As we say goodbye to one year and enter 2022, I wanted to wish everyone throughout Montgomeryshire a very Happy New Year!
Reflecting on 2021, it has been a challenging year as we continue to deal with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. So many people continue to make enormous sacrifices to keep us safe, so I would like to say a huge ‘Thank You’ to all key workers and volunteers.
In spite of the introduction of further restrictions, I sincerely hope that we can look forward with optimism on a return to normality at the earliest opportunity following what has been a successful and widespread vaccination programme.
Personal responsibility will continue to be crucial during the pandemic and many people will have been concerned about the potential impact of government restrictions. Clear public health messaging is incredibly important and whilst this announcement appears sensible on the surface due to Omicron being far more contagious than previous variants, new restrictions will inevitably have a wide-ranging impact on Welsh firms in various sectors and the Welsh Government must now use the hundreds of millions of pounds left over in Covid financial support to help businesses and protect jobs.
While Covid has dominated everyone's thoughts for the best part of two years, it is always rewarding for me to visit residents across Montgomeryshire and I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible during 2022 when it is safe again to do so.
I sincerely hope that 2022 will eventually see a resolution to the pandemic and allow us to refocus our attention on all of the other pressing issues which have inevitably been put on the back-burner as a result of the pandemic – from NHS waiting times, community healthcare and wellbeing, education, transport, our local economy and broadband and mobile connectivity.
I continue to work closely with our MP, Craig Williams, and as always, if you have any comments or issues you would like to raise, please contact me by email at email@example.com or by phone by calling 01686 610887.
Russell George MS
Member of the Welsh Parliament for Montgomeryshire
Update on Covid-19 & Vaccination Programme
We were all hoping that Covid restrictions would be gradually eased.
From 26th December, the Welsh Government announced that no spectators would be allowed at sports events; 2 metre social distancing will be required in offices and all public premises; a maximum of six people can meet in public premises; licenced premises will need to take additional reasonable measures to protect customers and staff; a maximum of 30 people can attend indoor events and a maximum of 50 people at outdoor events; people attending weddings or civil partnership receptions or wakes should take a lateral flow test before attending; and nightclubs will have to close.
Given the fact that the Omicron variant appears to be significantly more infectious, the primary concern is not necessarily focussed on the increase in hospitalisations and deaths (even though this is still a significant concern) but also on the capacity to deliver public services due to staff absences in the NHS, in schools and in other public bodies for reasons of self-isolation.
While much more about Omicron is becoming known, the current evidence is showing us that this variant is causing milder illness. As the Senedd returns, I will continue to ask the Welsh Government to publish the scientific advice that has led to Wales having the toughest Covid restrictions in the UK.
I am concerned about how the introduction of the latest round of restrictions are affecting our local businesses, which have lost out over the holiday period. There needs to be relevant and fair financial support for businesses affected.
The booster vaccination programme was extended during November and December with all eligible adults having been offered a booster before the end of 2021. I would like to extend my thanks to all staff and volunteers for this monumental effort. If you have not been offered a booster, and for information on the booster rollout in Powys please click here.
I have had many reports over the holiday period regarding the local availability of lateral flow tests (LFT). This is an issue which I have raised with the local health board. The UK Health Security Agency has said that they are working hard to increase supply. I also believe supply chain and delivery issues are causing further issues. There is currently unprecedented demand for both PCR and lateral flow tests across the UK. People are being urged to use the tests which they have at home before obtaining more. With no availability at many local outlets, such as pharmacies, the best way to obtain currently is online via the Government’s website. I will be raising this matter further with the Health Minister.
For the latest information and frequently asked questions on the latest alert level in Wales and the current restrictions, please click here.
For information in the support available for businesses, please click here.
Improving Transport Routes
I continue to take up matters on a number of key pinch points throughout Montgomeryshire where smaller schemes can make a difference. These include updates on the following items, but if you would like an update on any transport matter not included below, please do contact me.
Building the Dyfi Bridge, Machynlleth - I am pleased that construction of the new Dyfi Bridge is progressing. The original Dyfi Bridge was never designed to carry the current volume of traffic and the road is often closed due to frequent flooding causing traffic to take a diversion of up to 30 miles. It is good news that construction is well underway and the road scheme is due to be completed by Spring 2023. I include a link to the contractor's website for latest information on the bridge works - https://community.alungriffiths.co.uk/
Progressing the Pant-Llanymynech Bypass – Despite the Welsh Government’s policy to halt road building projects, I am pleased that plans for this long-awaited Pant-Llanymynech bypass are still being driven forward. The exact route is yet to be decided, with the focus currently on getting the outline business case finalised.
