Wales and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

£2.5 billion of in-year budget changes approved

Yesterday, the Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), tabled the second supplementary budget of the 2020-21 financial year.

The scale and suddenness of the changes brought about by the Covid-19 response resulted in the Welsh Government’s accounts for 2019-20 (pdf) being qualified by Audit Wales – which in any other year would’ve been a big story in itself.

Measures in the second supplementary budget – almost all related to the Covid-19 pandemic and listed in the Finance Committee’s report (pdf) – include (but are not limited to):

  • £800 million for a “stabilisation package” for the NHS to deal with winter pressures.
  • An additional £306.6 million for local authority hardship funds.
  • £113 million to support rail services and £94.7 million for bus services (mainly offset by cuts to capital spending).
  • Just under £40 million in revenue and capital funding for homelessness programmes.
  • £39.7 million has been transferred from the Economic Resilience Fund to support employment and training.
  • £33 million for a new field hospital in the Cardiff & Vale health board to replace Dragon’s Heart Hospital (Principality Stadium).

Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd MS (Plaid, North Wales) said his committee’s report raised concerns about transparency, particularly a lack of clarity over whether UK Government announcements result in additional funding for Wales and a lack of detail from the Welsh Government over specific items in the supplementary budget.

Elsewhere, there were concerns about the lack of funding (or lack of detail on funding) for fuel poverty, flood management and the track and trace problem.

The budget was approved by 29 votes to 4 with 21 abstentions.

The Senedd. Picture by Senedd Cymru.

Senedd election still set to go ahead next May, but back-up options being prepared

  • First Minister endorses many recommendations of the Electoral Planning Group.
  • A draft Bill is being prepared in case the election needs to be delayed for up to six months (at the Llywydd’s discretion).
  • Differences of opinion on multi-day voting as First Minister suggests early voting centres are considered.

The First Minister has endorsed the recent report of the Election Planning Group, which recommended that planning for next year’s Senedd election should go ahead on the presumption that it’ll happen on May 6th 2021 as planned.

Other measures endorsed include:

  • People should be encouraged to register early for a postal vote to discourage a late rush for applications, with a particular emphasis on those people who’ve been asked to shield during the pandemic or are otherwise vulnerable.
  • There’s support for a degree of flexibility concerning proxy voting whilst maintaining measures against electoral fraud. It’s suggested, for example, that a single proxy could vote for multiple people (i.e. if a household is self-isolating).
  • Voting in an election will be considered an “reasonable excuse” to leave home in the event of future local lockdowns.
  • Vote counts could take longer to protect count staff and other election officials.

One new measure supported by the First Minister was the prospect of early voting centres being set up to spread voting over multiple days.

The First Minister also confirmed that a back-up plan was being prepared in the form of a draft law, which would be introduced to the Senedd if it’s deemed necessary to delay the election for up to six months. Under the Government of Wales Act 2006, the election can only be delayed or brought forward by a month.

The measures were broadly welcomed by the opposition, with the usual caveats that measures are put in place to ensure voters have confidence in the process. Labour backbenchers who spoke during the discussion backed, in principle, holding the vote over several days.

The only major differences in opinion were the Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS’s (Con, Preseli Pembs.) desire for polling to still take place from 7 am – 10 pm on a single day, and Adam Prie MS (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) raising the issue of complications associated with the delayed Police & Crime Commissioner elections (meaning different election rules being applied to different elections).

Nick Ramsay AM. Photo The National Assembly for Wales.

Conservative MS to take legal action over deselection bid by local association

Welsh Conservative MS Nick Ramsay is taking his local party to court over an attempt by members to have him deselected as a candidate for next year’s Senedd election.

Lawyers for Mr Ramsay, who was elected as an AM for Monmouth in 2007, claim the move is “unconstitutional” and a breach of “natural justice”.

The Monmouth Conservative Association have called a meeting next Monday to discuss a petition, signed by local members, calling for the reversal of the previous decision to re-adopt Mr Ramsay as candidate for the election.

The chair of the association, Nick Hackett-Pain, told BBC Wales: “The Monmouth Conservative Association has never sought any form of confrontation with Nick Ramsay and any legal action brought is entirely of his doing.

“We have been advised by lawyers and Conservative head office that we have acted entirely within our rules and rights at all times.”

In response, Mr Ramsay’s solicitor Timothy Gir said: “”They should be in no doubt we are taking them to court and we are confident the right thinking members of the association are appalled they are being taken advantage of in this way.”

Mr Ramsey was suspended from the party earlier this year after he was arrested on New Year’s Day and released without facing any charges two days later.

He subsequently took legal action against the Conservative Senedd group and was “fully re-instated” to the group in February following a High Court ruling that group leader Paul Davies had broken the party’s constitution in suspending him.

Photograph by Silas Camargo Silão from Pixabay

Health and care higher priority for people in Wales

A survey for Engage Britain has revealed that health and care the Covid-19 pandemic remain top priorities for people in Wales.

However, people in Wales (72%) were more likely to consider health and care as a higher priority than the UK average (65%), while Welsh people were also more inclined (62% – 54%) to believe that keeping Covid-19 under control should be prioritised.

Poverty was considered the third-highest priority across the UK’s nations and regions, while racial equality, immigration, crime and trade were ranked lowly.

Engage Britain’s Julian McCrae said: “While there are similarities between Welsh priorities and those for others around the UK, we’ve found that dealing with the impacts of coronavirus is an issue that has resonated even more so in Wales. Conversely, challenges centred around housing do not appear to be as high of a priority to those living in Wales than other areas of the country.”

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