Senedd roundup: Third health board suspends non-critical services
Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board has become the third health board in Wales to suspend non-urgent care due to the recent surge in cases of Covid-19.
In conjunction with Bridgend, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Councils, the health board has confirmed that all non-urgent outpatient clinics will be postponed, along with all non-urgent planned surgery.
Specialist nurse clinics and all non-urgent diagnostic services (e.g. radiology/endoscopy) have also been cancelled.
Urgent cancer services and clinically urgent patients will continue to be seen
A statement from the health board and the three local authorities it covers said: “There has been an alarming increase of Covid-19 cases across Wales which is continuing to put our health and care services under severe pressure and is projected to continue in the coming weeks.
“Such is the pressure in our areas of Bridgend, Rhondda Cynon Taf, and Merthyr Tydfil that in the last week the equivalent of almost 4 people acquired the virus every 10 minutes. The transmission rates in our council areas are in the highest 20 areas in the whole of the UK.”
“This year the traditional peak in demand we usually see in our services will be significantly greater given the high rates of Covid-19 transmission and this poses a real risk to our ability to continue to provide essential services.
“The current strain on the health system is serious. Across the Health Board there are 419 suspected, confirmed or recovering Covid-19 patients in our hospitals and our Intensive Care beds are currently near capacity. We have more than 50 patients in our temporary hospital Ysbyty’r Seren. Many of our health and social care staff are off work with Covid-19 and this brings additional challenges in delivering our services.”
There were 2,548 new cases reported across the health board today and Merthyr Tydfil has the highest weekly infection rate in Wales at 1032.2 per 100,000 people.
Swansea Bay and Aneurin Bevan health board have also suspended non-critical services.
New Code of Conduct for Members of the Senedd
The Senedd’s Standards Committee has published a new Code of Conduct for consultation.
The new code is largely unchanged, but adds “respect” to the Nolan principles of public life and states specifically that the Code of Conduct applies to a member’s public and personal life.
Additionally, the Code makes it clear that members should not attack anyone in any form of communication – including via social media. During the Fifth Senedd, there have been several instances of members using social media to attack members of the public or to post distasteful material.
Chair of the Standards Committee, Jayne Bryant MS (Lab, Newport East) said: “With a serious problem of online abuse and powerful campaigns such as the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, we’ve got to do all we can to improve the tone of debate and set a standard that encourages trust in elected representatives and inspires people from all backgrounds to stand for election.”
Call for first steps toward universal free school meals rejected
- Majority of Senedd members vote down call for all children in households receiving universal credit to be eligible for free school meals.
- Lots of sympathy for the idea in principle, but concerns over costs and practicalities.
- Education Minister says universal school meals for all school-age students would cost up to £169 million a year.
- Calls on the Welsh Government to immediately amend the eligibility criteria for free school meals so that any child in any family receiving universal credit or equivalent benefit and any child in a family with no recourse to public funds is eligible, as the first step towards implementing universal free school meals for all school-aged children in Wales.
As trailed during this week’s First Minister’s Questions, Sian Gwenllian MS (Plaid, Arfon) laid bare the fact that 70,000 children in Wales living in poverty are ineligible for free school meals. They miss out because their parent(s) may be in low-paid work which takes them above the income threshold.
Raising the threshold so that all children from households in receipt of universal credit receive free school meals is estimated would cost £60 million. Moving further to provide all children – regardless of household income – with free school meals will reduce the stigma attached to them and with stricter nutritional guidelines could provide children with healthier food than packed lunches.
Delyth Jewell MS (Plaid, South Wales East) said children who go hungry face developmental problems which continue to cause problems into adulthood and put them at greater risk of developing certain diseases. Future generations would look back on us allowing children to go hungry as a similarly barbaric practice as using children as chimneysweeps or miners.
Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies MS (Con, South Wales West), said the question as to where to draw the line between paying and not paying for free school meals should always be reviewed – but if parents can afford it, they should pay. On that principle, the Conservatives can’t support continued free school breakfasts and there’s a similar argument against free prescriptions.
While there was a fair amount of sympathy or support for the motion on Labour’s backbenches, there were reservations over the costings and lack of detail (exactly the same line as the First Minister on Tuesday).
Mike Hedges MS (Lab, Swansea East) raised the practical problems associated with universal free school meals such as kitchen capacity and local government funding.
Jenny Rathbone MS (Lab, Cardiff Central) believed public procurement needed an overhaul to ensure local supply chains benefited. John Griffiths MS (Lab, Newport East) said current free school meal provision was being under-claimed by about 25%.