Schemes at Caersws - A number of smaller schemes to resolve traffic flows and safety concerns at Moat Lane Crossing near Caersws with a roundabout replacing the current junction, continue to move forward, as do plans for a new footbridge over the river. Plans are moving at a slower pace than I had hoped, but I continue to promote these schemes with Ministers. More recently, I have raised my concerns yet again in the Senedd about the traffic signals which have been in place on Caersws bridge. I urged that the work needed on the bridge is carried out at a pace, and asked the Minister to ensure that all these separate but related issues and schemes at these points are considered together.
Improved links to Shrewsbury needed - I am continuing to raise safety concerns on the A458 between Welshpool and the English border. I have raised these concerns again recently with the Welsh Government’s Transport Minister.
Closure of New Road, Newtown - I am pleased that New Road has re-opened following part demolition of Bethel Chapel. I had raised the duration of the closure with Powys County Council and pressed them to reopen the road ahead of the Christmas period.
Rail - I have received a number of complaints regarding trains recently which I have taken up with Transport for Wales and the Welsh Government Minister on numerous occasions. I’ve had a recent meeting with the Chief Executive of Transport for Wales where I was able to raise a number of issues including the poor service, the continual delay in train times, the lack of communication to passengers and the overcrowding during the pandemic and the importance of being able to socially distance. I will keep pressing Transport for Wales and the Welsh Government on this matter.
Future of Education in Powys
This year Powys County Council have continued with their plans and consultations on the future of our schools in North Powys. This has involved a number of public consultations and decisions, including the proposal to change Ysgol Dyffryn Trannon in Trefeglwys and Ysgol Bro Hyddgen in Machynlleth from dual stream schools to Welsh medium schools. We have also had consultations and decisions on the future of Churchstoke Primary School and Castle Caereinion School. For some of these consultations, I have been contacted by dozens of parents and members of communities who have raised concerns and issues with me.
I was delighted that Powys County Council’s Cabinet took the decision in November to keep Churchstoke Primary school open. I firmly believe that this is the right decision, particularly given the new and future housing developments in the area. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the community of Churchstoke on the campaign to keep the school open. It was great to meet with parents over remote meetings and in person when I have attended Churchstoke to discuss this matter. It seems that the Council will now be looking at a wider review of the schools in this area and I will remain in contact with Powys County Council to ensure that I am kept informed of the review’s findings and any future proposals which may impact the Churchstoke community.
It has, however, also been announced that Castle Caereinion Church in Wales School will close from August 2022. I know this will be a huge disappointment to those in the community who have concerns about this. During this process, I have been in contact with the Council to raise some of the specific concerns. In particular, I have asked for clarity on the free school transport provision for pupils in the Castle Caereinion catchment area.
I realise that there are schools and communities in Montgomeryshire which still face uncertainty about their futures. Please continue to contact my office to raise your concerns and as and when proposals come forward, do let me know your thoughts on these. My views will be informed by you and I will continue to raise issues with the council in order to make sure that consultations are meaningful.
This year I have seen a substantial increase in the number of parents who have contacted my office with concerns about the council’s provision of free Home to School transport. I believe that in light of Powys Council’s ongoing changes to schools, the council should carry out a proper review of its policy and this should include thorough consideration of whether there should be more flexibility for those cases which involve the most marginal of distances. It is important that the Council acts fairly in light of its ongoing decisions on the future of schools.
Our Welsh NHS
I recently wrote the following article on our Welsh NHS, but I have included it below as many of you may not have seen it. The article focusses on wider issues rather than our local health services, but I hope to be in a position to update further on improvements in our local health services in the coming months, especially in regards to a new community hospital in Newtown to serve North Powys.
With the new year ahead of us, I think it appropriate to look back at the challenges of the last 12 months, and how to use the next 12 to solve them in regards to our health service in Wales. I want to start with a similar message that we all had in 2020: our NHS staff are some of the hardest working people in our society and their resilience throughout the pandemic has been admirable. Not only have they had to look after Covid patients, but they have also had to deal with the unintended consequences of lockdown.
It is truly astonishing to think that one-in-five people in Wales are on an NHS treatment waiting list. It increased by 11,000 in September alone. A quarter of those on the list are waiting over a year. Meanwhile, it’s only 1-in-19 in England, and median waiting times for that same month in Wales are nearly double that of England. It doesn’t help that NHS staff are suffering burnout from how hard they are having to work in the context of an already hugely understaffed health service.
