Senedd roundup: Government look at all options to expand coronavirus isolation facilities

Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Here’s a round-up of this afternoon’s questions to the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), and his deputy, as two more people have tested positive for the coronavirus.

A police officer stationed in Merthyr Tydfil and a worker at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) are among the new cases, taking the total of confirmed cases in Wales to 19.

“All options being considered” to expand isolation facilities

Repeating concerns from earlier in the week about a lack of critical and intensive care beds in Wales, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) asked the Health Minister for more details. He also pointed out that there may be a shortage of isolation units:

“We will perhaps need to build capacity for isolation, for example, and I can relay to you the offer made by one hotel owner, for example, offering a hotel to be used, perhaps as somewhere where people can be isolated. Are there plans to create that kind of capacity within the system – perhaps turning to hotels, or other locations, or even to the army too? Because there is capacity that can be built within the military when it comes to isolation.”
– Rhun ap Iorwerth AM

The Health Minister accepted as fact that the UK has a lower proportion of critical care beds compared to the rest of Europe – but it was too late to argue about the politics of it or funding. Plans were being developed – and the Minister was privately briefing opposition parties on some of the details there. He also expected to provide weekly updates to the Senedd “for the foreseeable future”.

As for isolation facilities, all options were being considered depending on the length and severity of the epidemic.

“We’re considering all options. And that’s both part of our pandemic flu planning that is being stepped up; it’s also part of what local resilience fora are looking at, to consider what takes place in each of the four areas. And that involves not just devolved public services it of course involves the regular relations we have together with non-devolved services. So the police are involved in each one of our four local resilience fora as a matter of course, in terms of that emergency planning and delivery response. We are also, of course, considering the potential the army may have to play.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething

Coronavirus and the care sector

Praising the Health Minister for the hard work behind the scenes and keeping AMs apprised of the situation, Shadow Social Service Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) said those most at risk of serious complications from coronavirus were in residential care.

“I have received an e-mail that highlights concerns that one infected home care worker could potentially unknowingly carry the virus into the homes of countless vulnerable older residents. Therefore, will you explain what steps you are taking to assist care workers to reduce the risk of contracting the virus? What emergency measures will be taken to protect vulnerable individuals receiving home visits and what support will be provided to social care providers to help them find replacement staff, should some employees have to self-isolate?”
– Shadow Social Service Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders AM

Deputy Minister for Health & Social Services, Julie Morgan (Lab, Cardiff North), said the Welsh Government was keeping local authorities in the loop, while a working group has been set up to look at these very issues. Parts of the third/voluntary sector could step in if the situation escalates

Extra UK budget cash for Wales “barely takes us back to 10 years ago”

Today was also a big day for public finances with the 2020 UK budget being announced. This afternoon’s questions to Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), provided an opportunity for the Minister to give her initial reaction to it.

Business rates “won’t be reformed for the sake of it”

The Welsh Government recently requested the power to create a land value tax in Wales. With the UK Government announcing a review of business rates, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) wondered if the Welsh Government would follow suit?

The Minister told the Senedd that a document looking at the implications of a land value tax would be published “soon”. However, on business rates she was a bit cagey.

“….business rates (are) not something you should reform just for the sake of it. We need to be sure that any reforms are made in a way which meets our Welsh Government priorities more widely, and I have to say I was really pleased by the announcement today that the UK Government has finally caught up now, and that half of businesses in England will no longer be paying business rates. But, of course, we’ve had that situation in Wales for a very long time.”
– Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans

Extra UK budget cash for Wales “barely takes us back to 10 years ago”

Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) listed some of the main commitments to Wales in the UK budget, including changes to VAT liability for S4C and an extra £360million for the Welsh Government generally. With austerity coming to an end, would the Welsh Government also consider matching UK Government support for businesses potentially affected by coronavirus from any additional funding coming their way?

The Minister said austerity was far from over:

“If you look at the documentation that supports the UK Government’s budget, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) paints a pretty gloomy picture of prospects, even before taking into account COVID-19….At no point in this Parliament does the OBR suggest that growth will even reach 2%, which is poor by historic terms. So I don’t think that we can say austerity is over. And even with the additional funding that comes to Welsh Government today….it barely takes us back to where we were 10 years ago.”
– Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans

The Minister was hoping to see movement on air passenger duty devolution and the request for vacant land tax powers, but they were noticeably absent.

Police in Wales (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Police funding agreed for 2020-21 with community safety prioritised

While policing is non-devolved, the Welsh Government and local authorities are responsible for providing the bulk of funding for the four Welsh police forces – 2020, of course, being an election year for Police & Crime Commissioners.

The total budget for policing in Wales is £384million, with the Welsh Government providing £143.4million of that for 2020-21. The UK Home Office has provided extra funding as part of UK Government policy to recruit an extra 20,000 officers over the next three years.

Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West) confirmed that community safety would remain a Welsh Government priority and £16.8 million will be used to fund the 500 additional PCSOs the Welsh Government committed to in 2016 in order to provide a visible police presence on the streets.

Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) noted the sizable differences in police precept in each of the four Welsh force areas, with North Wales Police having the largest precept of £291, compared to £273 in Gwent and South Wales and £261 in Dyfed-Powys. Crime, overall, had remained stable.

He restated his opposition to devolving criminal justice, citing North Wales’ lack of operational co-operation with any other Welsh force, instead working with north-west English forces because most crime is east-west and cross-border – though Carwyn Jones AM (Lab, Bridgend) argued this logic would suggest the Republic of Ireland should police the whole of Ireland.

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) criticised the police funding formula as failing to adapt to different urban and rural needs. Also, cuts to youth services and alike have made the job of police officers more difficult. She pointed to innovative schemes to address rural crime and bad childhood experiences in Plaid Cymru-controlled Dyfed-Powys and North Wales Police.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) likened Mark Isherwood’s contribution to a Soviet-style five-year plan, with selective use of statistics. Violent crime has increased by 18% and Wales has lost 762 police officers since 2010.

Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) said the burden of funding the police was gradually shifting from UK Home Office to local authorities. In 2010-11, council tax precepts funded 33% of the Welsh policing budget; in 2020-21 it’s 47% and 70% of all police funding in Wales came from within Wales.

Cardiff Airport. Photo by Jonathan Winton and licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Public ownership of Cardiff Airport defended; optimism Flybe routes will be replaced

The Welsh Government purchase of Cardiff Airport in 2013 raised a lot of eyebrows at the time and continues to do so (the Public Accounts Committee report was published in 2016: The Great Cardiff Airport Swindle?).

During Welsh Government time yesterday afternoon, AMs got a chance to debate the present situation and future of the airport.

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Recognises the economic and social importance to Wales of Cardiff Airport, with 1,700 people employed at the Cardiff Airport site, generating £250million for the Welsh economy.
  • Welcomes that Cardiff Airport is now responsible for the operation of Anglesey Airport’s passenger terminal and recognises the important regional air link between north and south Wales.
  • Agrees it’s vital for Wales’s trading economy post-Brexit to support Cardiff Airport as part of a high quality, integrated and low carbon public transport system in Wales.
  • Notes the UK Government’s interventionist approach to rescuing Flybe but calls upon the UK Government to go further by supporting the cost of regulation at the UK’s smaller airports, as happens across Europe.
  • Calls upon the new UK Government to devolve Air Passenger Duty in full to Wales.

Cardiff Airport “would have closed” without government buy-out

Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), categorically said that had the airport remained with the previous owners it would’ve closed.

The Welsh Government were not “wasting” taxpayers’ money by investing in the airport. The government have loaned the airport money on a commercial basis and will expect a return with interest.

He went on to say that the airport’s masterplan for 2040 offers opportunities to address major challenges, including climate change and transport links; discussions are ongoing with universities keen to use the airport as a testbed for new technologies.

Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery), noted the debate was tabled before Flybe’s collapse, meaning it was now more important. While the Conservatives share a long-term ambition for the airport, they want it to return to private ownership as governments are not aviation experts. He used the example of previous government passenger and profit projections which have either been pushed back or missed.

Going against the party line at UK level, the Welsh Conservatives support the devolution of air passenger duty. They would also support a direct US flight, flight to Manchester and investing in capital infrastructure to boost the airport’s income.

“We can’t do without an airport. In the longer term, we all know that we need to reduce the amount of air travel that we have, but there is also clear, consistent academic evidence that regions without their own airport suffer from that. There is the practicality of people moving in and out, but there is also that message….and needing to send out that message that Wales is open for business, that we are here. And I think we do have to remind ourselves of the history here: there’s absolutely no doubt that we would have lost that airport if the Welsh Government hadn’t stepped in.”
– Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales)

Privatisation “was a disaster”

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) defended the airport’s public ownership, citing a turnaround in passenger numbers and securing Qatar Airways. He accused the Welsh Conservatives of “subservience”, with the Conservatives being outspoken supporters of Bristol Airport yet doing little to support a Welsh airport.

“It is also right to underscore here that Cardiff Airport is indeed an important piece of strategic transport infrastructure. It is a key economic asset for Wales, and as such its vitals are strong. Nearly 1.7million passengers flew from Cardiff Airport in 2019. That’s up 7% on the year before, the busiest year since 2009, and up by 65% since our Welsh Government involvement.”
– Rhianon Passmore AM (Lab, Islwyn)

Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth), said his committee was looking in detail at the long-term sustainability of the Welsh Government’s commercial loan facility – which has been maxed-out at £38 million and likened to a blanck cheque – though Jenny Rathbone (Lab, Cardiff Central) later corrected him by saying it was “only” £36.2 million.

