Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd30/12/2020
|Statement by the Llywydd|
|Motion to suspend Standing Orders|
|1. Debate: The End of the Transition Period|
|2. Voting Time|
|3. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on Coronavirus|
In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.
The Senedd met by video-conference at 10:29 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome to this Plenary session. In accordance with Standing Order 12.3, and at the request of the First Minister, I have summoned the Senedd to debate the end of the European Union transition period and for the Minister for Health and Social Services to make a statement on the latest information on coronavirus.
Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. A Plenary meeting held by video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary agenda, and these are noted on your agenda. And I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting.
The first item is a motion to suspend Standing Orders to allow a debate on item 1, and I call on the First Minister to formally move the motion.
Motion NDM7531 Rebecca Evans
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Orders 33.6 and 33.8:
Suspends Standing Orders 12.20(i) and 12.22(i) to allow NDM7530 to be considered in Plenary on Wednesday 30 December 2020.
Thank you. The proposal is to agree the procedural motion to suspend Standing Orders. Is there any objection? I see no objections to that and, therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Darren Millar, amendment 2 in the name of Caroline Jones, and amendments 3 and 4 in the name of Siân Gwenllian. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2 and 3 will be deselected. If amendment 2 is agreed, amendment 3 will be deselected. In accordance with Standing Order 12.23(iii), the other amendments tabled to the motion were not selected.
That allows us, therefore, to move to a debate on the end of the transition period, and I call on the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, to move that motion. First Minister.
Motion NDM7530 Rebecca Evans
To propose the Senedd:
1. Notes the agreement in principle reached by the UK Government and the EU on our long-term future relationship at the end of the transition period.
2. Notes the UK Government’s intention to implement the agreement via a European Union (Future Relationship) Bill.
3. Regrets that it is not in a position to determine legislative consent, given that the Bill has been provided to the Senedd at very short notice and contains provisions capable of impacting on the devolution settlement
4. Regrets that this damaging deal does not reflect the aspirations of the Senedd as reflected in 'Securing Wales' Future' and 'The Future UK/EU Relationship: Negotiating Priorities for Wales' but nevertheless, accepts that this deal is less damaging than leaving the transition period without a trade deal.
5. Supports the continued efforts to mitigate the short-term disruption and the long-term harm which will result from the change in our economic relationship with the EU and calls on the UK Government to work with the Welsh Government to that end.
Llywydd, first of all I would like to thank you for agreeing to this recall of the Senedd today. In introducing this debate, I want to make three points. First of all, we must welcome the fact that we have avoided the chaos that would have existed if we had left the transition period without a further deal with the European Union. Until the last minute there was a very real possibility that we could face tariffs on trade with our most important market and providers. It’s difficult to believe that we are facing such a scenario. No responsible Government should have considered breaking its links with European networks that allow us to stay safe from systematic terrorism and crime, but we have a Home Secretary who was willing to consider just that.
This is not the deal that Wales was promised, but, in a world where we were only days away from the catastrophe of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, at least we have a deal in place, despite its inadequacies. As the Welsh Government has regularly argued, at least with a deal in place we now have a foundation on which to build. The relationship with our closest and most important trading partners has been safeguarded and we can now build upon this and strengthen it for the future. Indeed, the agreement allows for an ongoing process of review, and the Welsh Government will be arguing in favour of a review process that lays a foundation for positive evolution rather than it just being a way for the EU and the UK to keep each other in order.
Llywydd, my second point has nothing to do with the UK's external relationships and everything to do with the deeply disturbing state of our internal constitutional arrangements. This is the most important treaty that the UK will have signed for nearly 50 years. It is simply outrageous that in a democracy where the legislature is supposed to hold the Executive to account, the Bill to implement the treaty is being rammed through both Houses of Parliament in one day. The House of Commons will have the equivalent of 15 seconds to debate each page of the draft treaty—less time than it would take to read it, and this when the text of the treaty was only put in the public domain 72 hours before that debate takes place.
Now, when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister—and we know that there are some in this Senedd who still worship at that unlamented shrine—the European Communities (Amendment) Bill 1986 was introduced into the House of Commons in April and did not gain Royal Assent until November of that year, and Mrs Thatcher had a Commons majority of 140.
Under her Conservative successor, the Maastricht treaty of 1993 spent 23 sitting days in the House of Commons Committee Stage alone. Llywydd, I suspect that the official record does not contain many instances where I have made positive references to Mrs Thatcher, but at least the notion of parliamentary scrutiny appeared to have meant something to her.
Of course, the opposition here will say that all this is driven by the lack of time, as if the Conservative Party had not had four and a half years to deliver a deal that we were told would be the easiest ever struck, or the Prime Minister will be threatening us with the consequences if the future relationship Bill is not enacted before tomorrow evening. But all of that is simply wrong. The EU is bringing the treaty into provisional application, and the European Parliament will have several weeks to understand the implications of a text that is about the same length as the Bible. Why are we not able to do the same? How has taking back control collapsed so quickly into having no parliamentary control at all?
Llywydd, this Senedd should refuse to play along with this pretence of scrutiny. The first time the Welsh Government saw even one clause of the treaty was on Christmas Day. The Bill itself, to which we have been asked to give consent, has been with us for one working day, and that under strict embargo. It is plainly impossible for anyone in this Senedd to have a clear understanding of the ways in which this Bill will affect our competence. When we tabled the motion for debate today, Llywydd, we could not refer to the Bill because it had not been introduced and was not in the public domain. And if we had put the debate off until tomorrow, it would have been after the Bill had been enacted. This is not how a democracy should work. And let me be clear that, in these circumstances, this Government will not bring a motion seeking either to give or refuse consent in such circumstances.
Now, the amendment laid to the debate from the Conservative Party in Wales invites us to provide legislative consent to a Bill that they cannot possibly have considered. We will oppose that amendment, and the amendment in the name of Caroline Jones, which seeks simply to refight battles that that amendment itself says should be put behind us. We cannot support the third amendment, from Plaid Cymru, which fails to recognise that a deal is better than no deal for the reasons that I have already set out. The Government will abstain on the fourth and final amendment on the order paper today, Llywydd. The Welsh Government does not support the deal, but nor do we believe that it is for the Senedd to instruct MPs as to how they should vote any more than Members of the Senedd would be prepared to take instructions from parties at Westminster.
Llywydd, all this brings me to my third point. Just why is it that the UK Government has not given more time to Parliament and to the other UK legislatures to scrutinise this treaty? The answer is simple: the UK Government wants to get the Bill on the statute book before all the details of this deal have had time to emerge. But we know here that businesses will have a treaty that will make trade with our largest and most important market more expensive and more difficult—the loss of contracts because of new rules of origin arrangements; the cost in time and money of export health certificates and sanitary and phytosanitary checks for agriculture and food exports; the end of the mutual recognition of professional qualifications; the failure to include access to the single market for UK services, meaning businesses will have to rely on 27 different sets of national rules to trade across the EU where they have only one today. This is a bad deal for business and for business here in Wales.
And for our fellow citizens, what will this deal mean? Queuing at airports, visas for longer stays and the elimination of the freedom to live and work anywhere across the continent of Europe, mobile phones where calls cost far more or may not work at all, fewer people from the European Union able to work in our health and social care system looking after people here in Wales who need their help. And for our young people in particular, Llywydd, the cultural vandalism of cutting them off from the Erasmus+ programme, the largest international exchange programme in history, which people from Wales have done so much to shape and foster. Instead, we will be offered an English system, because, let's be clear, that is what is now proposed: a scheme made in Westminster and administered in Whitehall, with all the responsibilities that this Senedd holds for further and higher education in Wales not simply sidelined, but written out of the script altogether.
Llywydd, unlike other parties here in this Chamber, the Welsh Government has always argued that a deal was preferable to no deal. Even this thin and disappointing treaty, so different from what was promised, is better than the bitterness and the chaos that would have followed no deal at all. This Government will now redouble our efforts to work with businesses in all parts of our country to limit the damage that this deal continues to inflict, to work with our public services to limit the damage done to Welsh citizens, young and old, and to work with our friends and our partners in the European Union to reaffirm this Welsh nation's determination to go on being outward looking, international in perspective, and welcoming to the rest of the world. Llywydd, diolch yn fawr.
I have selected four of the 10 amendments tabled to the motion. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2 and 3 will be deselected. If amendment 2 is agreed, amendment 3 will be deselected. I now call on Paul Davies to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Darren Millar. Paul Davies.
Amendment 1—Darren Millar
Delete all and replace with:
1. Welcomes the trade and cooperation agreement between the UK Government and the European Union.
2. Believes that it is in the interests of Wales to extend support for the agreement and to provide legislative consent for its implementation via a European Union (Future Relationship) Bill.
3. Calls upon the Welsh Government to work constructively with the UK Government to take advantage of new opportunities for Wales arising from the end of the post-Brexit transition period.
Amendment 1 moved.
Diolch, Llywydd, and I move the amendment tabled in the name of Darren Millar.
Can I first of all say that I am pleased that the First Minister requested the Senedd recall to discuss this important matter? And I'm also pleased that Members will now be given the opportunity later to discuss COVID-19, given the seriousness of the situation facing us at the moment. But the First Minister talks about parliamentary scrutiny. Well, I would remind him that we haven't even voted on his recent coronavirus regulations, which have already been introduced, so I'm not going to take any lectures on scrutiny from the Welsh Labour Government.
Now, Members will be aware that since the outcome of the referendum back in 2016, I've always advocated that we should leave the European Union with a deal as it was imperative in order to protect businesses, livelihoods and jobs. I'm therefore delighted that the UK Government has now secured a free trade agreement with the EU—a deal that many said would be impossible. It was not long ago that the doomsayers were predicting that securing a deal in 10 to 11 months, especially in the middle of a pandemic, was impossible. Well, how wrong they were. It's also been evident that some, including the Welsh Government, were still rehearsing the same old arguments about why we shouldn't leave the European Union. But that debate is long over as the people of Wales made that decision four and a half years ago. The reality is we now have a free trade agreement with the EU, and instead of criticising it for being insufficient, the Welsh Labour Government should now get behind it and support it, especially given that the UK Labour Party leader has now instructed his Westminster colleagues to vote for it. And we've constantly heard from the Welsh Government that leaving the EU without a deal would have been catastrophic for Wales. So, we now have an agreement; it needs to stop rehearsing the old arguments and support it.
So, let's look at the deal in more detail. It fully delivers on what the Welsh people voted for in the referendum. This agreement creates a new relationship between the UK and the EU, a relationship based on free trade and friendly co-operation. This deal takes back control of our laws, borders, money, trade and fisheries, something I would have thought the Welsh Government and, indeed, Plaid Cymru would welcome, as we hear them constantly wanting more powers devolved to the Senedd and them shouting for much more autonomy. Well, here it is. This does mean more control. On 1 January, the UK will have political and economic independence. This is the first ever free trade agreement based on zero tariffs and zero quotas that the EU has ever agreed. This will be fantastic news for families and businesses in every part of the UK. Businesses will be able to continue to trade smoothly, and people will be able to continue to buy goods from Europe tariff free. This deal also secures on the pledge to protect and boost our economy, and provides for continued market access across a broad scope of key service sectors, including professional and business services. This market access will support new and continued investment between businesses. In fact, businesses have welcomed this agreement. The Federation of Small Businesses Wales policy chair, Ben Francis, said, and I quote,
'Given the huge historic and future importance of EU markets to smaller Welsh exporters, this will be a relief and welcomed by those businesses which are also dealing with the huge pressures of coronavirus.'
And the chief executive officer of Airbus said, and I quote,
'Airbus welcomes the news that an agreement has been reached between the EU and UK.'
This agreement means that business travellers will be able to easily move between the EU and the UK for short-term visits, and the agreement on financial services ensures financial stability and consumer protection. This deal will also enable us to maintain high labour, environment and climate standards. It would also allow us to introduce our own modern subsidy system, so we can better support businesses to grow and thrive, and this new subsidy system will operate in a way that best suits the interests of UK and Welsh industries outside the EU state-aid regime.
This agreement will also support our primary objective of prioritising the safety and security of UK citizens. It offers streamlined co-operation on law enforcement, ensuring we continue to effectively tackle serious organised crime and counter-terrorism, protecting the public and bringing criminals to justice. It also provides for future co-operation between the UK and EU on emerging security challenges, such as cyber and health security, including continuing to work together on tackling the spread of COVID-19.
Now, one of the sticking points throughout the negotiations was fisheries, but what this agreement now does is it puts us in a position to rebuild our fishing fleet and increase quotas, overturning the inequity that British fishermen and women have faced for over four decades. By the end of the five-and-a-half-year transition, we will have full control of our waters, and the amount of fish available to UK fishermen and women will have risen from half to two thirds.
This agreement also includes arrangements for airlines and hauliers that provide them with certainty, and gives people the ability to travel to and from the EU easily for work and holidays; a social security agreement that has practical benefits for UK and Welsh citizens, including accessing healthcare when travelling in the EU; and agreements on energy that will benefit consumers by helping to keep prices down. So, Llywydd, that, in a nutshell, is the summary of the free trade agreement that has been negotiated by the UK Government, a deal that, yes, has required compromise on both sides, but an agreement that will benefit both the UK and the EU. So, let's get behind this agreement, and I therefore urge Members to support our amendment, and reject the negative motion in front of us today. Diolch.
I now call on David Rowlands to move amendment 2, tabled in the name of Caroline Jones. David Rowlands.
