Senedd roundup: Warning of second coronavirus wave as cases decline

Photograph by Silas Camargo Silão from Pixabay

Chief executive of NHS Wales Dr Andrew Goodall warned of the threat a second wave of Covid-19 infections in Wales as he detailed a steady downturn in cases over recent weeks.

Speaking at Thursday’s government press briefing, Dr Goodall said: “The number of new cases has been steadily declining since April, even though we are doing many more tests.”

Although north Wales is currently recording the highest number of new daily cases Dr Goodall noted “the test positivity rate has declined to under 2%” across the country and confirmed the number of people dying from coronavirus has been falling since the middle of April.

Hospital capacity is returning to more normal levels since the peak of the pandemic but there remain 885 patients in hospital beds due to issues related to the virus. Dr Goodall observed that is “the equivalent of three large hospitals full of Covid-related patients.”

There are currently 335 available critical care beds in Wales, including additional capacity, with about 60% empty and available for use.

“The majority of people being treated in critical care now do not have coronavirus, which importantly shows more NHS work is taking place,” he  added.

Warning of the possibility of a second peak of the coronavirus outbreak later in the year, Dr Goodall said: “I’m concerned about the possibility of seeing a second peak emerge, whenever that could be.

“Is it through the summer, linked to lockdown restrictions? Is it ahead of the winter, when actually the virus may be more susceptible to transmission at that time?”

But added: “We’re prepared because we’ve retained contingency arrangements that we put in place but also because we’ve learned a lot more about the virus.”

 Another six people have died after testing positive for coronavirus in Wales.

According to Public Health Wales the total number of deaths with coronavirus since the outbreak began in March now stands at 1,425.

An additional 63 cases of the virus have been confirmed, taking the total number of cases in Wales to 14,581. There were 3,324 tests conducted in the last 24 hours.

Transport Minister Ken Skates. Picture by the Welsh Government.

More than £680 million reaches businesses in COVID-19 support

According to latest figures from the Welsh Government, more than £680 million has been paid out to businesses across Wales to help them respond to the financial challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

So far over 56,000 grants have been paid to companies across the retail, leisure and hospitality sector whose property has a rateable value of £51,000 or less.

These businesses are also eligible for rates relief through the £1.4 billion package announced in March.

New applications to the scheme will close on 30 June and Ministers are urging any businesses that have not already done so, to contact their local authority about this support.

Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, Ken Skates said: “We made a commitment to getting funds out to businesses as quickly as possible and local authorities have played a key role in ensuring that hundreds of millions of pounds has reached them.

We continue to do all we can to ensure that a good business in 2019, will be a good business in 2021.”

Photo by Aline Dassel from Pixabay

Calls for government to introduce “support bubbles” in Wales

The Welsh Conservatives are calling for the Welsh Government to follow the lead of the UK Government and introduce “support bubbles”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced yesterday that among measures being introduced to ease the lockdown in England, from the weekend people living alone or as single parents will be allowed to combine with another household to form a “support bubble”.

Under the new rules single parents and children under 18 that they live with, as well as single adults living alone, can go inside one other household and even stay overnight without maintaining physical distancing.

Shadow Minister for Health, Angela Burns MS, said: “The lockdown has been, for some people, the hardest time of their lives. Cut off from family and friends – and no matter what, Zoom and Skype calls just aren’t the same thing – for weeks on end, with limited ability to go out and none of course to socialise – it will have had an effect on their mental and emotional well-being.

“It has been a terribly hard time for single people in households, and it is time to give them the support they need.

“It can be achieved with subtle changes to lockdown rules, and so, to try to offset a future pandemic of lowered mental and emotional health, I am asking for the Health Minister and the Welsh Labour Government to consider introducing similar in Wales.”

316,500 Welsh workers furloughed under UK Government scheme

Figures released by the UK Treasury have revealed just under a third of a million workers in Wales have been placed on furlough since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March.

A total of 316,500 employees have been paid 80% of their salaries under the UK government scheme following lockdown.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed last month that the scheme would be phased out in stages.

From September employers will have to pay national insurance and pension contributions plus 10 per cent of salaries, increasing to 20 per cent of salaries in October.

The scheme closes on 31st October.

Figures also show 102,000 self-employed workers in Wales – 73% of those eligible – have been helped under the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, receiving a total of £273 million.

