Senedd roundup: Health official warns of potential for Covid-19 second wave
Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
The chief executive of the Welsh NHS, Dr Andrew Goodall, has warned of the threat of a second coronavirus wave, as the Welsh Government prepares to publish its lockdown exit plan tomorrow.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his proposals, which are mainly for England earlier in the week.
Dr Goodall cautioned that there remained “real potential to see some of the community transmission increase further” adding that “It’s quite clear that at least we are through that initial peak and would hope we can deploy mitigating actions if there’s going to be a second or even third peak in the future.”
In the event of a second wave of infections he expressed confidence that Welsh ministers would “make some steps backwards” and reverse lockdown measures that had been relaxed if this was needed.
Speaking at the government’s press briefing on Thursday Dr Goodall also confirmed Covid-19 hospital patients are now at the lowest level since the start of April.
There are 581 people with confirmed coronavirus in hospital as of today, and a further 298 suspected cases.
He said “We have seen a stabilisation and reduction of new confirmed cases.
“In recent days around one in nine of the tests we do every day are positive.”
“But this is still the equivalent of three of our hospitals full of people with coronavirus in Wales.”
A further 10 people have died with coronavirus in Wales. A total of 1,164 people have now died after testing positive for Covid-19, according to Public Health Wales.
There have also been 128 new cases confirmed in the last 24 hours. Total cases in Wales now stands at 11,834 people. A total of 1,300 tests were carried out yesterday.
Opposition rounds on minister over DWP testing in England
Health Minister Vaughan Gething has denied that people working for a UK government department in Wales need to drive to centres in England for testing if they show Covid-19 symptoms.
It was widely reported on Thursday morning that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has written to its workers recommending they travel to a test site in Bristol.
The DWP is the UK’s biggest public service department, and while DWP employees are listed as critical workers in both England and Wales, they do not currently have access to priority testing for coronavirus in Wales.
Rejecting the claims on the BBC Radio Wales Breakfast show, Mr Gething said: “This got raised with me yesterday in the chamber.
“It’s not correct. Public Health Wales are in contact with the Department of Work and Pensions.
“Critical workers can get tested here in Wales and they are clarifying with them that members of staff can get a test. They certainly don’t need to travel from parts of Wales into Bristol.”
Angela Burns MS, the Welsh Conservatives Shadow Health Minister, said: “If these reports are correct, then they show the true inability of the Welsh Government to get to grips with testing.
“Time and time again over the past weeks have we seen missed targets, confusion, denials from PHW staff that targets existed, and then yesterday the announcement that 10,000 tests a day can be carried out in Wales.
“The Health Minister must rectify the problems surrounding testing immediately, not weeks from now.”
Plaid Cymru MS Helen Mary Jones said the situation was absurd: “We should not be in the position where key workers in Wales have to travel to England to receive access to a test.
“In Wales the message is clear – stay as close to your home as possible. However, if you’re a DWP colleague living in Wales exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, you’re being asked to drive across the country to receive priority access to a test. This situation is not only absurd, the decision making behind it defies logic.”
The Welsh Government’s “track and trace” plan to gradually leave lockdown
On April 24th the Welsh Government published its exit strategy to lay the groundwork for Wales to leave lockdown (pdf). Yesterday, the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth) published further details on how the Welsh Government will “track and trace” virus cases.
At the moment Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are maintaining the “stay at home” message and the majority of the lockdown restrictions.
There are three pillars to the strategy. In terms of the specifics:
Pillar One – Evidence Gathering
The evidence needed to consider easing lockdown restrictions in Wales includes:
- A sustained decline in Covid-19-related hospital admissions for at least 14 days.
- An assessment that Welsh hospitals could cope with extra admissions after lockdown should the transmission rate (known as the R-number) increases beyond 1 (each infected person infecting at least 1 other person on average). Without lockdown measures, the R-number for Covid-19 is closer to 4.
- Assurances of PPE supplies for frontline workers, as well as taking into account evidence from abroad on the impact of lifting lockdown restrictions.
Pillar Two – Deciding which restrictions can be lifted
The lockdown regulations are evaluated roughly every three weeks and the next evaluation is due w/c 1st June 2020.
To decide which parts of the lockdown can be eased, the Welsh Government will use several tests. These cover the negative and positive impact of lifting restrictions, whether it would be proportionate to the level of infection, the ability to monitor and trace infections after lockdown restrictions are eased, as well as an ability to urgently reverse any decisions if the situation changes suddenly.
