Once again, my thanks go out to all key workers across Montgomeryshire and the wider United Kingdom who are putting their own lives at risk to save lives as well as keeping our country and economy moving.
Last Friday, we also celebrated the 75th Anniversary of VE Day which not only marked the end of the World War 2 conflict in Europe but a new beginning - a recognition that society couldn't return to how it was before. The wartime generation had to embrace a new normal after struggles of the past.
Whereas we were hoping to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day with military parades and street parties with close friends and family, celebrations had to be scaled back.
Unfortunately, we have to stay at home and keep a safe distance from those friends and family who we love in order to save lives and defeat a very different challenge and mark a new beginning after what has been a difficult period for us all. We will also have to accept a new normal after Covid-19.
At the moment, the key message here in Wales remains the same. With the exception of some minor changes, the Welsh Government has confirmed that the stay-at-home rules will continue to apply in Wales for the next three weeks.
There has been quite a bit of talk in recent days over the perceived differences between the UK Government's approach and Welsh Government's approach but contrary to this, the differences are very few and the table below explains more. My view remains that I want to see the UK and Welsh Governments work together on common approaches.
Fundamentally, the key message hasn’t changed. We all need to stay at home as much as possible and work from home if you can. But after seven weeks of restrictions the people of Wales need hope and aspiration about how and when the lockdown could end.
The big difference between England and Wales after the Prime Minister's announcement last Sunday is that he has set out his plan for recovery, which is based on science and is conditional on the R number reducing further. The First Minister hasn’t yet laid out his plan for Wales.
Useful Information and Frequently Asked Questions
The First Minister’s message to the people of Wales about the changes to the regulations in Wales is available here.
Health - Essential NHS services are OPEN in Powys
Coronavirus is affecting the way NHS services are being delivered, but please remember that NHS services are still open particularly for urgent and emergency care.
Links to current service information are available from Powys Teaching Health Board here
Health - Covid-19 Data for Powys
It is disappointing that different data is reported to measure deaths and confirmed cases. This clearly causes confusion.
I am pleased that Powys Teaching Health Board uses the latest available data, including from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The ONS weekly report includes all deaths where COVID-19 is mentioned on the death certificate.
Currently the ONS is reporting that sadly 65 people from Powys have died with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. This includes deaths in hospitals in both Wales and England, deaths in care homes and deaths in people’s own homes. This figure gives a much fuller reflection of the impact here in Powys than other reports which may only include deaths in Wales, or those where COVID-19 has been confirmed in a laboratory test.
The latest information (12 May) from Public Health Wales indicates 216 positive test results for Powys residents based on tests undertaken in Wales. This only reflects people who have been tested in line with the Welsh Government's testing strategy, and the figure will be slightly higher if tests in England (e.g. hospital patients) are also included.
For useful reference, the Wales Chief Statistician has published a blog which explains in more details the differences in data. You can read this here.
You can find out more about COVID-19 data from the Powys Teaching Health Board website here.
Health - Testing, Tracking & Tracing
Testing in Powys
Here in Powys, a new mobile testing units will be travelling around Powys, operated by the Armed Forces in partnership with the Dyfed Powys Local Resilience Forum.
The unit, which was in Newtown at the end of last week, forms part of the UK-wide response to Coronavirus and will bring testing closer to home. It has launched as an appointment service for priority groups such as critical workers and care homes. They will also put us in a strong position when testing is expanded further.
Mobile testing units can be set up in under 20 minutes. Specially trained Armed Forces personnel will collect swabs at the mobile sites, before they are sent to laboratories for processing. The aim is for all test results to be reported within 48 hours.
A new online eligibility checker is available for Key (Critical) Workers in Powys to help them book an appointment at new mobile testing units in the county. The online eligibility checker is available here.
More information about the Welsh Government’s approach to Coronavirus Testing is available from the Welsh Government website.
Testing Capacity in Wales
The increase in the number of tests for healthcare and care home workers in Wales is welcome but more is needed.
Testing capacity here in Wales has only increased by roughly 4,000.
Worryingly, less than 10 per cent of our healthcare workers are being tested which, quite frankly, is unacceptable.
To illustrate this, it is disappointing to hear of a survey which was recently carried out by the Royal College of Nursing Wales into members’ experience of Coronavirus testing in Wales.
There were 1,215 completed responses from Wales and only 50 percent of respondents knew how to access or apply for testing in their place of work. Of the 45.8 percent of respondents who currently require, or have previously required, testing for Coronavirus, less than half of them (45.9 percent) were offered a test.