Amendment 2—Caroline Jones
Delete all after point 2 and replace with:
Regrets that the agreement does not fully reflect the will of the Welsh people, as expressed in the European Union referendum of June 2016, but notes that it does remove the United Kingdom from being subject to the European Union's laws, which has had a damaging impact on our economy and sovereignty, and brings to an end the divisive politics expressed by the denial of the democratic process by remain campaigners.
Amendment 2 moved.
Diolch, Llywydd. I formally move the amendment in the name of Caroline Jones. Whilst we do not believe this deal really reflects the desire of the Welsh people, it does, we hope, bring to an end the political divide that has opened up in Great Britain since the democratic decision of the British people to leave the European Union taken on 23 June 2016. I would also hope that it will silence the remainers who did not wish to acknowledge the will of British and Welsh people as expressed in that vote and have fought for four long years to overthrow the democratic decision of the people, especially those in the working-class regions of both Wales and England. This deal is not by any means entirely satisfactory, but given the intransigence of the EU with regard to certain issues, it is better than no deal at all. I have no doubt in my mind that the British people are heartily fed up with the charade that has unfolded since the vote in 2016 and wish simply to get on with their lives. There may indeed be some short-term disruption to trade with Europe, but we can now add the European Union to those other 60 countries where we have either an embryo trade agreement or one already in place. I believe pragmatism by those who actually do the trading—companies, both large and small—and not the political classes will prevail, and the practicalities of working in the new regime will be quickly overcome. I say to this Senedd: only a fool would underestimate the energy, entrepreneurial spirit, inventiveness, and dogged determination of the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Our exit from Europe will let all those qualities flourish as we begin to become the world trading nation we were before being shackled to the failing political project we know as the European Union. Thank you, Llywydd.
I call on Adam Price to move amendments 3 and 4, tabled in the name of Siân Gwenllian. Adam Price.
Amendment 3—Siân Gwenllian
In point 4, delete 'but nevertheless, accepts that this deal is less damaging than leaving the transition period without a trade deal' and replace with 'and believes that it represents a hard Brexit for which there is no mandate and which is not in Wales’s interests'.
Amendment 4—Siân Gwenllian
Add as new point at end of motion:
Does not support the Conservative UK Government's deal and calls on Wales's representatives in the UK Parliament to vote accordingly.
Amendments 3 and 4 moved.
Thank you, Llywydd, and it's a pleasure to move the amendments tabled in the name of Siân Gwenllian.
The vote being held in Westminster today is a piece of pure political theatre. It's not necessary to ratify the treaty, as the Executive can do that without parliamentary approval. It isn't even necessary to implement it, as most of that can be done via secondary legislation. The proposition that this is somehow a vote on 'no deal' is an unalloyed barefaced lie that the Westminster opposition for their own strategic reasons have decided to swallow whole. The real rationale for today's parliamentary pantomime is to give Boris Johnson his moment of glory and the mandate for what comes next, and it's that very fact that should be focusing our minds and strengthening our opposition. 'The war is over,' says Nigel Farage, but the battle of Britain has just begun. As the European Research Group's blessing proves beyond doubt, this is the hard Tory Brexit of Jacob Rees-Mogg's darkest dreams. The ultra right wing of the Conservative Party didn't hold out for this deal rather than Mrs May's because of fishing or Northern Ireland; they have cheerfully sold out on the promises they made to both those communities. They held out for this deal because at its rotten core is what they truly represent: Brexit as the bridgehead to their vision of Britain as the world's hypermarket where the only thing that's made is profit.
In this 'thin deal'—to use the First Minister's phrase—the commitments on labour and environmental standards are wafer thin. There is only a commitment not to lower protection which would affect trade or investment, but as the Institute for Public Policy Research has said, it's notoriously difficult to prove regulatory impact on trade or investment, so the deal in effect leaves protections for workers and for the environment completely vulnerable. We're about to see the UK turned into a laboratory for endless experiments in extreme right-wing economics, which is why every major party bar two in these islands is going to vote against this Bill today, and that includes the Scottish Labour Party in the motion before our sister Parliament there. I hope that Welsh Labour Members will declare their independence too, by voting for our amendments. The First Minister said that we shouldn't be in the business of instructing MPs, but in the absence of an LCM, the Plaid Cymru amendment is the only opportunity the Senedd now has to convey its view on the legislation before Parliament.
If anyone thought for one minute that Brexit was about restoring the sovereignty of Parliament, then look at this entire sorry saga: the monarch lied to last year to illegally shut down Parliament, and today Parliament—as the First Minister set out—set to discuss 1,246 pages of a treaty and a Bill published overnight in a few hours, leaving the single market in one day, when 30 years ago, joining it took 25 days of parliamentary scrutiny and champion filibusters like Bill Cash even then complained it wasn't enough.
This is not about democracy, and it's certainly not about our democracy in this institution. The treaty itself enshrines our position as a second-class, subordinate Parliament, ever vulnerable to Westminster's whims. Section 3.11.5 of the treaty makes it clear that only the Westminster Parliament can legislate to make subsidies immune from recovery, with huge implications for the exercise of our own powers over social and economic policy. For that reason alone, we should oppose the future relationship Bill today.
I realise the difficulty that Labour Members will feel in following a different line to their leader at Westminster, but we have a Prime Minister who cynically changed his position on Brexit simply to become Prime Minister. The last thing we need is a leader of the opposition who does the same. Which of Starmer's six tests has this deal met? Does it prevent a race to the bottom? It enables it. Does it protect national security? It casts us adrift from Europol. Does it deliver the exact same benefits as the single market and customs union? It rips us out of both and leaves our businesses in manufacturing and food, our farmers and, yes, our fishermen and women too, wrapped in red, white and blue tape that will slowly but surely choke them.
Can the Welsh economy adapt? Yes. We will have no choice, and there will be other changes in the next 10 years—artificial intelligence, net zero—that represent even bigger threats and opportunities. But the lesson of the last four years is that we should not allow our economic destiny as a nation to be decided by political whims at Westminster. We can only do that by claiming our own independence—not their fake sovereignty, but our own real democracy, rejecting their future and choosing our own.
As we hurtle towards midnight tomorrow, I can only summarise my feelings as those of resigned sadness. First, like others, I've been resigned to this outcome since the withdrawal agreement was adopted in January of this year. The rights and wrongs of the debates of the last decade are for history to consider, but the realities are for us all to face in a few hours' time, and in the weeks, months and years ahead.
Secondly, I feel sadness, because whatever comes next—and so much of that is actually unknown at this point—I feel that we have let down the next generation. I fear that their lives will be impoverished by the implementation of this agreement, an agreement that, on the face of it, appears more concerned with sovereignty than economics, more to do with whether we have to abide by the EU rules in court than an agreement that delivers economic stability and growth in an uncertain future.
Llywydd, I was struck by a recent statement by British in Europe, a body speaking for the 1.2 million UK citizens living and working in Europe. They said:
'A deal has been done but it does not and cannot replace the enormous and life-changing benefits of EU membership and citizenship that we have enjoyed since 1973.'
'Any future relationship deal is better than no deal but today is not a day to celebrate all that has been lost.'
I agree with that view, but I also accept that this agreement now has to be approved. It is no longer a debate about what the alternative might look like. The only alternative at this point is no deal, and I am not going there, but neither will I be a cheerleader for it. Because I'm very clear that this agreement and its consequential Bill are for Boris Johnson and the Tories to own. They will have to live with what they have done. But despite that, I actually do hope that, for all our sakes, the things that have been promised to the UK come to fruition—and that somehow, my fears are proved wrong, because I didn't stand for elected office to see the lives of my constituents made worse, so I hope the faith of many of my constituents placed in this change is at least partly fulfilled, and I hope beyond hope that they have not been lied to and mugged, but frankly, given the cavalier approach the UK Government has taken to scrutiny of their agreement and the Bill to implement it, and their total disregard for due process and the rights of the devolved nations, I fear it will be shown that people have indeed been lied to.
In the grand sweep of history, our leaving the EU may just be another milestone in our complex relationship with Europe, a point at which many in the UK try to walk at a different pace, and possibly in a different direction, to the members of the European Union. It could also be the point that triggers many in the United Kingdom to want to set a different path to their neighbours within that union. How ironic it would be if this 'sovereignty over economy'-obsessed deal that's been placed before us leads to the loss of that very sovereignty. But that's for another day. For me, this UK-EU agreement shows, in fact, how complex such ideas would in reality be. The fact that this came—. At midnight tomorrow, a new bureaucracy is imposed on those who trade with the European Union as a result of this agreement, and that involves a significant number of employers in my constituency, and a new bureaucracy that involves the new partnership council, 19 committees, seven working groups, 15 declarations and so on. So, while I welcome the fact that there will be no tariffs, contrary to what we were told, there will in fact be more red tape. And we can already see some of the consequences of this agreement: the petitions from the performing arts industry; the loss of Erasmus+, unless of course you live in Northern Ireland. At the root of all this change, I still feel that there is a clear and continuing struggle—political struggle—in this nation, a struggle in which elites and their outriders have persuaded enough people that their problems are caused by others, and all so that those same elites can profit.
So, finally, because I came into politics through the route of organised labour, a message to trade unions of this country: you now need to be ready, you now need to organise even stronger, and you now need to defend your working conditions and your jobs more than ever before, because the Tory elite will seek to blame yet more others when all this goes wrong. They will divide and rule inside the UK and seek to resurrect the enemy within. Following this agreement, the UK itself is changing in more ways than any of us may yet realise.
This is an historic moment, a moment that doubters never thought would happen—some, clearly, still not accepting that it has happened. The Conservative Party have delivered: delivered on a promise made to the British public, following a referendum that showed that the people of our nation wanted to leave the claws of the European Union and once again take back our sovereignty, make our own laws, and once again sail our own ship. And what a course we're already sailing—Liz Truss and the UK Government already securing trade deals worth a staggering £900 billion. I, for one, congratulate the Prime Minister and his negotiating team and the Conservative Government on securing an excellent deal for the United Kingdom, and would expect this Chamber to welcome this deal, a deal that will be beneficial to Wales.
The agreement reached with the European Union on the future relationship fully delivers on what the people of Wales overwhelmingly voted for in the referendum of 2016. This is a deal many thought could not be done, and many others tried to prevent it in a deliberate attempt to thwart the will of the people. Labour and Plaid Cymru Members of this Chamber have done all they can to talk down this deal, because they still haven't come to terms with the result of the people's vote in June 2016.
As promised, this deal takes back control of our laws, borders, money, trade and fisheries, and it ends any UK role for the European Court. From 11 p.m. tomorrow night, the United Kingdom will regain its political and economic independence. We now have the opportunity to control our own destiny and thrive as a country fully outside the European Union. What this treaty does is replace the arrangements as a member state of the European Union with something that is a straightforward, clear, free trade agreement. Just as we want a free trade agreement with the United States, we want a free trade agreement with the European Union, and this gives us that free trade agreement, but of course we are no longer subject to the EU's binding structures. We can strike trade deals with new markets, reasserting ourselves as a free trading nation across the world. The UK has already secured trade deals, as I've said, over a staggering £900 billion. The latest trade deal with Turkey means the UK now has agreements in place with 62 countries around the world, and there are multibillion-pound free trade deals with America, Canada and Australia in the pipeline for 2021. Together, analysts say, this could boost the UK economy by at least £100 billion over the coming decade. This is the first trade agreement based on zero tariffs and zero quotas that the European Union has ever agreed. This is fantastic news, and will be welcomed by business in Wales, which will be able to continue to trade smoothly and tariff free.
This agreement also delivers on our commitment to maintain high labour, environment and climate standards, without giving the EU any say over our rules.
As a farmer's daughter, I'm relieved that the farming sector has been provided with some much-needed certainty. The EU market remains the UK's largest and most valuable export market, and this deal allows Wales's farmers to continue to send products to the EU free of both tariffs and quotas. Although some concerns remain, it is a great relief to the food and farming industry that we will continue to have access to a market that is home to nearly three quarters of Welsh agri-food exports.
I'm disappointed at the pessimistic end and negative tone of this Welsh Government's motion, but perhaps we should not be surprised. Ever since this referendum four and a half years ago, when it comes to Brexit, Labour have had more positions than on a football team. Nothing more demonstrates Labour's lack of policy on Brexit than reports that Labour Members of Parliament intend to ignore Keir Starmer's instruction to support the deal.
This First Minister's Corbynista soulmates have indicated that they will vote against the deal, regardless of the consequences for our country. Let us remember, if this deal is not agreed, it will ensure the UK leaves the EU with no deal, subject to World Trade Organization rules. Is that what Plaid want for Wales, a country that voted to leave the EU and reap the benefits of it?
We now know the position of the First Minister: any deal is better than no deal. So, if the First Minister had been in charge of negotiations, it's clear he would have accepted any terms offered, leaving the UK in effect with the status of a client of the EU. Plaid Cymru too have also warned about the risks of leaving without a deal, and yet today that's what they're voting for. It is cynical opportunism and the public are sick of it—they simply want their vote to be respected and enacted. You should respect the wishes of your constituents.
Presiding Officer, thanks to this deal, we will now enter the new year as a fully sovereign nation. We will now have a Turing scheme, far fairer and more welcome than the Erasmus scheme, beneficial for all young people from all backgrounds, not just those with money—something I thought the First Minister would welcome.
There were passionate arguments—
You're now out of time, Laura Jones, so if I can ask you to bring your comments to a conclusion—.
