** Due to the fast changing nature of our current situation, I have decided to dedicate a page to my website, which will be updated most days at midday. Please check this for the latest national and more specifically, local news - www.russellgeorge.com/coronavirus **
I hope that you and your families are safe and well during this concerning time.
I know that there is a lot of anxiety and apprehension as life has changed so much in recent weeks. Sports fixtures have been postponed, concerts cancelled, cafes, restaurants and community centres have been closed. All the places where we used to, and will again, meet, chat, laugh, and share our lives.
I appreciate that the new rules will be a shock to the system but I believe that it is absolutely crucial that we abide by the following simple rules if we are to beat this virus together and at the earliest opportunity:
Only go outside for food, health reasons, one daily exercise session, or work – if your job absolutely cannot be done from home – and stay at least two metres away from other people.
While the vast majority of people are abiding by these rules, we have seen reports of gatherings of people being broken up and groups of tourists being dispersed… The list goes on.
Nobody wanted to introduce these severe restrictions, last of all the Prime Minister, but these extraordinary times have made it essential. In the last week, we have had some lovely Spring weather, but it’s not a holiday and ignoring these new rules risks lives, it’s that straightforward.
It is our responsibility to make sure we each take all the precautions we can to take care of not only our friends and loved ones but our amazing frontline staff. Make their jobs easier by sticking to the rules.
In this update, I have outlined some of the schemes which are available to support you throughout this crisis and it is my expectation that more schemes will come forward in due course or current schemes will be amended to ensure that there is a degree of flexibility.
It has to be remembered that whereas Government in normal times thinks through policy, then announces and implements it, the urgency of the situation means that policies are now having to be announced, and details refined as they are implemented.
I say this to provide some encouragement, and to acknowledge that both UK and Welsh Governments are generally working well together, and on a cross-party basis. Despite having civil servants away from work, and having to work remotely, I feel that the speed which Government is making decisions and policy is surprisingly impressive.
The Welsh Assembly continues to operate, but in a different way. The last "physical" session took place last week, with reduced numbers after an agreement between political parties. I took part in this session in Cardiff, a session where the Assembly passed the relevant emergency legislation required in Wales. The Assembly will now meet "virtually" once a week, again with a reduced number of AMs.
As I have said previously, Craig Williams MP and I, and our office teams will continue to focus our efforts on supporting people with health related matters, business concerns and supporting the most vulnerable people in society.
A number of people have contacted us to highlight the issue of the lack of delivery slots from major supermarkets. The Welsh Government has now confirmed that they will be contacting the most vulnerable people in the community, advising them to stay at home and they will be supplied with home deliveries. If you have received a letter then food deliveries should be coming soon. If you have not, please contact friends, family and neighbours to support you whilst the supermarkets ramp up resources. Our office teams are also aware of local support groups that can safely deliver food and medicine to people's homes.
Please do safely pass on our details to those who are elderly or vulnerable, and let them know that we are happy to support them as much as we can with any concerns.
Russell George AM - 01686 610887
Craig Williams MP - 01938 552315
We are both in constant contact with Powys County Council (we are both attending a "virtual" meeting with the Council's Cabinet this Friday), Powys Teaching Health Board and others so will update you on a regular basis. I would also encourage you to visit the PAVO website for all the latest information from the Powys Community Sector Emergency Response Team which is a multi-sector partnership comprising key personnel from PAVO, Powys County Council, Powys Teaching Health Board and the wider voluntary sector.
As you will appreciate, we and our office teams are working from home where possible and are under significant pressure in dealing with queries so please do check the useful links from the organisations listed at the bottom of this update and on the special pages on my website before calling or emailing as many of the answers to your concerns and questions will be available:
Click here for:
I'm going to continue to provide my monthly e-news, but may provide less specific updates due to the fast changing nature of our current situation. My news is often superseded by events so I have decided to dedicate a page to my website, which will be updated every day at midday.
