Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd24/03/2020
The Assembly met at 10:00 with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.
Okay. So, we call this Plenary together.
And the first item on the agenda is the motion to suspend Standing Orders, and I call on the First Minister to move that motion. Mark Drakeford.
Motion NNDM7315 Rebecca Evans
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Orders 33.6 and 33.8:
1. Suspends Standing Orders 12.56(i) and (ii) that requires:
a) the First Minister to answer oral questions once, and for a maximum of 60 minutes, in each week that the Assembly meets in Plenary; and
b) each Welsh Minister and the Counsel General to answer oral questions in relation to his or her responsibilities, at least once, and for a maximum of 45 minutes, in every four weeks that the Assembly meets,
so that the First Minister, Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales and the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition are not required to answer oral questions in Plenary on Tuesday 24 March 2020.
2. Suspends Standing Order 12.20(i), 12.22(i) and that part of Standing Order 11.16 that requires the weekly announcement under Standing Order 11.11 to constitute the timetable for business in Plenary for the following week, to allow NNDM7316, the Legislative Consent Motion on the Coronavirus Bill, to be considered in Plenary on Tuesday 24 March 2020.
Thank you very much. The proposal is to suspend Standing Orders. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, we have suspended Standing Orders.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
We move on to the next item, which is questions to the First Minister, and the questions have been transferred for written answer.
First Minister—business statement and announcement.
Dirprwy Lywydd, there have been changes to today's agenda. After the Minister for Health and Social Services and I have made statements, we shall debate the legislative consent memorandum on the coronavirus Bill. All other planned statements will issue as written statements. The debate on the general principles and financial resolution for the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill has been withdrawn from today's agenda.
Finally, as the last item of business today, we will vote on changes to Standing Orders. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the papers available to Members electronically.
Thank you very much. I have no speakers on the business statement, and therefore we'll move on, then.
As the First Minister's indicated, items 4, 5 and 6 have been—. Well, 4 and 5 have been transferred for written answers, and item 6—there are no topical questions.
So, First Minister—a statement by the First Minister on coronavirus.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Wales is facing—
Sorry, First Minister, the translation wasn't working then. It is now. Sorry.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Wales is facing the worst medical crisis for over a century. We must act to safeguard our communities, protect the health service and save lives. The steps that we have already taken are making a difference, but we must do more. Therefore, yesterday, the four Governments of the United Kingdom agreed to introduce serious new measures, and these are necessary to slow the spread of the virus and defend particularly the most vulnerable people. We must all change our way of life. Every part of society has to respond for the benefit of all. Welsh Government is totally focused on this challenge. We will persevere in working closely with our partners to respond to the crisis and to protect the people of Wales.
Dirprwy Lywydd, it's a week since I last answered questions in the Senedd, and many of those questions were about coronavirus. In the course of the last seven days, the scientific advice has been clear. The pace of the spread of the virus has accelerated considerably across the United Kingdom. Today, I have to report that there have been 16 deaths of people diagnosed with coronavirus in Wales, and more than 400 cases confirmed. These figures are rising every day, and will continue to rise over the days and weeks to come.
Dirprwy Lywydd, coronavirus is a virus that is easily transmissible, and against which we have little natural protection. For most people, it will be a mild illness, but, as we know, and as the figures I've just outlined show, some groups of people are more at risk of developing a serious and even fatal illness if they are exposed. The demand on our NHS services is already significant and could become overwhelming. That is why we are all being asked to take a series of unprecedented steps to change the way we live our lives, because that is the best chance we have to slow the spread of the virus. And slowing the speed allows us to protect our NHS and to save lives.
Now, Dirprwy Lywydd, throughout this period, COBRA has met regularly and has taken advice from the four UK chief medical officers and from the scientific group for emergencies. As that advice has evolved, we have progressively tightened the measures we need to take. Since the Senedd last met, we have closed schools, closed down pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants. Yesterday, the Welsh Government took measures to close down caravan parks, camp sites, tourist hotspots and beauty spots to reinforce the guidance about people not gathering in large numbers and keeping their distance. We also announced the strict enforcement by local authorities of the closure of pubs and bars, with the risk of licensees losing their licence if caught flouting the ban.
A few hours later, at the end of yesterday afternoon, COBRA met again to consider even stricter measures. As you will have seen from the statements that I, the Prime Minister, and the First Ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland issued, what was previously advice is now a requirement. For the next three weeks at least, all high-street shops and community spaces will be closed. Food shops, local NHS services, pharmacies, banks and post offices and petrol stations will continue to be open, but all gatherings of more than two people in public will not be permitted.
We must stay at home, leaving only for strictly limited reasons. And the four reasons are these: firstly, shopping for basic necessities—for example, food and medicines—but these trips need to be as infrequent as we can make them. Secondly, we're allowed one form of exercise each day, for example, a run, a walk, or a cycle—alone or with members of your household. Thirdly, we're allowed to leave home for any medical need, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person. And, finally, we can travel to and from work, but only where this absolutely cannot be done from home.
Now, Dirprwy Lywydd, these are extraordinary measures. But, as I've said, they are necessary to reduce the spread of coronavirus and to allow the NHS to save lives. As we all follow these new rules, they will reduce our day-to-day contact with other people and the speed and transmission of the virus. These are rules for everybody—not one of us is an exception. All of our lives have changed, and that includes the way in which this Senedd will work. The measures I have outlined here came into force at midnight last night. They will last for three weeks, when they will be reviewed. The UK Government will provide the police with the powers necessary to enforce these measures, but, of course, I hope very much that we do not reach that point.
Responding to this pandemic is the work of the entire Welsh Government. Last night, the education Minister provided additional guidance to parents and schools in light of these new requirements. The economy Minister has set out advice for businesses, and the environment Minister is having daily discussions with the food and farming industries. The whole Cabinet is focused on the public health emergency in front of us. Today, Ministers would have provided oral statements here about the work they are undertaking, and we will ensure, of course, that those statements are available to Members here and to the public.
