Senedd roundup: Minister denies Covid transmissions are out of control in Welsh hospitals

Royal Gwent Hospital

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Health Minister Vaughan Gething has denied Covid transmissions in Welsh hospitals are “out of control” despite outbreaks at several hospitals in recent weeks.

Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board has declared outbreaks in three hospitals and has reported 10 further deaths this week due to hospital infections. Swansea Bay health board has seen 31 Covid cases in its hospitals and outbreaks have also been declared at Newport’s Royal Gwent Hospital and Bronglais Hospital in Aberystwyth.

Both Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives have called for an inquiry into the Cwm Taf Morgannwg outbreak which has so far been linked with 57 deaths and 284 infections overall.

Last week Welsh Conservative Health Minister Andrew RT Davies said the issue with Cwm Taf Morgannwg was “the largest outbreak and deaths associated with infections acquired in a hospital setting in Wales”.

Speaking at today’s government press briefing Mr Gething, said: “I don’t think it’s out of control but it’s a real risk.

“Because we’re seeing a significant increase in community transmission across the country, and of course our staff live within those communities.

“So the point about contact is that it affects all of us in all particular areas of work”.

He said the “firebreak” national lockdown that comes into effect on Friday evening, “will allow us to get that under control in terms of reducing the transmission of coronavirus, and it should mean we have more control in all of our environments”.

Responding to the minister’s comments Plaid Cymru’s Helen Mary Jones told BBC Wales Covid transmission in hospitals was not “out of control but it is serious” and accused Mr Gething of being  “a little bit dismissive of people’s concerns” over hospital transmissions.

“We can’t prevent it entirely I suppose, but people have got to be as safe as they possibly can be in our hospitals,” she added.

Public Health Wales has reported 962 new cases of Covid-19 and 14 deaths caused by the virus in the last 24 hours.

Seven of the deaths were in the Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board area and five were in the Aneurin Bevan health board area.

New infections are continuing to surge in Cardiff with 223 since yesterday. That takes the weekly total in the capital to 1,075. The weekly infection rate in the city is also the highest in Wales, jumping to 293 per 100,000 people as is the proportion of positives test results at 17.7% per 100,000.

There were 140 new cases in Rhondda Cynon Taf where the infection rate is 292 per 100,000 people and the positive test rate is 17.5.

Merthyr recorded 36 new positive tests and has the second highest infection rate in Wales at 253.6.

There were also 75 positive tests from people resident outside Wales, taking the total for the week to 439 and the proportion of positive tests to 17.1%, the third highest in the country.

Exam hall

Plaid calls for summer 2021 exams to be replaced with teacher assessments

Plaid Cymru Shadow Education Minister Siân Gwenllian MS has reiterated calls for next summer’s examinations to be cancelled and for teacher assessments to instead be put in place for all pupils.

Highlighting disruptions already being felt across schools in Wales with groups of pupils having to  self-isolate, and older secondary school pupils being asked to stay at home during the ‘fire break’, Ms Gwenllian also expressed concerns over the well-being of young people during this time and says “the worry about exams is one extra layer of anxiety that could so easily be removed.”

“If it wasn’t already apparent from the high numbers of pupils having to self-isolate, it should be clear from the announcement this week that the 2020/21 school year will be as equally – if not more – disrupted than the last academic year,“ she added.

“The Welsh Government must ensure that the A-level fiasco of summer 2020 is not repeated, by making an immediate statement that exams will not be held in summer 2021. The pandemic has already shown us that a system based on teacher assessments is possible, and an early decision to cancel next year’s exams would allow time for a meaningful standardisation process to be discussed and agreed.

“GCSE and A-level exams have to go. This style of ‘one size fits all’ is especially unfair on the pupils who have missed a lot of school through having to self-isolate, and for the older secondary school pupils who will have to stay at home under the national ‘fire break’ rules.

“We mustn’t underestimate the toll this disruption has on the mental health and well-being of our students.

“The worry about exams is one extra layer of anxiety that could so easily be removed. Taking the decision this week – before the fire break – to cancel next year’s exams would avoid another A-level fiasco and a last-minute U-turn which we saw last year and which benefited no-one. It would be a big step in alleviating some of the anxiety experienced by young people at this time of national crisis.”

