Senedd roundup: Expert warns against loosening Covid restrictions for Christmas

Table laid for Christmas dinner. Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

A scientist who advises the UK government as a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), says that plans to loosen restrictions over the Christmas break risks “throwing fuel on the fire” of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Earlier this week Health Minister Vaughan Gething hinted that ongoing talks between the four UK nations over arrangements for the Christmas holiday could see an easing of restrictions on gatherings indoors.

Talks between the four governments got underway earlier this month with the aim of establishing a UK-wide set of rules on family gatherings and travel over the festive period.

The current advice from the Welsh Government is that other than in very limited circumstances, nobody other than members of your extended household should enter your home or garden.

Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London (UCL), said that allowing families to mix at Christmas would pose “substantial risks”.

“Mixing at Christmas does pose substantial risks, particularly in terms of bringing together generations with high incidence of infection with the older generations who currently have much lower levels of infection and are at most risk of dying if they catch Covid,” he said.

“My personal view is we’re putting far too much emphasis on having a near-normal Christmas.

“We know respiratory infections peak in January so throwing fuel on the fire over Christmas can only contribute to this.”

The Sun newspaper reported yesterday that  Sage scientists have been modelling the impact of groups bigger than six meeting up and are considering allowing family gatherings indoors for the five-day holiday between Christmas Eve and 28 December 28

Households that choose to celebrate together are unlikely to be able to mix with others outside that grouping during the holiday period, according to the report.

There have been a further 23 new deaths due to Covid-19 and 1,048 new cases, according to today’s report from Public Health Wales.

Cardiff has the largest number of new cases in Wales at 130, followed by Rhondda Cynon Taf with 111.

Both Caerphilly and Swansea recorded 87 new positive tests for the virus.

57 cases were confirmed in Blaenau Gwent, which has the highest weekly infection rate in Wales at 356.4 per 100,000 of the population, up from 334.9 yesterday and the highest positive test proportion at 19.2% per 100,000 tests.

Health Minister Vaughan Gething

NHS waiting times show massive increase due to pandemic impact

New figures released today have revealed the huge impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on NHS services in Wales.

In March Health Minister Vaughan Gething directed the NHS to postpone all routine procedures and appointments to focus on its response to the pandemic and a phased restart of non-emergency treatments only began in June.

Today’s figure which cover the period from March until the end of August show the number of patients waiting more than 36 weeks to start treatment in hospital has grown from 27,314 in January to 168,944 (up 518%)

Those waiting between six and nine months has jumped from 49,548 to 116,807 (up 136%) and the number of people waiting more than nine months has risen 800% on last years.

The government’s own targets state 95% of patients should be treated within six months and nobody should wait longer than six months.

Challenging

Responding to the statistics, Mr Gething confirmed additional funding of £30 million has been made available to support urgent and emergency care services and increase resilience “in anticipation of a challenging winter period.”

“As expected, we have seen a significant rise in waiting times for elective treatment. Operating with new social distancing restrictions, strict infection control and other measures to keep people safe, mean the NHS is only able to carry out about half the number of procedures every day, compared to pre-pandemic levels,” he added.

“The Welsh Ambulance Service has reported its response times have been impacted by the additional time it takes for paramedics to put on the required level of PPE, as well as the need to deep clean vehicles after call outs.

“While in the early part of lockdown our Emergency Departments saw a fall in the usual footfall, demand has begun to return to normal levels at a time when they are now operating with reduced capacity due to infection control and physical distancing requirements.

“All our health boards now have plans in place to operate under these new circumstances and to see patients in order of clinical priority. However just as in other UK nations it will take a long time to return to the position we were in before the pandemic. That will require significant resources over and above the current funding to respond to the unfinished pandemic.”

Pressure

Plaid Cymru Shadow Health Minister Rhun ap Iorwerth MS said the new data “further proves the enormous pressure our NHS is under as a result of the pandemic”.

“We still need to see more urgency in delivering significant ‘Green’ COVID-free, or ‘COVID-light’ sites for diagnosis and treatment. Stopping in-hospital transmission of the virus is another area which needs significant attention,” he added

“Meanwhile we’re still awaiting reassurance from Ministers of how they used the firebreak to strengthen the all-important test, trace and isolate measures. This is the key in gaining control in our battle against coronavirus, and will demonstrate that the government intends to keep its promise to work towards Covid elimination in Wales, rather than be prepared to bounce from one lockdown to another.”

Penally military camp. Picture from Google Maps

UK Government should reconsider their use of Pembrokeshire military camp to house asylum seekers

  • MSs criticise UK Government decision to use the Penally camp without consultation or appropriate support.
  • Far-right protestors accused of exploiting the situation through misinformation and being a general nuisance.
  • Welsh Government supports closing the camp and re-housing asylum seekers in appropriate settings.

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Believes the UK Government should have held discussions with the Welsh Government and local representatives before housing asylum seekers at the Penally military base, near Tenby.
  • Believes that the decision should be reconsidered because it is an unsuitable place for asylum seekers and is isolated from appropriate support networks.
  • Condemns violent protests organised by far-right groups from outside Pembrokeshire.
  • Praises local residents and volunteers from across Wales who have welcomed and supported the asylum seekers.

Joyce Watson MS (Lab, Mid & West Wales) said the Penally camp was selected without any consultation with relevant local authorities, including the health board and Pembrokeshire Council. A military camp was wholly unsuitable to house many people who’ve experienced the horrors of war first hand.

There were well-established networks in the major Welsh towns and cities with the necessary expertise and infrastructure to support asylum seekers, but there was nothing like that in Pembrokeshire.

Leanne Wood MS (Plaid, Rhondda) rounded on the far-right, who had “exploited the episode for all its worth” with misinformation easily spread via social media – making the counter-protests all the more heartening.

