Senedd roundup: First conronavirus deaths recorded in Wales since August

Picture: rhonddawildlifediary (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Three new deaths due to coronavirus have been reported today by Public Health Wales, the first since 31 August.

One death was from the Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board area, one from Cwm Taf and one from Aneurin Bevan.

There have been 167 new cases of the virus across Wales in the last 24 hours, 34 in Caerphilly and 32 in Rhondda Cynon Taf, where new lockdown restrictions will be put in place from this evening.

Rhondda has recorded 202 cases in in the last seven days, the highest in Wales, as the infection rate has climbed to 83.7 per 100,000 people.

Caerphilly, where a lockdown has been in force since last Tuesday, still has the highest infection rate in Wales at 83.9 per 100,000 people and has posted 152 new infections in the last week.

Health Minister Vaughan Gething said yesterday there were “cautious reasons” for optimism, based on how lockdown measures were working in Caerphilly county borough.

There had been a “levelling off and a slight reduction in new cases there,” he added.

The infection rate across Wales has declined from 34.5 per 100,000 people last week to 23.6 over the last seven days.

The total number of deaths caused by Covid-19 since March has risen to 1,600 and the total number of people infected is now 20,048.

PHW confirmed 9,797 tests were carried out yesterday.

Doncaster Racecourse. Photo by www.badobadop.co.uk, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Shadow Minister demands apology over Doncaster Races coronavirus link

Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Health, Andrew RT Davies, has called for an apology from Health Minister Vaughan Gething, after he linked a coach trip to Doncaster Racecourse with a coronavirus cluster in Rhondda Cynon Taf.

Announcing a lockdown in the area starting today, Mr Gething highlighted two significant Covid clusters, one associated with a rugby club and pub in the lower Rhondda and the other with a club outing to the Doncaster races, which stopped off at a series of pubs on the way.

A statement from the racecourse published yesterday afternoon said they had “received no contact from any organisation, including the NHS or the Welsh Government, to verify the attendance of any individuals at last week’s event for the purposes of track and trace.  In addition, we do not have any ticket bookings for any groups from the South Wales area for Wednesday’s event.”

Public Health Wales later confirmed that no one from the group had attended the event last week.

“This false allegation regarding Doncaster Races appears to be yet another example of staggering incompetence from the Health Minister and the Welsh Labour-led Government,” Mr Davies said.

“Only on Tuesday, the Minister, was forced to admit he had sat on a serious data breach involving 18,000 Welsh patients for two weeks and hadn’t bothered to inform his boss, the First Minister.

“And last night, we learn that his comments to the Welsh Parliament yesterday regarding the Coronavirus outbreak in the Rhondda were horribly wrong.

“In a public health crisis, it’s vital that the information government and ministers provide to the people of Wales is accurate, and as such the record must be corrected and a clarification and apology provided immediately by the Labour Party.”

Senedd backs local lockdowns and increased Covid-19 testing for people returning from abroad

  • Opposition calls for a balance between public health and the economy in future Covid-19 restrictions.
  • Health Minister says “Smart local lockdown” system in place based around close working with local agencies.
  • Practical issues still need to be addressed for routine testing at Cardiff Airport.

The Motion (Final/Amended Version)

The Senedd calls upon the Welsh Government:

  • To use local coronavirus restrictions in response to significant increases in Covid-19 infection rates in a proportionate manner to avoid a full Wales-wide lockdown.
  • Test people returning to Wales from non-exempt countries with a higher incidence rate of Covid-19 than Wales, in accordance with current advice from the Technical Advisory Group.

Inconsistencies in the Welsh Government’s approach

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.), welcomed that one of the things they called for – clarity on the use of face coverings – has already been addressed, but could’ve happened sooner. Also, if masks are mandatory in shops they should be so in schools too?

Given that so many new cases have been linked to foreign holidays, the time has surely come for routine testing at Cardiff Airport as well.

Later on, Suzy Davies MS (Con, South Wales West) said future management of the pandemic had to be locally-focused and the number of contacts a person has was more important than distance. Nick Ramsay MS (Con, Monmouth) thought local lockdowns would have a lesser impact on the economy – though there have been inconsistencies in the government’s approach, particularly in relation to tourism

Rhun ap Iorwerth MS (Plaid, Ynys Môn) thought the motion was sensible enough, but there were some technical aspects Plaid Cymru didn’t agree with. None of these measures will work without greater testing capacity.