Qualifications Wales is expected to publish its advice on proposals for next summer’s exams exams next week.

Coronavirus shop signs. Photo by Nation.Cymru

Senedd backs firebreak lockdown but calls for clearer communication

  • Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru MSs back the firebreak lockdown to help reduce strain on NHS critical care services.
  • Despite backing, MSs express numerous concerns over the capacity within testing and contract tracing services; call for clearer communication from the government.
  • First Minister accuses the Conservatives of ignoring the available evidence.

The Motion (Final/Amended Version)

The Senedd:

  • Recognises the seriousness of the position created by growing numbers of Covid-19 cases in Wales and agrees that a short ‘firebreak’ period should be introduced to bring down the rate of transmission, minimise clusters of infection and to further strengthen the Test Trace Protect system.
  • Agrees that a firebreak must be underpinned by additional support to protect livelihoods and wellbeing and notes emergency financial support brought forward by the Welsh Government for businesses.
  • Agrees that additional resources should be provided to the Test Trace Protect system to ensure all results are returned within 24 hours of a test.
  • Agrees that the firebreak should be used as an opportunity to plan and implement a new set of interventions based on a Zero Covid/elimination strategy which aims to avoid successive waves of lockdowns through measures not limited to: mass testing (including asymptomatic contacts); ventilation; preventing the importation of cases from outside Wales; practical and financial support for those isolating; clear and consistent public communication; extending mask-wearing to other settings.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to review its hospital infection control policies for preventing hospital-acquired infections of Covid-19 and to consider establishing designated Covid-19 free sites to facilitate timely and secure treatment for cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

A serious situation

Running through a list of measures announced earlier this week, the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), said the NHS faced a very real risk of being overwhelmed if the second wave of Covid-19 isn’t brought under control.

One-in-four critical care beds were occupied by a Covid-19 patient and while normal capacity was 152 beds, 167 beds are currently in use.

Plaid Cymru supported the firebreak and their amendments to the original motion were approved (largely though abstentions).

Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) said time was a luxury we no longer had and the decision is based on clear evidence presented to the Welsh Government which said that if no action was taken up to an additional 1,300 people in Wales would die from Covid-19 before the end of 2020.

Despite the overall support, Plaid MSs and some Labour backbenchers called for urgent improvements to the testing system (particularly regular testing of asymptomatic NHS workers), additional support for carers and clearer public information (particularly in light of fake news widely circulated relating to golfing doctors and bed capacity at Abergavenny’s Nevill Hall Hospital).

Honest appraisal needed of measures taken to date

There was scepticism of the firebreak from the Conservatives.

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.) though lockdowns should be carefully targeted using local data on case numbers. He echoed comments from others on the inadequacies of the current track and trace system and called for more support to be made available to those who may be suffering from mental health or wellbeing problems during the firebreak.

In replying to the debate, the First Minister mocked the Conservatives for only making a single contribution. There was also more than enough data available for the Chief Medical Officer and scientific advisers to recommend a mini-lockdown. Voting against the motion would place them at odds with that advice.

The motion was carried by 32 votes to 11.

Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash

MSs approve regulations extending anti-smoking measures to be phased in by September 2022

Yesterday, the Senedd was asked to approve new smoking regulations made under the Public Health Act 2017.

The new regulations will come into force on 1st March 2021.

The regulations (pdf; explanatory memorandum – pdf) set out that:

  • There’ll be a duty on those in charge of hospitals, school grounds and public playgrounds to take “reasonable” steps to prevent people from smoking (a ban in all but name).
  • Smoking will still be allowed within designated areas outside hospitals and within residential school grounds as long as it’s no bigger than 8.25 square metres and is at least 10 metres away from a smoke-free area.
  • Parts of a dwelling used for a home-based business will need to be smoke-free if someone who works there doesn’t ordinarily live there or if it’s open to members of the public. There’s a similar measure for work vehicles.
  • Self-contained holiday accommodation and holiday lets will need to be smoke-free by March 2022.
  • Designated “smoking rooms” which meet strict conditions (i.e. ventilation) can still be allowed for research purposes, or for use by residents only in care homes and hospices.
  • Hotels, members’ clubs and hostels (which use smoking rooms) will need to be smoke-free by March 2022, though this is extended to September 2022 for mental health units.
  • Some of the on-the-spot fines for smoking-related offences have increased to bring them into line with dog fouling and littering.