I will. But, as Brexit is finally completed, we must all put those divisions behind us and work to maximise the benefits for Wales and the UK around the world. It's time to lay down your swords, Welsh Government, and work to ensure that you play your part and deliver the economic benefits that every single one of us in this Chamber wants for Wales.
Let us be clear, this deal represents a hard Brexit. There is no mandate for that in Wales and it's not for the benefit of Wales. No tariffs and no quotas as a measure of success? We don't have tariffs or quotas today. The impact on Wales will be immense. The non-tariff barriers will lead to more bureaucracy and, without doubt, they will hit the competitiveness of Welsh companies.
It's a particular risk for Wales in terms of the car component manufacturing sector and aircraft manufacture—more paperwork leading to further costs. In a written statement last week the Welsh Government noted, and I quote, that:
'The result of this deal will undoubtedly be an economy that is smaller than it would have been, meaning fewer jobs, lower wages, less exports, more red tape for businesses, less cooperation with the EU on security and poorer communities and households across Wales.'
And yet the Labour Party and Keir Starmer seem happy to support this deal. They're not abstaining, they're actually supporting a deal that they know will make Wales poorer.
The Welsh Parliament has been consistent along the journey in terms of strengthening Wales's arm and Wales's interests and we, as a party, were willing to play a constructive part in forming Welsh Government policy in 'Securing Wales' Future'. Unfortunately, the Welsh Government has had no meaningful part in developing the negotiation strategy or the negotiations themselves and our priorities as a Senedd on behalf of the people of Wales have been totally ignored. As a result, we have this utterly false choice between no deal and the deal that's been struck. There were alternative deals to be made, but the UK Government chooses to ignore those options in favour of this hard Brexit.
We must ask why the Welsh Parliament would want to be inconsistent on this crucial point and yield to the most right-wing Conservative Government in recent times. For whose benefit? Not for the benefit of the people, jobs and economy of Wales.
This is a last-minute deal struck by the Tories, which was published as we entered the Christmas period, so that it could be rushed through the UK Parliament with as little scrutiny as possible. It's disgraceful that the Senedd or the Parliament has only one day to scrutinise this lengthy document, and no opportunity at all for us in Senedd Cymru to look at the impact on particular sectors in Wales. Compare this with the parliamentary scrutiny of the Maastricht treaty, where there were months of scrutiny and debate. The situation is disgraceful, but Labour is content to be part of this process and to vote in favour of it.
No—we need a new deal for Wales, not this deal. This all shows that the interests of Wales will never be safeguarded in Westminster. If the Welsh Government isn't willing to embrace independence, they are embracing a future for Wales where its fate will be decided by a Conservative Government in Westminster in the long term. Future generations will look back at this crucial point in history. But why is the Welsh Government refusing to stand firm and to say to the Conservatives, 'You are not doing this in our name'? What Wales needs is a new deal that would give full control to the Welsh Parliament over the economy, justice and welfare—not a false choice such as the one that we are facing today, but a choice between creating a prosperous, independent nation, where the interests of Wales will always top the agenda, or a nation that is ignored by a right-wing Conservative Government in perpetuity. So, there is an alternative. In May, we will vote for an independent Wales.
Well, the rather sour and dystopian speeches that we heard earlier on in this debate, from the First Minister and from the leader of Plaid Cymru, confirm them as the enemies of democracy, because neither of them has actually ever accepted the result of the referendum in 2016, when the people of Wales, as well as the people of the United Kingdom, voted to leave the EU. And they've done everything they possibly could, in the four and a half years since then, to try to sabotage the entire process and to reverse the result, without another referendum, indeed, is the ultimate position to which they have come.
And Dawn Bowden made the important point, although she didn't seem to understand it, that sovereignty is what this is all about. That is the whole point; that's what the people voted for in 2016—to restore Britain's sovereign independence as a nation. And here we have, in the Welsh Parliament, the rather bizarre position of a so-called nationalist party—the Welsh nationalist party—that doesn't actually believe in the political independence of Wales, because they would much rather see Wales governed from Brussels by people that we don't elect, can't dismiss and, for the most part, can't even name. Whereas now, as a result of this deal taking us further along the road to the recovery of our national independence as the United Kingdom, we will be able to throw out those who make our laws if we don't like what they've done, and that is, I think, the most fundamental question of all in a democracy. And, whilst this deal is far from perfect, it is an important building block along the way to the achievement of that objective.
I'm amazed at the faint-heartedness of those who oppose this whole process as though, somehow, the British people are incapable of making a success of themselves in the world. It's true that it was a failure of national self-confidence that provided the background to our going into the European Economic Community nearly 50 years ago, because, in those days, Britain was a byword for industrial strife and economic decline, and, as the American Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, famously said,
'Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.'
And I believe it's that attitude that has fundamentally undermined the whole generations through which I have grown up. Now, we have the opportunity to make a new start, to put behind us the arguments that we've had over the last 50 years and strike out into the world, take advantage of the 85 per cent of the global economy that is not in the European Union. The European Union is a declining force in the world, relative to the rest of it. Eighty-five per cent of the GDP of the world, as I've said, is not in Europe, and that proportion is going to increase in the years ahead. The great challenges are countries like India and China, and there are not just challenges there, but opportunities as well. Now we'll be able to take advantage of them fully by entering into trade agreements, which we've been unable to do for the last 50 years because that is something that the EU has done for us—for good or for ill.
So, this deal, as I've said, isn't perfect by any means. It is, therefore, unfinished business. There are good things in the deal, of course. Taking us out of the palsied grip of the European Court of Justice on the one hand is, of course, quite unambiguously a restoration of legal sovereignty. There are clauses in the deal that we need to, I think, concern ourselves about. The proposals for non-regression and rebalancing—technical terms that basically require us, if we diverge from the standards of regulation that the EU adopts, to consider whether there might be trade or investment impacts that might lead to some kind of retaliatory action—in those areas, I think that it's likely that the UK Government will not be bold enough to take advantage of the opportunities that our new freedoms give us. Divergence is what it's all about for me, the opportunity to be nimbler in the world, to be more competitive with the rest of the world than we would be inside the EU. These are the opportunities that we need to grasp and see them in a positive light.
One of the major flaws in this deal, of course, is fishing, as has been pointed out by others in the debate. British fishing was sacrificed 50 years ago because the EU—or the EEC as it then was—cobbled together the common fisheries policy in the last few weeks before we entered into the community, and we had no voice in that or part to play in the design of the system that has devastated the British fishing industry and our coastal communities in the half century since. At the moment we're only allowed—
You need to bring your comments to a conclusion now, Neil Hamilton. You're out of time.
So, 50 years ago, Edward Heath said that we would not join the EEC unless we had the full-hearted consent of both Parliament and the people. There was never the consent of the British people; it was never sought. It didn't have the full-hearted consent of our Parliament because the Bill that took us in had a majority of only eight in a thoroughly whipped vote 50 years ago. The 2016 referendum is a vote of the people. That vote must be respected and we will leave the European Union as a sovereign state on 1 January.
It's always good to hear what the squires of Wiltshire think, but for most of us who were elected to sit in this place, we are appalled at both what we're being presented with this morning and the way in which business is being conducted. A deal concluded on Christmas eve, a Bill published yesterday, and people talk about democracy and parliamentary accountability. There has been no opportunity for thorough scrutiny of this legislation. I do not understand how anyone could vote for the Bill in front of the UK Parliament this morning. It is a deal that is not being ratified by this legislation, and I think, when I hear Conservative Members here saying that we have an alternative today, a choice to make of either this deal or no deal, that tells me two things: either they don't understand the legislation that is being debated in London this morning or they haven't read the deal that they're debating themselves.
The deal will be ratified, not by this legislation, but by the UK Government using their prerogative powers. Adam Price was absolutely clear about that and correct. The deal, which will have a profound impact on the way in which we live our lives and earn our living, will become law without any parliamentary scrutiny at all, and then we're lectured by the Tories and others about democracy. And this is important, because it appears to me that this treaty and the Bill that implements it represent both the biggest giveaway of sovereignty that I can remember, but are also implemented by a power grab that sidelines all our Parliaments. We, here, rightly express concern about the Tory attacks on this Parliament and on Welsh democracy, but this is also an attack on the UK Parliament, which is also being undermined by the abuse of the Lords at the moment. And this is a deal that is the worst of all worlds. It undermines our international standing and economic competitiveness, and does so without returning any real hard sovereignty. Businesses will see their ability to do business with our nearest and biggest neighbours and markets diminished and made more bureaucratic. Financial services, of course, are excluded, because there are parts of the economy where the Tories do wish to see reduced regulation and oversight, the parts that mean that they can make money and they can do so without the regulators on their backs.
Yes, we can make and change laws, and the deal does provide for opportunities to make the changes that Neil Hamilton and the right wing want to see. But we also know that the agreements on workers' rights and environmental protections, as well as the level playing field provision, mean that in practical terms the cost of doing so are too high to bear. And let me say this to the Tories: sovereignty exists when you're in the room taking decisions, voting for those laws and shaping the future. Sovereignty does not exist when you're on the outside, with no voice and no vote, and this is where this deal leaves us. In reality, the EU has run rings around the UK negotiating team. Red lines have been replaced by red tape. Humiliated, the UK has retreated on almost every single matter of long-term or strategic importance.
And let us also remember that they are also breaking the UK. Some of us are old enough to remember the days when Boris Johnson walked out of the UK Government over a border in the Irish sea. Well, that border now exists. It is not only in place, but is a more profound border than anything envisaged by Theresa May. There will be currency and capital checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I can think of no other western democracy where that happens. We don't even know if Edwards of Conwy can export his excellent sausages to Northern Ireland in the future. Today it looks like the Government of the Republic of Ireland is taking responsibility for the good governance of Northern Ireland, where the UK has walked away. And this matters to us, because if we are to make the common framework system work—and we've been talking about this for three years—then we will have a choice: either include Northern Ireland and accept EU regulations, and the role, frankly, of the European Court of Justice across a wide cross-section of economic activity, or not to include Northern Ireland and entrench the border even more deeply. The UK Government has done more to break the United Kingdom than Plaid Cymru in 80 years.
We have a sovereignty that, to me, Presiding Officer, looks like the Scottish pound note. We have the ability to put our symbols on this sovereignty; we have the ability to wave our flags. But, as the Scots know only too well, no matter whose face is on the back of that pound note, the decisions are taken in London. And what we have here is a sovereignty where British imperialists and English nationalists can wave their flags, but what they've really done is to demonstrate their impotence and their weakness. Decisions will be taken when Britain is no longer in the room, and those aren't the decisions that will benefit any of us.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Sorry, who did you call?
Mark Isherwood. You.
Sorry, I didn't hear. Our UK has secured a trade deal with the EU nobody thought was possible. A truly historic moment for we Britons across our four nations. The first time the EU has ever agreed a zero-tariff, zero-quota trade deal. A deal that enables an outward-looking global Britain to strike trade deals with new markets as a liberal free-trading force for good in the world. A deal that takes back control of money, borders, laws and trade, whilst providing Welsh businesses with access to the EU market. A deal described by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as 'fair and balanced', and, as the Welsh Conservative amendment to this debate motion therefore states, a deal we should welcome.
Instead, this petulant politburo of pouting picklepusses has hauled us back at great public expense and even greater public indifference for a pathetically predictable debate and a trite and tawdry motion. More whinge and wail, smear and scaremonger. Get over it. The people voted for Brexit. Brexit is done, and for the first time since the early days of devolution, you didn't get your own way.
In the real world, experts say the post-Brexit trade deal will help the economy bounce back in 2021, after a bleak year dominated by the coronavirus crisis. Britain's biggest business organisation, the Confederation of British Industry, praised the courage of Boris Johnson and political leaders for a landmark achievement. As its director general said:
'The UK has a bright future outside the European Union and with a deal secured we can begin our new chapter on firmer ground.'
Last week it emerged that the UK economy grew by 16 per cent between July and September—the largest quarterly expansion in the UK economy since records began. Even before the deal, this month's Treasury forecast for the UK economy, based on a monthly comparison of independent forecasts, averaged 5.4 per cent growth in 2021, with Goldman Sachs expecting the economy to grow by 7 per cent next year, and both J.P. Morgan and Pantheon Macroeconomics predicting 7.5 per cent. Even one of the more pessimistic accountancy firms, which had only forecast economic growth of 3.3 per cent in 2021 without a deal, increased this to 6.1 per cent after the deal was announced. And, four days ago, the Centre for Economics and Business Research announced that Britain has become the world's fifth largest economy once again, and is set to push further ahead of seventh-placed France in the decade after Brexit.
The deal includes a commitment to maintaining high labour, environment and climate standards. The deal means the UK can now regulate in a way that suits the UK economy and UK businesses, including Welsh businesses. The deal ensures that streamlined co-operation on law enforcement can continue, and provides for future co-operation between the UK and the EU on emerging security challenges, such as cyber and health security. The deal allows us to introduce a modern subsidy system that can better support businesses to grow and thrive. The deal secures continued market access across a broad scope of these service sectors, including professional and business services. The deal includes protections for the UK's internal market and Northern Ireland's place within it. The deal includes arrangements for airlines and hauliers to provide them certainty and it gives people the ability to travel to and from the EU easily for work and holidays. UK residents will be able to benefit from a wide range of social security rights when travelling, working and living in the EU, including access to an uprated state pension and reciprocal healthcare arrangements, which will allow them to access necessary healthcare when travelling in the EU, under the same type of arrangements that currently exist. EU citizens who live, work or study in Wales now will continue to enjoy their rights under the UK's EU settlement scheme. World-renowned Welsh products such as Welsh lamb, Welsh laverbread and the Denbigh plum will be protected in both the EU and UK with geographical indications.
