Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
Both party spokespeople questions to the Education Minister related to this afternoon’s announcement that schools in Wales are due to close by Friday.
Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) welcomed the announcement of school closures, though it was clear exams either needed to be postponed or altered to adjust to the circumstances – possible using projected grades for university admissions.
What was important now is deciding how schools would work moving forward and what role they would play during the pandemic.
The Minister said schools would, in effect, be re-purposed as general childcare facilities aimed predominantly at the children of frontline staff. There would also be services available for vulnerable children – such as those reliant on free school meals.
“We will be building on the strong foundations and the very, very positive experiences of some of our Food and Fun (Playscheme) schemes, which local authorities are well used to running, and we will be identifying with our colleagues in local government key sites and key personnel that can help us ensure that meeting the needs of the most vulnerable children and the needs of those workers who we want out there on the front line can be addressed in the coming weeks.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams
Announcement due shortly on exam timetables following school closures
Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), focused on exam timetables, which she said would now be significantly affected by school closures.
The entry requirements for university and other higher-level qualifications will perhaps need to be looked at, as well as the finances of students who may have their courses stopped due to possible university closures.
Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), said the three governments in Great Britain were coordinating their response to exam timetables and an announcement would be made “in the very near future”. Discussions are also taking place with the university admissions body UCAS as well as universities themselves.
She stressed the importance of a fair and equitable solution for students – both previous years and this year’s cohort:
“First of all, can I say that any decision that I take with regard to the examinations will have at its heart the principle of fairness and equity to young people? It is not their fault that they find themselves in this situation. Their efforts should not be constrained or affected negatively by the situation and we want to make sure that we deal with them fairly and equitably, but also in a robust way as well, so that they can have confidence in the system, going forward.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams
Internal solutions to sourcing medical equipment will need to be found
Here’s a summary of this afternoon’s questions to International Affairs & Welsh Language Minister, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales).
Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) understood the strain the pandemic would be putting on the Minister’s department, but one issue that needs urgent addressing was a lack of specialist medical equipment – particularly ventilators – with border controls being put in place. Were there any international negotiations taking place on sourcing medical equipment?
The Minister was upfront about the challenges:
“What we have to note is that all of these countries are eager to keep their own ventilators, and that’s why the Government in the UK and in Wales as well are trying to encourage businesses, particularly those that are engineering firms, to adapt what they manufacture so that they can build ventilators for this crisis.”
– International Affairs & Welsh Language Minister, Eluned Morgan
Brexit negotiations “should be pushed back” due to crisis
Shadow International Affairs Minister, Darren Millar (Con, Clwyd West), raised the matter of Welsh people who may be stuck abroad due to travel restrictions introduced to deal with the pandemic. One such group would be people working in Welsh Government overseas offices.
There was also an issue of trade. Restrictions will impact exporting and importing businesses quite hard, while relations may become strained as a result of actions taken to deal with the pandemic.
The Minister told the Senedd that many of the overseas office workers – including those in three Chinese cities – were working from home. Most of the support and advice for Welsh people overseas would come through the UK’s Foreign Office.
On trade, the Minister called for Brexit to be pushed back:
“Trade contributes about 22% of the GDP to the economy of Wales, so it’s something that we have to take very seriously. Obviously, we are particularly concerned about the trade negotiations that should be ongoing with the EU in relation to Brexit, knowing that that deadline is coming up. We, of course, would advocate that it should probably be pushed back now, under the circumstances. There is another trade negotiation that was due to start next week with the United States, and obviously, it’s impossible for those trade negotiators now to get to the States to start those negotiations.”
– International Affairs & Welsh Language Minister, Eluned Morgan
Photo by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Ministers update Senedd on coronavirus response
With the Senedd’s schedule reduced to only time-sensitive and coronavirus-related matters until at least the end of April, Ministers are set to update AMs weekly (Easter recess aside) on latest pandemic developments in Wales.
Economy & Transport – Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South)
- Any affected businesses should contact the Business Wales telephone helpline (03000 603000) for practical advice; it’ll act as a “one-stop-shop” and direct businesses to UK-wide help too.
Banc can provide immediate equity finance and loans to help businesses facing cash flow problems.; businesses receiving Banc finance will have a three-month capital repayment holiday.
- A series of measures on expanded business rate relief and a £100 million grant scheme for small businesses was announced yesterday – link.
- Rail passenger numbers have already fallen 18% on some routes; contingency plans are being considered for shortages of staff and services. Bus drivers and depot workers have been issued hand sanitiser.