There needs to be an urgent increase in the numbers of health and social are staff who are offered a test, as well as increased and enhanced partnerships with trade unions and professional bodies to help communicate key messages on testing guidance and provisions at a local level.
I think that it was a mistake for the Welsh Government to abandon the 9,000 tests per day target because the decision has led to the Welsh Government taking its eyes off the ball.
I believe that the introduction of a dedicated team to manage the current testing programme would improve the current testing number.
Care Home Testing
I am pleased that the Welsh Government has reconsidered its original decision and started testing residents and staff within care homes where an outbreak of Covid-19 is occurring and potentially in neighbouring care homes as well. The new additions to the testing regime in Wales will also see repeat testing the following week.
The new mobile testing units and home testing kits will be focused towards care homes to ensure testing is easily available. Testing will also be available in the largest care homes (those with more than 50 beds) which are at greater risk of experiencing an outbreak because of their size.
Health & Social Care - Carers
I welcome the announcement by the Welsh Government that it will give a one-off £500 bonus to social care staff which will recognise the 64,000-odd people working in the social-care sector in Wales. We are however, still awaiting clarity and further guidance
We must also recognise the contribution of unpaid carers. At present an estimated 79% of unpaid carers in Wales are providing more care for their loved ones – with many of them picking up an additional 11 hours of unpaid care per week.
To prevent our unpaid carers from burning out, I urge the Welsh Government to provide vital levels of funding to our local authorities, to help them maintain carers’ rights and promote help available to our increasing number of unpaid champions who are feeling overwhelmed.
Health - Shielding
Following a refinement of the medical criteria for shielding, and in line with the other three nations, the Chief Medical Officer for Wales will be sending letters to further high risk patients advising them to shield. The majority of these patients are within the high-risk categories already identified and have been identified as a result of updated searches of secondary care systems. In addition to these groups, the 4 UK Chief Medical Officers recently agreed that all those on kidney dialysis should be advised to shield.
As a result, approximately 21,000 patients have been added to the Welsh Shielded Patient List (taking the number advised to shield in Wales to approximately 121,000). Updated searches of primary care system are still being conducted centrally and may identify further patients who will also receive a letter from the Chief Medical Officer.
The list of high risk conditions is under constant review to ensure that those who need to shield are identified and contacted. Given the severe nature of the measures which those who are shielding must take – self-isolation for 12 weeks which includes reducing all non-essential contact with other household members – it is important only those are classed as high risk are added to it.
In line with the initial 12 week shielding advice issued in late March, the latest letters advise people to shield until at least 15th June 2020.
Local authorities and the major food retailers will receive the updated Welsh Shielded Patient List at the same time so that the additional people identified can access the support being provided.
For example, I'm aware that Sainsbury in Welshpool have been going above and beyond by personally shopping and delivering products to vulnerable customers who are shielding and are continuing to expand their delivery capacity and provide delivery slots to customers who have been identified by the Welsh Government as extremely vulnerable.
Health - Non-Covid Primary Care Services
Cancer Research UK has said that the Welsh response to cancer care during the Covid-19 pandemic has been “slow” in comparison to England.
There has been disruption to cancer care services during this pandemic, especially as some staff or wards have been redeployed to treat people with the virus.
However, what concerns me is that, according to statements from Wales' clinical cancer care director, Professor Tom Crosby, only about a quarter of urgent referrals are being dealt with.
The British Medical Association has also said that of the 835 doctors in Wales who it surveyed, some 40 percent (335) reported that care for patients not affected by the virus has significantly worsened, with a further quarter claiming it has worsened slightly.
Clearly, patients need the reassurance that services will be safe and the Minister for Health must consider a range of options to treat cancer patients in a safe and accessible environment.
All options must be looked into, including designating hospitals to treat these patients completely separately from Covid-19 patients in Coronavirus-free settings.
Primary care services must be maintained. We cannot let the treatment of one set of patients suffer while we tackle the illness of another group, however unprecedented the circumstances.
Support & Advice for Employees and Employers
The Welsh Government have an updated business support page here.
The CIPD’s Coronavirus Hub is also updated daily with employee and employer guides on different policy and practice, and a series of webinars on a variety of COVID-19 related people practice and guidance.
I also regularly scrutinise the Minister for Economy & Infrastructure during the virtual plenary sessions of the Welsh Parliament which are taking place. You can read our latest exchange here.
Economy & Finance - Extension of Furlough Scheme
I welcome the announcement from the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak MP, that the furlough scheme will be extended for a further four months.