The Welsh Government said it wanted a deal, and we will now be ending the transition period with one. The deal provides continuity and opportunities for the Welsh economy, and meets the UK Government's commitment to maintain high standards. Instead of perpetuating the bitterness surrounding the 2016 referendum, the deal allows politics to move on and devote its energies to the future. But with big change comes challenge and opportunity, and as the Prime Minister said,
'Freedom is what you make of it'.
Over to you, Welsh Government.
Plaid Cymru cannot support this deal and we cannot support the motion unamended. We have never supported anything that we know will damage the interests of Wales, and this deal does that.
The background to the situation we find ourselves in today is a litany of broken promises. We were promised that Wales would not lose a penny; now, let me provide you with a reminder of what we have lost. In recent years, in one town alone, Llanelli, European structural funds provided £1.5 million for Ffwrnes theatre, which has become a community as well as a cultural hub; £2.5 million for Llanelly House, providing one of our most unusual historical buildings with a future and sound economic prospects; and £2.8 million to redevelop our town centre. It is clear now that the UK's so-called shared prosperity fund will in no way replace these kinds of investments, and instead will be used as a kind of implement to try and enforce UK policies on the Welsh Government—a promise broken.
We were promised a reduction in bureaucracy, but this deal will create a mountain of bureaucracy for those exporting to the EU. This will hit the food exporting sector particularly hard. Businesses have not been able to prepare, as they didn't know what they were preparing for. The British Food and Drink Federation pressed the UK Government to seek a six-month period of adjustment to enable businesses to adjust to the new rules. Though the EU was willing, the UK Government refused. This presents a serious threat to businesses and jobs in a sector that is so important to Wales. There is a potential for huge disruption to manufacturing supply chains, and it is doubtful that we've even got enough vets to undertake the animal health checks that will now be needed to export to Europe. Less bureaucracy? Hardly—promise broken.
The Prime Minister gave us his personal commitment that we would not be taken out of the Erasmus programme, and we have been. The First Minister is right to describe this as an act of cultural vandalism. We know the damage that this will do to universities, but the damage in lost opportunities to individuals, and not only to university students, is incalculable. I want to tell you about a young man I know called John. He was a very troubled young man, he'd had a difficult family background, he had drug and alcohol problems, and when I was supporting a national youth work charity in Wales, we were able to support him to participate in an Erasmus volunteering programme in Spain. He came back, in his own words, 'a different person'—more confident, more secure, able to see a future for himself. He said that participating in that programme had saved his life. Young people like John will no longer have these opportunities, and it is far from clear that the made-in-England programme that is there to replace it will provide them with anything like it. We were told we would stay in the Erasmus programme. UK Government is not only refusing to pay for that, but making it very clear that it would prevent the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government from buying into that were they to choose to do so—promise broken.
Dirprwy Lywydd, this deal amounts to a hard Brexit, and, as its consequences become plain, people, especially young people whose future depends on the decisions that are being taken in these two days, will ask why was this permitted, why was this allowed. It is important that future generations know that this bad deal did not go unopposed. We oppose it, clear evidence as it is that Westminster cannot be trusted to act in the interests of the people of Wales. Dirprwy Lywydd, we need a new bargain, we need a new Government here in Wales that will stand uncompromisingly for our interests and will not have to look over its shoulder to what others are doing at the other end of the M4. We need independence, the right to negotiate directly with our neighbours and our partners for the future that we want. It is time to take our future into our hands.
This is a first for a trade agreement. It's unprecedented for a Government to enter into a trade treaty agreement that adds layers and layers of bureaucracy to selling or buying goods that we may wish to exchange with our European neighbours. Most trade deals remove barriers to trading, not increase them.
This self-imposed cross we now have to bear comes on the back of an obsession about sovereignty, as if, in the middle of a global pandemic and a climate emergency, we are somehow independent actors in control of our destiny. By a pipsqueak, we have managed to avoid the even more damaging prospect of a 'no deal', and no doubt the images of thousands of lorry drivers stacked up in Kent and elsewhere helped to concentrate minds on what a 'no deal' would involve. But it would have added the payment of taxes or tariffs to any of the goods we imported, in particular food. The impacts on the communities that, certainly, I represent would have been absolutely devastating.
The lesser evil of this thin deal will still increase prices of anything we import or export. The bureaucracy involved in form filling and compliance checks inevitably will have a cost, which in most cases will be passed on to the consumer. It didn't need to be this way; the 2016 referendum said nothing about leaving the single market. The question was should the United Kingdom remain a member of the EU or not. No mention of leaving the single market and no discussion beyond a catalogue of porky pies on what that would mean. It would certainly have been perfectly possible to leave the EU and remain part of the single market. This was a political choice by the far-right element who now dominate the Tory party, aided and abetted by their fellow-travelling UKIP friends, some of whom are present in this Parliament.
Time will tell whether the sunny tableau painted by David Rowlands is the future that now beckons for Wales. Yes, there will be opportunities for entrepreneurial businesses to spot gaps in supply chains, to provide substitutes for imported goods or parts of goods, and that opportunity may prove to be a real one for many small enterprises, and good luck to them. But these non-tariff barriers make the just-in-time model of the supermarkets to ship nearly all fresh produce from other parts of Europe increasingly unattractive and unreliable, so there may well be new opportunities for Welsh horticulture, which of course I welcome. But the danger of these non-tariff barriers is that multinational companies will lose patience with the bureaucracy and the delays involved in having part of their business in Wales or Britain with key suppliers and sales markets in mainland Europe, and that they will use the transition period to transfer their operations to elsewhere in Europe. That would have devastating consequences for many parts of Wales, particularly Deeside.
On fishing, yes, it prevents the annihilation of the Welsh fishing industry, which would have been the result of no deal, but it's delusional of Paul Davies to foretell a golden future for the Welsh fishing industry. I am sure the five multimillionaire organisations that dominate the British fishing industry will be delighted to get increasing amounts of the UK catch, inaccessible to Welsh fishing businesses whose small inshore boats are not capable of reaching the deep waters. Unless we take very swift regulatory action, the wealth will simply be gobbled up by these multimillionaires who already dominate the British fishing industry, and that foretells what might happen to many other parts of our industries as well.
Turning to the views of my own constituents, the decision to prevent our young people from continuing to have the opportunity to study in Europe—so near, yet so culturally different—has been widely condemned. It really is demonstrating the little Englander approach of the Johnson Government in its most unattractive light. We have to remember that the reason why the European project was founded at all was in order to prevent future wars between our nations, and this wonderful Erasmus+ programme—shaped by a proud Welshman, Hywel Ceri Jones—was really helping young people to respect and celebrate difference and learning from each other's strengths. Now instead, the UK Government wants to replace it—
Can you bring your contribution to a close, please?
I will—with sending young people to the opposite ends of the earth, and not even allowing people in those host countries to visit ours. That is just typical of the way in which I fear the future beckons, which is a UK Government that simply has no respect for the interests of our different nations, but rather the narrow interests of the Tory party and its chumocracy in London and the south-east.
Thank you. Nick Ramsay.
It won't let me unmute.
We can hear you now.
Can you hear me?
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. As the First Minister said at the very start of this debate, it's a good thing that the UK is leaving the EU with a deal. In my opinion, the alternative would have been unthinkable, though I do respect the views of those who disagree with this, a position that's been put forward eloquently today by Alun Davies and others. I think the bottom line is that to have left the transition period with no deal would have exposed the UK and the Welsh economy to massive risk at a time when, let's face it, we're investing so much energy in combating the pandemic. Can I reassure the First Minister that, whatever he may think of the opposition benches and our fetishes, I'm certainly not one of those who worships at the shrine of Margaret Thatcher every morning? Though like him, I do recognise that she was an exponent of democracy at every level, and was of course, many years back, an enthusiastic supporter of the UK's entry into the EEC. So, how times have changed.
As the First Minister has said, all this is in the past, and it's a deal or no deal. What provides a foundation for the future, in my opinion, is the former of those—it's this deal or no deal, I should say. Businesses across Wales will welcome the news that the deal protects tariff-free trade, at least in the medium term, and the movement of businesspeople across the EU for short-term business travel. I voted to remain in the EU in 2016, as did a majority of my constituency, but we have to recognise that a majority of those who voted voted to leave. Over four years have passed under the bridge since then, and there is a desire now to come together. I'm also a realist, and this deal is not perfect—it's far from it. But the process of withdrawal was never going to be easy, deals are often reached at the eleventh hour, and there are aspects of those deals that both sides would seek to revisit at some point in the future.
Adam Price, in his passionate speech earlier, said that this deal does not offer the same protections for our economy as membership of the EU and the common market, and of course, no, it doesn't. That's quite clear, because we're no longer part of the EU and, as of midnight on the thirty-first, the transition period itself will be over, too. Now, that may be disappointing to many, but that's where we currently are. So, it's important we leave on the best terms possible. As former Chancellor Ken Clarke has said, a 'no deal' Brexit would have put the UK's economy back over 50 years. Well, thankfully, that's been avoided. We have a basis on which to build and to move forward, and I think it's important now that the UK Government and the Welsh Government put plans in place to build on this deal as we move forward, combat the pandemic and seek to build back better and build back greener.
The First Minister told us how awful this deal was, just as he told us how awful the three varieties of Theresa May's deal were, and just as he tells us how awful no deal would be. As far as he's concerned, the only deal that he could support is continued EU membership, and rather than supporting the democratic decision that Wales as well as the UK had taken, he instead decided with his Government and this institution to represent only the minority who had voted to remain. Now, of course, from the perspective of representing Abolish, I welcome that that has so helped put devolution into question, because this institution has tried to block Brexit and the democratic will of the British people. Thankfully, it has been defeated.
For my own part, this deal is pretty much bang on where I would like to be in terms of how close the continuing relationship with the European Union is. I prefer it to no deal, including for reasons that some others have gone through. I certainly prefer it to an EEA-type arrangement or to a Theresa May-type arrangement, which would have kept us far closer to the European Union. Again, I would like to thank my opponents, particularly the First Minister, in the Labour Party for everything they have done to bring this deal about. They could have chosen instead a Theresa May-type deal, they could, perhaps, have pushed for something and got something closer, more like the EEA. They chose not to and to gamble on trying to block Brexit. Thank you for that, because of what this has brought to us: a deal that restores our country's independence. I'd also like to thank, in that vein, the 28 so-called spartan Conservative MPs who held out even against Theresa May's third deal. I'd like to thank Boris. I'd like to thank Lord Frost for his tireless negotiations, as well as two DCs: Dominic Cummings, for everything he did to keep this on track, and in particular preventing an extension; and David Cameron, who gave us the referendum in the first place, for which I will be forever grateful, as I know many others will be.
This deal removed the ECJ wholly from jurisdiction in our country. I think that's amazing—wonderful outcome. It also ends the European arrest warrant, which I think is a very, very good thing to have happened, and I think the replacement arrangements are very, very sensible and represent a good balance. And, of course, it takes us out of the single market. Instead, we have a free trade deal, which is what I want, and I think it's very good we have the most liberal rules of origin ever negotiated, as far as I can see. They include full cumulation, as well as a helpful carve-out for the auto sector, particularly as reflects electric batteries. I think that's very, very, very good. The areas—. I'm disappointed, of course, that fishing is less good than I would have liked, and of course what's happened to Northern Ireland. But that, I'm afraid, reflects the sequencing of negotiations with the European Union that Theresa May agreed and that Labour supported. We should have instead, at the end, been trading off money in return for what we wanted, rather than having already given away much of the powers we should have for Northern Ireland and then making the arrangements we have on fishing.
Nonetheless, on fishing, if it takes until 2026, we will then be able to take back all, much, of the three quarters of what EU continues to fish in our waters, and I think we'll have good cards to do that, because the only three areas the EU can retaliate are these arrangements on the batteries rules of origin, and I think they'll be phased out, the benefit, in any event. I don't think retaliation across the energy field, where massive supplies of electricity are then sent to us, would be credible. So, that would only leave France and Spain to argue that their consumers should have to pay taxes to the European Commission as punishment for us if we shut them out of our waters. We would then be in the same position as Iceland and Norway in terms of paying those tariffs. So, I think it's much more likely we'll get a negotiation much to our advantage because of the way that's been structured.
Finally, I think opponents of this are just left with their forecast that the economy is going to go to hell in a handbasket, and of course, what if it doesn't? I think it's much more probable that our country will outperform the European Union, going forward, and I think, particularly in the near term—I like free trade, I prefer to have fewer barriers and fewer non-tariff barriers—to the extent we have a massive trade deficit with the EU, if you make that trade harder, if you throw some sand in the wheels, then that will encourage, at least in the near term, substantial import substitution, and what that will mean is a boost to aggregate demand in the UK at a time when demand across Europe is weak. So, I'm optimistic for our economy. I support this deal because it ensures that we trade with Europe but govern ourselves, and once again are more than a star on somebody else's flag.
