Senedd roundup: Plans being put in place to deal with second wave of Covid-19 this winter

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

The chief medical officer for Wales Dr Frank Atherton confirmed NHS Wales is working on the assumption there will be a second wave of Covid-19 this winter.

“The circumstances for viral transmission are more favourable when the workforce is back at work, when children are going back to school, he said at Thursday’s government press briefing.

“So, the more social mixing we have, at that time, towards the late summer or into early autumn the greater the risk of viral resurgence.”

“We need to plan for that. We do need to think very carefully about that, and in fact the NHS is working on the assumption that there will be a second spike in viral transmission. We hope that may not be the case, but we have to plan for that, he added.”

Dr Atherton also warned that shielding in “some form” could be reintroduced if coronavirus infections were to increase in future.

His comments came after he had announced a pause to shielding measures for 130,000 people from 16 August,

Dr Atherton explained that the so-called R-number – the transmission rate of the virus, is currently below one in Wales and only 0.5% of tests for Covid-19 were positive.

UK ministers announced three weeks ago that shielding in England would end on 1 August.

“It may be – we hope not to – but it maybe we may have to reinstitute some form of shielding in the future,” he said.

“If we do that it may not be exactly the same group, there’s a piece of work going on at a UK level to do a better risk assessment so that we have a clearer idea of who really will benefit.”

He also revealed that over the summer, a review will be undertaken of all children on the shielding list.

“Although shielding is pausing, the list will be maintained, he said.

We will use the latest guidance from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health to determine whether each child needs to remain on the list.

Public Health Wales reported no new deaths from coronavirus in the last 24 hours. The total number of deaths from the virus remains at 1,545.

The total number of confirmed infections in Wales climbed to 16,871 as 18 new cases were reported.

The update also reported 4,319 tests were carried out on Wednesday.

Hopes and fears for pandemic recovery spending priorities

Before summer recess, MSs had a chance to set out their views on what the Welsh Government should prioritise in the next Welsh budget as Wales recovers from Covid-19.

Little appetite for tax rises

Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd MS (Plaid, North Wales), told the chamber that health and education were seen as the top priorities following several polls. There was little appetite for tax rises, with the preference overall being for increased borrowing, with some support for a tax cut to boost the economy.

Alun Davies MS (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) argued the budget should – as in other countries, such as the United States – take the format of legislation, which would mean the Senedd would have greater control over public spending and tax rates rather than the government.

Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay MS (Con, Monmouth) called for the Welsh Government to put sustainability at the heart of any recovery process, but also for a greater focus on digital infrastructure to reach as close to 100% broadband coverage as possible.

“The provision of financial incentives to bring branch factories to Wales have produced very many unhappy endings. If you have to bribe a company to come here, I can tell you: they don’t want to come. They’re only coming because you’re bribing them and if they get a better offer somewhere else, they’re off. We all know of examples of this.”
– Mike Hedges MS (Lab, Swansea East)

Several MSs spoke out in support of extra funding for local government given the vital role they’ve played during the lockdown, while Rhianon Passmore MS (Lab, Islwyn) cautioned against a return to austerity politics, demanding the Welsh Government stick with an interventionist approach to business support.

However, Lynne Neagle MS (Lab, Torfaen) was concerned about £7 million cuts to mental health in the emergency budget – given the negative impact the pandemic will have had on children’s mental health in particular, as well as the inevitable coming recession which will impact mental health more broadly.

Not enough money to do all the things we would like to do

Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), said various economics forecasts provide a sombre reminder of the challenges that lie ahead in terms of the pandemic, a seemingly-inevitable no-deal Brexit at the end of the transition period and climate change.

“…the claim that Wales has received an extra £500 million from the measures announced by the Chancellor last week is nothing short of misleading. The reality is that we will receive only £12.5 million in new revenue consequentials as a direct result of the measures announced in the economic update, and no additional capital funding.”
– Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans

The Minister said, quite frankly, that there wasn’t enough money to do all the things the Welsh Government would like to do. The government expects to find out how much money they’ll have to spend for 2021-22 in the autumn, but there was a chance that no budget may be published until the very end of the next term.

Picture by Richardjo53 licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Minister criticised after writing off M4 relief road losses 

The Welsh Conservatives have blasted the government after Ken Skates MS, Minister for the Economy, Transport and North Wales confirmed he is writing off £43.1 million of the costs of the aborted M4 Newport relief road.

Just over a year ago First Minister Mark Drakeford scrapped proposals for the road due to environmental concerns and spiralling costs.

Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson threatened to revive plans for the new £1.6bn motorway to ease traffic congestion in south Wales but was warned off by the Welsh Government.

A spokesman said the PM has “no say in the M4 relief road”.

“It’s an entirely devolved matter and the first minister has made his decision.”

Russell George MS, the Welsh Conservative spokesperson for Transport, said: “This is an acute embarrassment for the Welsh Labour-led Government, and an insult to hard-working taxpayers who have seen their money written off in such a cavalier manner.

“The Minister’s Government has dithered and left communities in South East Wales without a solution to its congestion and in the meantime wasted millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money.”