Please check this for the latest national and more specifically, local news - www.russellgeorge.com/coronavirus
I hope that you find the update below helpful and hope that you and your families continue to stay safe and healthy.
Russell George AM
Member of the Welsh Parliament for Montgomeryshire
Is Powys Teaching Health Board prepared?
I aim to provide you with a honest and balanced view on a number of areas. There are areas which I can offer reassurance and other areas where I have concerns.
There was some concern when a national news item described Powys as a potential "hospital desert" where demand for beds as a result of Coronavirus would outstrip supply.
There is some important background to point out. Powys Teaching Health Board has correctly published a statement to reflect that the news item and analysis did not take account of cross border patient flows from Powys to acute hospitals in neighbouring counties. Instead, the original analysis reflected the number of beds that are physically located in Powys, which of course does not provide the true and full position.
Health care pathways are complex, and for many people across the UK, their nearest hospital will not be in the county where they live. This is the case here in Powys where our rural and sparsely populated geography means that we work with acute hospitals in neighbouring counties in both Wales and England to provide residents with the more specialised care and inpatient services that they need.
What action is the Welsh Government taking on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?
I've had a large number of people, including local doctors, nurses and those working in social services, contact me regarding the provision of Personal Protective Equipment for health and social care staff. I do have concerns about the lack of PPE across Wales and Powys.
Powys Teaching Health Board has informed me that it is distributing the PPE which it receives from Welsh Government to staff across the health board area and that they have made sure that the issues raised with them by local staff about PPE have been shared with the Welsh Government.
The Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Dr Frank Atherton, has said that they have issued more than 3.4 million items of PPE to frontline health and social care workers in Wales and this is in addition to the normal supplies available.
He has said that it is essential that those who need PPE have access to it and that all four UK Governments are working together on a rapid review of the current UK-wide PPE guidance for health and social care staff. The review will also look at any supply issues and the most efficient use of current stocks. I believe that this review is required and that this must indeed be rapid.
My colleagues and I have suggested that the Welsh Government urgently:
- contacts each health and social care provider in Wales to establish their PPE requirements
- clarifies what health and safety guidance has been provided to everyone working in the health and social care sector
- details how PPE guidance is being disseminated
- explains what support is being provided to those working in the health and social care sector in relation to accessing PPE
What action is the Welsh Government taking on Testing?
I am also concerned that Wales is falling behind the testing of Coronavirus because the contract, which was due to increase testing to 6,000 tests per day, has collapsed.
Currently there are only facilities to carry out 800 tests per day in Wales, which has remained stagnant since last week, and the Welsh Government are now only predicting to be able to carry out 3,000 tests daily by the end of April down from an aim of 9,000 tests per day.
In Wales, the NHS directly employs more than 80,000 people, with many more tests being required for frontline staff in social care, GPs and pharmacists.
We need to make sure that we fully utilise the laboratories across Wales in private companies, universities and any other organisation that can help us to significantly ramp up testing and quickly. Only this morning, I spoke to a further company who believes they can help in this area, and of course passed this company's details on to the Health Minister.
The Welsh Government has to use every single bit of leverage they have to go and get the ability for us to have far more testing than we currently have. This specific area is one that my colleagues are raising again today in the "virtual" Assembly with the First Minister.
Letters to patients advised to adopt "shielding" measures
This week, the Welsh Government has been writing to those patients who are recommended to adopt "shielding" measures for 12 weeks.
I am disappointed that these have been sent later than in England, which has caused anxiety for patients waiting for their letter and advice.
The Welsh Government has confirmed that all letters should be received by the end of this week – and only if you haven’t received a letter by the end of the week should you contact your GP.
The letter advises people to stay at home for 12 weeks and contains a range of further information and advice, including how those who have no-one else who can support them can get medication and other essential items such as food. More information is available on the Welsh Government website here including the criteria that have been used across the UK to identify people who are recommended to adopt shielding measures.