Llywydd, for almost over 100 years, Parliament has been concerned about the potential abuse and undermining of democracy of international trade agreements, and that was why a convention was developed, which was eventually put into force in 2010 by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. It was an example of Parliament taking back control. This, at the very least, gave Parliament a 21-day window to scrutinise trade agreements and, if it felt it necessary, to hold a debate and a vote. Now, the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill has been introduced to bypass effective democratic scrutiny in Westminster and in the nations of the UK, and the implications of the Bill and the agreement are massive. They impact on the exercise of power in Wales and the UK, and they concentrate enormous power in the hands of Government Ministers, particularly in Westminster. Now, this, in my view, is a contempt of Parliament, and it's an insult to this Welsh Parliament and the people of Wales, because it prevents us from being able to consider the issue of legislative consent. That undermines the Sewel convention, and it undermines the Wales Act 2017, which gave Sewel a legislative status. So, the way the UK Government has handled this further undermines parliamentary democracy across the UK.
Returning to the Bill and the trade agreement, its only saving grace is that it provides Welsh business with a vital breathing space, allowing it a limited degree of frictionless trade for the next couple of years. The imminent impact on the Welsh economy of an alternative of greater border restrictions and tariffs would have had the effect of, as has been said, blighting whole sections of Welsh agriculture and the manufacturing economy. But, aside from this, it represents a really bad deal for Wales and the UK, and, again, it just exposes the incompetence of the leadership of the Tory Government.
In the long term, it is very good news for the EU, because it enables a European transitional programme for the gradual relocation of manufacturing and financial services from the UK, a process that started with Brexit several years ago and is now increasing apace. Its impact on our steel and automotive industries will be to gradually run down and relocate new investment. So, the deal, in its current form, will continue the process that has just begun of the ghettoisation of the UK economy, as Welsh ports are bypassed for direct and unfettered links with Europe to and from Ireland. The deal provides no long-term protection for workers' rights or for the maintenance of environmental and food standards, and in fact it actually provides the exact mechanism for their demise, which undoubtedly is what was intended to pave the way for a trade agreement with the United States. We must also not delude ourselves that a Biden trade deal will do anything other than protect and expand US interests, which are already focused on increased co-operation with the EU, when you heard Biden's comments after his election, pushing the UK into a secondary, vassal tier of engagement. It offers no protection for our public services, and in particular the national health service from such predatory arrangements, and in fact it paves the way for privatisation.
Now, the abolition of Erasmus has already been described as educational and cultural vandalism, and I urge the Welsh Government to explore as far as it can the establishment of our own Wales-EU Erasmus agreement.
Wales doesn't feature in this deal—it is an afterthought. The bypassing of Welsh interests is consolidated by the internal market Act, which brings and end to the Sewel convention and recentralises power in a small number of hands in No. 10 Downing Street, even bypassing the UK Parliament. So, this week, we have seen the circulation in our communities of an offensive far-right leaflet calling for the abolition of the Welsh Parliament. Now, the connivance in this project of the right wing of the Welsh Tory party is there for all to see. These are the same people who were behind the Brexit campaign—Anglo-British nationalists who are happy to see Scotland leave the UK and for Wales to be neutered. Were they ever to succeed, it would be the end of Wales, which would become little more than a region of England, because these people don't just want to abolish the Senedd, they want to abolish Wales, with the connivance of the Welsh Tories, whose actions, I have to say, will go down in history as one of the great betrayals of this country.
Llywydd, the clock is now ticking on the future of the UK, with a Tory Government that has no interest in Wales. The Tories have become the hapless cheerleaders for the break-up of the UK, which appears to me more and more attractive and inevitable month by month. So, it is now imperative that socialists, liberals and progressives across Wales have to come together to plan a new future for Wales and for the other nations and regions of the UK, and I say that we have to do this before it is actually too late.
I am urging you to support both of Plaid Cymru's amendments today. This Johnson deal is a hard Brexit. The people of Wales have not given a mandate for a hard Brexit, and this Senedd must show strong opposition to it. It's not a choice between two ills—that's not what we're here to do. Our work today is to signify through a symbolic vote that the Johnson deal is damaging to Wales and that we do not support it. Voting for our amendment 4 would ensure that that stance could be taken properly by the Welsh Parliament.
Plaid Cymru has been clear from the outset that we won't consent to undermining the economy and rights of the people of Wales, nor will we consent to damaging the future of generations to come. Plaid Cymru wasn't part of creating the Brexit saga. Our vision is one that extends outwards from Wales towards Europe and the world. But, we're not dealing today with the fact that the UK has left the EU. Today, the Welsh Government wants us to vote in a way that will open the door to far-reaching damage to our nation. Today, the Welsh Government wants us to consent to an issue that we have had no opportunity to scrutinise even. A symbolic vote, rubber-stamping what the Tories in Westminster are doing in implementing the Johnson deal, a deal that will have been signed in a few hours’ time with the democratic process being entirely ignored. So, it is right that we should not support this fait accompli today.
It was the desire of a crew of Conservative dinosaurs to retain power—‘Britannia rules the waves’—that led to Brexit. The final wagging of the imperial, capitalist dinosaur's tail, and that meant nothing to the younger generation that was so disappointed by the decision. Thanks to the foolishness of David Cameron, the Brexit campaign gathered steam. It became a false project about power and the loss of power, and, as Adam Price said, people were asking the right questions, namely, ‘What’s wrong with our lives? Why do we feel disempowered and frustrated?’, and some found the wrong answer in Brexit. In addition to that, there was the spin, the lies and the false promises. The people of Wales are still asking the right question, ‘How can we give our children better lives?’, and more and more people are finding an alternative answer this time and are joining Yes Cymru.
It’s not through Johnson’s hard Brexit that we will feel empowered and confident, and certainly it’s not through thinking that Britannia can somehow rule the waves once again. The way forward is independence for Wales—taking back control in the true sense of the words, creating our own future and a better deal for all the people of Wales, turning the disappointment of our young people into joy and creating new hope for communities in all parts of Wales.
Thank you. And, finally, Caroline Jones.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Unlike the Welsh Government, I, and the majority of Welsh voters, will be supporting the Brexit deal and the end of the transition period at the end of this week. We are finally free of EU bureaucratic control and can look forward to a modern free trade relationship with the rest of the world rather than continue to be tied to an insular, protectionist trading block. Wales can now enjoy the prospect of tariff-free trade with the rest of the world, and that's how trade should always be approached. We are free to buy and sell goods without restrictions. Unfortunately, this is not the approach pursued by the EU. They would rather protect Spanish olive growers, French farmers, German car manufacturers than trade fairly on a global stage.
We increase trade by producing unique products that people want to buy, and, of course, we have been conditioned to pursue a course of action by large corporations that put profit above all else. We saw an example of this last week when the French blockaded our ports under the pretence of stopping the spread of COVID-19. The large supermarkets were warning of food shortages because of port backlogs. British farmers refuted their claims, but rather than buying quality British produce, the supermarkets chartered a cargo plane to fly in cheaper foreign food. The common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy have devastated our domestic production, and I hope, now that we are free from these policies, that we can become more self-sufficient in food and I hope the supermarkets will prioritise British produce. And this pandemic has shown that we can't always rely upon free-flowing trade. Borders can be shut down overnight. Even EU member states ignored Schengen when it suited them.
We finally have our freedom from the EU and it is time we looked to a better future for Wales, and I fully believe in that better future, despite the decades of underinvestment by both Labour and the Tories in our infrastructure. This lack of investment has held us back, and I hope that the shared prosperity fund will make big improvements in our road, rail and communications infrastructure to ensure Wales is ready to compete on a global stage. We can be innovative and we can be world leaders if we have the right infrastructure in place.
The biggest threat facing our nation and our species is still climate change, but it also presents us with an opportunity. We are small enough and agile enough to embrace the green economy, and with the right investment we can become world leaders in green technology. We can develop renewable technology, such as tidal lagoons, if we are prepared to focus on a new green deal. I urge the UK and Welsh Governments to maximise the benefits as we unwrap our nation from the EU's red tape, and I also urge both Governments to work together positively, together for Wales and the UK. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you very much. No Member has indicated they wish to make an intervention, therefore I will call the Counsel General and the Minister for European Transition to reply to the debate. Jeremy Miles.
Deputy Presiding Officer, may I start by acknowledging the sense of relief that a deal now exists, despite its inadequacies? As compared to the other option of leaving the transition period with no deal, it's certain that this option is a better one. But the reality, Llywydd, is that Governments across the UK have spent four and a half years and huge sums of money and political capital to reach a point where we have two options: a weak deal or no deal at all. That's the reality. If a small percentage of that effort had been focused on creating a broad support base, we could have had a deal which would have delivered the result of the referendum, whilst also keeping closer economic links. A large proportion of responsibility for that is in the hands of Conservative Governments in Westminster who have been more concerned about party unity than safeguarding the income and livelihoods of the people of Wales and the rest of the UK.
Dirprwy Lywydd, I think the leader of the opposition may have read the UK Government's sales pitch summary rather than, as Alun Davies said, the agreement itself. Paul Davies refers to this as a free trade deal, but this deal means that, from 1 January, Welsh exporters will face trade with our largest partner that is significantly less free, with entirely new barriers to trade, and, on top of that, our law enforcement agencies will have fewer tools available to keep us safe, and our citizens will have fewer rights to live where and how they choose.
And at a time when the rest of the world is working together and becoming more interdependent and integrated, the UK Government has pushed us towards isolation by prioritising a profoundly unmodern and indeed unreal idea of sovereignty. Siân Gwenllian's characterisation in her contribution to the motion as inviting support for this feature could literally not have been further from the reality.
We in the Welsh Government would have set a different approach, but we have throughout sought to play a constructive role in engaging with the UK Government on negotiations—clear priorities backed up with firm evidence. I regret that at no point were we included in the negotiations by the UK Government in a way that this Senedd and the people of Wales expected. We were provided with details of the agreement only hours before it was published and, as the First Minister said, received a draft version of the Bill only the night before it was placed online.
Mick Antoniw set out in his remarks a profound disregard for democratic accountability of the UK Government's approach to this Bill, and it cannot be a basis for this Senedd to consent to one of the most significant pieces of legislation for a generation. On that basis, we reject the Conservative amendment and we also reject the amendment of Caroline Jones, which describes a world so far from the realities of people's lives and which would so damage people's livelihoods in Wales.
In terms of the amendments from Plaid Cymru, on amendment 3 we will vote against, not because we disagree with a word of what it would add—which Dai Lloyd laid out, and indeed citing the First Minister's words in doing so—but because of what it would delete. We are asked to believe that, weak as the deal is, Plaid now believe that a 'no deal' departure is no worse. Well, that is simply not a credible position. We will abstain on amendment 4. Despite what the leader of Plaid Cymru says, the truth is that he, indeed all of us, would be outraged if the Westminster Parliament instructed us how we should vote, then we can't very well issue similar injunctions to them.
Finally, Llywydd, I want to turn to our preparedness for what Michael Gove calls a 'bumpy ride' over the next few weeks. The course taken by the UK Government and their determination to press on under any and all circumstances, however challenging, has meant that we have been preparing for the end of transition under the immensely difficult circumstances of the worst ravages of the COVID epidemic. But we have set out, in our end of transition action plan, what we are doing to address the potential risks of disruption in the supply of goods and to prepare businesses and public services for the major changes that come into place from tomorrow evening. We will rightly be judged on the way in which we use the relatively few levers in our hands, and we will ensure that the UK Government is also held to account for the actions for which they are responsible.
Dirprwy Lywydd, we are in the final hours of the transition period and little more than a day away from a new relationship with our European partners. The Welsh Government needs no advice from the Conservative benches to look to the future. We are certainly not the ones who have been consumed by misty nostalgia for an idealised past in this endeavour. But look, as we do, to the future, Dirprwy Lywydd, as Dawn Bowden told us in her contribution today: let us not forget that these were the UK Government's negotiations, and this is the UK Government's deal. And it is they, ultimately, who will need to answer to the people of Wales for its consequences.
Thank you very much. The proposal is to agree amendment 1. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I can see a hand up and I've heard an objection. Thank you. Okay, fine, thank you. So, we'll defer voting on this item now until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
In accordance with Standing Order 12.18, I will suspend the meeting for five minutes before we proceed to voting time. Thank you.
Plenary was suspended at 12:07.
The Senedd reconvened at 12:14, with the Llywydd in the Chair.
That brings us to voting time, and the first votes are on the debate on the end of the European Union transition period, and the first vote is on amendment 1. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2 and 3 will be deselected. I call for a vote on amendment 1, tabled in the name of Darren Millar. Open the vote. Close the vote. In favour 12, three abstentions, 37 against. And therefore, amendment 1 is not agreed.
Debate: Amendment 1 (Darren Millar): For: 12, Against: 37, Abstain: 3
Amendment has been rejected
Amendment 2 is next. If amendment 2 is agreed, amendment 3 will be deselected. I call for a vote on amendment 2, tabled in the name of Caroline Jones. Open the vote. Close the vote. In favour three, three abstentions and 46 against, and therefore amendment 2 is not agreed.
Debate: Amendment 2 (Caroline Jones): For: 3, Against: 46, Abstain: 3
Amendment has been rejected
Amendment 3 is next. I call for a vote on amendment 3, tabled in the name of Siân Gwenllian. Open the vote. Close the vote. In favour nine, one abstention and 42 against. Therefore, amendment 3 is not agreed.
Debate: Amendment 3 (Sian Gwenllian): For: 9, Against: 42, Abstain: 1
Amendment has been rejected
Amendment 4 is next, and the amendment was tabled in the name of Siân Gwenllian. Open the vote. Close the vote. In favour 10, 27 abstentions, 15 against, and therefore the amendment is not agreed.
