Senedd roundup: No relaxation of shielding advice until mid-August

Photo by Alex Boyd on Unsplash

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Health Minister Vaughan Gething has confirmed in a written statement that there are unlikely to be further changes to the advice for those shielding from coronavirus until the middle of August. He also made clear however, that restrictions on those most vulnerable “is advice and not instruction”.

In a surprise move last Sunday the 130,000 people in Wales who are shielding were told they could go outside to meet others and exercise. Similar measures were announced in England 24 hours earlier.

The minister said new letters from the Chief Medical Officer for Wales will start to be issued shortly to those shielding that confirm the changes announced on Sunday and asking those shielding to continue to do so.

He also reiterated that those shielding should continue to follow all the other advice previously given. They should not go shopping or attend work outside of home and when needed should continue to have food and medicine delivered to them.

Review

In the Statement Mr Gething wrote: “Going forward, the Chief Medical Officer for Wales will start to review the advice for those who are shielding on the same cycle as the review of the lockdown regulations [every three weeks].

“However, we do not expect that any further relaxation will be possible for this group for some time and so we have committed to write again to those who are shielding by 16th August.”

“I recognise that to be advised not to go to work or school or do your own shopping is challenging and frustrating, but this advice is in place for the safety of those who are shielding.

“However, I should emphasise this is advice and not instruction. Just as we all have choices to make for ourselves and our families as we come out of lockdown, those who are shielding will also want to choose how to respond and how best to manage their lives. The advice is in place for the safety of individuals.”

The latest figures from Public Health Wales confirm a further eight deaths from Covid-19, taking the total number of deaths in Wales to 1,379.

Another 35 people have tested positive for the virus, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 14,238.  There were 2,602 tests carried out yesterday. 

Photo by enriquelopezgarre from Pixabay

Coronavirus inquiry backed by Senedd, but on the Welsh Government’s terms and not before the next election

The First Minister recently stated his government’s support for an inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic. Yesterday, the Senedd debated precisely how and when that should happen.

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Calls for an independent, Senedd appointed, judge-led inquiry into the Welsh Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, to be commenced at an appropriate date, when the pandemic is under control, and to be concluded before the next Senedd election.

Questions over Welsh Government’s response to pandemic need answering

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.), said an independent, Senedd-appointed, judge-led inquiry would be a necessary step in getting to the bottom of how the Welsh Government responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The appointment of an independent judge will send a statement that this institution is committed to accountability, and this inquiry quite simply deserves the authority that a senior judge would command. Indeed, when the process gets to the stage where hearings are underway, a QC and their team would have the most appropriate skills to conduct questioning in a fair, inquisitorial manner.”
– Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS

Stressing the need for this work to be completed before the next scheduled Senedd election in May 2021, the public should have the opportunity to hold ministers to account at the ballot box based on the evidence and findings of such an inquiry.

Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns MS (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.), went through some of the specific areas an inquiry could focus on including the Stereophonics concert in Cardiff, how the lockdown worked and whether ambitions and ministerial statements on virus testing matched reality.

Both Russell George MS (Con, Montgomery) and Mark Isherwood MS (Con, North Wales) offered lists of businesses and economic sectors which have been impacted differently in Wales compared to England.

“The Welsh Government decided not to follow some of the most fundamental guidance of WHO. We need to know why, and when do they think the WHO guidance is to be followed and when it isn’t, not in order to be able to point the finger at some point in the future, but to learn lessons now.”
– Rhun ap Iorwerth MS (Plaid, Ynys Môn)

Interim report needed at the very least

Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) noted that governments establish statutory inquiries rather than parliaments, but at the very least there had to be cross-party talks on setting the groundwork for a future inquiry. Given that it would take six months to get a full public inquiry off the ground, at the very least an interim report should be prepared – similarly to the Grenfell Tower inquiry.

Carwyn Jones MS (Lab, Bridgend) later pointed out that it took 16 months to prepare an interim report for Grenfell. The process can’t be rushed; there has to be transparency and “not some kind of rushed kangaroo court”.

Joyce Watson MS (Lab, Mid & West Wales) believed the UK’s lack of preparedness for a global pandemic – with only the US being deemed less prepared by public health experts at John Hopkins University – means any inquiry can’t focus on Wales in isolation when UK Government decisions have had a big impact.

This was echoed by Lynne Neagle MS (Lab, Torfaen), though she believed coronavirus inquiries currently underway by the Senedd’s committees could provide some pointers.

Inquiry necessary, but not yet

Counsel General, Jeremy Miles (Lab, Neath), was unequivocal about the need for an inquiry – but now isn’t the right time.

“Crucial to the issue of timing will be the need to take account of the ongoing crisis management. As we move from summer to winter, we may well be dealing with a further peak and with other winter pressures, and I know that Members will agree that those working on the front line will need, of course, to be able to do their work unimpeded by other pressures.”
– Counsel General, Jeremy Miles

Other key principles the Counsel General believes should underpin any future inquiry include involvement and coordination by all of the UK’s governments and joint agreement on who should lead an inquiry; the Welsh Government aren’t opposed to this being judge-led, in principle.

Vote

The Welsh Government’s amended version of the motion – supporting an inquiry in principle but without a fixed deadline – was approved by 40 votes to 11 with 5 abstentions (BXP and Neil McEvoy).

Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford. Picture by the Welsh Government

First Minister defends 5-mile-rule 

Here’s the latest round-up of latest ministerial statements on coronavirus.