Caroline Jones MS (Ind, South Wales West) supported setting up secure accommodation so returning travellers can self-isolate comfortably and also tested on day 2 and 9 after their return – this is how many countries have successfully suppressed the virus.

Laura Anne Jones MS (Con, South Wales East) called for local lockdown measures to be proportionate; health should be the priority, but mental health, children’s wellbeing and livelihoods can’t be brushed aside.

“Smart lockdown” process in place

Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), was confident that bringing together all relevant local agencies would mean a “smart lockdown” system is already in place, with better use of intelligence and quickly identifying and containing localised outbreaks.

Repeating what the First Minister said earlier in the week, there remained some practical issued concerning testing at Cardiff Airport which need to be addressed.

“….we need to make sure that we don’t bunch passengers together and that we have clear expectations about how long people may need to stay within the airport setting; that we don’t mix passenger groups from different flights – many of us are used to being in the same area to collect baggage as people from different flights – and that we have clear segregation of flights that we may want to test; and that there is space within the airport estate for testing itself.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething

Vote

The amended version of the motion was essentially a softer rewording of the one the Conservatives tabled, so I assume that’s why they abstained rather than outright rejected it.

Laura Anne Jones voted in favour of the amended motion – whether on accident or on purpose, I don’t know.

Those voting against the amended motion likely did so for very different reasons so don’t read too much into it.

The motion was carried 31 -14 with nine abstentions.

Photo by Andrew_Writer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Government wants more research before considering devolution of welfare administration

  • Senedd notes Communities Committee report recommending partial devolution of welfare administration.
  • Some members disappointed by the number of Welsh Government rejections of the report’s recommendations.
  • Welsh Government adopts a reluctant approach to devolution of welfare administration – not ruling anything in or out subject to further research.

Sticking to the status quo “a considerable risk”

Chair of the Committee, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East) was one of a number of MSs who expressed disappointment at the Welsh Government’s rejection of several recommendations, citing the Covid-19 pandemic as a valid reason not to consider reforms to the welfare system given the level of present uncertainty.

He added that there was a lot to learn from the experiences of Scotland (where welfare administration is devolved) and the welfare powers are significant enough to make a big impact on poverty levels.

Mark Isherwood MS (Con, North Wales) emphasised the need for people who have a lived experience of welfare to be involved in the design and delivery of new systems – though he picked up on a point from witnesses that devolution in itself wouldn’t improve things automatically.

Benefits system “complex, stigmatising and doesn’t provide a decent income”

Huw Irranca-Davies MS (Lab, Ogmore) said over the last ten years, the UK welfare system has become more punitive. Contesting the Welsh Government’s response, he believes the report presented a practical way forward with plenty of considered evidence to support a case for devolution and nobody argued that the welfare system should be devolved in its entirety.

Delyth Jewell MS (Plaid, South Wales East) believed compassion should be built into the system and when working for Citizens Advice she saw how universal credit, in particular, was broken. Welfare administration powers would help aid the Welsh Government in closing loopholes that see people fall through gaps in support – using an example of eligibility for hardship funds to cover funeral costs.

Important to raise awareness of the support that’s already available

Deputy Minister for Housing & Local Government, Hannah Blythyn (Lab, Delyn), listed a number of ways in which the Welsh Government has assisted people through the pandemic. These measures mainly focused around making people more aware of the support they may already be entitled to, as well as providing emergency funding and support for food banks.

Acknowledging the committee members’ disappointment, the Deputy Minister thought the reaction to the government’s response was unfair. The government is well aware of how important welfare is in controlling and reducing poverty – which is why further research has been requested.

“I would like to make clear that we wholeheartedly recognise as a government that devolving certain powers relating to elements of social security could provide us with a wider range of tools to tackle poverty, which is why we asked the Wales Centre for Public Policy to undertake the work in this area in the first place and we will continue to look at the evidence and also include the evidence of this committee in our work.”
– Deputy Minister for Housing & Local Government, Hannah Blythyn

Photo by Nation.Cymru

Farming “not ready” for a No Deal Brexit

Environment & Rural Affairs questions

Llyr Gruffydd MS (Plaid, North Wales) asked what the long-term intention was concerning support for new farmers. The current scheme is set to end and there’s the potential for a gap in support before a post-Brexit Welsh Agriculture Bill is introduced.