The way in which the Welsh Government is able to work so closely with our partners in local government, with the trade unions, with the voluntary sector, with employers and businesses is fundamental to the way we are responding to this pandemic, and I believe a real strength of the way we are able to do things here in Wales.
Dirprwy Lywydd, can I close by thanking everyone for their help and for their support as we face this public health emergency together? This is a very worrying time for families and communities throughout our country, and I know that there will be many, many questions that people have, especially following last night's announcement, and we will try our best to respond to them all.
We have asked a great deal of the public, but particularly of our health and social care staff, of our public services and those many people who have come forward to volunteer. The response in Wales has been genuinely outstanding. And to all of those, I say again, thank you so much—diolch o galon i chi gyd.
Thank you. Paul Davies.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and can I thank you, First Minister, for your statement this morning? And can I also thank you for the regular briefings you've given me over the last few weeks during this unprecedented time? As I've said before, we must put our political differences aside so that we work together to tackle this virus. Can I also take this opportunity to thank everyone who is helping to keep us safe during this crisis and to remind people to stay at home in order to save lives and to protect our NHS?
As the threat of the coronavirus continues to grow, it's absolutely essential that the Welsh Government now reprioritises its finances urgently to ensure that its resources are spent effectively during the course of this outbreak. Can you therefore confirm, First Minister, that the Welsh Government is urgently reprioritising its finances? And perhaps I can even suggest that you consider publishing an emergency budget going forward, so that the Government's finances can be refocused on essential services. Because, as you're aware, over the weekend, a number of local authorities have requested additional financial support to tackle this virus.
Now, as the spread of the virus continues to develop, it's critical that all funding is made available to organisations and schemes that are supporting individuals and businesses affected by the outbreak. Therefore, I hope the Welsh Government will be looking at the funding allocations that it gives to third sector organisations and that, where it needs to, it diverts funding away from organisations that aren't at the front line of delivering key services at this particular time, because this will show that the Welsh Government has appropriately targeted every penny it can to supporting those affected by COVID-19, rather than continuing to fund schemes that are not in the immediate public interest.
And can you therefore confirm, First Minister, that each Welsh Government Minister will urgently assess their funding streams and divert all available resources to tackling the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on Wales? And can you also tell us that any funding distributed to third sector organisations will only be distributed to those delivering key services at this time?
Now, at this time, it's vital that the Welsh Government does everything in its power to support those people who are working to combat the coronavirus, including ensuring that they have access to essential goods and services, such as childcare. Now, last Thursday, the UK Government provided comprehensive guidance on who our key workers are, and the Welsh Government also issued a letter to schools asking that they identify children of people involved in the immediate response to the coronavirus outbreak. However, I understand that some local authorities have ignored this and instead chosen to limit their school provision to those in health, social care and emergency services, contrary to the guidance issued.
Therefore, do you share my view, First Minister, that we need as much support as possible for all those working with us to combat COVID-19, and that we need to ensure there's clarity in the messages issued to the public? And, under those circumstances, what discussions has the Welsh Government had with local authorities and school leaders about ensuring that they are providing school and childcare provision to those working to tackle the outbreak and support those affected by coronavirus? And can you also tell us what planning the Welsh Government has done on how key workers can be supported over the medium and longer term so that they can be confident that provision will continue to be made available whilst they work to tackle the virus and support those that are affected.
Now, of course, as you've just said, First Minister, these are unprecedented times and we should all be very grateful to the hard-working NHS staff who are at the front line doing all that they can to ensure that patients get the health treatment and the support that they need. It's extremely vital that those staff are also taking every precaution possible to keep themselves safe. Where we can, we must look into recruiting professionals in order to ensure that continuity of service continues, and I'm pleased that many health professionals have now answered the calls to return to support the NHS during this crisis.
In the circumstances, First Minister, what immediate action is the Welsh Government taking to ensure that these retired health professionals and, indeed, those that have left for other careers and are now returning are able to return as quickly as and efficiently as possible?
Now, I'm sure you'll agree with me that pharmacies will also play a very important role in the coming weeks to support communities, and I'd be grateful if you would tell us what assessment has the Welsh Government given to the role of community pharmacists at this time, and how their expert advice can be utilised? And, what discussions have taken place with local health boards to, for example, relax rules around issues such as issuing prescriptions, and in particular repeat prescriptions, for those that are now unable to physically attend a surgery to pick up their prescriptions?
Thousands of businesses across Wales are understandably anxious about the impact that the virus currently has on their business and may continue to have on their business. Of course, we've all received correspondence from businesses and the self-employed who tell us that they're struggling to better understand how the Welsh Government can help their business and, crucially, how to access that support as quickly as possible. So, can you tell us what monitoring is the Welsh Government undertaking of the work of Business Wales to ensure that it's getting the right support to businesses in Wales in a timely manner? What specific support is being made available to those businesses that don't currently pay business rates but still need support to keep their businesses afloat?
Now, I asked you last week about food supplies and shortages, and as the virus continues to spread there is a knock-on effect on the ability to get essential supplies to those that need them. I understand that the Welsh Government was meeting last week with third sector representatives and local authorities to discuss how best to get supplies to those most vulnerable, but there still are some very valid concerns amongst local charities across Wales who are supporting communities in getting food supplies to people.
So, could you tell us, therefore, what new measures the Welsh Government is taking to ensure that the most vulnerable in our communities are receiving the supplies that they actually need? What discussions have Government Ministers had with retailers about the role that they could play in supplying essential supplies to local charities and community organisations?
So, with that, Deputy Presiding Officer, can I once again thank the First Minister for his statement this morning? I look forward to receiving further updates from him and, indeed, from the Welsh Government in the coming days and in the coming weeks.