What financial support is available to you?
Powys County Council has set up a dedicated phone line for financial advice and support. You can get in touch between 9am - 4pm Monday to Friday on 01597 826345.
I should also point out that Powys County Council can defer council tax payments to start from June (rather than April). This will mean you pay the same council tax, but spread over a different period of time.
The UK Finance sector has also said that it will support customers (particularly those that are vulnerable) to manage their financial needs flexibly and with forbearance.
Those having financial trouble are urged to get in touch with their bank or lender as soon as possible. However, call centres, often the first point of contact for customers, are currently very busy, as you would expect.
You may have seen in the newspapers over the weekend an advert from the UK’s largest banks, building societies and credit-card providers asking customers thinking of calling them to:
ask yourself — do I need to speak to my bank, building society or credit union today?
consider — can I do this through mobile online banking? and
review — is the answer already on their website?
This should help ease the pressure on resources and ensure that you can be helped quickly.
As Covid-19 affects employment across the economy, individuals will inevitably be concerned about their ability to pay their bills, and monthly mortgage payments tend to be the largest outgoing for the vast majority of households.
Personal Banking and Current Accounts
I've been informed that banks have agreed to act with patience and understanding when dealing with customers having trouble meeting the payments associated with overdrafts, credit cards, loans or other financial products.
To access this assistance, anyone having trouble paying their mortgage, rent, loan, overdraft, credit card or any other charge associated with their personal account to contact their lender or landlord, as appropriate, as soon as possible to work through the options.
Lenders have assured me that they will support those having difficulties meeting mortgage payments as a direct or indirect result of the virus. This could include a payment holiday of up to three months, as announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The same option extends to residential buy-to-let landlords whose tenants are experiencing financial problems as a direct or indirect result of Covid-19. Moreover, lenders have put in place a three-month moratorium on residential and buy-to-let possession action, which started on 19th March. This should reassure households that they will not have their homes repossessed at this difficult time.
Criminals are already using the publicity around Covid-19 as a chance to pose as genuine organisations. Banks, police officers, the government, the World Health Organisation and other health-service providers are among those being impersonated.
Often criminals pretend to offer help and guidance or claim they are dealing with an issue as a result of the virus. Meanwhile, fraudulent emails, phone calls, text messages and social-media posts are claiming to be able to help customers by providing a safe haven for their money, investment opportunities or even medical guidance.
Using Covid-19 as a cover story, criminals then attempt to get recipients to disclose personal or financial information or click on links that may contain malware, which they then use for their own fraudulent purposes. Criminals are experts at impersonating people, organisations and the police. Banks and the police will never ask the public to transfer money or move it to a “safe” account.
You should contact your bank immediately if you think you have been victim of a scam and report it to Action Fraud.
What support is there if I rent my home?
Renters struggling to pay their rent as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic should speak to their landlord as soon as possible in order to explain their situation and explore ways of managing the situation.
The renter could ask for additional time to pay or ask for payment to be made in instalments. If the renter is unable to reach an agreement with their landlord, it is recommended to still pay any amount that they can afford.
Renters should keep a record of what they have offered and also paid, following up any conversations with emails. Renters should always remember that they will ultimately remain liable for payment of the rent in full.
At the end of the emergency legislation period of three months (this may or may not be extended), if a renter is in arrears of rent, the Government has stated that landlords and renters will be expected to work together to establish an affordable repayment plan, taking into account renters’ individual circumstances.
The advice to landlords is to engage in proactive communication with their renter(s) regarding their financial situation.
If there is any issue arising, and their rental property is mortgaged, landlords may also wish to speak to their mortgage company regarding their circumstances.
The underlying message from the Government’s response is that renters, landlords and Government are now expected to work together so that, when the UK pulls through the Covid-19 pandemic, peoples’ lives and the economy can rebound as quickly as possible, and homelessness for renters will not become widespread.