- The Minister remains “in regular contact” with Cardiff Airport as scores of flights are cancelled, though the airport carries less debt than other airports.
Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) welcomed measures from Business Wales and Banc, but questioned if they would have the capacity to deal with extra loans and alike. There are also many businesses which don’t pay business rates that need additional support or fall just short of the rate relief boundaries the Welsh Government has set (though this is what the small business grant scheme is aimed at).
Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) raised the matter of business continuity insurance. There’s some confusion over whether an official order for businesses to close would make them eligible to claim on the insurance.
Several AMs raised concerns particular to businesses in their communities, with the hospitality and tourism sectors being especially hard-hit, as well as those who are self-employed. Several AMs also called for some form of temporary universal income.
Due to a slight technical problem….
….the Health section was taken by the First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West).
- Wales and the UK have moved from “contain” to “delay”, meaning attempts will be made to slow the spread of Covid-19 and lower peak demand on the NHS, pushing cases into the summer when extra treatment capacity is available.
- Anyone who develops a high fever or persistent cough should stay at home for 7 days; they SHOULD NOT go to a GP, pharmacy or hospital and should only contact 111 if the symptoms get so severe that they can’t cope. If anyone in a household develops symptoms, the entire household should self-isolate for 14 days.
- All non-urgent outpatient appointments and operations have been postponed to allow staff to be redeployed and trained. Testing will focus on those admitted to hospital and frontline staff – not every suspected case.
- People over the age of 70 and those with underlying health conditions should actively practice social distancing – minimising unnecessary contact with other people.
The main issues raised by AMs were the testing regime, the impact of self-isolation on the elderly and school closures – though the latter was answered earlier today with the announcement that Easter holidays have been brought forward to this coming Friday.
Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.) said widespread testing had caused a big drop in virus cases in South Korea – though the First Minister said there were sophisticated models used based on the number of people presenting in intensive care which gives health authorities an idea of how many cases there are in the community.
Local Government & Housing – Julie James (Lab, Swansea West)
- Supermarket delivery hours have been relaxed to help maintain supplies and help to restock.
- Officials are working with local authorities and other organisations to bring forward proposals to get rough-sleepers off the streets and into isolation where necessary.
- Used tissues and other personal waste should be put inside in another bag and ideally set aside for at least 72 hours (to kill the virus) before being put into normal black-bag waste.
- Local authority by-elections are set to be postponed in the UK’s emergency powers law.
- Helplines are set to be put in place to help people in self-isolation.
- Landlords with buy-to-let mortgages will be asked to pass on the 3-month mortgage holiday announced by the UK Government to tenants.
The main message coming out of the statement was that while the volume of people coming forward – or thinking of doing so – as volunteers is commendable, it had to be done in a controlled manner, probably coordinated through local government. Issues such as dealing with excess fatalities were still being discussed with the WLGA.
Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) asked a number of questions relating to addressing possible loneliness amongst those self-isolating as well as support for people who can’t self-isolate – such as the homeless and those whose homes were still damaged from recent flooding.
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Community Health Councils to be abolished as Senedd approves law
Yesterday afternoon saw the final vote on the Health & Care Quality Bill, a week after the final amending stage.
Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.), said the Bill started with a lot of promise and could’ve forced the NHS to see care quality as a key driver.
Unfortunately, the Bill remained weaker than it should be in many areas, including the overly-broad definition of “care quality” and the lack of any measures to put in place when health boards and other providers fail.
“I understand this Bill….would not necessarily have prevented some of the scandals that we’ve seen in places like Cwm Taf and Betsi Cadwaladr, However, it would, with more teeth, have enabled us to strive for an NHS with an honest and open culture – a culture where, when a nurse or a midwife does a report that says, ‘There are serious failings in maternity services’, he or she would feel empowered to be able to flag that up, because that’s a duty of candour. Nothing in the current Bill is there that says, ‘You can do that’. In fact, rather it’s ‘Please be candid’ and ‘Oh, never mind….There’s not a lot we’re going to do about it’.”
– Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM
Plaid Cymru lamented the loss of Community Health Councils. Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said they provided an effective means of scrutinising health boards and there were also serious concerns over the independence of the replacement Citizens’ Voice Body.
Replying on behalf of the government, Counsel General, Jeremy Miles (Lab, Neath), said that despite disagreement between the government and opposition parties, there is a common purpose and he believes the Bill would “strengthen the duty of quality, the duty of candour, governance arrangements and the voice of the public.”
There is, as far as I know, no minimum number of AMs who need to be present in plenary for the Senedd to have a quorum. The Bill was passed by 22 votes to 16.