Debate: Amendment 4 (Sian Gwenllian): For: 10, Against: 15, Abstain: 27
Amendment has been rejected
A vote now on the motion in the name of Rebecca Evans. Open the vote. Close the vote. In favour 28, no abstentions and 24 against. And therefore the motion is agreed.
That concludes voting time.
We now move to the statement by the Minister for health, and I call on the Minister for health to make the statement—Vaughan Gething.
Thank you, Llywydd. I'm just trying to move my screen back.
I had the same problem. In fact, I lost my iPad off the sofa in doing so, so perfectly understandable.
I am now back with you. Thank you, Llywydd. I'm grateful to you for the opportunity to provide this update statement on the position in respect of coronavirus here in Wales, and, indeed, the positive news story today, with the approval of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. But I do want to begin by going through some more of the detail of the current position and, I'm afraid, the likelihood that we will see things worsen still before they start to improve.
Members will recall that, just prior to the Christmas break, the Welsh Government had to make the difficult but necessary decision to move Wales into alert level 4. This affected non-essential retail at its busiest time of the year. It also reduced the amount of time that families were allowed to gather over the festive period to a single day of overnight stay.
We took this decision as levels of virus transmission continued to grow exponentially. Today, we have seen some levelling off in the all-Wales figures, which are still very high. Sadly, we have seen the predicted and continued growth in north Wales case numbers. As Members will be aware, this is potentially influenced by a new, more infectious strain of the virus. The new variant had been identified as a factor or a possible factor in the rapid growth in the numbers of cases in the south of England. Our own exponential growth in cases was and still is a real threat to our NHS Wales services and colleagues across social care in terms of our ability to respond.
Health boards across Wales are under increasing pressure as more and more patients are admitted with COVID-19. The current number of beds occupied in hospitals across NHS Wales is still higher now than at the peak in the initial wave in April 2020. Whilst there are physical beds available, staff absence and the nature of the hospital environment, which makes it difficult to safely distance COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, means that usable capacity is limited and varies on a daily basis. I published a written statement on 23 December, giving stark detail on the extent of NHS system pressures here in Wales.
The coming weeks will be an extraordinary challenge for our health and social care services. We would not normally expect to face a winter with more than 2,600 beds out of use for normal winter pressures because of a new condition that we still cannot cure. We would not normally face a winter with the level of staff shortages in health and social care that we do face right across Wales. And yet still there are well-placed loud and angry voices who deny the problem, who claim that the cure cannot be worse than the virus.
Let me remind you that this is a virus to which more than 3,000 of our people have already lost their lives. More will do so. Many will recover, but it will not be easy or quick for every person that does. There is no harm-free route through this crisis, and I do not accept that the cure is worse than the virus. Each and every choice that we take to keep Wales safe comes at a very real cost to protect our NHS and to save lives.
NHS organisations will continue to work collectively to provide mutual support to one another, but the available bed capacity is reducing. We continue to see this translate into critical care pressure in all of our health boards. As a result, health boards have had to reduce or stop a range of non-COVID services in order to cope. These are difficult decisions that are never taken lightly.
Critical care is perhaps under the greatest pressure and has seen COVID-related critical care increase to 126. That is an increase of 24 per cent since 21 December, even. This rate of growth is inevitably linked to the higher community prevalence of recent weeks and is a significant concern within our overall hospital capacity, and this is likely to increase over the next two weeks.
This is the highest number of COVID-19 critical care patients we have seen in the second wave, although still lower than the peak of the first wave. However, including non-COVID patients, yesterday there were a total of 210 critical care patients in beds across Wales. This is well in excess of our normal capacity of 152 patients, or, to put it another way, critical care is operating at nearly 140 per cent of normal capacity. In parts of Wales, staffing pressures, including sickness, are reducing our options to expand further.
And I have to say, Llywydd, it is despairing and dishonest to claim that there is lots of unused critical care capacity. I have to reiterate to Members and the public that using critical care surge capacity comes at a real cost. Staff have to be transferred from other activity that cannot go ahead. Delaying or cancelling non-COVID care stores up harm that our NHS will have to return to and, sadly, harm that our NHS may not have the opportunity to resolve.
Our critical care staff have not had a break and the awful truth is that patient flow out of critical care is not all good news. Some people do recover. However, mortality rates are making a major contribution to freeing up beds. Current mortality rates for COVID patients in critical care, the figures from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre, show that in Wales nearly 40 per cent of people admitted since 1 September have passed away. That is not critical care failing—it is the reality of the number of infections that we have seen and are continuing to see.
As was explained when the UK variant of coronavirus was announced, it is not uncommon for viruses to undergo mutations. Routine genomic surveillance has recently identified a new variant in South Africa as well. As at 19 December, that new variant had been found in around 200 samples in South Africa. This new variant is not the same as the UK variant, but does have some similarities. Our scientists are studying the possible impacts on transmissibility, severity of illness and whether there are implications for the effectiveness of vaccines.
It is important to emphasise that the same prevention measures will be effective against the new UK variant and the South African variant—limiting mixing, social distancing, hand hygiene, use of face coverings and ventilation. Quarantine of those who have come into contact with the South African variant will also be vital to stop this variant becoming established across Wales and the UK.
The most recent SAGE estimate of the reproduction number for Wales is predicted to be between 1.0 and 1.3, with growth of around 1 per cent to 4 per cent per day. A doubling time of 19.1 days is estimated by Public Health Wales, using data for the period 5 December to 18 December. Data from the most recent Office for National Statistics infection survey for Wales show that approximately one person in 60 has COVID. This figure is the highest value to date from the ONS survey.
Our latest Public Health Wales data by local authority show that the all-Wales rate is now at 433 per 100,000. As I set out earlier, rates within that are rising across the north and falling elsewhere, but still at a very high rate, with a very high test positivity percentage.
But there is hope. Since the beginning of December, we have been delivering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to health and social care staff as well as care home residents and staff and people aged over the age of 80. In the first two weeks, over 22,000 people were vaccinated in Wales, with management information indicating this number is well over 30,000 now. The next official figures will be released tomorrow. I have no reason to believe that Wales will be significantly behind any other UK nation on distribution when those official figures are published tomorrow. I expect that we are keeping pace with every other UK nation.
Today, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been given the go-ahead by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and its roll-out across Wales and the rest of the UK will start next week, from Monday. It will arrive in small quantities initially, with more of our population-based allocation arriving each week.
Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is stored at normal vaccine fridge temperatures. This means it will have fewer storage and transportation issues, making it much easier to use in community settings, such as care homes and primary care. Again, two doses will be needed, albeit the interval can now be moved to 12 weeks between each dose.
This is excellent news for our response to the pandemic and our NHS plans are in place to ensure Wales has the capacity, systems and staff to increase vaccination activity. It is important to be realistic. Whilst plans are in place, the effects of the vaccines may not be seen nationally for many months.
The advice on keeping Wales safe remains the same for everyone, and it is important that everyone realises that they, we, all have a part to play in influencing the level of virus in our communities: to keep contact with other people to a minimum, to keep a 2m distance from others, to wash our hands regularly, wear a face covering where required, and avoid touching surfaces others have touched, wherever possible, and, of course, as I said earlier, good ventilation. The Welsh Government and our NHS cannot do this alone. We all still have a part to play in keeping Wales safe. However we can now do so with a greater sense of optimism for 2021. There really is light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. Thank you, Llywydd.
Minister, thank you for your statement this afternoon. I have some questions to ask in relation to vaccines, hospital pressures, the supply of testing in education, and the new variant. I'll leave my comments on the restrictions that were imposed before Christmas to when we have our debate in the Senedd on our return after the Christmas recess.
On vaccination, Minister, why is Wales lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to its vaccination programme? I appreciate the gap isn't large, but every one missing a vaccination is someone missing the safety of that vaccination against the virus. Why have so many over-80s not been called up for vaccination here in Wales, and why has there not been a more comprehensive roll-out in care homes across Wales? At the current forecasted rate, the UK as a whole needs to be hitting 2 million vaccinations a week, which in Welsh terms will be approximately 100,000 vaccinations undertaken. When will Wales reach that target in your forward planning, Minister, because I'm sure you've done some modelling that indicates with the supply of vaccines now coming online we should be looking at these numbers to make sure we can get as many people vaccinated as possible? And do you support the evidence that's been put forward by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that to speed up the roll-out programme the vaccination programme should aim for a one-shot vaccine as opposed to a two-shot vaccine, to get as many people vaccinated as possible? Can you confirm that GP contracts are in place for primary settings to undertake the vaccination programme, as the evidence we've received recently from the Cwm Taf health board indicated that there were some problems within that contract? Can you also confirm that the vaccination teams that are required are in place and that they have their quota of staff to fulfil the objectives that will be set before them as the vaccine programme unfolds across Wales? And also, do you support or not the call today from the chairman of the Welsh general practitioners committee for health workers to receive the vaccine before the elderly, given what we understand about the new potency of the new variant of COVID across Wales?
Could I also put on the record my thanks and that of the Welsh Conservatives to all the staff within our hospitals and NHS settings and care homes over the Christmas period, which have been under huge pressure? Could you enlarge more on the information you provided within your statement around the capacity for critical care beds in Wales? In the evidence you gave to the health committee, you indicated there was the possibility of a surge capacity up to 280 critical care beds to be made available in Wales. Your statement alludes to 210 critical care beds being used at the moment. Absence rates due to sickness have been reported across the whole of the Welsh NHS. Are you in a position to update us what the absence rate is this week, given that the high levels before Christmas were indicating unsustainable pressure on the Welsh NHS across Wales? The army moved in to support the Welsh ambulance service at the request of the service due to absences of staff. Is this an open-ended deployment or a time-limited deployment, and with the numbers that have been available, do they meet the shortfall in staffing numbers to have a safe and reliable ambulance service to respond to the calls placed on them? Could you also respond to the press reports recently about the wish list that staff had compiled for goods that they require from Amazon to undertake their work, such as calculators and soap and washing utensils for patients? We focus, as politicians, on PPE and the availability of PPE, but basic utensils for washing and cleaning patients, and ultimately the facilities that staff require, such as calculators to work out medical applications, surely should be a basic necessity that should be provided within the NHS.
On the education portfolio, which I appreciate isn't your area, but ultimately the testing that will go into schools will come from your area of responsibility, can you confirm that there is enough capacity within the testing regime envisaged for education settings in the new year, and that this will not be used as a reason for education settings not starting back in the new year after the Christmas holidays?
Finally, Minister, could I ask, after the briefing we had before Christmas with the chief scientific officer, that the map that was indicated, which was available to show the new variant COVID infections across Wales, is made available so that we can understand how its spread has affected services and the spread of the virus across Wales? You allude in your statement to the spread in north Wales in particular. I think this map, which was said is available and you would look into making it available to Members, should be made available as a matter of urgency. Can you, finally, confirm that all labs are now testing for the new variant COVID virus, because in the briefing that was held before Christmas you indicated, as the chief scientific officer indicated, that this testing was only undertaken in a limited number of labs at the moment? Thank you, Presiding Officer.
Thank you. I'll try to rush through as many of the 12 separate questions as I can, Presiding Officer. To start off with, Wales is not lagging behind other UK countries when it comes to the vaccination programme, and you'll see that when the official figures are published tomorrow. It's important that we compare like with like and don't get carried away by misleading press reports.
On over-80s in care homes, we are already vaccinating people over the age of 80 and in care homes. I do note with some regret that the utterly misleading and misrepresentative tweet from the leader of your party has never been corrected. On that, care home residents have never been left behind.
On JCVI advice, that remains in place. Their advice and the advice that we've received from the regulator about the use of the vaccine and its approval is that a gap of up to 12 weeks can be taken. All four chief medical officers across the United Kingdom have confirmed that a 12-week gap is appropriate, so people will still be getting their second shot but in 12 weeks' time. That actually means that we can cover more people with the immunity benefit that the first shot provides at a more rapid pace, because we won't need to hold back a second shot, in terms of the conditions that the regulators have placed on approval of not just the Oxford vaccine but the already approved Pfizer-BioNTech one.
Primary care contracts are in place for vaccination. That will, most obviously, cover community pharmacy and general practice. We've had very constructive conversations in planning for this with primary care contractors, and I'm very grateful to them.
Vaccine teams are expanding. That includes a very positive and continuing partnership with the military, which, as I've said on a number of occasions, has been very can-do throughout this. We have a good working relationship with military planners and we'll be taking up the offer of some military support to actually help with the vaccination roll-out as well.
Front-line health and social care workers are already in the current priority groups. We have about 360,000-odd people who are in the current two priority groups who are already receiving the vaccine. It's quite a large number to work through. They already include our front-line health workers, so they are already part of what we're doing and we are following the JCVI advice. We're not going to be interfering with that to suddenly deprioritise vulnerable members of the public. Providing the vaccine in large numbers rapidly will actually help us to reduce mortality within some of our most vulnerable citizens, and we'll certainly be doing that, as well as protecting our front-line staff.
On critical care capacity, as I said in my statement, which I know you had a copy of in advance, the capacity does vary from day to day because it is so reliant on staff. Staff are the limiting factor, with absence rates of over 10 per cent not being uncommon across our services—more so, I'm afraid, within the ambulance service. So, that is the biggest limiting factor that we have, and it's why I do find some genuine despair with some people hawking themselves around as statistics experts claiming that there is lots of free capacity available within our health service. There simply is not. Every choice we make to surge into more critical care capacity means other NHS activity is not going ahead, and we are very much limited by staff availability. That is also a real and significant factor for challenges facing colleagues in the social care sector.
