I believe there is good news to report in regards to the vaccination roll out. Across the UK, over 20 million people have now had their first dose. In Powys, over 50,000 people have now received their first dose, which is a fanatic achievement.
We now require optimism, hope and clarity and a detailed roadmap out of restrictions. I will of course continue to urge the Welsh Government to publish such a plan.
My colleague, Craig Williams MP, has produced a good summary of the Chancellor's budget announcements and commitments, and how they affect Wales and our area. If you would like a copy, or have any questions, then Craig would welcome contact from you by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would prefer to receive my e-news in Cymraeg, please let me know.
As always, if there is anything that I can do to support you or if you have any issues or concerns, please don't hesitate to contact me by email: email@example.com or by telephone on 01686 610887.
Russell George MS
Member of the Welsh Parliament for Montgomeryshire
Coronavirus - Useful Links & Frequently Asked Questions
The best source of information for the Wales lockdown rules, with Frequently Asked Questions can be found here.
The best UK Government rolling page with updated information is here.
Advice from Powys County Council is available here.
Information and Support for the Third Sector is available from the Powys Association of Voluntary Organisations (PAVO) here.
The Business Wales website is a good point of reference, which is updated regularly for those who want advice about business support.
The symptoms of Coronavirus are a high temperature, a new, continuous cough and a loss of smell or taste. To view more advice on what to do if you think you have symptoms, please click here.
Public Health Wales provides a daily update about the number of cases of coronavirus in Wales. It is available here.
Update: Covid-19 Vaccination Deployment
The UK Government has secured over 350 million doses of different Covid-19 vaccines and is distributing them to each nation of the UK based on population.
In Wales, is it the role of the Welsh Government to distribute the vaccines. Currently, every Health Board in Wales receives an allocation of doses in proportion to the size of its priority population.
The vaccine is being given out in a priority order to ensure that the most vulnerable in our communities by age and our frontline health and social care staff receive it first. Other key workers will be immunised depending on what age and risk category they fall into. You can find more information on the priority list by visiting the Public Health Wales website.
Last Friday, I met up virtually with Carol Shillabeer, the Chief Executive of Powys Teaching Health Board to discuss the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination programme. The vaccination programme has been one of the success stories of the pandemic and I also wrote (see letter above) to convey my thanks to all of the vaccination teams and volunteers who have been involved in the organisation and delivery of the vaccine.
In Powys, over 50,000 people have received their first dose, and 56,000 total doses (first & second). This is excellent progress in delivering this vital protection for the people of Powys.
Last week the main focus for the vaccination programme in Powys included:
Continuing first dose vaccinations for people aged 65-69. Over 80% of people in this group have now received their vaccination. I was told that the final invitations to people in this group will land on doormats this week.
Beginning invitations for adults with underlying health conditions. Around 40% of people in this group have received their first dose vaccination. Invitations will continue during March.
Putting in place arrangements for vaccination for unpaid carers. Welsh Government published its national guidance last week on eligibility for vaccination for unpaid carers. A new eligibility tool is expected later this week for unpaid carers to check if they are eligible and request an appointment.
Continuing to deliver the second dose vaccination for people who received their first dose in the first weeks of the vaccination programme. This is in line with UK guidance that people should receive their second dose vaccination with 12 weeks of their first dose.
During last week we also saw some significant developments in national policy and guidance:
Welsh Government issued their updated vaccination strategy, confirming that Priority Groups 5-9 will be invited by mid April, and the rest of the adult population will be invited by the end of July.
The updated national vaccination strategy also endorsed the latest guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). The JCVI has recommended that vaccination for the rest of the adult population should be based on age groups – 40-49, followed by 30-39, and then 18-29.
In their strategy, Welsh Government also clarified that eligibility for vaccination in Priority Group 6 is different from the seasonal flu invitation. A key difference is for people with asthma: people with Severe Asthma are included in Priority Group 6, whilst those with moderate or mild asthma will be invited based on their age group.
The strategy also includes the Welsh Government’s latest guidance on eligibility for unpaid carers, and for people with learning disability and severe mental illness.
Following the meeting, a further update from the health board has detailed the key priorities for our local health board for the fortnight ahead. This includes:
Invitations will continue for people with eligible underlying health conditions. In order to ensure that our vaccination programme is as efficient as possible, different age groups of people with underlying health conditions will be invited to different locations: 50-64 year olds to mass vaccination centres, 18-49 year olds to GP practice, and eligible 16-17 year olds to mass vaccination centres (note that vaccination is currently only recommended for certain 16-17 year olds with clinical conditions).