I thank the leader of the opposition for those questions and I entirely agree with the initial points he made. Governments of very different political persuasions across the United Kingdom are working very closely together on a daily basis on a common task.
As far as finances are concerned, our current intention is to bring forward a supplementary budget to realign Welsh Government budgets with the new and urgent priorities. We are doing exactly what Paul Davies suggested in interrogating every budget that every Minister holds to see what might be able to be released from plans that were previously in place in order to be able to fund new and more urgent priorities. The finance Minister will meet every portfolio Minister tomorrow in order to hear from them how much money they are able to release to make sure that that is being done in the most rigorous way possible.
Because we have two priorities and two priorities only, Dirprwy Lywydd: one is to support our essential public services in the efforts they will be making, and the second is to support businesses and people in employment, so that when people emerge from the other side of coronavirus they still have futures and jobs to go to and a prospect in front of them.
We are working closely with the third sector, of course, and they themselves are reprioritising their budgets. We're very grateful to the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, which has dug into its own reserves so that it can put money up immediately to be able to assist third sector organisations to do the extra things that they are keen and able to do.
We work very closely with local authorities, as Paul Davies suggested, in daily contact with key local authority leaders. There was anxiety over the weekend, Dirprwy Lywydd, that the number of parents who would bring children to the new provision on Monday would exceed the 20 per cent of children that is the maximum we can allow into those facilities, otherwise the epidemiological advantage of taking that course of action would be dissipated. There were some local authorities that decided to take a precautionary approach at the start of the week to make sure that that didn't happen. In practice, those difficulties didn't arise. The numbers were at the lower end of what might have been anticipated yesterday, and I know that those local authorities will now be recalibrating their plans. We will be working with those local authorities so that we have medium-term arrangements in place so key workers know not just how they will get through the next couple of weeks but how they will manage beyond Easter as well.
Dirprwy Lywydd, I'm going—I'm sure Members will understand—to leave health questions to my colleague so I can respond to as many other questions as possible. But just to give Paul Davies an assurance, the Bill that we will debate later for LCM purposes does provide the Welsh Government with new ability to accelerate the return to the workplace of retired health and, indeed, social care professionals as well.
We have worked very closely with the UK Government in relation to business support. And we are, of course, monitoring the demands on Business Wales. They have gone up exponentially over the last week, as you can imagine. The number of calls to the helpline, the number of visits to the website, way beyond what would normally be anticipated. We have had to move 21 additional staff to the helpline to be able to deal with the volume of calls, the number of calls, and our ability to respond to them are monitored every day.
Finally, in relation to the food business matters that Paul Davies raised, letters are starting to go out today to those people in the group who need to be shielded from the impact of coronavirus by staying in their own homes not for three weeks but for up to three months. That's a smaller subset of the Welsh population, and those letters will provide people with advice, firstly on why their medical condition requires them to take that course of action, but also the sources of support that will be available to them while they are isolated in that way, and that includes assistance from the food retailers as well.
Can I just end by saying this, and it picks up a point that Paul Davies made about pharmacies as well? I entirely understand the enormous pressures that everybody feels, that people are under pressure and that they act, sometimes, in response to that pressure, but there is no excuse at all for people visiting a community pharmacy or a food retailer to take that frustration out on front-line people who are there to help them. We have seen some examples—they're isolated examples, and we don't want to exaggerate them at all—but we have seen examples of that, and they really are not acceptable. Even in these most difficult of times, we will not accept them here in Wales.
Thank you. Siân Gwenllian.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. The measures announced yesterday are without precedent but are crucial if we are to prevent the further spread of coronavirus. Any steps that will ensure that there is no additional pressure on our health service are to be welcomed in this time of crisis. This is not a national holiday, it is a national crisis, and each and every one of us has a responsibility to comply with these new measures for the benefit of ourselves and for those around us.
May I turn now to the important questions that do arise? First of all, the new guidance published yesterday stating that people should not travel unless it is to carry out essential work or when it is not possible to work from home. This therefore means that many people working freelance will continue to travel and to work, likewise those in the building profession, mechanics and dozens of other professions.
I do think that we need clarity on this issue, and certainly we need clarity as a matter of urgency on the construction industry. As we speak, I see pictures of queues forming outside companies selling building materials, both to the public and to the construction industry. Builders are turning up to work today because they can't do that kind of work from home, of course they can't.
Many of the construction companies will be unwilling to send their workforce home unless there is an order from Government to close down these sites. Now, in having that direction in place, they would then qualify for Government assistance, which would pay 80 per cent of the workforce salaries. Now, for example, there could be an order to close a canteen on a building site, which to all intents and purposes would mean that the site would have to be closed too.
In a sector where health and safety is a priority, these workers will be working close together, and it's totally unacceptable to ask these people to put their health at risk and their colleagues' health at risk. I'd be very grateful if you could provide some clarity on those points.
In the Prime Minister's statement, there was no mention at all of additional support for the self-employed, freelance workers and those on zero-hours contracts. Now, in the absence of any further detail, will you as a Government—as the Welsh Government—commit to pay a basic income to workers in these categories? This is the principled thing to do and, in implementing it, you will receive our full support.
I support your statement of yesterday, which meant that caravan sites would have to close as well as tourist attractions. What steps are in place to ensure that people do comply with that direction not to travel?
In turning now to another concern that's been raised with me by a number of people over the past few days: the fact that NHS workers and even more people working in the care in the community sector don't have the necessary equipment that they need to safeguard them personally and to safeguard those that they care for. This is a cause of huge concern and is unacceptable. When will we have an assurance that everyone will be able to access appropriate equipment? Have you looked at the possibility of using military equipment for this work?