Angela Burns MS (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.) criticised the motion for not providing any alternative ideas; the UK Home Office had to make quick decisions as there was nowhere to house people. She did, however, agree that the UK Government should provide appropriate funding to the local authorities and that a military camp was fine for the short term, but not for the long term.

Anti-immigration protesters were written off as “stroppy and aggressive agitators clogging the lanes, weeing in gardens and intimidating passers-by”.

In response, Deputy Minister & Chief Whip, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), said the Welsh Government’s position was broadly in line with the motion. Although immigration and asylum are reserved matters and the UK Government’s responsibility, it was wholly appropriate for the impact on Welsh services to be factored in and addressed.

She criticised Home Office changes to improve conditions at the camp as being “disgracefully slow”. The Welsh Government supports the closure of the camp and asylum seekers should be housed in appropriate settings instead.

The motion secured 39 votes in favour with one against and 15 abstentions.

Covid testing centre. Photo by Tim Dennell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Shadow minister welcomes mass-testing programme

Welsh Conservative health spokesperson, Andrew RT Davies MS has welcomed the government’s mass-testing initiative in Merthyr Tydfil, announced by Health Minister Vaughan Gething yesterday and  called for the programme to be rolled out to other areas of the country with high rates of Covid-19.

From Saturday everyone who lives and works in Merthyr will be offered a test whether they have symptoms or not.

The borough recorded the highest infection rate in UK at the start of November and despite a sharp fall following the introduction of the 17-day firebreak lockdown, is still among the worst affected areas in Wales with 270.2 cases per 100,000 people.

The programme will start this Saturday and will be the first time that Lateral Flow Devices, which can turn around results in 20-30 minutes will be used on a mass scale in Wales.

“I’m pleased to see this project is being delivered through a collaborative partnership between the Welsh Government, UK Government, Merthyr CBC, Cwm Taf Morgannwg Health Board and the Ministry of Defence, with logistical support from Armed Forces personnel, which should’ve been more commonplace throughout the pandemic,” Mr Davies said.

“Mass testing is a vital tool to help us reduce the admissions into our hospitals and hopefully it will reduce the pressure being seen in the Cwm Taf Health Board area, which has been particularly hard hit with hospital-acquired infections and deaths.

“If successful, I hope ministers will work positively with partners to ensure this is rolled-out to other high incidence areas in Wales to ensure we have can gain more control of this virus and return some more normality to people’s lives.”

The makeshift bed of a homeless person in Cardiff. Picture by Ben Salter (CC BY 2.0)

Government makes a complaint to the BBC over misrepresentation of rough-sleeping numbers

Delyth Jewell MS (Plaid, South Wales East) raised a recent BBC Wales report which claimed that up to a quarter of rough-sleepers who were housed during the first lockdown in March were sleeping rough again in August 2020.

Whilst accepting that some people will have complex needs, it brings into question why they weren’t provided with heightened levels of support when they were first housed?

Minister for Housing & Local Government, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West) said the BBC report underestimated the scale of the issue and there were nowhere near a quarter of rough-sleepers who had returned to the streets (it was 101 of around 3,500 who were helped in total).

Many more people were picked up during the first lockdown, like sofa surfers and people sleeping in cars. The Welsh Government has made a complaint to the BBC and the Minister believed the broadcaster had disrespected those who “worked their socks off” to get people off the street and hadn’t truly appreciated the scale of the work that had gone on.
That said, there was an overall need to get on top of the pandemic and the subsequent economic consequences which are likely to drive homelessness.

Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood MS (Con, North Wales), mentioned a report which believed the skills and strengths of local people should be used to shape local services. However, these words weren’t being backed with action due to silo mentalities and risk aversion, which were all barriers to greater community action. How could the Welsh Government design and deliver a better model of local government co-production?

The Minister told the Senedd that several organisations were working with the Welsh Government to ensure communities are involved in shaping their local areas (a concept called “place-making”).

While there was a need for some services to be universal regardless of where someone lives to ensure consistency, other services need local voices to be “heard loud and clear”. Planning policies and the National Development Framework are all designed to ensure local people have that voice.

Photo by Nation.Cymru

Environmental governance and veterinary concerns as Brexit transition end looms

Shadow Environment Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders MS (Con, Aberconwy), noted criticisms of the lack of independence of Natural Resources Wales and the lack of environmental expertise within the office of the Future Generations Commissioner ahead of the end of the Brexit process.

Wales needs a new environmental governance body in place and a new regime for environmental complaints, but when would the Senedd see solid details?

Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), said environmental governance was just one tiny part of leaving the EU and she’s seen for herself in meetings the sheer amount of work needed before 31st December.

The situation in Wales regarding environmental governance was different compared to England as Wales has the Environment Act 2016 which has a set of environmental principles. Interim measures to deal with environmental complaints would be put in place before the introduction of new statutory measures, though the Minister rejected the insinuation that environmental plans had been in any way “put on the backburner”.

Llyr Gruffydd MS (Plaid, North wales) couldn’t resist pointing out the irony of the Conservatives complaining about Brexit’s potential impact. In other areas, there were worries veterinary capacity given the new load of red tape (export certificates etc.) which would be required from 1st January, as well as concerns over animal feed supplies.

At the moment, the plans were for vets to be moved from TB testing and the emerging avian flu outbreak to deal with that regulatory burden, but he asked whether there were any further details?

The Minister criticised the UK Government for thinking you could simply throw money at these problems and expect them to go away; they say they want to recruit extra environmental health officers, but they take 4 years to train.

She pointed to increased vet recruitment over the last few years, while animal feed supplies have been factored into end-of-transition contingency plans. TB testing has also been maintained as best as it can be, with most problems related to the Covid-19 pandemic (self-isolation etc.).

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