No matter how many times Mark Drakeford says there is a record number of people working in the NHS, there are 3,000 vacancies. That means people are not being seen quick enough in A&E – overpopulated due to problems like accessing primary care services such as GPs – leading to delays in transferring patients from ambulances to hospital, meaning calls are taking longer to respond to, exacerbating conditions that may then need elective treatment. This has left the NHS in a perilous state, experiencing its worst A&E waits, longest ever treatment waiting lists, and slowest ambulance response times on record. This is all in addition to year-on-year reduction to NHS beds during devolution, with the Welsh Government in Cardiff Bay cutting them by 30% over 22 years.
We must be vigilant not to let ministers off the hook because they blame the pandemic because sometimes, the pandemic is not to blame. While the treatment backlog is much higher than it was before Covid struck, it had doubled in the year before. We also saw the annual number of serious adverse incidents in ambulances nearly double five years ago and never go back down. The year before coronavirus also saw the Welsh Government beat its worst A&E waits record on multiple occasions.
The Welsh NHS is not the new normal – it is simply normal. And totally unacceptable. We have got to do better. Change now is not only a matter life and death for patients, but the NHS itself. But how do we do that?
First, the existence and locations of other services like minor injury units and community pharmacists need to be promoted far more widely so people are encouraged to use them. It is better for patients too – would you prefer waiting hours in an uncomfortable A&E waiting room or get an appointment to see a medical professional in good time?
Second, is implementing our long-term calls for regional surgical hubs where people on a waiting list can get their treatment sorted closer to home, in a “Covid-light” environment. It takes pressures off hospital and deals with what is becoming an unsustainable problem.
We also need rapid diagnostic centres to spot cancers earlier. The number of people entering hospitals in Wales for cancer treatment had fallen by over 40,000 in the first year of the pandemic. Nearly 60,000 breast cancer screenings have been missed because of the pandemic with a charity predicting almost 620 women are living with undiagnosed breast cancer. These are the kinds off facts that should put off any policymaker from lockdowns as a functional public health tool when its consequences are so dire.
Thirdly, we need to make GP services far easier to access. GPs do skilled work over long hours in difficult, often lonely, settings and deserve to be praised, not demonised. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the surgery set-up sometimes simply does not work for the patients they are paid to serve. Later in January, I am going to launch my ideas for a GP access plan, with concrete and funded proposals that I hope the Health Minister will seriously consider. And there is also my own party's ideas for a Covid action plan: appoint a vaccines minister; rapidly rollout booster jab walk-in centres and reopen closed mass vaccination centres; reactivate the NHS Covid ‘volunteer army’; establish regional surgical hubs to tackle the backlog; commit to keeping schools open; and commit to easing restrictions if Omicron proves no more dangerous than Delta.
Since making these calls, some of my calls have been implemented. The procurement and rollout of the vaccine is the great success of 2021, so let’s ensure we keep our hard-earned success by ramping up the booster programme. We know vaccinations are the key to a society living with coronavirus, so it’s vital we do this to prevent restrictions. It’s essential that we get evidence to justify restrictions rather than use the absence of evidence to make decisions, like with vaccine passports. This is vital to making the health service function properly.
My hope for 2022 is for a dramatic transformation in the fortunes of NHS staff and patients, and that this is achieved through our sensible and workable recommendations. Together we can come through this.
Working for a prosperous Mid Wales
I have been a long-time advocate of pushing for a Mid Wales Growth Deal, and was pleased that the Welsh Government accepted the recommendation from the Senedd Committee I chaired to agree to this proposal. I’m pleased that the Heads of Terms have now been signed by both the UK & Welsh Governments, as well as Powys & Ceredigion local authorities. This will see £110 million of investment pumped into the region with the deal committing both the UK & Welsh Governments to each invest £55 million.
The partners in the deal will now move on to identifying specific projects to benefit from investment, with 8 strategic growth areas identified. These are:
Applied Research & Innovation
Agriculture, Food & Drink
Strengthened Tourism Identity
Skills & Employment
What is particularly pleasing is that the UK & Welsh Governments have closely worked together on securing this deal, in conjunction with the 2 local authorities. I am extremely pleased that we are now one huge step closer to seeing these hugely exciting projects for Montgomeryshire and Mid Wales become a reality.
This investment will bring real growth and new opportunities to Montgomeryshire and Mid Wales as a whole and will be used on areas such as digital infrastructure, transport, agriculture, tourism – all areas which are of huge importance to Mid Wales and will matter even more as we emerge the other side of this pandemic.