On WAST and the army, I agreed and approved the approach for the army to assist, and that will be reviewed as opposed to having a hard stop within that. As I say, I'm very grateful for the way that the army and their other colleagues within the armed forces have been very much can-do in supporting the efforts not just of the ambulance service but more generally as well.
On press reports about a wish list, these were not required items. Basic items are provided by the health service. There is no failure in the basic provision of items that our staff rely upon. I think we actually should be very proud of what our NHS has done to equip our staff at very, very difficult times throughout this pandemic, and I hope that Members are not carried away with a silly-season story that actually, on examination by the health board, wasn't shown to be a plea for people to provide their own basic items that they should need.
On education's return, we still expect to return as planned, with a phased return to schools, together with the serial testing that we will be introducing. There will be further conversations between local government, the education Minister and relevant trade unions in the area to provide confidence for people who'll want to return to work, but also the confidence for parents and learners. And it's in all of our interests that children do return to school, because we recognise the real harm that could be done if children aren't in school. Home isn't always a safe place for every child, but we also know that there's a—[Inaudible.]—in terms of the mental health and well-being of children and young people. We also know this can have a real effect on their ability to get good qualifications at the end of this year as well. And, in the conversations I had yesterday with our scientific advisers and the chief medical officer, there is nothing available to us in the evidence that suggests that schools should not open even with the new variant in wider circulation, because the same control measures, if undertaken properly, should be effective.
Now, on the point about publishing the seeding map of the new variant, I expect that to be published in a future technical advisory group report. It will be published as soon as possible. I think it would be helpful, as I indicated to spokespeople when providing the briefing, that the information on this, I think, would help people to understand what's happening with the spread of the new variant across the country.
But going to your final question, there are only four labs in the UK, as I understand, who can test for the dropout—the change in the genetic sequence that allows us to understand if the new variant is likely to be present. Three of those are lighthouse labs that receive tests from Wales; the other is a lighthouse lab in Scotland. And that means that we are now sending more of our samples to get a more representative understanding of where the new variant has spread, to those three labs that we have access to, to then understand more clearly the extent to which the new variant is prevalent or whether it's becoming dominant, because, in England, they now believe that it is the dominant part of COVID. So, no longer a new variant, but what normal COVID is going to be, and that, in itself, has real concerns and real problems for all of us across the health and care sector right across the UK. Thank you, Llywydd.
I'm pleased that we have this additional opportunity to have an update from Government, and an opportunity to ask some questions. May I start by sincerely thanking all of those health and care workers who have been working so very hard under such immense pressure over the Christmas period? The number of cases has been frighteningly high in large parts of Wales, and whilst there are some positive signs that things are starting to move in the right direction in some areas, we are still facing a situation where the number of patients in many of our hospitals is unsustainably high, and those areas where case numbers have been low have also seen an increase, reminding us that no part of Wales is immune. We are reminded again today of the importance of doing those basic things—washing hands, social distancing and so on—and I'm pleased to hear the Minister mention ventilation and the importance of good ventilation wherever possible.
There is hope now. There are vaccines available. A second has been approved today, and that, more than anything else, is the light at the end of this very long and dark tunnel. But people need to see clearly that everything is being done in the most effective way possible to move us towards that light. May I endorse the words of public health officials over the recent days who have condemned those who have abused staff who are part of the vaccination process? It is quite unacceptable. Yes, there is frustration, but nobody should target those who are there to help us. However, we do need far more assurance from the Welsh Government in terms of that process of vaccination.
We're told by Welsh Government that we are getting our share in Wales. If so, we can concentrate on what's happening in the distribution of the vaccines within Wales. Seeing statistics suggesting we're way behind the curve on roll-out is very worrying, and seeing statistics painting a picture of Wales lagging behind, with around half the doses administered in Wales per head of the population compared with Northern Ireland, that's troubling to people, despite supposedly following the same vaccination programme.
Now, in a statement earlier this morning, the health Minister confirmed that Wales would get its share of the newly approved Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. There's also there a reminder that people shouldn't phone their doctor and should wait to be told when to go for their vaccination. I know from my own postbag and from looking at what's happening in other parts of Wales that there are concerns about how quickly the vulnerable are being reached, in particular those over the age of 80 but living at home. Many people are seeing reports, perhaps, of over 80s being treated or being given the vaccine in other parts of the UK, perhaps hearing directly from friends and family living in other parts of the UK.
To avoid frustration, to avoid that building frustration, people need to have confidence in the process that is being followed. If there's a lack of trust in the system, there's a lack of faith that their turn will come, so we need to be given much clearer assurances from Government, through clear communications, easily digested and regularly published data and so on, that Wales is, indeed, getting its share. I'm pleased to hear that we will be receiving some data tomorrow. I'm looking forward to that, but that can't come a moment too soon.
We need assurances that the vaccines are being distributed effectively, that all parts of Wales are getting their vaccinations in a timely way—and it's not just differences between health boards. We know in the north, for example, that the first batch went to the east, then the centre, and the west is way behind. People need confidence that wherever they are in Wales they will be given the protection that they want. We need assurances that the most vulnerable are getting it in a timely manner and that also an extension to the priority list will be built in when the roll-out reaches that point. For example, one of those that I'm hearing most often is the call for vaccination or prioritising those working in schools.
We're clearly in a worrying place still, but the more assurances that Government can give us, be that on testing or on measures being taken or on the data on the new strain on the virus, that is what's going to give people confidence that we are headed at least in the right direction.
Thank you for the comments and questions. It was very helpful, I think, to start the comments with not only thanking staff but recognising how unacceptable it is for our staff to be attacked and criticised, whether on social media or otherwise, for the job that they do, and being honest with the public about the scale of the challenges we face. But the scale of the challenge we face reiterates why we're in level 4. It's because of the significance of the virus circulating and because of the extraordinary pressures that our health and social care system are soaking up and coping with that we're in level 4.
And just to consider this: there are more than 2,600 people being treated for COVID in a hospital bed here in Wales—more than in the April peak. There are more than 1,600 confirmed people with COVID in our hospital beds. There are still hundreds of people—I think over 700 people—recovering from COVID in our hospital beds. They still need the care and treatment that only an NHS bed can provide. And there are more than 200 people in critical care. These are not trifling matters. This shows the serious harm that is already being done, and if we were not in the midst of level 4 restrictions, we can, I'm afraid, be confident that even more people would be going into hospitals in the next two to three weeks, and there would be a very real risk that our NHS would indeed be overwhelmed. That's why the level 4 measures are in place, and that's why all of us have a responsibility to reiterate the 'stay at home' message for our constituents in any and every part of the country, however they vote, or if they choose not to vote, if that's their choice. This is about all of us being in this together.
On vaccination, I'm happy to confirm again that we are getting our share. I know the question is regularly raised and I keep on giving the same answer: we are getting our population share of each of the vaccines. Actually, on the Oxford vaccine, a significant part of it is manufactured in north Wales. So, the supply chains for this are shorter and more secure from our point of view. But the really good news comes back to the Member's questions about access, and accelerating the programme for our most vulnerable citizens. Because the Oxford vaccine is easier to store and to transport, it will allow greater acceleration and practical access, so we won't need to move people to larger vaccination centres. General practice and community pharmacy will be able to undertake a greater share of this work. I'm really pleased they've been in such a 'can do' place in terms of not just agreeing the contracts around this, but actually then wanting to positively get on and vaccinate their patients and people that they know within a greater number and range of places around the country. But it will also mean that those people who are housebound, whether in a residential care setting or otherwise, will be much easier to reach with the new vaccine.
On the vaccine, the official figures are out tomorrow, and I don't think they'll show that Wales is lagging behind at all. It's somewhat frustrating that whenever a story is run that Wales is somehow behind the curve, it appears to have legs and accelerate faster than any time we're actually ahead of where other countries are, and this is yet one more of those examples. We're currently vaccinating around about 2,000 people a day. I do expect that after a week or so of having the Oxford vaccine available, when we'll have been able to test out our systems, we'll start to accelerate and vaccinate many more people, as indeed will the other UK countries.
I should, though, point out to the Member that if he were looking at the news in Northern Ireland, Scotland or England, then he'd find people there who are in care homes or over the age of 80 raising concerns that they haven't yet been contacted or reached by the NHS as well. The idea that Wales is uniquely not reaching vulnerable people simply isn't true. We have many, many vulnerable people to reach. In the first two priority categories that we're currently vaccinating, there are over 360,000 Welsh citizens, so it will take time to vaccinate all of those people. We're not behind where other countries are. We're making progress, and, as I say, you can speak to over-80s in England, in Scotland or in Northern Ireland who won't have received their contact yet, because it wouldn't be at all reasonable to expect that you would have covered all of that part of the population to date.
We will, though, be sticking to the prioritisation approach set out in the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. I know this is difficult, because there are different groups making a case for them to be advanced up, over and above that prioritisation list. But, that priority list is there to indicate where the greatest benefit can be given, and by that I mean where the greatest number of lives can be saved. It's a good thing that people working in our schools should be aware that they're not a high-risk profession when it comes to COVID. Their occupation does not place them at greater risk than other professions, whereas, actually, our staff who work on the front line in health and care are very much placed at a greater risk.
We're undertaking a pilot with the South Wales Police force that all other police forces are supporting, because they recognise that the physical contact they will have with members of the public, including in enforcing some of the COVID laws that we have had to introduce to keep people safe, means that they are at a different level of risk. That serial testing is part of helping them to understand where they get. The priority that we have from the JCVI is about how we keep people alive and how we avoid the levels of excess deaths that we would otherwise see. I don't think any responsible professional group would want to argue that they should leapfrog a group of our most vulnerable citizens who could otherwise come to harm and, potentially, lose their lives. So, we'll follow the objective advice we're given.
I know they're looking at the various cases that different groups have been making. If the advice changes on the relative level of impact and the benefit to be given, then, as I've said on many occasions in the past, if the evidence and the advice changes, Ministers have to be prepared to make different choices. We'll continue to do so, but at this point in time there's no reason to depart from the current priority list. We will use the vaccine to keep our country safe. We'll use the vaccine to save lives.
We've had a great many questions asked by the two party spokespeople, so now it will be a minute each for each of the next Members to be called. Hopefully, I'll get through as many of you as possible, though it may not be possible in terms of time to get to all of you. Alun Davies.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer, and thank you for the statement, Minister. These have been the most difficult of days, as you've suggested, and I think all of us want to join you in thanking all of the key workers who've given up their Christmases to support people in our communities over the last few weeks.
I'm also grateful to you for the foresight of some of your decisions. We've seen the UK Government running to follow the Governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland over the last few weeks. The far-sighted decisions that you've taken, although exceptionally difficult, have helped to ensure that the NHS and our people are kept as safe as possible in these difficult days.
There are two issues I wanted to ask you about. First of all, about the enforcement, I continue to get a number of people who are scared to visit supermarkets, particularly in my constituency, who do not believe that supermarkets are delivering the regulations in the way that they need to be. I'd be grateful if you could look again at some of the issues around enforcement.
The second issue is around the vaccine. You've just answered a question from Rhun ap Iorwerth about the roll-out and access in every community. This is important in places in the Valleys, such as Blaenau Gwent, where you don't have high levels of car ownership amongst particular groups of the population and where it's important that the vaccine is delivered as locally as possible and in each part of our communities. I'd be grateful if you could ensure that that happens as we roll out this new vaccine. Thank you.
I thank the Member for his questions and comments. I completely agree that we are very fortunate that, whilst it was an unusual Christmas, most of us were able to enjoy Christmas at home and safe, and whilst we were doing that, there were people in our health service and other emergency services, and across social care, who were going out to do their job to keep us safe, many of those knowingly putting themselves in harm's way to do so.
On enforcement, I recognise the frustration of the Member and the concern of his constituents, and many others, who are concerned that essential retail still need to have control measures in place for the safety of their customers and, indeed, their staff. The enforcement conversation is one that does not stop. There'll be a meeting between Ministers, the police and local government next week again to look at where we are on enforcement. I hope that we'll be able to provide some figures and information to Members on where we are in terms of enforcement activity. I've seen a draft report of the enforcement activity taken in the run-up to Christmas that showed that, at that point, most enforcement focused on hospitality venues when it came to improvement notices or closure notices.
I know there are other Members, too, who have contacted me directly about their concerns over localised incidents at supermarkets. There doesn't appear to be a consistent view across one chain or another, but there are local incidents of real concern, and we do want to see those followed up, as I say, for the safety of staff and the public. We'll also be talking to the police as well. I think we're a long way past taking an education approach to these matters. We're nearly 10 months deep into this crisis, and if people don't understand the need to do the right thing now, then I have to say that I don't take the rather more hand-off approach. I actually think that people who are travelling in their cars to go and visit beauty spots know damn well they're doing the wrong thing and know they are outside the law, and I believe the law should be enforced in those circumstances.
On vaccine delivery, I'm very happy to confirm this will be of particular benefit to those areas where people don't have ready access to their own transport. So, the work we're doing with local healthcare providers, GPs and pharmacies in particular will mean there's much readier and easier access for communities to get this vaccine, to get the coverage and the protection that it provides. I hope the Member will see that for himself in his own community over the coming weeks ahead.
