Councils in Wales are to be given new powers to turn leisure centres and other buildings into hospitals to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Housing and Local Government Minister Julie James has introduced emergency permitted development rights, which will allow local authorities to change the use of buildings or erect temporary structures on their land without planning permission.
The Minister said: “Local authorities in Wales are doing an excellent job of responding to rapidly changing situations and it is vital that we allow them to meet their wide-ranging responsibilities quickly.
“Relaxing the usual planning requirements allows local authorities to take swift action to respond to local need.
“It is of course only right they plan for the emergency but by staying home we can help to avoid these plans becoming a reality.”
Under the permitted rights, any temporary structures must be removed and the land restored to its previous condition (or to an agreed condition) within 12 months of the development starting.
Alternatively, planning permission would have to be sought for any continuing use.
Meanwhile, the Leader of the Welsh National Party (WNP) has called for the Labour Welsh Government to prioritise testing all suspected coronavirus cases as a means of halting the spread of the virus.
Neil McEvoy AM said: “If we come out of this lockdown in the same position as we went into it then the time will have been largely wasted. We need to use this time to build capacity so that we can follow World Health Organization advice and test every suspected case of Coronavirus.”
In Plenary, on the 24th of March the Labour Health Minister for Wales, Vaughan Gething, said that they did not have the capacity for this, stating: “If I said that our ambition is to deliver wide-scale community testing now, actually we don’t have the capacity to do that…”
A further blow to wide-scale community testing came when it was announced that the Welsh Government’s deal with a private company for 5,000 tests a day collapsed.
Neil McEvoy AM, leader of the WNP, said: “I really am a lot a loss to understand Labour’s strategy on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The World Health Organization’s (WHO) advice has been very clear: test, test, test. Those are the words of the Head of the WHO, no less. And test every suspected case of coronavirus.
“But when I asked the First Minister why this wasn’t happening in Wales, he claimed the WHO’s advice had to be ‘interpreted into the local context’. But I don’t see how failing to test is a better strategy for Wales. I can’t see how the Welsh Government knows better than the World Health Organisation on this, who have years of experience in dealing with pandemics. The result is we’ve got vital medical professionals just sat at home because they can’t get their family members tested, if they’re showing symptoms.
“The lockdown in Wales is not going to get rid of COVID-19. It is buying us much needed, but costly, time. We can’t stay in lockdown forever and when we come back out we need to be in a position where our testing capacity has been fundamentally increased so that we can test every suspected case and then trace the contacts of people who are infected with rapid diagnostics kits.
“It’s becoming pretty evident that the government did not use the months of warning it had of this pandemic to prepare for it. So action needs to be taken now.
“There’s been a lot of tolerance up to this point and a willingness to cooperate and work cross-party. But ultimately, the future of our nation and people’s lives depend on the Labour Government in Wales taking the right decisions and quickly. They need to change policy and test, test, test.”
The Welsh Conservatives have also criticised parts of the Welsh Government’s response to coronavirus today, saying that they needed to follow the UK Government’s example in helping children eligible for free school meals.
Suzy Davies AM, the Shadow Minister for Education, said: “Here we have another example of the Welsh Labour Government failing to be quick off the mark to support a vulnerable group – some 80,000 or so pupils – during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I understand that the Minister for Education will be announcing details of support to be offered, but it will be down to local authorities and schools to opt-in or opt-out of the scheme to be introduced, and not until after the Easter holiday.
“No-one wants children slipping through the net, but this lack of consistent messages is very confusing. AMs, MPs, councils and charities are being inundated with messages from vulnerable adults in Wales who can’t register for the support scheme they see in England. Now we will have families asking where their children’s vouchers are.
“Devolved governments don’t have to follow what’s happening in England, of course, but when announcements are coming on top of announcements – from both governments – keeping access to support for vulnerable people as simple and unified as possible will save a lot of heartache and worry.
“The Labour administration in Wales needs to bring in this scheme now to protect our vulnerable children.”