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Senedd roundup: Release of untested patients into care home was “indefensible”

24 Jun 2020 12 minute read
Photo by Alex Boyd on Unsplash

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Plaid Cymru have demand an explanation from Health Minister Vaughan Gething over his claims that no deaths resulted from the Welsh Government’s policy of sending untested residents to care homes from hospital during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

The latest figures suggest there have been a total of 654 Covid-19 deaths in care homes, just over 28% of all coronavirus deaths in Wales, but Care Inspectorate Wales reports 2,937 total deaths in care homes since 1 March,  86% higher than for the same period last year, and 54% higher than for the same period in 2018, suggesting the numbers of deaths from the virus could be significantly higher.

Speaking at yesterday’s press briefing Mr Gething dismissed calls for an inquiry into why 1,097 patients were discharged into care homes without a Covid-19 test, claiming the Welsh Government had been “really upfront” about the situation.

“There’s no secret about this, we were clear at the time about the evidence and the advice we had, and the decision that ministers made, he said.

“And my decision at the time about not introducing testing for everyone who has been discharged from the hospital into a care home was because that’s where the evidence and advice was at the time.”

Mr Gething added that when the discharges happened in March and April “we needed to move people out of hospital quickly… because we had to prepare our NHS for the wave that was coming.”

Plaid Cymru’s local government spokesperson Delyth Jewell MS said: “The Health Minister’s suggestion that his priority at the time was to prevent hospitals reaching overcapacity suggests to me that a deliberate decision was taken to send residents back to care homes untested, regardless of the consequences, simply in order to free up beds.

“If this is the case then that decision is completely indefensible, given that hospitals never reached capacity, there were empty field hospitals all over Wales and that a great many people died as a result of the infection being brought into care homes in this way.

“The Welsh Government must immediately publish the advice they claim supported their decision, including whether the advice was predicated on a direction by themselves that hospital capacity was to be prioritised over preventing infection in care homes.”

The total number of people who have died with Covid-19 in Wales has risen to 1,491 after eight further deaths were confirmed by Public Health Wales.

There were also 47 new cases reported, bringing the total number of confirmed infections to 15,341. Tuesday saw 2,656 tests carried out in Wales

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

First Minister’s Questions

After several months, First Minister’s Questions made a return this afternoon as the Senedd starts to make the first steps towards normal business.

More grumbling about “five-mile rule”; decision on 2 metres social distancing “will be based on evidence”

One thing the Conservatives have been very loud about over the last month is the so-called “five-mile rule” – strong guidance that people in Wales should stay local. With further lifting of restrictions having been announced in England, it was inevitable the Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.) would raise it again.

“Non-essential businesses have been allowed to resume trading, and as people are able to travel more than five miles to visit a garden centre, it still begs the question why they cannot see their loved ones. Therefore, can you tell us, First Minister, what specific scientific evidence do you have as a Government to keep the five-mile rule in place?”
– Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS

The First Minister repeated that there is no “rule”, it’s guidance; there’s no regulation stating that people shouldn’t or couldn’t travel further than five miles from home, it’s simply giving the public an idea of what “staying local” means in practice. People are still able to travel further than that if they have a compassionate reason to do so.

Asking people to stay local has “been a very important part of our armoury to prevent the spread of the virus from one community to another”. However, the First Minister couldn’t provide any specific evidence supporting it.

When pressed on whether the Welsh Government would consider following England in cutting the 2 metres social distancing rule to 1 metre, the First Minister did cite evidence from the scientific advisory body SAGE that halving the distance from 2 metres increases the risk of Covid-19 transmission by two to five times. Any decision to cut the distance in Wales will be based on evidence.

First Minister accepts woodland creation figures “not good enough”; rules out expert-led Rhondda flooding inquiry

While Wales and the world were facing two crises in health and economics, Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) brought up the third crisis is ecology, pointing to last week’s flooding in the Rhondda. Tree planting was one way to deal with the increased risk of flooding from climate change, but:

“Almost a decade ago, the Welsh Government adopted the ambitious and widely lauded target of planting 5,000 hectares of new woodland every year, until 2030. This target was dropped to 2,000 hectares. In the last five years, the Welsh Government has achieved an average of just 300 hectares a year, and in the 12 months up until March this year, it achieved just 80 hectares – 4% of the target. First Minister, where is the urgency in the climate emergency?”
– Adam Price MS

The First Minister – whose leadership manifesto included a pledge to create a National Forest – accepted this wasn’t good enough, but the tree planting budget has been quadrupled despite cuts to Natural Resources Wales’ budget.

When Adam Price asked whether a formal expert-led inquiry should be undertaken into the causes behind the Rhondda flooding, the First Minister said Rhondda Cynon Taf Council and NRW will take the lead on that as part of legal responsibilities following any flooding incident.

Photo by Nation.Cymru

Minister not ruling out full September schools return 

Education Minister Kirsty Williams said she has not ruled out children fully returning to school in September during Wednesday’s coronavirus press briefing.

Schools in Wales have been closed to the majority of pupils since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in March but students are due to return next week as part of “blended learning” plan.

The minister said: “I’m certainly not ruling anything out at this stage, and I want to reassure everybody in Wales that we will be working hard to maximise the opportunity for children to be in school and minimise the ongoing disruption to individuals education as a result of the pandemic.”