Nick Ramsay pointed to one positive – the fact Cardiff isn’t as dependent on a single airline as other airports, which provides a measure of resilience.

The motion was carried by 39 votes to 12.

Photo by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Coronavirus: GPs and pharmacists being issued protective equipment

Yesterday afternoon, the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth) provided another update to AMs on the situation in Wales regarding coronavirus/Covid-19.

What’s new?

  • Wales is still in the “contain” phase – early cases are identified and contacts are followed-up.
  • The relatively low number of cases to date shouldn’t be taken as a sign that “this is nothing to worry about”; this isn’t like flu season and there’s no vaccine or antiviral treatment. The expectation is the number of cases will increase over the coming weeks.
  • The advice remains the same: follow basic hygiene rules (“catch it, bin it, kill it”); if you have symptoms don’t go to a GP or hospital – contact 111 or use NHS Direct Wales and follow their advice; only pay attention to official sources of information.
  • All local health boards have provided assurances they’re ready to accept patients into isolation facilities if needed.
  • Personal protective equipment is being distributed to GP surgeries and community pharmacies this week and a “pandemic stockpile” is being prepared. Software is being made available to enable GP video consultation and an online symptom checker has also been launched. Some testing is carried out in homes, though some health boards have opened drive-thru testing centres (available by appointment only).
  • As mentioned previously, emergency powers are being prepared at an all-UK level though there’s no timetable as of yet. Like last week, schools should remain open and there are no plans to cancel or postpone mass gatherings (like sports events).
  • A monitoring system at Cardiff Airport is being prepared where any aircraft arriving from an affected region will need to declare any passengers with symptoms before disembarking.

Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.) praised the online symptom checker having tried it out, saying it was very clear – though there was an issue for those without internet access. The Minister said the 111 phone number was “an all-Wales service”.

Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) raised issues with the 111 service too, having been told by a doctor that some patients were being redirected to an 0845 number because 111 wasn’t working. There was also an element of confusion over out-of-hours services and a lack of protecting equipment for hospital staff when people ignore the advice and go there when experiencing symptoms.

Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) warned that NHS staff face “burnout” if, as expected, the problem gets worse. He hoped that behind the scenes the Welsh Government were preparing for the worst with a joined-up civil contingencies response (if it’s needed).

Health Minister, Vaughan Gething. Photo by Ymnes is licensed under CC BY 2.0

NHS manager register rejected as Health & Care Quality Bill clears next stage

At a Glance Guide

Stage 1 report (summary)

The Health & Social Care Quality Bill will:

  • Abolish Community Health Councils and replace them with a Citizens’ Voice Body, whose members would be appointed by the Welsh Government.
  • Introduce a duty of candour (honesty/to be upfront) to the health and social care sector meaning any case where someone has been harmed by poor care has to be properly investigated and the victim properly supported.
  • Allow local health boards to appoint a Vice-Chair.

Stage 2 proceedings were undertaken by the Health Committee as well as the Member in Charge – Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth). In the end, there were no significant changes made other than wording.

The Key Amendments at Stage 3

Amendment 3 – Health Minister, Vaughan Gething
The Welsh Government will need to publish a Code of Practice for the Citizens’ Voice Body regarding access to premises.
Vote: Approved – 37 for, 11 against

Amendment 15 – Health Minister, Vaughan Gething
Ensures the Citizens’ Voice Body is covered by Welsh language regulations.
Vote: Agreed unanimously

Amendment 21 – Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs)
Places a duty on Welsh Ministers to ensure there are appropriate numbers of staff in the NHS.
Vote: Rejected – 23 for, 28 against
Reason for Rejection: It would place an “inappropriate and impractical” duty on the Welsh Government when health boards are responsible for staffing.

Amendment 72 – Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn)
Subject to regulations, would create a register of NHS managers employed by local health boards, introduces a mechanism to “strike off” managers from the register and ensures nobody can be employed as a manager without being on the register.
Vote: Rejected – 22 for, 28 against
Reason for Rejection: Adds bureaucracy and complexity.

Amendment 73 – Rhun ap Iorwerth AM
Strengthens the reporting requirement when the NHS breaches the duty of candour and places a requirement on the Welsh Government to issue a statement to the Senedd when a “serious” breach of the duty of candour has occurred.
Vote: Rejected – 22 for, 27 against
Reason for Rejection: Adds bureaucracy and complexity.

Amendment 75 – Rhun ap Iorwerth AM
Ensures the Citizens Voice Body has a regional presence as well as a national one.
Vote: Amendment Withdrawn/Automatically Rejected
Reason for Withdrawal: A government amendment ensured the Citizens’ Voice Body would “represent the interests of people in all parts of Wales”.

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