Picture by Ifan Morgan Jones / Llinos Dafydd. (CC BY 2.0)

Clash of the clichés as Senedd debates the merits of an independence referendum

As the title suggests, the debate was OK but nothing ground-breaking, historic or anything we haven’t heard before.

Plaid got over-excited and tried to paint an independent Wales as an impressionist landscape – very colourful, but style over substance. Those opposed to independence were reduced to well-trodden fire and brimstone portents of eternal doom and denial. Labour tried to stay above it all by proposing vague reforms that, under the existing UK Constitution, will never happen.

You can probably skip to the vote, but….

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Notes that the people of Wales have welcomed the ability for Wales to act independently during the coronavirus crisis and also recognises the success of independent countries of a similar size to Wales in dealing with the virus.
  • Believes that independence would give Wales greater agility and resilience in responding to future challenges.
  • Notes the increased support for an independent Scotland and a united Ireland.
  • Affirms the right of the people of Wales to decide whether Wales should become independent.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to seek the constitutional right to hold an independence referendum during the next term.

Independence is a means to an end

Rhun ap Iorwerth MS (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said independence was a means to provide a better future. Yes, it’s challenging – but the alternative is more of the same: stagnation, dependence, poverty, lack of investment and lack of opportunities. The pandemic has proven that Wales needs the kind of flexibility only available to independent countries and many smaller independent nations had Covid-19 death rates far lower than Wales.

Neil McEvoy MS (Ind, South Wales Central) argued for a written constitution and the means by which the public can request a referendum through petitions. He suggested it be drafted by a citizens’ assembly and put to a referendum itself.

“With Scotland gone, Northern Ireland too, there will be no UK. People in Wales will face a binary choice: Wales or England. Are we happy to become a county of England, as UKIP, the Brexit Party and other English nationalists want us? Or are we going to grow a backbone, and decide that we are finally going to stand up for ourselves and take our place among the free nations of the world?”
– Dr Dai Lloyd MS (Plaid, South Wales West)

Delyth Jewell MS (Plaid, South Wales East) thought the pandemic and the response to it presented several possible visions of the future – one is where the UK is held together by force through the UK Government’s imposition of policy on Wales, the other is a vision of hope where Wales can reflect our own values and build something better with all tools at our disposal.

“The Welsh Government’s position is the constitutional equivalent of St Augustine’s plea, ‘Make us sovereign Lord, just not yet’. No, let’s give the idea of a reformed UK, which would allow for coordinated governmental action to be pursued, one last heave, even though we’ve seen, over the last few months the catastrophic mistakes of a dysfunctional, incompetent, shambolic….Westminster Government that has treated the Welsh Government and the Welsh nation in a manner that has oscillated between benign neglect and outright contempt….”
– Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr)

Independence “insurgency” is a dead-end; alternatives are there

Darren Millar MS (Con, Clwyd West) thought the debate was a waste of time given the other things we have to worry about. The Senedd has already spent far too long debating the constitution and support for independence was stagnant.

It was becoming a problem for Labour too, with Darren Millar calling for independence-supporting Labour party “insurgents” to be expelled to prove Labour’s loyalty to the Union.

While Darren Millar remained committed to devolution, it’s worth noting the amendments tabled by others calling for the exact opposite of independence – direct-rule from London; the argument going that Wales should have a right to change its mind about devolution as much as the Union.

Carwyn Jones MS (Lab, Bridgend) thought calls for abolition of devolution would drive more people towards independence (in Scotland at least), while independence wasn’t necessarily always a peaceful event. He supported some form of confederal UK:

“I believe in a sovereign Wales, but I believe that we can share that sovereignty with the other three entities within the UK. It’s a kind of confederation. Now, I grant you that shared sovereignty doesn’t have the same resonance electorally as ‘Free Wales’ or ‘Rule Britannia’, and it’s a difficult concept to explain, but I say this to Darren Millar in the spirit of debate: I think we’ve moved well beyond constitutional tinkering; this is fundamental to the future of the UK.”
– Carwyn Jones MS

Mick Antoniw MS (Lab, Pontypridd) thought the matter of self-determination lies with the Welsh people although he favoured a reformed, decentralised UK. He supports a UK Constitutional Convention to be set up to consider a new constitutional framework which would be put to a referendum.

A referendum would need a government mandate

On behalf of the Welsh Government, Chief Whip & Deputy Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), accepted that the pandemic has put the UK’s constitution under increased tension.

The Welsh Government’s position was made clear in Reforming Our Union. That said, for a referendum to be held – on independence or direct-rule – there needs to be a mandate from the electorate in next May’s election (see also: State of Wales – Five Steps to Independence):

“….if a Welsh Government has secured an electoral mandate to hold a referendum on a fundamental constitutional question, it is entitled to expect the UK Parliament to make the necessary arrangements. Provision for a legally binding referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 was made by the UK Parliament, following a clear majority won by the SNP in 2011. But that precondition is essential for Westminster to be asked to make the arrangements for a referendum on the constitutional status of Wales. That request must come from a Welsh Government with a mandate to do so, and no such mandate presently exists.”
– Chief Whip & Deputy Minister, Jane Hutt

Vote

A version of the motion amended by the Welsh Government – supporting a reformed UK and the benefits of pan-UK decision-making – was approved by 29 votes to 24. Additionally, all amendments calling for a direct-rule referendum were comprehensively rejected.