A polling station in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr. Picture by Catrin Davies

Bid to bring forward postponed by-elections fails

Debates on whether or not to revoke regulations in the Senedd are rare, but yesterday the Conservatives attempted to annul regulations which postponed local by-elections in Wales until 2021.

Suzy Davies MS (Con, South Wales West) said that while similar regulations have been introduced for England, it was down to the Senedd to debate the impact of such regulations in Wales. There are at least two local authority vacancies in her region – Nantymoel (Bridgend) and Castle (Swansea) – and the regulations tabled to delay by-elections was full of errors.

“….there are mis-references to this being an order, not regulations; there are wrong dates in it; there are wrong sections referred to; there are references to provisions that the Coronavirus Act being limited to two years, without noting that the powers for making regulations are an exception to that rule; there’s reference to Royal Assent, which is completely meaningless in this particular context.”
– Suzy Davies MS

She wondered why delaying local by-elections to between February and April 2021 was a proportionate measure? Some constituents face having no local government representation for up to a year. Suzy Davies suggested that new regulations are tabled without errors, with shorter postponement periods and an explanation as to why a delay is necessary.

Chair of the Constitutional Affairs & Justice Committee, Mick Antoniw MS (Lab, Pontypridd) said he was satisfied with the Welsh Government’s explanation on the timings of postponements. The BXP’s Caroline Jones added that it was perhaps unsafe to hold by-elections in the current climate.

Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), said that at the time there was a great deal of concern about holding elections during a pandemic. While not deciding to postpone elections lightly, it’s a proportionate move in the interests of public health.

Also, any postponed council by-elections will take place before next year’s Senedd and Police & Crime Commissioner elections, which otherwise would’ve added another layer of complexity.

In reply, Suzy Davies said the Minister and Caroline Jones had missed the point – the February-April 2021 delay is arbitrary and the pandemic may have eased to an extent to allow by-elections to be held earlier. There should be a process to allow by-elections to be brought forward if deemed safe to do so.

The motion was defeated by 39 votes to 13.

 

Helen Mary Jones. Picture by the National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Government scepticism over citizens’ assembly to inform pandemic recovery

With political focus beginning to shift from the management of the coronavirus to avoiding a second wave and the recovery, yesterday Plaid Cymru put forward their ideas for how to support the economic recovery for debate.

The Motion

The Senedd calls on the Welsh Government to:

  • Establish an employment guarantee scheme for young people suffering unemployment as a result of Covid-19.
  • Establish a job reskilling and retraining scheme designed to support those needing to find alternative employment following the crisis.
  • Convene a citizens’ assembly to discuss how Wales should ‘Build Back Better’ following the crisis.
  • Establish a multi-billion ‘All-Wales Renewal Fund’ to finance the rebuilding of our country.

Coronavirus a risk to lives and livelihoods

Helen Mary Jones MS (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) said we can’t go back to the normal way of doing things. Many of the people let down hardest by the economy pre-pandemic are likely to have suffered the most during the pandemic.

The recovery presents an opportunity to reset the economy and that includes many of the measures put forward by Plaid Cymru (outlined above) and there are Welsh Government programmes that can be built upon to deliver it – though there’s a need to be even more radical, suggesting a £5,000 lump sum to unemployed citizens to retrain.

Mohammad Asghar MS (Con, South Wales East) said the recently-published supplementary budget was too focused on the short-term impact of the pandemic rather than long-term economic recovery. He stressed the need for skills retention and apprenticeships to enable a quicker recovery and prevent people from getting stuck in low-skilled jobs.

Whisky

Neil McEvoy MS (Ind, South Wales Central) saw an opportunity to build the Welsh whisky industry as part of a wider food and drink offer, which if grown to 20 distilleries could generate a £100 million export market within 20 years. He supported more home-focused public procurement too and with the potential of EU rules no longer applying soon, it presents an opportunity.

Echoing that, Llyr Gruffydd MS (Plaid, North Wales) spoke in support of building up local food processing facilities and shortening supply chains – which would not only support local jobs but help the environment too.

Restoration of consumer confidence needed

Mike Hedges MS (Lab, Swansea East) said the focus of support should be on those sectors which are unlikely to bounce back as quickly (including universities, manufacturing and performing arts venues) as essential industries and those industries people will have been waiting months to re-use (i.e. hairdressers, food services). Rebuilding consumer confidence in financial and health terms will be vital.