Powys housing officers are also committed to working with tenants who are experiencing financial pressures during the Coronavirus outbreak.
Officers, including the Council's specialist Tenancy Support Officers, will work with tenants facing difficulties to manage their rent accounts and have said they will not be progressing evictions for breaches of tenancy during the pandemic.
Action will be considered in cases of extreme anti-social behaviour or domestic violence, when the Council will consider taking out injunctions against perpetrators to make sure that the well-being and health and safety of residents is safeguarded.
Housing Management and Options Officers will make every effort to speak to tenants whose accounts fall into arrears, to understand why the tenants are not paying and, if due to CV19 and can’t get any Housing Element of Universal Credit, pass to Tenancy Support Officer for further advice and help.
Rent holidays won't be offered because Powys County Council do not charge interest on accrued rent so there is no financial advantage of offering this facility.
Self-employment Income Support Scheme
This scheme will allow you to claim a taxable grant worth 80% of your trading profits up to a maximum of £2,500 per month for the next 3 months. This may be extended if needed.
You can apply if you’re a self-employed individual or a member of a partnership and you:
- have submitted your Self Assessment tax return for the tax year 2018-19
- traded in the tax year 2019-20
- are trading when you apply, or would be except for COVID-19
- intend to continue to trade in the tax year 2020-21
- have lost trading/partnership trading profits due to COVID-19
Your self-employed trading profits must also be less than £50,000 and more than half of your income come from self-employment. This is determined by at least one of the following conditions being true:
- having trading profits/partnership trading profits in 2018-19 of less than £50,000 and these profits constitute more than half of your total taxable income
- having average trading profits in 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19 of less than £50,000 and these profits constitute more than half of your average taxable income in the same period
If you started trading between 2016-19, HMRC will only use those years for which you filed a Self-Assessment tax return.
If you have not submitted your Income Tax Self-Assessment tax return for the tax year 2018-19, you must do this by 23 April 2020.
HMRC will use data on 2018-19 returns already submitted to identify those eligible and will risk assess any late returns filed before the 23 April 2020 deadline in the usual way.
You’ll get a taxable grant which will be 80% of the average profits from the tax years (where applicable):
2016 to 2017
2017 to 2018
2018 to 2019
To work out the average HMRC will add together the total trading profit for the 3 tax years (where applicable) then divide by 3 (where applicable), and use this to calculate a monthly amount.
It will be up to a maximum of £2,500 per month for 3 months.
HMRC will pay the grant directly into your bank account, in one instalment.
You cannot apply for this scheme yet. HMRC will contact you if you are eligible for the scheme and invite you to apply online. Individuals do not need to contact HMRC now and doing so will only delay the urgent work being undertaken to introduce the scheme.
Social Distancing & which businesses need to close?
On 23rd March, the UK Government stepped up measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus and save lives.
Powys County Council has closed playgrounds and parks to reinforce social distancing controls and to prevent the risk of spread of Covid19. All 58 play areas and parks that the council manages will be locked and secured until further notice.
If people do not comply with the new social distancing laws:
they can be directed to return home or removed from where they are and returned home
they may have to pay a fixed penalty notice of £30, which if not paid within 14 days will double to £60, and if they are issued with a second or subsequent notice the charge will be £120.
Individuals who do not pay a fixed penalty notice under the regulations could be taken to court, with magistrates able to impose unlimited fines. If an individual continues to refuse to comply, they will be acting unlawfully, and the police may arrest them.
Which businesses need to close?
Furthermore, all businesses and venues listed here must now close. Powys County Council and Dyfed Powys Police are reminding businesses in Powys, to comply with this advice.
Takeaway and delivery services may remain open and operational in line with guidance. Online retail is still open and encouraged and postal and delivery service will run as normal.
Employers who have people in their offices or onsite should ensure that employees are able to follow health guidelines including, where possible, maintaining a 2 metre distance from others.