The government originally indicated that the requirement was for schools to open for four weeks to allow all pupils the opportunity to attend before the summer break but teaching union were concerned that extending the term by a week could causes major problems relating to staff contracts.

Some unions representing support staff have also questioned the safety and practicality of the proposal and warned there may not be enough cleaners and teaching assistants to enable schools to open for an extra week.

The minister has now conceded that most schools will only be able to return for three weeks rather than four next Monday for a “variety of reasons”.

“Teachers and support staff worked hard to put those plans in place, but for a variety of reasons individual local authorities have not been able to proceed with that proposal,” Ms Williams said.

“But I think it’s really important to acknowledge the hard work that has gone on to ensure, whether it’s for three weeks or four weeks, Wales is doing something unique in providing all our children an opportunity to have some sessions in school ahead of summer.”

Photo by Tumisu from Pixabay

Tories call on First Minister to follow England’s lockdown lead

The Welsh Conservatives are calling on First Minister Mark Drakeford to review the lockdown rules in Wales following the announcement of the lifting of a number of  restrictions in England over the last 48 hours, and despite concerns there have been too many changes made too soon by the UK Government.

On Monday, it was announced that 2.2 million people that were shielding in England would be permitted to leave their homes and mix with groups of people from 6 July. From 1 August, those who have been shielding can return to their jobs if their workplace is “Covid-secure” and from then will receive only local authority and voluntary help.

Yesterday Boris Johnson confirmed venues including museums, pubs, hotels and hairdressers can reopen from 4 July and halved the recommended physical distancing from 2 metres to 1 metre. The Prime Minister also said two households could meet up indoors.

Darren Millar MS, the Shadow Minister for Covid Recovery for the Welsh Conservatives said: “These are safe and sensible measures which will come as a huge relief to those parts of society and the economy which would otherwise be unable to function and it is great to see them attracting cross-party support.

“We encourage the Welsh Government to urgently review the restrictions here as soon as possible in order that a similar lifeline can be thrown to people and businesses across Wales.”

Reflecting on the changes, Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government, was less enthusiastic. He told Sky News: “I think it is extraordinarily risky. I don’t think anyone could believe, from the scientific point of view, that this is a wise move”.

Prof John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that has been advising the government throughout the pandemic, also expressed doubts about the easing of restrictions.

“Relaxing the 2-metre rule at the same time as opening bars and restaurants does run the risk of allowing the epidemic to start to regain a foothold. These changes will have to be very carefully monitored and the NHS track-and-trace system will have to be working properly to help keep us safe,” he warned.

Photo by Julio Cesar Velasquez from Pixabay

Following First Minister’s Questions was questions to Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham).

Causes of meat processing plant virus outbreaks being urgently investigated

Public Health Wales has revealed that 25 more workers at the 2 Sisters chicken processing plant on Anglesey have tested positive for Covid-19.

In total there are now 200 confirmed cases at the plant which employs about 500 people in Llangefni.

Two further Welsh meat and food plants have seen Covid-19 infections spread among the workforce in the last seven days.

70 workers have tested positive for the virus at Rowan Foods in Wrexham and there have been 34 confirmed cases linked to Kepak in Merthyr Tydfil.

Both Llyr Gruffydd and Shadow Environment & Rural Affairs Minister, Andrew RT Davies MS (Con, South Wales Central) asked about the Covid-19 outbreaks.

The latter asked whether a “rapid piece of work” the Minister has ordered on the outbreaks would be made public?

The Minister would make it public if she could, hinting that the cause could be related to cold surfaces in these plants:

“….we know the virus can live much longer on cold stainless steel than it does outside. So, clearly, for those of us who have been in those sorts of organisations and places, we know that they are very cold. Last week, we were told that noise can have an impact. So, again, some of these places are very noisy, so that could be having an impact too.”
– Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths

Additionally, Andrew Davies asked about pandemic support for farmers. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have committed £25 million and £45 million respectively to support their agricultural sectors, particularly in light of price falls of up to 20%. Would similar levels of support be considered for Wales?

The Minister made no commitments on finance, saying support was on a “case-by-case basis”, with the dairy sector coming first.

Minister can’t reconsider in-year NRW budget cut

With a criminal investigation into the causes of a polluting fire at the Hafod tip near Wrexham still ongoing, Llyr Gruffydd MS (Plaid, North Wales) asked for an update.

He was also becoming increasingly concerned about Natural Resources Wales’ capacity to carry out their role with an in-year cut to their budget.

“(NRW) already saw a real-terms cut in their budget for this year and now they’re facing….a £7.5million further cut to their in-year budget. Now, if you add in the multi-million-pound losses projected for the timber operations, then this is becoming critical. So, in light of their key role in protecting the environment and responding to flooding and in leading the charge against the climate emergency, will you now reconsider the proposed budget cut for Natural Resources Wales?”
– Llyr Gruffydd MS

Llyr Gruffydd said people would be left “bemused” when the Minister told him tipping was safe to continue at the Hafod site given the causes of the fire are, as of yet, unknown.

On the wider question of NRW finance, the Minister said there was no avoiding a budget cut as money was redirected to support efforts in the coronavirus pandemic, therefore she couldn’t reconsider the cut.


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