Thank you for your update, Minister. I too wish to thank those who work tirelessly, especially over the Christmas period. We have known about the new variant of SARS-CoV-2 for the past several months. During the intervening period, what assessment has been made of the severity of disease caused by the mutated virus? Is the infection fatality rate any lower or, God forbid, higher? Reports from the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group seem to report that the new variant can be spread more readily by children. What assessments have you made of the role schools have played in the increase of COVID-19 across Wales? The move into alert level 4 restrictions was driven, mainly, by falling numbers of beds available in our NHS. Minister, how does the bed situation compare with previous years? And finally, Minister, the sooner we get our population vaccinated, the better chance we have of weathering the economic storm caused by the response to the virus. So, can you provide an update on the roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Wales? What steps are you taking to increase the pace of mass vaccinations? When will Wales receive the first doses, and how many doses will we be receiving? Diolch yn fawr.
I thank the Member for the questions. On the final question, I think I've covered several times the Oxford vaccine roll-out. We expect to receive the first vaccines for delivery on 4 January, as with every other UK nation. The first few days will be about making sure that our delivery systems are secure. I've also had indicated that it may be sensible to have the first few of those delivered within an environment where there is access to further medical assistance. You'll recall that, at the start of the Pfizer roll-out, there were a couple of limited anaphylactic reactions. We want to make sure that we understand what the population response is. We do then expect to have much greater pace over the next week or two with the roll-out of the vaccine. And as I said in response to Alun Davies, that should mean that vulnerable people in a range of communities will have much more ready access to the vaccine and the protection that it provides, and that in itself is good news.
On the new variant, we know there are new variants all the time, as it were, because the virus is constantly mutating. There are many of those, but it makes no difference. The reason why we're now talking about a new variant is that it has made a difference in the way that the virus behaves, specifically how the virus is transmitted. It isn't that there's any evidence that the harm is greater; it's actually that the virus transmits much more rapidly, and that may well explain the significant exponential growth we saw through south Wales and the rapid growth we are now seeing through north Wales, where, in Wrexham, case numbers are over 500, in Flintshire over 300, in Denbighshire well over 200, and in Conwy just under 130—a significant growth from where we were just a week or so ago. And that does show, I believe, that it's partly the impact of the new variant, and that shows the threat and the risk that we have. But there's no evidence that it is more harmful.
On beds and availability, I refer the Member to the fairly detailed written statement that I provided on 23 December and the comments that I made within my statement and in answers to Rhun ap Iorwerth as well. You would not normally start a winter period where 2,600 of your normal beds are taken out of use because they are being used to treat a new condition for which there is still no known cure. That in itself is a huge issue. We normally say that we expand the NHS capacity to get to beds by the size of a large district general hospital. Well, this year, we've got several district general hospitals-worth of people being treated exclusively with COVID, and we've got critical care capacity operating at nearly 140 per cent. This really is a winter like no other, and that's why all of us need to play our part individually but also in the platform that we have as elected representatives to encourage people across our country to do the right thing and to help all of us to save lives.
Thank you, Minister, and I very much welcome the action that you took before Christmas to take us into alert level 4, and I also wanted to pay my heartfelt thanks to our NHS and social care staff, who are dealing with an unprecedented public health emergency. You referred in your earlier comments to the importance of keeping children and young people in school, which I entirely concur with, but, as you'll be aware, the evidence about a new variant emerging has caused a lot of anxiety, both for families and for school staff. Can you say a bit more about how the technical advice cell paper you've commissioned on the transmissibility of the new virus will look specifically at the role children play in transmission so that we can try and reassure everyone that the return to school will be safe?
Can I also ask about shielding? I was pleased to see the advice issued just before Christmas on shielding, but that advice did relate, obviously, solely to people who are shielded and not their families. I think it would be useful to have some further advice for families, particularly in view of the concerns about the higher levels of infectivity of this new variant, and can I ask if you'll discuss that with the chief medical officer, with a view to issuing further guidance for family members and carers of those who are shielded? Thank you.
Thank you. On your final question, I have to say I'll happily take that and have a further discussion with the chief medical officer's department about shielding and families and advice that we should give to people about how to best protect themselves and their loved ones. I recognise there are genuine concerns that people have.
On the move to level 4 before Christmas, I do believe that we've been vindicated in the move that we took. I think it was absolutely the right thing to do. I've yet to see the measures that are being taken in England, and I completely expect that there will be more communities moving into higher levels of restriction because of the reality of the spread of the virus, and the reality that, without additional action being taken, parts of our healthcare system could otherwise face being overwhelmed. We can't expect our staff to run through brick walls on our behalf for another three months. We all need to be part of doing the right thing. That includes the Government, but it includes the public as well.
On the new variant and the school return, I have commissioned some further work from the technical advice group to understand not just the impact on transmission and children, but to understand what it means for how safe the school environment is, because whilst teenagers in particular are able to not just get the virus but pass it on to others, actually, they themselves are very unlikely to suffer harm. Conversely, though, I know that there are concerns for people who work in schools, but, actually, we don't have any real evidence of there being any kind of significant level of pupil-to-staff-member transmission, and that, I think, does show how successful our schools have been, and it's a real positive for them, about having a COVID-secure learning environment. What we do see, though, is some staff-to-staff transmission, and that's about people following the requirements in their own workplace to keep themselves and colleagues safe, and it's also about making sure that the mixing outside school doesn't take place as well, and that's why the stay-at-home period is so important for us as well.
What's different about the last week before Christmas, where we moved all high schools to distanced learning, is that non-essential retail was open for a period of time in that week. It's also the case that we didn't have a stay-at-home requirement, for people to only leave home for essential purposes. So, we're operating in a very different context moving into the new year, with the phased return that's been agreed, compared to that last week in December. But I do think that the research that I've commissioned from TAG, which I'd like to publish as soon as possible, will help to give more confidence not just to staff, because I am concerned that staff have confidence to return to school, but confidence to parents and learners as well that they will be able to receive some face-to-face teaching and learning, because we know that's vitally important not just for a general sense of well-being and mental health, but actually to get good qualifications at the end of this year as well, and I would not want to see that compromised, if at all possible. As ever, if the evidence changes, we'll need to consider what they means for us and the decisions we make. I want to assure the Member that I do have regular conversations not just with our chief medical officer and scientific advisers, but also regular conversations with the education Minister as well, to make sure that we understand how our plans are moving, including of course the plans for serial testing for secondary school aged children going back to school from January next year.
Minister, people in north Wales are concerned that they're not getting their fair share of the vaccine at the moment. You'll be aware that the Public Health Wales figures that were published for the number of vaccinations that were distributed up to 20 December seem to demonstrate that people in north Wales are less likely, frankly, to get access to the vaccine than people elsewhere in the country. So, for example, in Powys it seems that people are four times as likely to have been vaccinated up to that 20 December date. In Cardiff and the Vale, your own area, people are more than two and a half times more likely than people in north Wales to receive the vaccination. Obviously, it's very important that all parts of Wales get their fair share of the vaccination, going forward, so that people can have the confidence that the roll-out is being dealt with appropriately at a national level by the Welsh Government. What assurances can you give to people in north Wales that they will get the vaccine on a fair basis with other parts of the country, and can you tell us what the timescale for the roll-out will be given now that we have access to the AstraZeneca and Oxford vaccine, further to its approval today?
I'm happy to confirm that every part of Wales will continue to receive its fair share, so I would expect that, when we ultimately see all the figures smoothed out, the Betsi delivery will be in accordance with its population—I think it's about 23 per cent or 24 per cent of the population. So, it will get its fair share. It's not being held back. It's actually about its ability to test all of its systems and then go ahead and accelerate delivery. And I certainly think that, with the roll-out of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, you will, as I said to Alun Davies and the constituency he represents, see communities across north Wales have even easier and readier access to the vaccine because we won't be asking people to move themselves to mass vaccination centres, but we'll actually be able to more readily and easily transfer and transport the vaccine around. Now, the way that you and many of us, including me—. I've had the pleasure of being jabbed with a flu vaccine in front of a camera for, I think, eight years running now. In many ways, we'll be able to store and transport this vaccine in the same way as you would a flu vaccine, where it's fridge storage, and that will make a really big difference, and that should see a significant acceleration.
I should just say, as you mentioned Powys, that I think Powys have been remarkably can-do in their approach not just for citizens in Powys, but, where they've had gaps in their ability, to reduce wastage they have offered some vacant slots to either north Wales, depending on the part of the county of Powys where they're delivering, or indeed some south Wales health board areas where they're delivering there as well. So, it does show that our NHS is acting not just to work together and across organisational boundaries, but a real commitment to reduce wastage as well, because the vaccine is a precious resource and we want to make sure it's used effectively and quickly, but of course that also means not having unnecessary waste. But I think that you'll again reassert a sense of pride in north Wales health services as we go through the coming weeks and months, and as more and more of us see our communities being protected by the roll-out of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and the much easier access we'll all see to that.
You've just confirmed that you have commissioned some new scientific work on the transmission of the new variant of the virus among children. Before receiving the result of that work, how can you be confident that the education Minister's plans to get everyone back to school by 18 January is wise and sustainable in terms of preventing the spread of this new variant? Aren't the signals currently suggesting that we should reconsider that policy and maintain on-site learning for smaller groups only beyond 18 January? If it's inevitable that schools will have to be closed for the majority of pupils, then, please, inform schools in good time. If closure is inevitable in order to prevent transmission, then we need to provide adequate warning so that teachers can prepare to teach as best as they can and for families to make their own arrangements too.
I think it's a fair question. What I've done is I've asked our technical advisory group to look again at the current evidence, not just on the new variant, but the evidence of COVID and education, and my understanding has been that teachers are not high-risk professionals. Other education staff are not high-risk professions, and that's good news. And it's credit to those teachers, and other leaders who organise those work places for their staff, that we don't see large amounts of coronavirus spreading through our schools, and we don't see evidence of pupil/learner transmission to staff members, and that's a good thing. It shows that people are respecting social distancing where it's possible.
Now, that then means that we need to understand this, because the same control measures are the ones that will be effective—that's good ventilation, as I have mentioned in my statement, and your colleague, Rhun ap Iorwerth, is keen on as well; it's also social distancing; it's also about having consistent cohorts of people—for the new variant, as for others. But the stringency will be even more important because the new variant is more transmissible, and that is the main change in the operation of the new variant. Now, we're of course looking to see if there is any other change within it, but that was the very clear advice that I had when I spoke to scientific advisers and the chief medical officer just yesterday. And the chief medical officer was clear with me that there was no reason, no evidence at that point in time, to change our approach to prioritising education and the balance of harms that we always have to run through. Because, as I'm sure the Member understands, there is real harm done to children and young people if we end up closing schools unnecessarily, and that harm is something we should not walk into lightly. We would need to have evidence that it is not safe to return to school, because actually the current evidence is that, with the conditions that we are planning for, we should be able to return to school safely. And there's extra reassurance for learners and staff and concerned parents, because we'll have serial testing in our secondary schools as well. That will mean that people don't need to isolate unnecessarily. It also means we should identify more asymptomatic cases as well. So, I actually think that is additional reassurance, compared to where schools were operating at the start of December, for example, when we were seeing a rapid growth in coronavirus across large parts of Wales.
But, of course, I'll continue to talk with the education Minister, as I indicated in response to Lynne Neagle. And I know that she will continue to have dialogue with trade unions and, indeed, the Welsh Local Government Association, because all of us, surely, want to see children's education and learning protected, not just the value of it as to the straight education provided, but the wider learning and protection that a school environment provides. So, I am very keen that we maintain that. It's a stated priority of this Government, and it would take something extraordinary for us to say that we did not want schools to go ahead with the already agreed plans that are in place between the education Minister, the WLGA and, indeed, our trade unions.
Can I firstly welcome today's news of the Oxford vaccine announcement? And I appreciate the Minister has said quite a lot about that this afternoon, and I thank him for the assurances he gave in a previous answer that north Wales is getting, and will continue to get, its fair share of the vaccine, both the Oxford and the Pfizer vaccine before that, and we'll start to see that when more data is released.
Secondly, Minister, I have been contacted by residents concerned about shielding, particularly those pregnant. If people who are pregnant can't work from home due to their nature of employment— for example, working in a supermarket—once a risk assessment has been carried out by the workplace and the individual still remains extremely anxious about attending work, do you agree with me, Minister, that the employer should then look to furlough that member of staff?
I think it's an interesting question that the Member raises when it comes to staff being furloughed. The starting point is, should an employee be shielding—and we've given clear advice that if you're on the previous shielded list—then our advice is if you can't work from home securely, then our advice is not to go to work, and there's written confirmation of that advice going out to people. For people who are pregnant, just being pregnant isn't a reason for people to undertake that form of shielding advice; it would specifically apply, though, to pregnant women who also have, in particular, heart conditions as well, whether congenital or acquired. In that instance, they would fall within the ambit of the announcement that was made on 22 December, and our advice would be they should not attend work outside home. It is still then a matter of people having a conversation with their employers, and we would expect employers to be sensitive and understanding, even if a pregnant woman is not within the shielded category, to responsibly have that conversation with them and to understand the additional stress and strain that may provide for the woman and her child. So, in those circumstances, it may be that an option is to be furloughed. But that's a conversation that the pregnant woman should have with her employer, and obviously, I'd encourage anyone in that position to make sure they have joined a trade union within the workplace to be supported in having that conversation.
I thank the Minister, and apologies to those Members I wasn't able to call this afternoon because of time constraints. May I take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy new year, and a better new year to you all? And as others have done this afternoon, may I thank everyone who is working here in Wales to keep us all safe and healthy over the Christmas period and into the new year? Good afternoon to you all, and that brings today's proceedings to a close.
The meeting ended at 13:17.