Senedd roundup. New coronavirus infections in Wales reach levels last seen in April

© Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The number of new coronavirus infections in Wales have returned to levels last seen in April following the confirmation of 348 new cases in today’s update from Public Health Wales.

Over the last seven days PHW has reported 1,362 positive tests for the virus, the most since the week ending 26 April when there were 1,447.

18 patients are currently being treated for Covid-19 on ventilated beds or in critical care in Welsh hospitals, according to the weekly figured from NHS Wales, the highest number since early July.

Seven of these were in Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board, four in Betsi Cadwaladr and three in Aneurin Bevan.

Yesterday a joint statement from council leaders, health officials and the police in Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board warned of a surge of hospital admissions in the area within “a matter of weeks” and called on residents to help halt “the rapidly declining coronavirus situation before the numbers get out of control”.

The figures also show there were 343 coronavirus-related patients in hospital beds – 77 more than the week before but around a third of the number during the pandemic’s peak, when 1,347 patients were hospitalised due to the virus.

Betsi Cadwaladr (112) has the most patients, followed by Cwm Taf Morgannwg with 83, the highest number since June.

PHW reports another 76 new cases in Rhondda Cynon Taf in the last 24 hours. There have been 327 in the last week as the infection rate has climbed to 135.5 per 100,000 of the population. The proportion of positive tests in RCT is now 8.4% per 100,000 people tested.

Swansea had the next highest number of new cases yesterday with 41, followed by Cardiff with 39.

Blaenau Gwent recorded 30 new infections and has the highest infection rate in Wales at 167.5 cases per 100,000 and the highest positive proportion of positive tests at 11.4%.

Merthyr Tydfil has the next highest infection rate (147.5 per 100,000 people) after 28 infections were reported yesterday. The proportion of positive tests there is 7.8%

Overall, there have been 21,896 people in Wales that have tested positive for Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.

There has also been one further death due to the virus, taking the total dating back to March to 1,606.

There were 11,030 tests carried out yesterday.

Royal Glamorgan Hospital

Coronavirus outbreak at Royal Glamorgan Hospital closes two wards

Plaid Cymru Shadow Health Minister Rhun ap Iorwerth has expressed concern following the closure of two wards in Royal Glamorgan Hospital in Cwm Taf Morgannwg Health Board, due to an outbreak of coronavirus.

The health board said it was taking “robust action” after 34 positive cases were confirmed at the hospital, including the closure of the affected wards, increased testing of staff and patients and limits on visiting.

“It is deeply concerning that infection control procedures do not seem to be working. We’re going backwards in regards to controlling the virus and the last thing we need now is the virus spreading in a medically vulnerable population, “ Mr ap Iorwerth MS said.

“This will further worry people seeking medical treatment. We already know the last lockdown caused a delay in treatments that will have led to harm so urgent action needs to be taken to ensure our hospitals are safe and people can be confident in attending routine procedures.”

The coastal village of Aberdyfi, Gwynedd. Picture by Llywelyn2000 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Welsh Government backs balanced approach to second home ownership “crisis”

  • Plaid Cymru: Second home “crisis” is changing the character of small communities.
  • Report drafted by the party calls for a set of measures to restrict second homes and increase the supply of affordable housing for locals.
  • Majority of MSs back Welsh Government amendments supporting an evidence-based review of second home ownership.

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Recognises the housing crisis in many communities and the detrimental impact of unsustainable levels of second homes in depriving local people access to homes in those communities.
  • Welcomes the steps some local authorities have taken to introduce council tax premiums on second homes and to facilitate the introduction of measures to meet the local need for housing but agrees that renewed intervention and leadership is now required at a national level.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to act, including:
    • using the planning system to control the ability to change the use of a residential dwelling to a second home
    • introducing a cap on the proportion of overall housing stock in communities under stress which may be used as second homes
    • closing second home council tax loopholes, doubling the council tax premium on second homes to at least 200% and doubling higher rates of land transaction tax for six months to prevent house prices from spiralling beyond the reach of the locals and first-time buyers
    • encouraging developments which have local market clauses attached and prioritising the purchase of empty homes by local authorities and housing associations to meet the local need for social housing
    • looking at what constitutes an “affordable home”

Second homes “now a crisis”

Delyth Jewell MS (Plaid, South Wales East) stressed the critical situation in parts of Wales which was resulting in communities being emptied for most of the year, not aided by the UK media’s portrayal as places in rural Wales as “boltholes”.

Reducing the number of second homes made economic sense too, with young people who are otherwise priced out of their own communities being able to remain year-round instead of villages coming to life for one month a year.