Now, in turning to education—forgive me, I do know that it isn't specifically your responsibility, but there are questions arising here too—if I could start with children in receipt of free school meals, you have said that they will continue to receive food, but how? That can vary from school to school, according to my understanding of the situation. Do you agree with me that giving vouchers to be spent in local shops is the fairest way of acting, in terms of dealing with the stigma of children having to get packed lunches from schools? Vouchers would also reduce unnecessary travel.
You say in the guidance provided by the education department:
'If one parent is a critical worker but the other parent is not then the other parent should provide safe alternative arrangements at home when possible.'
Those words 'when possible': what does that mean? This is creating some confusion for people.
And in terms of learning, for the pupils, of course, who want to continue to learn during this time, there is much activity that can happen online and we are very grateful to the teachers providing that material. But, of course, not every child and not every pupil will have their own laptop. They often have to share. If it had happened at my house, with four children and myself all working from home, then it would have been very difficult for everyone to get by using just the one laptop. And not every home has broadband, of course; not every home has an internet connection.
So, do you agree with Plaid Cymru that every child that doesn’t have a laptop should be given one and every home should have a connection to the internet? Will you work with Openreach to deal with the problem of slow broadband in rural areas? There are some children who can’t get online at all because of problems with broadband. There is a specific concern about the early years sector and childcare sectors. Can you guarantee that financial support will remain in place for all sorts of providers? We do need some clarity on that.
It will be a time of getting used to some very far-reaching changes to our daily lives. For many, it’s also a period of financial uncertainty, but for each and every one of us, the need to ensure that we deal with the virus and prevent its spread is a priority, and we will work constructively with you in that great effort. Thank you.
Well, Deputy Presiding Officer, thank you very much to Siân Gwenllian for those questions and for the manner in which she and other people in her party have collaborated constructively with us over this period of crisis. I completely agree with her that this is the message that it’s important for us to convey to people: when people are not in work, it’s not a bank holiday. We are facing a public health crisis and it’s important that people respond to the crisis in their approach to their everyday tasks in their lives.
Siân had a number of questions. As regards self-employed people, we expect to receive something from the United Kingdom Government. We’re not sure whether we will hear today or sometime during this week, but that’s up to them. We have no funding. Paul Davies alluded to the demands on the funding that we hold from public services and other important services. There isn’t sufficient funding in our budget to put a plan in place. We are looking to the United Kingdom Government, and we have heard from them—they are working hard at the Treasury to plan for greater help and support for people in that situation.
On what I was saying yesterday about the caravans, in the regulations that I signed off at 9.30, approximately, last night, in those regulations there are measures in place, powers for the local authorities to collaborate with the police to cope with the new situation. We have worked closely with people within the sector too, and they are eager to pursue what we have said and to collaborate and co-operate with us.
Vaughan Gething will be able to respond on the PPE, but just to say, Deputy Presiding Officer, I have given civil servants the powers, or the authority, to approach the Ministry of Defence officially and to set up a new agreement or contract between ourselves and the army here in Wales to receive the assistance and support that they can give and that they are willing to give. Support in the planning field: they can help us greatly with logistics, as they call it, but also with people.
In the field of education, to me, the best way for us to deal with free school meals is to give families money through the child benefit system.
So, here is a universal benefit that goes to all children, certainly all children who will be entitled to free school meals. I understand vouchers may well have a place to play, but my preferred option is that those families just get money so that they can put food in front of their children while the school system is not operating normally, and we put all of that to the UK Government yesterday. In the meantime, we're making and mending, for now, to try and make sure that, where vouchers are the right answer, we can do that, to support local economies in the way that Siân suggested, and where that isn't possible, to make sure that there is at least food the children can pick up. And even under the new, very strict arrangements that are being put in place as from today, in Wales, children will still be allowed to go to school and collect food if that is the arrangement that is in place there.
As for the point that Siân made, of course, teachers are working very hard to make sure there are online resources, but that will not be sufficient for everybody, and I know that there are plans—. The Minister for Education is working with the sector to find other ways in which those young people for whom that is not a viable way of maintaining their education, that there are other ways in which they can be assisted too.
In the rental sector, just to say, we're taking the powers in the Bill that comes before the Senedd today to assist people in the private rental sector. We now have an agreement with the public sector, with the housing associations and the local authorities too to assist people over the ensuing period. We announced last Friday an additional £10 million to help local authorities with services for the homeless, and there's more that we want to and can do as well.
First Minister, can I firstly put on record my thanks to all of our key workers that are keeping our emergency and front-line services going, but also to put on record my thanks to you and to your Ministers for the way in which you've been handling this unprecedented situation that the country finds itself in? The regular updates and information, together with tailoring to the specific needs of Wales, has been very welcome and has helped me in advising my constituents in what has been a very worrying and distressing time for many people. And can I also say that you have my full support for the additional measures announced last night, which are a matter of a national necessity at present?
A number of questions have already been put to you and have been dealt with, however I wanted to raise two specific issues with you. Firstly, in terms of personal safety. I'm sure that I'm not alone in continuing to be alarmed at the behaviour of people in supermarkets across the country. Now, from where I live in Merthyr, I can see the big Tesco superstore, and I see, every morning, huge crowds going into that supermarket and coming out with trolleys full of goods that, in all honesty, they're never going to be able to use in just the space of a few days. And apart from the anti-social behaviour of stockpiling—which deprives other people of essential goods at a time when there should be no shortage—my main concern is the threat to public safety that people shopping in such numbers causes.
Now, as I understand it from friends that I have living in France, this isn't happening there. In France, only one person per trolley is allowed into the store. Everyone who comes into the store is offered hand sanitizer as they enter and they leave. There are one-way systems in operation, and clearly marked distancing in the stores. People are not attending in hordes, they're not stockpiling and panic buying, and no-one is going short. So, my question is: is there something that we can learn from how they are managing this in France? And are we now at a stage where some kind of restriction needs to be placed, both to support public safety but also to ensure that everyone can get their fair share of essential goods?