The new online eligibility tool will be in place for unpaid carers, so that you can check your eligibility and request a vaccination.
Planning will continue ready for invitations to begin for people aged 60-64 – before proceeding to 55-59 and 50-54 before the middle of April.
Powys Teaching Health Board will continue with second dose vaccinations and expect to reach around 12,000 second doses by the end of next week.
Bring Back the Development Board for Rural Wales
In February, in my capacity as Shadow Minister for the Economy, I announced one of the Welsh Conservatives’ first major manifesto announcements which will be to re-establish the best aspects of the hugely successful Welsh Development Agency (WDA) and the Development Board for Rural Wales to get Mid Wales on the road to economic recovery.
I believe that the decision to scrap the WDA in 2006 has put Wales at a disadvantage in terms of job creation ever since, a position from which we have yet to fully recover. The decision was also criticised in a recent report commissioned by the Welsh Government.
In addition to re-establishing the best of these organisations, I also believe we need to ensure that there is a one-stop shop approach to business support.
My aim would be to create a more nimble, agile, and dynamic business entity to respond to the needs of firms large and small after the pandemic, driving new opportunities for inward investment and private sector growth.
While immediate support is the priority, and more funding is needed now to support our businesses, the package of financial assistance should also build for the future.
To read the full article which I wrote for the Institute for Welsh Affairs, please click here.
New Regulation for Farming Businesses - Wrong Approach
There was a vote in the Senedd this week on the Welsh Government's plans to introduce an all-Wales Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) from April 1st. I've been a strong opponent to the introduction of these regulations. An NVZ has traditionally been introduced to reduce certain pollution in particular areas. What is wrong about the Welsh Government's approach is that they want to move away from the targeted approach, and make the whole of Wales an NVZ, and in doing so, they will be forcing many farming businesses across Wales, many of which are here in Montgomeryshire, to spend huge sums of money, when it's not necessary.
Farmers accept the role which they have to play in improving water quality and accept the role of regulation but it should be evidence-based, proportionate and targeted to the areas where improvements have been shown to be needed. In pursuing an all Wales NVZ approach, the Welsh Government is advancing the most damaging course of action for farming. The implications are significant because the Welsh Government approach will know put livelihoods and jobs at risk.
Despite denying that the new regulations would be introduced during the pandemic no less than seven times, the Welsh Government has gone back on its commitment and pressed ahead with the regulations. This is incredibly disappointing, especially when some areas have recorded no incidents of pollution in over ten years.
Last week, Welsh Conservatives brought forward a debate calling on the Welsh Government to scrap the plans. I spoke in this debate, and was able to make many of the points that had been raised with me in the hundreds of emails I have received from business and others across Montgomeryshire, urging me to vote against the regulations.
Despite calls from me and my colleagues, the farming unions and many others, the response from the Welsh Government was that they were going to ignore us and carry on.
Last week, I also met (remotely) with Montgomery Young Farmers, and the meeting was chaired by Bryony Wilson. I would like to thank Montgomery YFC for their work in promoting the implications for the farming community which these regulations will have on our farming businesses.
I, along with Welsh Conservatives and many other Members of the Senedd, voted to annul the regulations. The farming unions and industry lobbied hard, but despite the efforts of many, no Labour Ministers, backbenchers or Liberal Democrat, Kirsty Williams, could be persuaded to support the annulment of the regulations in the vote. Therefore, the introduction of a Wales-wide NVZ remains.
This is so significant for our area and is an issue which must continue to be challenged. I am pleased that a legal challenge against the Welsh Government’s decision is being explored, and clearly, a new Government after May’s elections can also put a stop to these damaging and unnecessary regulations.
Closure of HSBC Welshpool
I met with the local director of HSBC last month to discuss the proposed closure of the bank's Welshpool branch which will be on 24th September 2021.
I was very disappointed that HSBC had not contacted me before making the public announcement to close the Welshpool branch.
At this meeting, I asked whether the decision to close the branch could be reconsidered, but I wasn't surprised to hear that the decision has definitely been made. I enquired about what will happen to the staff at the branch and the local director informed me that all staff have been spoken to and other job opportunities have been offered to move to other HSBC branches.
She said that HSBC recognises that it has a moral responsibility and obligation to support its vulnerable customers and those customers who do not have access to digital and online banking facilities. I was informed that HSBC will work closely with this group of people and I hope that this transpires in a timely manner.