In response the Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), said Wales has the most generous per-head provision for free school meals of any of the UK nations; £52million has been pledged to ensure children continue to receive free school meals during the pandemic.
When universal credit was rolled-out the eligibility criteria for free meals had to change, with no additional funding provided by the UK Government. While local councils have discretionary powers to support families who are on low incomes but not yet receiving benefits, the Welsh budget isn’t unlimited.
The Minister estimates that universal free school meals for primary school pupils alone would cost an estimated £92 million a year and for every school-age student, £169 million a year.
The version of the motion amended by the Welsh Government – praising current investment in free school meals and the free school breakfast scheme, as well as committing to review the income threshold for free school meals from April 2021 – was approved by 26-18 with 5 abstentions.
Social housing “needs ramping up”
Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood MS (Con, North Wales), called for a “large increase” in the housing support grant in the next Welsh budget. This is to ensure community organisations and the third sector can continue to take the pressure off statutory services concerning homelessness.
If Wales was truly on a path to eliminate homelessness, then such organisations can’t continue to face real-terms cuts to their funding.
Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), was grateful for the “extraordinary work” community and third sector groups have done during the pandemic. Tackling homelessness isn’t all about housing itself, but also the support services needed for someone to maintain a tenancy.
That said, the Minister wasn’t going to pre-empt the next Welsh budget or local government settlement – drafts of which are due to be published next week.
Delyth Jewell MS (Plaid, South Wales East) cited statistics that showed the number of privately-rented homes in Wales doubling over the last twenty years to around 200,000 units. Meanwhile, the number of social houses and owner-occupied housing has declined.
Given the increase in privately-rented housing – and the fact there’s been no mass exodus from the private rental sector since landlord registration was introduced in Wales – could regulation of the private rental sector go further?
On a separate matter, the pandemic has exposed inequalities regarding access to open space. Would the Minister consider extending open space requirements and/or retrospectively increasing/protecting open spaces within the planning system?
The Minister accepts private renting has its place, though the real shortfall is in socially-rented housing. There were several schemes available to take privately-rented homes into the socially-rented market but there was an urgent need to ramp up the construction of new social housing generally.
The Renting Homes Act changed the balance of power between landlords and tenants in the private rental sector and good landlords know that the regime doesn’t do anything they would have a problem with. It hasn’t yet been implemented at the speed the government would like due to the pandemic, but she hoped all parties will consider that ahead of next year’s election.
On open spaces, local authorities have been encouraged to keep parks and playgrounds open where safe to do so. There was another missed opportunity to put new building regulations in place on access to good quality environments – again something parties can consider for their 2021 manifestos.
Enabling works for Cardiff’s new Velindre cancer centre approved
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
Plans have been approved for enabling works for Cardiff’s new Velindre cancer centre in Whitchurch, including roads and bridges to the site.
While the hospital was given planning permission in 2017, Cardiff council’s planning committee has now given approval for the work to access the hospital.
The committee met yesterday to consider the plans and hear from people objecting to the works.
But concerns were raised about the impact on ecology and the local environment.
Anna McMorrin, MP for Cardiff North, told the committee that her constituents were concerned about the loss of trees and biodiversity.
She said: “Many constituents are understandably very concerned about the loss of trees, biodiversity and the detrimental impact the development will have on wildlife and habitats.
“Inevitably, many constituents remain concerned that irrespective of how many mitigation plans are in place or how robust they may be in saving or enhancing biodiversity, the development will dramatically alter the area upon which wildlife depend.”
Tessa Marshall, of Save the Northern Meadows campaign, said: “Granting this condition shall remove this community’s last open space.”
She also highlighted concerns about water discharge from the site, saying: “It’s unclear where the water will go or its impacts on flooding, and the silt measures proposed are unrealistic within a nature reserve.
“There’s no plan showing the protection of ecological zones within the railway cutting, and there’s no estimation or identification of the number of trees to be felled or their location.
“Without even an estimation of tree numbers at present, unacceptable harm will occur to a wildlife corridor and urban forest.
“The centre is estimated to be useful for just 15 years — not long enough for the site to return to its biodiverse state. You will be granting permission on a road to nowhere, resulting in significant unacceptable destruction.”
Mark Farrar, planning agent representing Velindre, explained a lot of mitigation measures would be in place to protect the local environment, and stringent rules had to be followed.