Pillar Three – Public health after lockdown
This was the focus of yesterday’s announcement. Any move to ease lockdown restrictions will need to be supported by an appropriate public health response. This includes:
- Enhanced virus surveillance – Properly monitoring virus transmission in the community and within particular at-risk groups. Also, if/when a vaccine is developed, how the vaccine works to suppress the virus.
- Track and trace – A single national digital contact tracing system will be set up run by Public Health Wales, which will include support from local government (environmental health) and the voluntary sector on the ground in the form of contact tracing teams. Everyone showing symptoms or coming into contact with someone showing symptoms will need to report this (and their contacts) straight away for this to work. While there’s a current capacity for 5,000-tests-a-day in Wales (with just over 1,000 actually being carried out) this might need to increase to as many as 20,000-tests-a-day in Wales which will likely require an all-UK response. People may also be asked to self-isolate multiple times.
- Learning from international experiences – This is self-explanatory. Some examples include the gradual stepping down of restrictions in Austria, regional and local restrictions in the USA and German and the use of technology to trace contacts in Singapore and South Korea.
Public engagement – Ensuring the public is on board with whatever the Welsh Government decide to do. The report says this requires “strong communications” but it’s been demonstrated to great effect over the last week or so that they can’t possibly expect large sections of the UK media to deliver that in Wales.
First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West): More than 3,000 people in Wales have recovered from coronavirus
Here’s a round-up of the latest virtual Senedd session.
- He noted last week’s 75th anniversary of VE Day commemorations, having spoken to Second World War veterans over Zoom. It was “absolutely right” to find time to remember the sacrifices made even if it was done under unusual circumstances.
- 10% of all hospital patients and about 20% of critical care patients in Wales are receiving treatment for coronavirus – which is well down on the peak. More than 3,000 people have recovered and left hospital.
- A campaign has been launched to remind domestic abuse victims that they can seek support despite the lockdown.
- While Wales has passed the peak of the infection it was decided it was far too early to lift lockdown restrictions. The message remains: “Stay at Home” (unlike England). That said, joint UK working hasn’t been abandoned; a joint biosecurity centre is being set up to monitor infection rates across the UK as a whole.
Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.), welcomed the fact the Welsh Government was beginning to publish the scientific evidence underpinning their decisions, but the time was coming for a clear exit strategy. The First Minister telling MSs that he hopes the Welsh Government’s exit plan will be published tomorrow (15th May 2020), though some parts of it have already been revealed.
There was an argument over confused messaging on what people can or can’t do, though the First Minister accused “mischief-makers” of putting words in his mouth. He confirmed that angling/fishing is allowed as long as it’s done locally and people practice social distancing.
Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) referred back to a written question on the number of medical gowns in stockpile prior to the pandemic. The Health Minister told Channel 4 News that there was a stockpile, but new information has emerged that no gowns were stockpiled before February 2020. Last June, the UK Government were advised to stockpile gowns as part of general pandemic preparations; did anyone in the Welsh Government see that advice?
The First Minister couldn’t provide a detailed answer there and then, but told MSs that NHS Wales hasn’t faced a shortage of gowns during the pandemic (though that answer doesn’t dismiss the possibility of disruption to supplies due to delivery issues etc.) and the Welsh Government has been able to secure a supply of 500,000 gowns from abroad.
Health & Social Services Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth): The NHS remains “open for business” for non-virus related treatment
- There are still people with non-Covid-19 related conditions who require treatment and they can be assured they’ll continue to receive treatment as normal and it’s safe to come in for diagnostics etc.
- The lockdown can be particularly challenging for people with mental health problems; health boards report they’ve been able to meet mental health needs and are also required to submit weekly reports on their capacity to treat mental illnesses.
- Virus testing capacity stands at around 5,000-a-day and is expected to increase to 10,000-a-day, though the new track and trace strategy could require up to 20,000-a-day (at present only around 1,000-tests-a-day in Wales are actually being done on the ground).
Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns MS (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.) welcomed the new track and trace strategy but following last week’s revelations wanted assurances the new testing figures were a proper target. The Health Minister told her he wants 10,000-tests-a-day by the end of May, hinting that a UK level testing capacity may be needed.