First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West): Stay local when visiting another household

Key points:

  • 2,122 people in Wales have died from confirmed or suspected Covid-19 as of May 22nd. The conditions in Wales allowed for an easing of lockdown restrictions at the start of this week, but this was no guarantee that lockdown will be eased in the same way across the UK at the same time.
  • People should continue to observe social distancing (keeping 2 metres from other people) and regular handwashing despite fatigue starting to set in.
  • He called for greater financial flexibility from the UK Government to enable the Welsh Government to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Welsh Government guidance on workplace safety and coronavirus has been welcomed by the CBI and TUC.
  • The Chief Medical Officer will write to all shielding groups (people advised to stay at home due to underlying health conditions) to tell them how recent easing of lockdown restrictions affects them; the First Minister believes it was right to allow shielding groups to go outside under specific conditions, but they shouldn’t feel obliged to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
  • The £500 bonus for social care workers will be taxed despite pleas from the Welsh Government for the UK Treasury to exempt it.

The Conservatives have publicly criticised the “5-mile-rule” in the latest lockdown restrictions. Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.), believed it was a sign that the Welsh Government didn’t care about rural Wales seeing as people would often have to travel more than 5 miles to reach another town or village, plus it was confusing people.

The First Minister stressed that the 5-mile-rule doesn’t exist in the strictest sense; it’s a guideline and the advice is for people to “stay local” – which will mean different things in urban and rural Wales. The guideline is there to protect rural areas from people who would otherwise travel long distances and potentially carry the virus with them.

Protests

The one non-virus-related topic for discussion is the protest against police killings in the United States, which have prompted protests in solidarity in Wales.

Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) noted examples of structural racism in Wales, including a higher death rate from Covid-19 amongst certain ethnic minorities (BMEs). BMEs were also imprisoned at a higher rate in Wales than whites. Would the First Minister commit to an inquiry into structural racism?

The First Minister accepted that racism of this kind wasn’t restricted to the United States and BMEs face disadvantages that have to be grappled within Wales. Whilst not committing to an inquiry, he said the record of BME public appointments in Wales wasn’t good enough and it was something the Welsh Government was actively looking at as one example.

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

All care homes will be tested “within two weeks”

Health & Social Services Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth):

Key points:

  • While the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and fatalities continues to fall, there has to be a careful and cautious approach to prevent a second wave of infections.
  • Cancer, cardiac and ophthalmology are amongst some of the essential services prioritised to restart where they haven’t already been restarted.
  • 97% of patients and 85% of clinicians ranked virtual consultation services as either “excellent” or “good”.
  • The national “track and trace” service started on 1st June and anyone who’s tested positive for coronavirus will be contacted and asked for details of all people they’ve been with; 600 tracers have been recruited so far (see more: Who will train the tracers?).

Testing in care homes continues to be a major point of concern amongst MSs. Shadow Social Care Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders MS (Con, Aberconwy), told the Minister that three weeks since his announcement that testing in care homes would be expanded, some care homes were still waiting for tests to take place.

The Minister gave a timescale of two weeks:

“All care homes will be tested within the next two weeks. Some health boards think they may have that test within the next week to 10 days. Others will be slightly later, but, within the next two weeks, I expect all care homes, residents and staff to have been tested. That’s a deliberate policy choice we made, and I think that the time that it will have taken to do so compares well with every other UK nation, including England….where I understand that about six in 10 care homes are yet to be tested.”
– Health & Social Services Minister, Vaughan Gething

Masks

Rhun ap Iorwerth MS (Plaid, Ynys Môn) raised the matter of face masks. Research in The Lancet has suggested face masks could play a role in keeping Covid-19 transmission rates at a low level. 50 countries now make the wearing of face masks in public compulsory to varying degrees. When will the Welsh Government issue face mask guidance? Would he consider a campaign to encourage people to make their own face masks?

The advice given to the Welsh Government remains that there would be a “limited benefit” to the widespread use of face masks, though the Minister didn’t rule anything out depending on where the scientific and medical evidence leads. There was a difference between the medical-grade PPE face masks used by the NHS and homemade face coverings; he didn’t rule anything out there either, adding that he didn’t expect the government to be able to provide medical-grade face masks to the entire population.

 

Photo by Orna Wachman from Pixabay

Plaid press for introduction of face masks in public

Plaid Cymru is pressing the Welsh Government to introduce the wearing of face coverings in all public areas to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Rhun ap Iorwerth, Plaid’s Shadow Minister for Health pointed out growing scientific evidence suggesting masks contribute significantly to stopping the spread of the virus by reducing the rate of airborne transmission of aerosols produced by those not displaying symptoms.

The shadow minister cited a recent paper produced collaboratively by the University of California San Diego, and the National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan, that noted that the virus can remain infectious indoors for hours, and that ‘measures designed to reduce aerosol transmission must be implemented, including universal masking’.

Mr ap Iorwerth said: “The Welsh Government must pay close attention to the emerging science and take on board evidence that can help keep people in Wales safe. The case for the universal face coverings in higher risk public spaces, such as supermarkets, is becoming stronger. I believe Welsh Government should respond and adapt their strategy, moving to active encouragement of the use of face coverings

“Given that Welsh Government is rightly taking a cautious approach with lockdown restrictions, here’s another opportunity to keep people safe. If it makes a positive contribution, then why not encourage it?”

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