One such project which has already benefitted from funding from the UK Government's Levelling Up Fund and I hope the Mid Wales Growth Deal also, is the restoration of the Montgomery Canal. The Montgomery Canal Partnership and Montgomery Waterway Restoration Trust have been campaigning tirelessly for many years to undertake a phased restoration on the Montgomery canal to create a flagship visitor attraction and community resources. I will continue working with my colleague, Craig Williams MP, who has taken up the restoration with various UK Government ministers.
Mobile & Broadband
The Covid-19 Pandemic has proven how much we rely on Mobile and Internet services to connect with our friends, family and now to even work from home. 2021 has been another year of uncertainty and this has been the case for Mid Wales connectivity.
Mid Wales has been behind other parts of Wales for some time. The UK Government has committed to a one billion-pound shared rural network scheme and 4G coverage is set to be supplied to 95 per cent across Wales. I am of course pleased to see Montgomeryshire being a major beneficiary of this development.
Alongside this, 234,000 rural Welsh properties stuck with slow broadband speeds will be able to apply for gigabit upgrades under the Government’s £5 billion Project Gigabit.
The UK Gigabit scheme has been ramping up in Mid Wales and across Montgomeryshire. Openreach announced in May that a total of 140 exchanges across Wales would be set to be upgraded, and rural homes would be first in line, which is great news for our rural constituency.
In Montgomeryshire, exchanges in Caersws, Newtown, Machynlleth, Llanidloes and Forden will be upgraded, enabling access to full fibre broadband for 8,809 premises. Reliable broadband should be available across the whole of Wales, and as Mid Wales has suffered for too long, I am delighted that communities such as Caersws, Newtown, Machynlleth, Llanidloes and Forden will benefit.
Communities such as Adfa and Pentre are now in the next stage of their Community Broadband Schemes after having applications processed by the UK's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Dwyriw & Manafon community have done a fantastic job of processing this and I am glad that the hard work of many is finally paying off.
There is still work to do and I will continue to voice the concerns of all and push for the further broadband and mobile services that we deserve. Please do contact me if you want an updates on any area or scheme not mentioned here.
New Technology for Land Lines
A number of people have contacted me concerned about VOIP which is Voice over internet protocol. At the moment, landline calls, are the only form of communication that haven't been part of the digital revolution.
BT and Openreach are moving their customers over to what they are calling the next generation of home phone with Digital Voice. This isn’t just BT and Openreach however. I am told that all providers will be moving over their customers to the new broadband powered technology by 2025. This isn’t just UK specific and other countries across the world have already started.
Instead of connecting a home phone in to a telephone socket, Digital Voice handsets connect to the BT Smart Hub 2 over WiFi or through a cable. Calls are then placed over broadband, and additional devices can then be connected wirelessly and positioned throughout the home.
Customers can then use their phone in the same way while enjoying a better sounding call according to Openreach. I have been told that the switch over will give you better quality calls and a more reliable connection. BT and Openreach have said that they understand that many customers will have anxieties about the switch over, especially in rural constituencies like Montgomeryshire. To combat this, they have said that they will be contacting customers in advance of these changes to understand the individual requirements within their home.
If the service does in fact go down, and if customers do not have access to a mobile phone, they will be providing back up options such as a battery back-up for the router which would help during a power outage. I am aware that if needed, BT and Openreach will also postpone the migration until they find a suitable solution. If you are worried about what the change could mean for your household, please get in touch with BT and they will find a solution that works for you. ‘VOIP’ will not currently be offered to customers requiring a voice only service. They will remain on the PSTN network for the time being. If you do not currently have a broadband connection in your home, then you are not eligible to be moved over to Digital Voice and you will be able to continue to your current landline phone. BT have stressed that their customers will not find themselves cut off. Some will be concerned about the provider keeping their word when it comes to back up options, but Ofcom require providers to provide at least one solution that enables access to emergency organisations for a minimum of one hour in the event of a power cut.
BT and Openreach do offer a battery back-up system, and I am told that this is available free of charge to vulnerable customers, and as a chargeable option to other customers. There are also various commercially available battery back-up systems that will also maintain power to the router, phones etc available in the general consumer market. BT have explained to me that the battery back-up system, not only supports the BT router and thus the new VOIP system for their Fibre customers. but it also maintains the power to the broadband router which should ensure that all normal broadband services continue to operate in the event of power loss at the premise. The battery in this system is designed to maintain service for at least the 1 hour required by Ofcom but the provider has assured me that this will generally operate for significantly longer than this.
As always, if you would like to meet with me please contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 01686 610887.
I have also produced a calendar for 2022, with useful contact numbers and advice surgery dates. If you would like a calendar posted to you, please let me know.