“The housing market shouldn’t allow people to buy secondary properties at the expense of the communities and the people who live in those communities….We are talking here about a crisis….Last year, one in every three homes sold in Gwynedd and Anglesey were sold as second properties. 12% of Gwynedd’s housing stock are houses where the owners live outside the area. This rate is among the highest in Europe.”
– Delyth Jewell MS

Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood MS (Con, North Wales) called for a balanced approach. Yes, there was an issue with the supply of affordable housing which the Welsh Government has failed to address, but there were potential unintended consequences from a blanket crackdown on all holiday homes.

While supporting the motion, Neil McEvoy MS (Ind, South Wales Central) accused Plaid Cymru of hypocrisy. Plaid-run Gwynedd Council’s planning policies haven’t addressed the issue, while 40% of Plaid’s MS’s register interests in second homes – a higher proportion than the Tories and Labour.

Mike Hedges MS (Lab, Swansea East) supported any and all efforts to bring empty homes back into use; there are at least 43,000 empty properties in Wales.

Striking a balance

Minister for Housing & Local Government, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), stressed the need for balance between supporting a tourism-based economy and ensuring communities remain viable and thriving all year round. One option is an exploration of a tourism tax to support communities impacted by tourism.

The Welsh Government amendments – which were passed – supported an evidence-based review of second home ownership which would look at tax, planning, local regulations and supply of affordable housing.

The motion was carried by 42 votes to 10.

Picture by grassrootsgroundswell (CC BY 2.0).

New support for beleaguered bus services

The government has announced a further £84.6 million of support to help bus services across Wales to meet the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bus companies have been struggling since the start of the pandemic due to a drop in the number of people travelling, and the necessity of social distancing measures being in place.

The new funding takes the total support for bus services this financial year to £140 million.

Last month £10 million of funding was made available to help transport more people to school, college and work.

A new agreement – the Bus Emergency Scheme – was recently created to manage funding to the industry. The scheme brings together Welsh Government, Transport for Wales, local authorities and bus operators to reshape Wales’ bus network and ensure funding puts the needs of passengers first.

Lee Waters, Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, said: “We want bus services to be meeting the needs of passengers, even in these challenging times. Our continued funding demonstrates our commitment to getting as many services as possible running in a safe way.

“The funding will provide some longer-term stability and given ongoing uncertainties we’ll continue to work closely with local authorities and bus operators to deliver services.

“Buses play a vital role in connecting communities and helping people access shops, education, work and leisure. We remain committed to providing the necessary support to ensure efficient services in the short, medium and long-term.”

Aberystwyth. Picture by AberComms1 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Pandemic tuition fee cut ruled out

  • Education Minister rejects call to cut tuition fees to take into account Covid-19 disruption.
  • Conservatives argue students should be getting value for money for their courses.
  • Worries over the impact of social isolation on students’ mental health.

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Notes the importance of higher and further education and believes students deserve value for money in return for the investment they make in their higher and further education, noting that there has been no reduction in fees paid by students to reflect the impact of the pandemic on their studies.
  • Regrets the interruption to courses and welcomes additional financial resources provided to Welsh colleges and universities to support them through the pandemic.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to:
    • work with colleges and universities to ensure that fees reflect the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their courses
    • ensure students access learning either in person or, in the event of unavoidable Covid-19 restrictions, through more live streaming
    • address the concerns of students, employers, and further and higher education providers concerning a narrowing of the syllabus of some courses

“You need to be able to see the whites of your tutor’s eyes”

Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies MS (Con, South Wales West), ran through some ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted students. While virtual lectures may work for some courses, what about those which require a lot of practical experience? Also, the NUS says 38% of students believe online study wasn’t of a good standard.

“If you are going to accrue a minimum of £27,000-worth of debt for tuition to do an undergraduate course, you’re going to want £27,000-worth of quality education. And again, blended learning may be part of that quality offer, but if you’re paying that kind of money I think you want to be able to see the whites of your tutor’s eyes and to have them there to engage in discussion.”
– Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies MS

Janet Finch-Saunders MS (Con, Aberconwy) questioned the fairness of an Open University course costing £2,000 a year, while other universities were charging £9,000 for what have effectively become the same courses?

Helen Mary Jones MS (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) had sympathy for some aspects of the motion, but couldn’t support cutting income streams to universities and colleges when they were already facing serious financial challenges. Jenny Rathbone MS (Lab, Cardiff Central) noted the impact a fall in international students will have on Cardiff University.

Several members noted the mental health impact on the 2020 intake, many of whom will have been caught up in the A-Level results fiasco or are now at risk of developing mental health problems caused by social isolation in campus dorms.

Universities and colleges “have gone above and beyond” to support students

Praising how the further and higher education sectors responded to the pandemic’s challenges the Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), listed ways in which the Welsh Government has financially supported both sectors. While in England institutions have been offered loans, the Welsh Government has provided non-repayable cash.