Secondly, this is an education matter, First Minister, so you may not be able to answer this, but I had a very distressed constituent contact me to say that as she's now on a zero-hours contract and currently has no work, she's applied for universal credit, but as we know, she'll have to wait a number of weeks before that comes through. In the meantime, she has two children at school, who up till now have not qualified—because she has been earning until this point—have not been eligible for free school meals, so while she can now apply to get them free school meals because of her changed circumstances, the process takes time, and the local authority, whilst they're not unsympathetic and know that the Welsh Government will provide additional money to deal with the current free school meal arrangements, are uncertain about whether additional money will come through for adding further emergency free school meals to their numbers. So, my questions are: do we know what arrangements DWP are putting in place to speed up universal credit payments, so that people like my constituent don't have to wait for five weeks for money due to them in this situation; and will additional money be made available to local authorities to allow them to both fast-track free school meal applicants and also to pay for the additional meals that would need to be made available?
Dirprwy Lywydd, I thank Dawn Bowden for those questions. Thank you for what she said at the start about the flow of information from the Welsh Government. The Welsh Government is in no different position to any other organisation; we have significant numbers of people not in work because of illness or self-isolation and we are instituting a very strict work-from-home policy, so sometimes, the work of getting that information out falls on very few shoulders and people are working very hard, and I know that sometimes we're having to work even harder to catch up because of the rapidly moving position, but grateful to Dawn for what she said about the usefulness of that.
In relation to supermarkets and safety, I'm certain there are things we can learn from other places. Supermarkets are recruiting additional security staff, some supermarkets have already instituted a one-way system around the store. We talked yesterday with other UK Governments about measures that we might be able to put in place and there are powers that we could use in Wales if the position demanded it.
A billion-pounds-worth of food beyond the normal sale disappeared off shelves across the United Kingdom last week and is now sitting in people's larders, and the advice to people must be to start eating it, because there is no need to go on adding to it. The sector is absolutely clear: there is enough food in the system. The problem is not the supply. The problem is in the way in which people—understandably, I'm not being critical of people—the way in which people have responded to the anxiety that they feel. But if people are able to get on a more even keel, supermarkets able to do the things they say that they can do, then so far, we believe that the position can be stabilised and people do not need to worry about there being insufficient food in the system: it is there.
As to universal credit, the DWP, I know, have been very badly affected by people self-isolating and people being unwell. They have a huge increase in the number of people who are out of work and needing to make claims, and fewer people to respond to them. We were told by the Secretary of State at the DWP yesterday that they are working to strip out some of the complexity in the system to make it easier and quicker. I make an appeal again to the UK Government to abandon the five-week waiting period for universal credit. That is the single biggest barrier that people face; the fact that even when you do manage to fight your way through the system, you still have to wait five weeks and people in the current emergency are just not in a position to do that. So I say again, as I said yesterday to the Secretary of State, 'Please, change that rule.'
As to free school meals, the Welsh Government announced £7 million in additional funding for local authorities on Friday to help them deal with the increased number of students coming through the door with free school meals. Let me be clear with local authorities: free school meals are an entitlement. If a child meets the rules, the child gets a free school meal, and there is no rationing ability that local authorities have to choose between children in that position. I understand the anxieties, of course, of local authorities faced with bills that they worry about how they might pay—that's why we announced the £7 million extra—but the child is the most important thing in that equation. If a child is now entitled to a free school meal where they weren't until recently, we must make sure that they get it.
Thank you for your statement, First Minister, and also for the briefings that you've given me. I would also like to offer my condolences to the family and friends of those who have lost the battle to this dreadful disease. I want to give thanks on behalf of myself and my party to all of those putting their lives at risk to protect us from the coronavirus pandemic.
Who would have thought just a few weeks ago that we would be facing this terrible threat to life and placing our entire society on hold? It took a couple of months for this new coronavirus to infect 100,000 people and a couple of weeks to infect the next 100,000 people, and a couple of days to spread to the next 100,000. We don't know an awful lot about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but we do know that it's highly infectious and very deadly, and far more deadly than seasonal flu that kills nearly 0.5 billion worldwide each year, and we have a vaccine for flu.
At this moment in time, we have no available treatments or vaccines for coronavirus, which is why I'm astounded that people continue to ignore all the warnings and all the medical advice. So, unless we stop the spread, COVID-19 could kill tens of thousands of people in Wales. First Minister, the advice from all four Governments is to stay at home and only leave infrequently to shop for essential items, to fulfil any medical or care needs, or to travel to work where absolutely necessary.
First Minister, there is a lot of confusion surrounding essential work. The guidance around retail, leisure and hospitality has to be very clear, but there is much more confusion from other sectors. I have constituents who are glaziers, for example, insurance claim assessors and people working in call centres all confused about whether they should go to work. So, can the Welsh Government give clear guidance in Wales as to what is considered essential work?
It's not hyperbole to say that lives depend upon us all doing the right thing and unless we take decisive action now, this pandemic could really get out of hand, and we will all lose loved ones and people we know to this invisible killer.
We also place tremendous strain on those on the front line of the battle to control coronavirus. Our NHS staff—the doctors, nurses and those working around the clock—to save those in acute respiratory distress. People need to understand that COVID-19 is not like flu, and while people shouldn't panic, they should be made more aware with graphic details of the seriousness of the disease. They need to do as instructed: stay at home if you can and stay away from other people. We all need to do our part to relieve the burden on those at the forefront of the battle against coronavirus. First Minister, what more can we do to assist doctors and nurses, aside from all of us adhering to the advice? Shouldn't we be ensuring that all front-line staff receive deliveries of food and other essentials so that they don't have to battle at supermarkets after spending 24 to 48 hours battling coronavirus?
We quite rightly heap praise on our health and social care workforce for their actions to keep us safe during this public health emergency, but we must also thank the shop workers, the delivery drivers and a whole host of businesses that are also ensuring we all continue to have access to the essentials of life. But we mustn't forget your officials and those across Government who are working around the clock to put the support measures in place, so thank you for this.