“We can borrow at very low rates, we could look at alternative ways of funding projects—bonds and so on. But we would need new fiscal powers and new flexibilities to allow this to happen: to raise the current borrowing cap, for example, from the current £1 billion to, I would say, around £5 billion, allowing the front-loading of that so that we can commence the work in earnest.”
– Rhun ap Iorwerth MS (Plaid, Ynys Môn)

Delyth Jewell MS (Plaid, South Wales East) spoke in support of setting up a citizens’ assembly and was disappointed the Welsh Government’s amendments deleted all reference to it. The Welsh Government needed to start listening to people whose voices were often neglected by the political system.

Wales in a good position to support recovery

While not underestimating the potential task facing us in recovering economically from the pandemic, Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), though the building blocks were already there in existing Welsh Government programmes like Working Wales and ReAct.

The Welsh Government, nonetheless, decided to table “delete all” amendments to the Plaid Cymru motion and the Minister, while not ruling anything out, was somewhat sceptical about a citizens’ assembly (as were a few other MSs).

“….in Wales we have very unique models of social partnership and we must protect the contribution that our social partners make in helping to inform and shape policy. We should not inadvertently undermine our social partnership model. We also have commissioners. And through the work that Jeremy Miles is leading on, we are calling for ideas, innovation and creativity from all of our citizens and organisations. And, therefore, whilst we are not ruling out the potential role for a citizens assembly, it shouldn’t undermine or duplicate the social model of partnership that we have been able to develop here in Wales.”
– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates

Despite all this, the Minister frankly stated that public policy decisions before the pandemic – such as austerity and privatisation – have left Wales vulnerable to economic shocks. There was a commitment to building a fairer, greener economy and there “was no going back” to the old ways of doing things.

Tenby harbour. Photo by Beata Mitręga on UnsplashMinisters won’t give tourism industry false hopes on reopening

Here’s the latest round-up of latest ministerial statements on coronavirus (and other topical matters).

First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West): Welsh BAME history museum “will be looked at”

Key points:

  • The number of new coronavirus cases continues to fall in Wales along with hospital admissions. There are now only 40 patients in critical care because of coronavirus, compared to a peak of 164 in April 2020.
  • The number of new positive test results is also falling with 651 people testing positive last week (compared to the 600 contract tracers recruited to track and trace).
  • Evidence on face coverings has been reviewed, resulting in the recommendation of the use of face coverings (including non-medical coverings) on public transport.
  • The first phase of mass care home testing has been completed, with all care home residents and staff set to be tested each week for the next four weeks.
  • A law to reform the governance arrangements for universities has been dropped and will be published as a draft Bill instead.
  • More than 23,000 children gave their views on the pandemic via the Children’s Commissioner’s survey, with the main concern being loneliness resulting from lack of contact with friends and family.

Turning to the Black Lives Matter protests, Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) said the time was right for a Wales-wide review of how slavery and colonialism have been celebrated through national and local monuments.

Also, given that the Welsh Government funds museums dedicated to different industrial communities, was the time right – given recent plans for a military medicine museum in Cardiff – for a museum dedicated to BAME history, which should include information about Wales’ role in colonialism and slavery?

The First Minister stressed the importance of learning from our past, not simply blindly celebrating it. Local authorities are working to decide whether some public displays should be in museums as educational tools rather than venerated. The Welsh Government has already committed to national football and modern art museums and he was “very happy to commit to looking at” a museum of Welsh BAME history.

Lockdown

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.), continued to push for a more rapid lifting of lockdown restrictions. While some businesses have been told to make preparations for reopening, there’s been little engagement by the Welsh Government with the property and motor retail sectors to name a few.

Additionally, the First Minister’s recent comments that tourism could effectively remain closed for the whole summer “were met with some anger and frustration by some tourism operators across the country, who, understandably, fear that this could lead to the collapse of the Welsh tourism sector.”