The ATM in the wall of the HSBC building will be removed. Apparently there are 9 ATMs in Welshpool. I have asked for confirmation of how many of those 9 ATMs can be used free of charge.
The building is owned by HSBC as a freehold property and I have asked for the asset department to make contact with me and Welshpool Town Council to have discussions around what they will be doing with the building.
HSBC confirmed with me that they haven’t written to Welshpool branch customers yet, but will be doing so during the summer months and offer alternative solutions to their banking requirements; such as the use of the Post Office.
If there are any specific questions you have regarding this branch closure, please contact me. I would be very happy to raise these concerns directly with HSBC.
Broadband & Mobile
Broadband (or the lack of it) is always an issue which dominates my inbox and I continue to be frustrated by the fact that those in Montgomeryshire with no or poor broadband connectivity appear to be falling even further behind those people in more urban areas of South Wales who are now receiving upgrades to ultra-fast broadband when they already have a decent broadband connection.
Over the last month, I have had remote meetings with Openreach to express my concerns that the digital divide appears to be widening and the Senedd Committee which I Chair has also taken evidence from BT, Openreach and Ofcom, the telecoms regulator.
As of December, Openreach has informed us that a total of 15,649 premises have now been given access to full fibre connectivity since the start of the Superfast Cymru project but only 710 of these are in Montgomeryshire.
For me, rural areas need to be the priority and they shouldn't be able to pick off the low hanging fruit. Any public intervention using taxpayers' money, whether that be from the UK Government or Welsh Government needs to be spent where there is no commercial incentive to provide this service and I agree with Openreach's remarks when they say that the Welsh Government need to change their approach and follow the UK Government in taking action to reduce barriers to deployment.
While commercial operators must bear some of the burden of tackling some of the hardest valleys and communities to reach, public sector intervention, in terms of both policy change and political support, will be needed in Wales.
During recent years, we have seen new planning policy and updated guidance a pilot of non-domestic rate relief in England, measures which we also need in Wales to incentivise the commercial rollout of telecoms infrastructure.
So, I would like to see a change in the terms of reference of the Superfast Cymru programme to compel Openreach to prioritise (in the following order) the digital connectivity of:
(1) those premises which cannot receive a decent broadband connection at all;
(2) to those that cannot get 30 Mb/s Next Generation Access approved superfast broadband; and
(3) to the remaining premises.
Turning to mobile coverage, you will recall that last month, I reported on the news that O2, Three and Vodafone have agreed a new deal to enhance Powys' rural mobile coverage. I'm still awaiting details on the exact locations of these new masts. However, I have received some further detail on the seven existing EE sites which will be upgraded under the Shared Rural Network. They will be in the following locations.
- Pant Mawr
- Kerry (x2)
- Llanwrin, Machynlleth
- Guilsfield, Welshpool
- Churchstoke, Montgomery
For some time, I have been asking for urgent progress to be made on the construction of the new Dyfi Bridge at Machynlleth. The 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.
Improving the reliability of crossing the River Dyfi is essential to improve access to key services including employment opportunities, tourism, healthcare and education for the people of Machynlleth and the surrounding area.
I'm therefore pleased that the Welsh Government has announced that the construction of the new £46 million Dyfi Bridge near Machynlleth is set to begin this month. The new development will be a viaduct across the floodplain and a river bridge across the Afon Dyfi approximately 480 metres upstream of the existing bridge.
The scheme will include traffic calming and improved drainage on the A493 immediately north of the bridge to protect the existing cottages, and there will be a flood bund constructed to protect the Dyfi Eco Park from river flooding.
Work has been done to ensure construction can now begin while complying with Covid-19 regulations and the new Dyfi Bridge is expected to be completed by spring 2023.
Apply for a Postal Vote
The Senedd Elections and Elections for Police & Crime Commissioners are only two months away. Anyone can apply to vote by post and you don't need to give a reason. Please click here to visit the UK Government website where you will be able to download an application form. Simply print out the form, complete the details and send it to the local Electoral Registration Officer (not the Electoral Commission) at the Council's offices: Powys County Council, County Hall, Llandrindod Wells, Powys, LD1 5LG.
Forthcoming Advice Surgeries
As your local Senedd Member, I’m here to represent you, your family and our community in the Welsh Parliament. Please find above details of my forthcoming advice surgeries.
If you have any issues to raise that you believe I can support you with, please call my office on 01686 610887 or email firstname.lastname@example.org so we can arrange for a suitable time for a conversation.