Policy is having to be devised on the hoof as we react to a constantly shifting situation, and it's easy to criticise but policies that are made under such circumstances are bound to have issues. We can't avoid cracks, we just have to ensure that no-one and no business falls between them. I am constantly inundated with calls from business owners regarding their future and the financial predicament they find themselves in, which we know is unprecedented, but it is important to ease their minds regarding this.
I welcome the decision to refund seasonal ticket holders impacted by the virus outbreak and the news that NHS staff are to receive free travel on public transport. However, as services are reduced, particularly on trains, the services are becoming more crowded, putting people at greater danger of contracting COVID-19. So, First Minister, will you ensure that Transport for Wales train services have additional carriages to allow enough space for social distancing, particularly if NHS staff are to continue using these services? Unfortunately, not all staff are able to work from home, so while the demand on public transport can be reduced, it can't be totally eliminated. Up until a few weeks ago, we were actively encouraging people to leave their cars and catch the train or the bus. Now, Government advice is to avoid public transport. First Minister, what additional steps can you take to ensure the safety of those who have no choice but to rely upon public transport? Services have been reduced across Wales, but surely we should be doing whatever we can to reduce overcrowding, even if that means more services.
With large sectors of the Welsh economy quite rightly put on hold while we fight this virus, this leaves many facilities and segments of the workforce on hiatus. What consideration has the Welsh Government given to finding alternative uses for these sectors to aid in the fight against coronavirus? For example, will you be encouraging brewers to switch production to alcohol gel, and will Government be removing any tax liabilities for such a move? Have you considered the role the hospitality sector can play in supporting key workers? I also echo the First Minister's request regarding the five-week wait for universal credit.
Thank you, once again, First Minister. If we all work together whilst maintaining a healthy distance, we can beat this disease and return to life as normal in the not-too-distant future. Thank you.
Dirprwy Lywydd, can I thank Caroline Jones for that? I thought she made an important point in the beginning about just how quickly our lives have been changed in a very few weeks, and it's not surprising that many of our fellow citizens find themselves confused as a result, and I know that huge numbers of them come to their Members of the Senedd looking for answers. If I could ask Members just one thing, it would be to go to the advice that we have published already to see if the answers are there. If the answers aren't there, then, of course, Members should contact the relevant Minister and ask for further advice, but because we are putting up advice all the time, I think it's quite likely that some of those questions will already have answers and they just need exploring so that people can get the best information.
Dirprwy Lywydd, I want to say again: most people will experience a very mild episode of this illness. The problem is that while you are asymptomatic you could be passing the virus on to somebody who is much more vulnerable. So, the reason why we are asking people to stay home is not because we think that lots and lots of people will be very seriously ill, but it's because by staying at home you don't pose that risk to others and we can slow the curve of the disease.
There are many examples of organisations across Wales offering help, both with health workers but in the social care sector as well. Can I commend those many members of the hospitality sector who've offered accommodation for key workers, so that they don't have to travel distances home but can stay near their place of work, or who contact the Government to say, 'We're really used to serving food. We know what it's like to look after people. We would be willing to put those skills and capacities at the service of social care providers in this locality, to help them if their staff aren't available'? And we're doing our best to be a broker between those offers and the people we know who need it.
Can I say that Caroline Jones made some very important points about transport? And we're in continued discussion with Transport for Wales about getting the balance right, and I discussed this yesterday with the Mayor of London, where similar issues are faced in relation to tube overcrowding. Tube services are down to half of what they normally would be, and that is having the effect of drawing people close together in the tubes that are running, and we are trying to learn lessons together across the United Kingdom, in constant discussion with Transport for Wales and bus operators, trying to strike the right balance. Bus numbers and train numbers are down in terms of passengers, but, nevertheless, we need sufficient services so that people aren't forced to be in too close proximity with others because they're having to use that reduced level of service.
Thank you. You can see the clock is in the red zone, but I will extend this. However, can I just make a gentle plea? We've had the four main speakers from the four parties here. Can I make a plea that if your question has been raised, could you not raise it, and can you seek to be—I will extend, as I say, but can you seek to be brief? So, please, no long speeches before you ask your questions. Then there is an opportunity for the statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services afterwards, as the First Minister has said—if it's health related, could you wait, and I'll make sure that I do my best to call you in that one? And I believe that—. As I say, I will extend this, but the First Minister does have other things that mean he'll have to go away and seek to do. So, with that gentle health warning—Alun Davies.
That was very kind, Deputy Presiding Officer. First Minister, I think many of us wish to echo the thanks that have been extended across the Chamber this morning to all those people who work within the national health service and in other parts of the public sector, ensuring that we are all safe and our families are kept safe, and also to you and your team of Ministers and officials who have been working hard to ensure that those public service workers do have the resources that they need to do their job.
In terms of delivering this policy, we need a number of different things to be in place. We need the law to be in place and in the right place, and we'll be doing that later today. We need the resources to be available to people, and I know that Ministers are making great efforts to ensure that that happens. But we also need people to feel that they are able to both protect their family by ensuring they do follow the instructions and the advice from Government, but they're also able to afford to do that. I've received a number of correspondence over the last few days from constituents who have been told by their managers and bosses that they must go to work, that their work is essential, whatever it happens to be. There needs to be clarity for people to feel able to say to their employers that they don't feel that they're able to do so. And we need to ensure that employers who do behave towards their workforce are told very, very clearly that that is no longer acceptable. So, we do need, I think, a very clear analysis of what is essential and what isn't essential.
Members have already raised the issue of self-employed people. There are a number of self-employed people in my constituency in Blaenau Gwent who are terrified over the prospect of the next few weeks and losing all their income. We need to be able to ensure that self-employed people are protected in the same way as people who have employment.