The First Minister said the decision to keep lockdown in place was providing enough headroom for a lifting of restrictions because the number of new cases was falling – but those new freedoms still have to be exercised carefully through social distancing. He didn’t rule out some tourism activity resuming this year:

“I wanted to give an indication that there is some hope for (the tourism) sector, too, and that there are some ways in which we might yet be able to resume some tourism activity during the current season, but it will have to be….with safety at the forefront of our thinking.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford

 

Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South): Second phase of economic resilience fund set to open on 29th June

Key points:

  • Talks are continuing on reopening the economy whilst balancing it with public health and safety – though Welsh Government advice to different sectors shouldn’t be considered a replacement for full legal advice.
  • The Minister welcomed the UK Government’s decision to extend the furlough scheme. However, he’s presenting a case to them for full support for businesses that can’t reopen. Also, as an alternative to tapering furlough payments, the number of employees allowed to return to work should be gradually increased.
  • Applications for the second phase of the Economic Resilience Fund are set to open on June 29th 2020 with £100million available to qualifying businesses.
  • A BAME expert panel led by Prof. Emmanuel Ogbonna is looking at how Covid-19 has adversely affected minority groups; the panel’s work will help shape the post-pandemic economic recovery plan.
    The Minister had concerns about the future of the aerospace sector and some regional airports, as little support has been provided to the sector by the UK Government when compared to France (£12billion) and Hong Kong to Cathay Pacific (£4billion).
  • There are no regulations in Wales preventing zoos from reopening, they’ve had to close because of lack of footfall.

Helen Mary Jones MS (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) spoke about support for home-based businesses and start-ups which have previously been ineligible for support. Also, she hoped that employers won’t be expected to pressurise employees – who may be shielding because of vulnerable household members – to return to work if/when lockdown restrictions are eased further.

The Minister hoped support for all forms of businesses will run alongside each other from June 29th. It was also right that employers act with compassion and understanding, as it was clear that shielding individuals shouldn’t be expected to return to work.

Unfair

Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George MS (Con, Montgomery) said Welsh retailers – particularly those along the border – may be disadvantaged when English retailers open next Monday. Some businesses in Wales were also opening contrary to Welsh regulations. He asked what local authorities have been told about enforcement because it was “absolutely unfair” that some businesses were flouting rules openly when others were abiding by the rules.

The Minister explained that businesses in Wales have an advantage because the Welsh Government says precisely when they review lockdown regulations (every three weeks). He also asked businesses to think carefully before reopening, as it may work against their self-interest as 60% of people in Wales are still reluctant to venture out, meaning it’s harder for such businesses to remain viable if they do reopen.

Photo by UnratedStudio from Pixabay

International Affairs & Welsh Language Minister, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales): Welsh Government “shocked and angered” at George Floyd killing

Key points:

  • The Welsh Government is “shocked and angered” at the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police and the draconian response from the US Government; while not having the power to challenge the actions of other nations directly, there’s a moral obligation to speak out against racism, quoting the Health Minister: “We must challenge racism, inequality and injustice wherever we find it, including right here at home.”
  • The “worrying” situation in Hong Kong is being monitored by overseas officials.
  • The UK Government has offered assurances that food standards won’t be lowered as part of a potential trade deal with the United States and the Welsh Government intends to hold them to that.
  • 8,300 people have joined National Centre for Learning Welsh classes during the lockdown and The Urdd’s message of peace and goodwill on 18th May reached 37million people around the world in 57 different languages.

The Minister largely went over points similar to those raised in earlier sessions, but added this concerning the tourism sector:

“We know that the (tourism) industry would like us to provide a date as to when the industry can resume, but we’ve said consistently that we’ll be driven by the science, and not by dates, and will only ease restrictions when the medical advice says it’s safe for us to do so.”
– International Affairs & Welsh Language Minister, Eluned Morgan

Photo by Queven from Pixabay

Senedd approves emergency insolvency law to protect social landlords

The Welsh Government has recommended that the Senedd grants its consent to the UK Parliament’s Corporate Governance & Insolvency Bill (pdf).

Reforms to UK insolvency laws have been in the pipeline for several years, but the law has been brought forward (it’s already cleared the House of Commons) as it’s believed it would help companies facing serious financial problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Bill will give businesses otherwise facing the prospect of bankruptcy more time (a moratorium) to develop rescue plans, more protection from creditor action and eases requirements for AGMs and company filing.

However, there have been concerns that the Bill will allow companies to run roughshod over workers’ rights – such as firing and rehiring on lower pay and changing pension agreements.

While insolvency law is non-devolved, the Senedd has been asked for its permission because Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) – which may be community benefit societies or charitable incorporations – are companies liable to insolvency proceedings.

RSLs operate within Welsh law, with the Welsh Government often being involved in insolvency proceedings involving RSLs. The Welsh Government will be given some powers in the Bill to regulate moratoriums for RSLs.

The Bill isn’t expected to have any major financial impact on the Welsh Government other than the cost of producing new regulations.

MSs unanimously agreed the memorandum on 10th June 2020.

 

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