Environmental Health and Trading Standards Officers, with Police support will be actively monitoring compliance, and any business that breaches the closure will be subject to significant enforcement sanctions including Prohibition Notices and the penalty of unlimited fines.
The requirement to close will remain in operation until such time as the government believe there is enough evidence to support a relaxation in the restrictions and the Government is reviewing the situation in approximately three weeks-time.
If anyone has any concerns regarding their business or a business operating when it should be closed, please contact the agencies as follows:
Powys Trading Standards - firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental Health - email@example.com
What financial support is available for business?
On Monday, the First Minister announced a new £500 million Economic Resilience Fund.
The new fund will support firms of all sizes, including social enterprises and is made up of two main elements:
A new £100 million Development Bank of Wales fund will be available for companies experiencing cash flow problems as a result of the pandemic and will provide loans of between £5,000 and £250,000 at favourable interest rates.
Businesses will also be able to benefit from a £400 million emergency pot providing:
i) Grants of £10,000 for micro-businesses employing up to nine people. This includes sole traders employing staff. Qualifying businesses will be able to apply by mid-April;
ii) Grants of up to £100,000 for small and medium-sized firms with between 10 and 249 employees. Qualifying businesses will be able to apply from next week.
iii) Support for larger Welsh companies, which are of critical social or economic importance to Wales. This element will be open to qualifying businesses within the next two weeks.
Also, as part of the COVID-19 financial support scheme which had already been announced by UK Government, Powys County Council will be awarding reliefs and grants estimated at £60 million. In Powys, business support worth £11.7 million has already been paid out to 792 businesses.
This package includes a £10,000 grant to all businesses eligible for Small Business Rates Relief with a rateable value of £12,000 or less.
A grant of £25,000 will be given to businesses in the retail, leisure and hospitality sector with a rateable value of between £12,001 and £51,000.
The grants of £10,000 and £25,000, mentioned above, have already been paid directly to the bank accounts of many businesses this week. If the Council does not have your bank details, they will be contacting you. You don't need to apply or contact them at present.
To provide further support, all retail, leisure and hospitality businesses in Powys with a rateable value of less than £500,000 will receive a year-long business rates holiday.
Rates bills for the new financial year 2020/21 have already been issued without the relief included, but those who are eligible will receive an updated bill shortly and direct debits will not be collected in the meantime.
I have also called on the Welsh Government to follow the UK Government’s lead and extend business rates relief to other high-street industry sectors such as estate agents, lettings agencies, and other businesses that have closed as a result of measures to contain Covid-19. They will be now be exempted from business rates in 2020-21 in England and it’s incumbent on the Welsh Government to match the relief which our neighbours will enjoy.
Public Transport during Coronavirus outbreak
Public transport in Powys will be reduced to a modified Sunday service as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Normally Powys County Council provides around 30 local bus services across the county operating seven days a week, but national movement restrictions have forced a major reduction.
Powys County Council are introducing a service based on services operating typically 3 return journeys per day service.
- T12 Machynlleth to Wrexham
- X75 Llanidloes to Shrewsbury
- X47 Llandrindod to Aberystwyth
- T4 Brecon to Newtown
- X43 Brecon to Abergavenny
- T6 Brecon to Swansea
- All town bus services in Brecon, Newtown, Welshpool & Ystradgynlais
- X12 Operate to Abergavenny Tues, Thurs Fri
- X15 Operate to Hereford Monday & Wednesday
The new reduced service came into operation on Monday 30th March and will run for a minimum of six-weeks before being reviewed.
The Welsh Government Minister for Transport has also announced that NHS staff will receive free travel on buses throughout Wales in return for hardship funding from the Welsh Government over the next 3 months, with free travel already available on Transport for Wales trains.