This is clearly a shot in the arm for the 7.5 million UK employees currently covered by the scheme, and shows the UK Government’s level of backing for people hit by the pandemic. It’s a measured, sensible approach, too. We know that the lockdown will ease and that a gradual approach to returning to normal life will, in fact must, return at some point.
The Chancellor and the UK Government are not rushing, and that is the right course of action.
Economy & Finance - Launch of "Bounce Back" Loans
Small businesses are now able to apply for quick and easy-to access loans from accredited lenders of between £2,000 and £50,000 at an affordable rate of 2.5% interest, to make it through the Coronavirus outbreak.
Any business that has already taken out a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan of £50,000 or less can apply to have these switched over to this new scheme.
The UK Government will provide lenders with a 100% guarantee and cover the cost of any fees and interest for the borrower for the first 12 months. No repayments will be due during this period to enable firms to get back on their feet. The loans are available through a network of lenders, including the five largest banks.
Economy & Finance - Calls for a Self-Employed Hardship Fund
I have called on the Welsh Government to introduce a Self-employed Hardship Fund to help those people who are missed by the various Covid-19 business support packages.
I have also continued to call on the Welsh Government to amend business grants to ensure those businesses that don’t meet the eligibility criteria don’t continue to fall through the gaps and get the support they deserve at this time. Crucially, companies had to be VAT registered in order to obtain support which not all small and micro businesses are due to their size.
Businesses come in all shapes and sizes which has made ensuring support for everyone at this time has been difficult. However, I’d like to see the Welsh Government follow the example of elsewhere in the UK to introduce a hardship fund for those people who have been recently self-employed, or that being self-employed has now become their full-time status which currently excludes them from support.
Sadly, it might not be possible to support them with their full amount that they would receive but a hardship fund of £2,000 or more could ensure that they are able to see through the rest of the pandemic and be a part of Wales’ economic recovery when we come out of lockdown.
Economy & Finance - Tourism Sector
It is a particularly challenging and worrying time for those in the tourism sector which rely on seasonal business in the Spring and Summer months.
However, I’m sure you will agree with me that, although lockdown measures have resulted in financial pressures on the tourism sector, social distancing measures and ‘stay-at-home’ guidelines have been necessary at this unprecedented time to protect the NHS and save lives.
With regards to financial support, I understand that the sector is in discussions with the Welsh Government as to how greater flexibility can be introduced on accessing business support. I am also urging the Welsh Government to cut down on the bureaucracy preventing businesses from accessing support and to provide tailored support to the needs of specific businesses in the tourism sector.
I have had the opportunity of raising this matter recently with the Minister for Economy in the Economy, Infrastructure & Skills Committee, which I Chair. I will continue to exert pressure on the Welsh Government to deliver the support which the sector needs during these unprecedented times.
Local authorities in Wales have been given the power to waive the standard tests required for the awarding of the Small Business Relief Grant. I have been made aware that these regulations have not been applied equally across Wales. Therefore, I encourage all Local Authorities to pay this grant and to use their discretion.
Food Security & Buying Local
The Covid-19 outbreak has highlighted the importance of "buying local" and the need to ensure that our food industry is sustainable for the long term.
We need to address failings in the supply chain so that consumer demand is satisfied and as the farming unions have rightly said, sooner or later, greater normality will return to all our lives, but in the meantime, we need to ensure that we maintain productive capacity for a future when this is behind us.
While the UK and Welsh Governments have taken some welcome steps to assist businesses that are struggling, we need an urgent review of the eligibility criteria for Wales’ Economic Resilience Fund, so that those involved with producing the local food we all eat are also able to access the support they need in order to get through this difficult period and remain viable businesses.
I will encourage the Welsh Parliament's Environment & Sustainability Committee to undertake a wider piece of work on this important issue.
Local Government - Powys County Council & Recycling Centres
On 5th May, the Powys County Council Cabinet considered a report on the financial impact of Coronavirus on the council’s budget. The report warned of a potential £10 million deficit on the Council’s revenue budget by the end of June and I am joining Powys County Council in calling for the Welsh Government to address this shortfall.
I have also been contacted by a number constituents, who are concerned by the continued closure of Recycling Centres which has resulted in an increase in incidents of fly-tipping. I believe that residents understand that should recycling centres re-open it will be within limitations, to allow social distance regulations to be adhered to. I am therefore urging Powys County Council to consider reopening Recycling Centres at the earliest opportunity when it is safe to do so.