Minister for Mental Health & Wellbeing, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales), said the regulations would build on the government’s ambition for a smoke-free Wales by promoting behavioural changes.

Chair of the Constitution & Justice Committee, Mick Antoniw MS (Lab, Pontypridd), said the regulations do contain points of concern in relation to rights relating to private lives and private property. Chair of the Communities Committee, John Griffiths MS (Lab, Newport East) believed that stop smoking services should be more readily available to hospital patients who want to quit.

While supporting measures to clamp down on smoking having lost family members to lung cancer, Shadow Health Minister, Andrew RT Davies MS (Con, South Wales Central), added to concerns about possible interference in private spaces.

The Minister said the regulations didn’t encroach into private spaces but were mainly restricted to public spaces such as hospital and school grounds.

The regulations were approved by 46 votes to 3 with 3 abstentions.

Further flood damage in Llandysul

New National Strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management launched

Lesley Griffiths, the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, has launched the government’s new National Strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management in Wales.

The Strategy sets out long-term policies for managing flooding, as well as the measures which will be taken over the next decade by organisations like Natural Resources Wales, local authorities and water companies to improve how it plans to prepare and adapt to climate change over the coming century.

The strategy looks beyond the building of defences to how flood and coastal risks can be managed through a range of interventions and actions and outlines some of the lessons learnt from the flooding seen across Wales this year.

As part of the new approach a new Wales Flood Map has also been launched, which will bring all of the flood and coastal risk mapping in one place, starting with the new Flood Risk Assessment for Wales (FRAW).

The FRAW Maps will be updated every six months so people can see how flood schemes have reduced risk across Wales.

“I witnessed first-hand the devastating impacts of the floods that affected over 3,000 homes and business across the country. As the likelihood of these extreme weather events rise, we need to strengthen our approach to managing flood and coastal risk and adapt to help keep people safe,” Ms Griffiths said.

“The Strategy sets out how we will make the right decisions as we look to protect people, homes and businesses from increased flood risk. We are making significant changes to help accelerate delivery and better communicate risk. These include additional funding support for alleviation schemes and all-new flood risk maps.”

Responding to the launch, Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Energy and Rural Affairs Janet Finch-Saunders MS said: “We have waited years for this document, and what a disappointment it is.

“There are as many as six different maps and four plans noted in the strategy. They need to be streamlined.

“The section on community resilience and behaviours is insulting. It notes that there is a need for closer community cooperation, yet no mention of listening to calls for independent reviews, yet people in parts of Wales have been ignored for years.”

“… I am concerned that, in setting to bring clarity around the roles and responsibilities of bodies responsible for responding to flood and coastal erosion, the Welsh Labour-led Government has unfairly sought to place the onus on local authority response, enabling Natural Resources Wales to take a further hands-off approach.”

Photo by Dominik Lange on Unsplash.

£1 million fund for carers to mark launch of public consultation

A new fund of over £1m to help Wales’ unpaid carers cope with the financial pressures of COVID-19 has been announced by the Deputy Health Minister Julie Morgan.

The fund is open to carers across Wales and will see grants of up to £300 made available for a range of essentials, including; food, household items such as furniture or white goods, or electronics such as a laptop for access to support and services.

There are around 55,300 people in Wales who receive a carer’s allowance and recent research suggests that almost 40% of carers are worried about their financial situation.

The government has also launched a public consultation on a new national plan for carers, setting out how it proposes to work with a range of partners to strengthen its priorities to better reflect every aspect of a carers’ life.

Julie Morgan said: “We have seen unpaid carers working longer hours and the pandemic has made it more difficult for carers to cope with their caring role and live the life they choose. Some are struggling to cope with the extra costs caused by Covid-19 and the aim of the Carers Support Fund is to help alleviate some of this additional, unnecessary pressure.”

The funding support, which will be provided through Carers Trust Wales who have been working throughout the pandemic to support unpaid carers will be available up to 31 March next year.

More information on how to apply will be available soon on carers.org/wales

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