 

Circus elephant. Photo by Wolfgang Claussen from Pixabay

Use of wild animals in circuses to be banned in Wales

A Bill to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses in Wales has been passed by the Senedd.

The Bill was introduced just over a year ago, following consultation which saw contributions from thousands of members of the public.

There were more than 6,500 responses to the public consultation on the draft Bill, with 97% of respondents supporting the introduction of a ban.

Subject to Royal Assent, the ban will come into force on December 1.

Claire Lawson, RSPCA assistant director for external relations in Wales, said: “This is an historic day for animals in Wales – with the spectre of wild animals being used in travelling circuses set to be consigned to the history books, once and for all.

“The RSPCA is proud to have long campaigned on this issue – and the strength of feeling in all corners of Wales was clear. “

Photo by Ian Britton is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Senedd says “Twenty’s Plenty”

 The Motion (Final/Amended Version)

The Senedd:

  • Welcomes the report of the Taskforce chaired by Phil Jones (pdf) setting out recommendations on how to change the default speed limit for restricted roads in Wales to 20mph.
  • Notes international research which demonstrates the road safety benefits, including a reduction in child deaths, of reducing default speed limits to 20mph.
  • Recognises the Welsh Government roll-out of 20mph pilot projects.
  • Supports the Welsh Government’s intention to consult on making of an order (which will require Senedd approval) reducing the general speed limit for restricted roads to 20mph.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to set out its proposals as part of the consultation to ensure enforcement agencies have the appropriate resources to respond to the proposed order.

Reducing speeds reduces accidents

Deputy Economy & Transport Minister, Lee Waters (Lab, Llanelli), started with the grim statistics that 80 children were killed or seriously injured on Welsh roads last year and there are 4,000 road accidents which result in injuries annually.

The evidence is clear that reducing speeds reduces accidents and speeding ranked highly as the most common form of anti-social behaviour in all communities. In terms of how it would work:

“….instead of the default limit being 30mph with communities needing to make the case to go lower, the default speed limit will become 20mph, with a case needing to be made to go higher. This change in the default speed limit is a cost-effective way to lower the speed limit on all residential roads in Wales.”
– Deputy Economy & Transport Minister, Lee Waters

Transport for Wales has already developed a mapping tool to work out which roads should change and “encouraging discussions” have taken place with Police & Crime Commissioners around enforcement.

The reforms will take a while though, with any change – which will require Senedd approval – not expecting to be in place until 2023, so after the next election.

A common sense move

Sian Gwenllian MS (Plaid, Arfon) tabled an amendment calling for proper consultation with enforcement agencies – which was accepted. The enforcement regime had to change to ensure any speed limit change had real impact and value and full costings had to be laid out. Mick Antoniw MS (Lab, Pontypridd) agreed and thought the proposals would be welcomed in his constituency where there are lots of narrow streets.

“I remember people shouting and screaming at the idea that we should all be wearing seatbelts, and other people saying that it was an affront to people’s liberties not to be able to smoke in children’s faces. Nobody would argue those cases now, and nor should we be imposing on children the inability to play outside and to get to school safely….because it is the fear of parents that prevents them doing that. It is not the children who are resistant to that.”
– Jenny Rathbone MS (Lab, Cardiff Central)

There was support on the Conservative benches too. As the regulatory change could effectively happen overnight, Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George MS (Con, Montgomery) called for an extensive public information campaign and warned that like the use of seat belts, default lower speed limits may end up being a generational change rather than an instant one.

“It’s common sense and it’s a safe move. A person is seven times less likely to die if hit at 20mph than 30mph, or 10 times if they’re over the age of 60. A study aimed to evaluate the impact of the roll-out of 20 mph speed limits across the city of Bristol found that there had been a reduction in the number of fatal, serious and slight injuries from road traffic collisions equating to estimated cost savings of over £15 million per year and that walking and cycling across the city had increased.”
– Janet Finch-Saunders MS (Con, Aberconwy)

Vote

Although the vote was binding, it doesn’t mean the policy has been introduced; it means the Senedd has given the Welsh Government the green light to work on it. As mentioned, it’s not likely to be formally introduced for a while.

The Tories presumably had a free vote on this.

Suzy Davies MS (Con, South Wales West) and Mark Isherwood MS (Con, North Wales) abstained. Darren Millar MS (Con, Clwyd West) voted against.

The motion was carried by 45 votes to 6 with two abstentions.

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on UnsplashNHS IT systems suffer “glitch” as work continues on upgrades

An IT system to track cancer patients through the NHS Wales temporarily went down at the end of last week due to a glitch.

BBC Wales reports that the First Minister said the glitches were due to systems upgrades. The NHS Informatics Service said access to test results and other associated documents wasn’t affected.

The Public Accounts Committee published a highly critical report on NHS IT systems in 2018, which resulted in the Welsh Government announcing a £50million overhaul at the end of 2019.

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