Rhun ap Iorwerth MS (Plaid, Ynys Môn) focused on the speed of testing given that it took a very long time to get to the 5,000-test capacity we have now. How will things work when we need 20,000 tests a day as suggested in the track and trace paper? Surely that would require a much quicker turnaround for results?
The Minister said the biggest step forward in that regard is the development of home testing and the opening of mobile testing centres which will improve reach into rural areas. He also believes a reliable antibody test will improve things further.
Finance Minister & Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower): UK could run a £273billion budget deficit in 2020-21
- The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates the UK could run a £273billion budget deficit this year, which is five times higher than was estimated at the latest UK budget. The causes are obvious – lower tax receipts, lower economic activity, proportionally higher public spending.
- The impact on the Welsh budget is expected to be smaller because of the way Wales is funded; an additional £2.1billion in Barnett formula consequentials for Wales is expected. A supplementary budget will be published on 27th May 2020.
- Unemployment is expected to rise sharply and, as usual, it’s expected to hit those at the bottom of the economic pyramid and younger people hardest.
- Measures taken to support the Welsh economy will be undermined if the UK Government’s furlough scheme is withdrawn too early. She called on the UK Chancellor to keep the devolved nations properly informed.
“The outlook for public finances is stark. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK’s fiscal deficit could be £273 billion this year. That is five times higher than expected just two months ago at the time of the UK budget and significantly higher than at the peak of borrowing during the financial crisis….However, the fiscal framework protects our budget from UK-wide economic shocks. As a result, the net impact of reduced economic activity and tax receipts on our budget this year should be small, but we will, of course, be monitoring this situation carefully.”
– Finance Minister & Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans
Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay MS (Con, Monmouth) – citing warnings from Debenhams about store closures in Wales because they were left out of the Welsh Government’s business rate relief scheme – called for the cap of £500,000 rateable value to be lifted.
The Minister explained that the idea behind the scheme is to support small and medium “backbone” businesses. That said, she accepts Debenhams is an important anchor shore and discussions are ongoing.
Plaid Cymru has called for the £500 payment to carers (recently announced by the government) to be extended to cover all care home workers – not just those who are directly responsible for one-to-one care – as well as the estimated 370,000 unpaid carers in Wales.
Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham): “Welsh meal ideas” campaign launched
- Hybu Cig Cymru has launched a campaign with top chefs to come up with meal ideas using Welsh-sourced produce to boost farmers and the food industry. Also, a directory of Welsh food producers providing home delivery has been set up (link).
- The Minister has written to households affected by the February 2020 floods to outline what support is available to them and to tell them that the deadline to claim financial support from the government has been extended.
The Minister confirmed plans to introduce “Lucy’s Law” were still on the table, though the law-making timetable has been affected.
“In relation to Lucy’s law, I’m meeting with the chief veterinary officer and other officials tomorrow to discuss that; as I said in committee last week, it is still a priority for me and for the Welsh Government. Clearly, the legislative programme has had an impact as well, so these are all things that we need to work through.”
– Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths
Calls for bigger fines for lockdown breaches rejected
The Welsh Government has rejected a written request from four police and crime commissioners and four chief constables asking for fines to be increased for breaching lockdown regulations.
In Wales people found breaking the rules can be fined £60, although this is reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days.
In England fines have recently been increased and now start at £100 for a first offence – reduced to £50 if paid promptly – up to a maximum of £3,200.
Responding to the request a government spokesman said that it is “not planning to change the fine system in Wales at the moment” but will keep “the matter under consideration”.
Plaid Cymru Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed Powys Dafydd Llywelyn said: “Our experiences on the ground over the last week following changes and easing of travel restrictions in England, clearly demonstrate that we have to be more vigilant and stricter with fines. We need greater powers to act as a deterrent or to enforce that people do not use second homes.”
Cardiff factory aims to produce 1 million surgical masks a day
A new factory being set up in Cardiff aims to produce one million face masks a day to boost availability of personal protective equipment in Wales
Manufacturing company Hardshell has brought in surgical mask making machines to increase the supply of PPE to health, social care and other key workers, in Wales and the rest of the UK.
The Welsh government is currently working with more than 300 businesses throughout Wales to produce supplies to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, including PPE and worked closely with Hardshell, and assisted them with the logistics of transporting the machines from overseas into Cardiff.
Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, Lee Waters said: ”The significant contribution of Welsh firms and their desire and energy to meet demand has been truly fantastic and I want to thank each and every company for all that they are doing.”