A tuition/course fee reduction was, however, quickly ruled-out:

Despite the situation, university applications have increased in terms of overall numbers and the proportion of Welsh-domiciled students studying in Wales. Dangers remain though and Covid-19 cases on university and college campuses will be closely monitored over the coming weeks.

The motion was defeated by 36 -14 with two abstentions.

Human brain. Photo by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Progress on neurological service delivery, but far more yet to be done

This week’s short debate was from Mark Isherwood MS (Con, North Wales) on the Welsh Government’s Neurological Conditions Delivery Plan. Mark chairs the Senedd’s cross-party group on neurological conditions, whose work informed the short debate.

Commitment to neurological conditions needed across the Welsh NHS

Neurological conditions is a catch-all term, with more than 250 recognised conditions and more than 100,000 people in Wales living with one.

While there are joined-up, national networks and co-ordination for conditions like cancer, cardiac disorders and renal disorders, Mark said the situation is far more patchy for neurological conditions – though the delivery plan has shone a light on some of these problems.

There was clearly room for improvement, particularly in terms of communication, lack of data on the delivery and outcomes for patients and the removal of a requirement for local health boards to publish neurological delivery plans.

“Due to the low starting baseline, the neurological conditions implementation group has yet to deliver anything like the scale of change required to ensure that people with neurological conditions across the whole of Wales have safe, timely and equitable access to treatment, services and support. Though the current approach has begun to yield positive results, it will not be possible to create the step change that is needed without a wider strategic commitment from across NHS Wales, from Welsh Government and local authorities at a senior level.”
– Mark Isherwood MS

Neurological delivery plan extended

Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), said the delivery plan will be extended to March 2022 to allow more time to learn lessons and to take into account the pandemic.

Mark Isherwood is a vocal champion of co-production – involving service-users in the design and delivery of the services they use – and the Minister said this approach was being used to take forward priorities.

“….the patient voice is fundamental if we’re to improve the quality of our services across health and care….The (neurological conditions) implementation group has extended funding to the Welsh Neurological Alliance, so that their project manager can develop a network of service users across Wales to inform awareness-raising and raising support for future service improvements. The Wales Neurological Alliance plays a crucial role in raising awareness and signposting information for each condition where appropriate.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething

Rugby. Photo by robert williams from Pixabay

Government quizzed over innovation requirement for sports clubs 

Sian Gwenllian MS (Plaid, Arfon) welcomed the recent announcement of a £40million fund for sports clubs. However, the requirement for an innovation strategy to access the funds made things more difficult for clubs that may not have the know-how or income to draft one. Why was the focus on innovation rather than financial survival?

Deputy Minister for Culture, Tourism & Sport, Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) said it wasn’t an attempt to restrict access to funding but is, in part, to end a “something for nothing” culture:

“….one of the things that’s been important to me over the years is that if people are to access public funds, that shouldn’t be available to them free of charge and that it’s just a matter of ticking the boxes, but that we also find new ways of working creatively in order to help to bring people through this crisis that we’re currently facing.”
– Deputy Minister for Culture, Tourism & Sport, Dafydd Elis-Thomas

Staying active through the winter

Laura Anne Jones MS (Con, South Wales East) said the last six months has taken its toll on people’s mental and physical health. Free virtual PE lessons from Joe Wicks helped households, of all ages, remain physically active during lockdown – maybe it was something the Welsh Government could learn from.

“I’m not suggesting that you and the First Minister start doing exercise videos for the nation, Minister, but it is something that is very good, and maybe we should we look into because it’s a great way of getting into people’s houses, helping them to exercise, encouraging them to exercise and maybe it’s something that we should look at on a Wales-wide basis and be free for use.”
– Laura Anne Jones MS

The Deputy Minister – while not eager to exercise on camera – thought the key was to repeat the messaging about the importance of physical activity, but also to ensure there’s a choice of activities for different ability levels.

All-weather sporting facilities were also a key part of things, with the Deputy Minister jokingly suggesting a budget to supply everyone with thermals.

Photo by HM Treasury and licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Opening of Newport coronavirus testing laboratory delayed until October

The opening of a new coronavirus testing lab in Newport has been delayed until next month.

The facility at Imperial Park will be part of the UK-wide Lighthouse labs testing programme and was originally due to open in August.

Public Health Wales said the delay was due to “ongoing recruitment” by US diagnostics company Perkin Elmer, who are running the lab, and issues with laboratory validation.

Newport West Labour Senedd member Jayne Bryant said: “When we’re seeing an increase in demand for testing, the delay by the UK government to the promised Lighthouse Lab at Imperial Park in Newport is very disappointing and frustrating to say the least.

“The UK government needs to urgently resolve the issues with the Lighthouse Labs, which we’re seeing across the UK, to ensure we have capacity in the system.”

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