“It is causing concern that we may be facing a two or three-year period without any bespoke support of that kind. And why do you think it would be acceptable for us not to support young entrants in the interim period? And what kind of message do you think it might send to the industry if they believe that Government’s thinking is that that kind of support is expendable, even if only in the short term?”
– Llyr Gruffydd MS

The Minister said a White Paper will be published before the end of the year and presents an opportunity to “look again” at what support was offered to new entrants to farming – though she didn’t offer any specific details.

She later admitted that the impact of Covid-19 and other matters means that the farming sector is “probably not” ready for a potential No-Deal Brexit.

“….I chaired the latest DEFRA (meeting), where myself and my Scottish counterpart were told – we were talking about business preparedness and the Internal Market Bill – by the (UK) Secretary of State that we were looking at it ‘glass-half-empty’. I don’t agree with that at all. I have genuine, real concerns that businesses aren’t prepared. We asked them to prepare last year for a No Deal Brexit; they were stood down, if you like. We’ve now had the Covid-19 pandemic and, clearly, now, we’re having to gear up again.”
– Environment & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths

Flooding

Flooding over the summer – on top of flooding from storms earlier in 2020 – prompted Shadow Environment & Rural Affairs Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders MS (Con, Aberconwy), to accuse the Welsh Government of ignoring communities in the Conwy Valley by not immediately offering emergency flood funding.

Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), suggested Conwy council simply hadn’t applied for funding yet; funding which 100% covers the cost of flooding has already been applied for by Rhondda Cynon Taf Council and that offer is available to other councils.

Councils also have a statutory responsibility to publish flood investigation reports. Putting the impact of Covid-19 aside, reports relating to storms Ciara and Dennis are yet to be published. Janet Finch-Saunders called for the Minister to set a deadline for their publication.

The Minister was willing to look at this:

“….I think you’re right – it is helpful, not just for transparency, but also for looking at what flood alleviation schemes we can bring forward….Local authorities told me that one of the barriers to bringing the (flood prevention) schemes forward was funding, so I’ve taken that barrier away by saying we’ll fund 100% of that initial study to see if a flood alleviation scheme would be suitable for that particular area.”
– Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths

Photo by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay.

Some planning departments “still ignoring Future Generations Act principles”

Delyth Jewell MS (Plaid, South Wales East) cited several examples of ways in which the housing market and planning system were broken.

There was the issue of second homes and holiday lets pricing locals out of communities, council tax loopholes which allow second home owners to reduce their tax bill (or avoid it) as well as issues around the quality of new housing developments and cuts to affordable housing quotas by planning inspectors.

“….there’s a lot that I think that our two parties do agree on: we agree that more affordable homes are needed; we agree more social housing is needed, and new estates should be supported by properly funded infrastructure….And we agree that they should be as estates built around the principles of active travel and the Future Generations Act….But my office has seen correspondence from one planning department that ignores the remarks you made a year ago in this Chamber that the Future Generations Act should take precedence over LDPs produced prior to that Act.”
– Delyth Jewell MS

Minister for Housing & Local Government, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), looked at the bright side – increased general interest in housing in Wales was a sign Wales was becoming a more attractive place to live.

There were several policies coming down the line to help, including changes to eligibility for Welsh Government funding for leasehold developments and the introduction of regional bodies to aid planning decisions.

Additionally, there’s been an effort by the government to ensure that new planning requirements come into effect immediately. This is to ensure developers can’t get permission for new developments that would be subject to old/outdated rules for however long that consent lasts – which is why some developments fall short in terms of infrastructure etc.

Local information will guide LDP housing targets

With projected household growth in Flintshire and Wrexham revised downwards, Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood MS (Con, North Wales), asked whether these new, lower projections would be used to revise housing targets for Local Development Plans – which often prove to be controversial or are considered to be set too highly.

The answer was “yes”.

“You’ll know that we suspended the five-year future housing protection some time ago….because we thought the growing number of planning authorities in Wales who don’t have an existing LDP were causing serious problems with speculative planning applications around their edges. So, we’ve assisted local authorities in doing that, and we expect them to come forward with proper projections based on the local information that you’ve just outlined, for example, for Flintshire, although I’m not going to be making comments on individual authorities here.”
– Minister for Housing & Local Government, Julie James

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