I've also been contacted by many supply teachers who are concerned about the situation that they are facing with the closure of schools. In the same way, First Minister, many social enterprises, of course, are not covered by the support being given to business, and many social enterprises in my constituency, whether they're social enterprises that provide services to constituents or social enterprises such as working men's clubs and community centres, are facing very real difficulties, and I'd be grateful if you could outline how the Welsh Government can provide support for those people, those charities and third sector organisations at this time.
You have already this morning answered questions on support for local government, and I think there was a very warm welcome throughout the country for the £7 million that was given to ensure that there is sufficient funding for free school meals. And many of us will repeat the words that you used earlier that free school meals are an entitlement, and are something that all children who qualify should be able to access. But there are also issues about the resources that local government have. My own local authority has said that they do have difficulties getting access to sufficient personal protection equipment, and that is something that I think concerns all of us. But all local authorities, of course, could be helped out if the Government were to take certain measures, such as bringing forward the revenue support grant payments to ensure that there is less reliance on council tax income immediately, at a time when many people might be finding difficulties with that, and also to have a council tax reduction scheme, whereby people who have lost their incomes over the coming months will be able to feel protected in some way, so that there is a range of support available to local government, to enable them to respond to the challenges that they face.
And of course, some of the most vulnerable people will be reached by local government. And it is one of the things that terrifies me—that we have said to a lot of vulnerable groups, whether they be over 70s, or people with longstanding or underlying health conditions, that they should stay at home. That is difficult, of course, if they can't get access to food via supermarket deliveries, or whether the supermarkets—in the same way as Dawn Bowden has already outlined—are where there is the biggest congregation and gathering of people today. There needs to be action urgently taken to address the issue around supermarkets at the moment.
And, in terms of access to information—you responded to this earlier—I am seriously concerned about the ability of the BBC, and other broadcasters, to communicate effectively what is happening throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. I've listened to a number of different broadcasts, where the BBC, in particular, has broadcast information that is wholly and completely inaccurate, because it is simply focusing on England, and not on the United Kingdom as a whole. This is a matter that the current director general assured me, when I was a Minister with responsibility for broadcasting policy, would be addressed. He hasn't addressed it, and he's failed to address it. And that is something that, in this emergency, is becoming something of a crisis.
Finally—and to test your patience, Deputy Presiding Officer—I have received a question from Jenny Rathbone, who is unable to be here today, since she is self-isolating, about homeless people in the centre of Cardiff. There are a number of people who are homeless in the city centre, and she's very concerned that action is taken in order to protect them at this time as well. I'm grateful.
Can I thank Alun Davies for those points? And can I thank him particularly for the way, over the weekend, that he was able to supply information to me, to help us with the decisions that we were making, and to test those against some of the circumstances on the ground in parts of Wales? Of course, employers must abide by the rules. We saw an example earlier today of a sports company, apparently, believing that they were an essential service; I think they've been disabused of that in the meantime. But the rules are clear, and no employer should be pressurising somebody who is not a key worker to behave as though they were.
I entirely agree with the point that Alun Davies made about the self-employed. It is invidious that there are some people who have the protection that the UK Government has offered—and I absolutely welcome the steps that the Chancellor took last week, in a wage subsidy for people who are employed but temporarily not working. We need the self-employed to have a similar sort of guarantee. Our colleague, Jane Hutt, is working very closely with the third sector, and with social enterprises, as well, to learn of the issues that face that sector, and to see what further help we could offer to them.
I agree with what the Member for Blaenau Gwent said about the importance of local government, of course. The RSG is there—local authorities can rely on that in organising their finances. What we have done is to work with them to radically simplify the grants regime, so that it's easier for local authorities to move money between different grant sources, and to be less prescriptive than we would normally be about money being used for particular purposes, where those purposes have been overtaken by more urgent needs. And I think the decision that this Assembly took a decade ago, to sustain a council tax benefit system here in Wales, will stand us in good stead. And again, it's not a permissive scheme—there's an entitlement there. If your income is of a certain sort, and you meet the threshold, you will get help with council tax here in Wales.
I reflect on the point that Alun Davies made about the communication challenge, and it is a challenge, and I think local broadcasters rise to that challenge pretty well most of the time. It's when you turn on a national broadcaster and hear them mangle the responsibilities, as they are currently distributed across the United Kingdom, that I do my best not to allow my blood pressure to rise. But, sometimes, they do get it so badly wrong, and, therefore, are misleading people who hear them, that it's difficult not to feel angry about it.
Finally, in relation to Jenny's point, Cardiff is facing some very particular challenges in relation to its homeless population in this context. It's why we announced the £10 million early to assist them in doing that. I know that the local authority have plans; they have identified new accommodation that they hope to be able to bring rapidly into use to help that population. But, given the nature of the virus, the vulnerability of the population and the struggle that there can sometimes be to provide help in a way that they are able to take that help, I know that all local authorities are doing their best to respond to a complex and demanding set of circumstances.
Thank you. I am going to finish this statement by 11:15, so I think I probably will get four more speakers in, in fairness to the First Minister and to those. So, the people I intend to call will be Russell, George, Neil McEvoy, Neil Hamilton and Hefin David. Those of you who are on the list to speak, I will do my best to put you in at the top of the list on the next statement, or even on the legislative consent motion. So, Russell George.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'll be as quick as I possibly can going through my questions. And can I first of all say, First Minister, that I'm very happy to work very constructively with your finance and business and economy Ministers in a constructive way to help support the business economy of Wales? And I very much hope that your colleagues are listening in—I'm sure they are—to the issues I am raising today, because if you aren't able to answer the questions and address them, which I understand and fully accept, then, I hope they will be able to pick these up, perhaps in a written statement.