Stay Connected during Coronavirus
While I appreciate that we still don't have universal coverage of adequate broadband or mobile coverage here in Montgomeryshire, for those of you that do have a service, the Ofcom campaign, Stay Connected, explains a range of practical tips and advice to help people get the speeds and reception you need, at a time when broadband and mobile have never been more important in helping everyone communicate.
Broadband and mobile networks are seeing shifting patterns of demand as a result of the response to coronavirus, with many families online together during the day for home working and schooling. Telecoms companies are constantly monitoring traffic on their networks, taking steps to ensure it is managed effectively and customers continue to receive a normal service.
Network operators are confident that they can meet increased demand; and we can all play our part in helping to manage how we use our broadband, home phones and mobiles.
Simple advice for staying connected
As more people within the home use the same connection, householders can take their own steps to manage their data use and help everyone in the home get the bandwidth they need – whether it’s for video streaming, virtual meetings or voice calls.
Ofcom has identified a range of simple measures, which we are encouraging people to share on social media to help others stay connected, all of which you can view by visiting:
Important Information and Current Advice
It’s vital to follow guidance from official and reputable sources so these pages should be used as primary sources of information, rather than news websites or social media.
- Welsh Government - Latest Information (Coronavirus - COVID-19)
- UK Government, COVID-19: guidance on social distancing and for vulnerable people
- UK Government, Stay at home guidance
Advice and information from Powys County Council
Health and social care
- Public Health Wales, Latest information on coronavirus
- Powys Teaching Health Board, Latest information
Education and childcare
- Welsh Government, School closures from 20 March 2020: FAQs
- UK Government, Information about who counts as a ‘key worker’ – this list also applies to Wales
- Welsh Government, Statement on school closures, including schools’ ‘new purpose’, and information about children of key workers and about the care of vulnerable children (18 March)
- COVID-19: guidance for employees. This includes information on sick pay and benefits, and staying at home. People can claim sick pay if they are self-isolating or ill.
- UK Government, COVID-19: guidance for employers
- House of Commons Library, Coronavirus: Employment rights and sick pay
- UK Government, Universal Credit and coronavirus
- House of Commons Library, Coronavirus: Claiming welfare benefits
- Citizens Advice can provide benefits and employment advice online or on the phone – 03444 77 20 20. It also has an information page on coronavirus.
- Age Cymru is offering a new service for the over 70s to answer queries and direct people to local services & support from Monday 23 March. Anyone over 70 can register for free and receive a call back in either English or Welsh: 08000 223 444 / firstname.lastname@example.org
- Turn2Us is a national charity and welfare benefits advice service. It has a tool to find advisers in local areas, and a page on coronavirus.
- Money Advice Service, Coronavirus – what it means for you, information relating to personal finances, insurance and potential scams
- Acas, Coronavirus: advice for employers and employees
Business support and charities
- Welsh Government, Coronavirus (COVID-19): support for businesses. This page provides information on business rate relief, grants, the Business Interruption Loan Scheme and additional support.
- Welsh Government, Development Bank of Wales announces three month capital repayment holiday (16 March)
- Business Wales, Coronavirus advice
- UK Finance, which represents mortgage lenders issued a statement and list of frequently asked questions following the Chancellor’s announcement on 17 March that borrowers can apply for a mortgage repayment holiday of up to three months. On 18 March it was confirmed that this help would be extended to buy-to-let landlords with tenants who are experiencing issues with their finances, as either a direct or indirect result of coronavirus. There will also be a three month moratorium on residential and buy-to-let repossession actions from 19 March.
- On 19 March the Welsh Government confirmed that it was working closely with the UK Government to support those who rent in Wales and would provide an update “as soon as [they] are able”. This followed the UK Government announcement on 18 March that there would be a ban on evictions and additional protection for renters.
- UK Government, Government agrees measures with energy industry to support vulnerable people through COVID-19 (19 March)
- UK Government, COVID-19: Guidance for staff in the transport sector
- Transport for Wales, Travelling with us – Your safety and wellbeing during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.