You referred to Business Wales as being a one-stop shop last week, and I was very pleased to hear your answer to Paul Davies earlier that 21 additional staff have now been put onto that line. Can I ask, First Minister, in terms of the website, are you absolutely certain that that is the most up-to-date information? I appreciate that there will be some time lag when putting, perhaps, UK Government information on there, but are you sure of that? Because, if that's out of date, in any way, then that puts pressure, of course, on the line and Assembly Members' offices, et cetera. So, confirmation of that would be appreciated.
And can I ask also, in terms of the grants available for small businesses? A £10,000 grant for businesses with a rateable vale of under £12,000 and then £25,000 between £12,000 and £51,000 roughly; can I ask who is administrating that, when are they administrating it and how are they administrating it? Is it local authorities? I'd assume so, but perhaps you could provide some clarity on that.
Yesterday, a lot of businesses would have received business rates demands. I'm sure that it would be helpful if you could put on the record that often, they will have gone out before these decisions were made, and that will offer some reassurance to businesses. But there is some more detail on that, such as, for example, perhaps premises that have been empty for six months or 12 months. Are they going to receive that? Perhaps some clarity around that, which would be helpful.
Also, in terms of business rates, the relief, and in terms of the grants available, what is detailed as a retail or leisure or hospitality business? Your finance Minister made a statement last week. Is that including bed and breakfast or guest houses or hotels, for example? So, how can a business find out what classification they're in, in terms of whether they're a retail business? I'm sure that that's a variable, but if details of a website could be appointed to that, it would be very helpful.
And, currently, business support relief relates only to business premises with a rateable value of £51,000. I really don't think that's sufficient. I really do think that needs to be higher, because there are many small businesses and family-run businesses with a rateable value of over £51,000. So, perhaps you could address that issue. Perhaps the business or finance Minister will address that in the statement later today, but if that could be addressed—.
Also, in terms of what is an 'essential business', I'm sure all AMs across this Chamber would have received emails in their inboxes asking for advice. I think that businesses want to follow the Government advice, and they want clarity from us, so the interpretation of that—I appreciate that there could be a statement that’s read, but I do think that there needs to be a list, specifically, of what an essential business is. For example, is a manufacturing business? It depends what they manufacture. Is a construction worker, working lonely by themselves, for example?
And also, can I ask if you’ve got any details of how the UK Government scheme in terms of the job retention scheme is going to be funded? How is that going to be administrated, and how is that going to come forward? I appreciate that it’s not in your back entirely, but details on that would be helpful.
Also, in terms of advice and scrutiny of Ministers, but more advice, would you be accepting for Assembly Members to have telephone conversations with Ministers, perhaps with civil servants in a conference call style, because I think we do need to have advice—not scrutiny, but advice. And also, could you consider giving the telephone numbers of civil servants directly to Assembly Members in this particular time, to take pressure off Ministers to get answers to questions that we know that are coming before us?
Very finally, of a related matter, Laura Ashley in my own constituency went into administration last week. Normally, this would be a top headline, but clearly it’s not, it’s dropped down, but, there are between 500 and 600 people that are employed in Newtown and the area. Clearly, many families are employed by Laura Ashley together— the whole family is employed—and I wonder what discussions you may have had with the company. Have you been involved, has the Welsh Government been involved in terms of finding a buyer? And what support will be available for those staff who are affected? Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I’ll check the point about the Business Wales website. Of course, we are doing our best to keep it up to date. It has had a huge number—thousands and thousands—of views over the last week, and it is one of the main ways in which we get information to people. So, I’ll make sure that it is—. Well, I’ll raise it with Ken Skates who will do that.
How we get the money to firms, the administration arrangements are still being finalised. I know that it’s frustrating, but I have to repeat, in a way, the point I made last week that, while we are as keen as we can be to get the money to people, in the end, it is public money, and you can’t simply just write people a cheque for £25,000 simply on their say so. So, you have to have some basic administration so that we can be sure that when this is over, we can account properly for the way in which the money was disbursed.
Of course, Russell George is right, the business rates demands that have landed on people’s mats are overtaken by events, they’re no longer relevant and people will be able to know that. I’m not certain that I have the same figures as he does about the £51,000 level in Wales, and the number of businesses that are actually above that, and we are providing local authorities with some additional discretionary rate relief funding so that businesses that don’t quite fit the normal rules, people who are close to the ground and understand why that business might need help, are able to make that decision. I will talk with my Cabinet colleagues, and Russell George is quite right; Cabinet colleagues will be listening to proceedings and there’s a Cabinet meeting after this session is over, so I’ll take up the point about the best way for Assembly Members to get advice.
Finally, can I express our real sympathy for those employees of Laura Ashley? As Russell George said, in any other time we would be spending a lot of our time talking about that, and Welsh Government is very closely involved in that situation, particularly in relation to an alternative buyer, and what such a buyer might want to do with that business and how it would affect employment in Newtown, in particular. So, we are focussed on the future and trying to make sure that where there are opportunities for that business to continue in a different form, and under different arrangements, we’ll do our best to support that and to deliver that for the people of that part of Wales.
Thank you. Neil McEvoy.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Thank you for your statement, First Minister, and I hope that all your family and loved ones are well. The World Health Organization has been very clear, and they say that what we need to do is test, test, test. They say that we need to test every suspected case of coronavirus because they tell us that failing to test is like trying to fight a fire blindfolded.
Now, I've been sat in isolation for two weeks and, ultimately, I was able to get a test from a private company and it showed that I don't have coronavirus. My dad has just had heart surgery, so my mother was extremely relieved to hear that, with the worry that I might have passed something on. Now, many families are in this situation. So, I think tests should be readily available for every suspected case, particularly of key workers, and particularly of key workers whose family are showing symptoms and, as a result, NHS workers right now are in isolation because their family members cannot be tested. If we're able to test, then we can get the economy moving, keep the front-line services going and protect people in the NHS, who are very, very brave people, putting themselves on the line, doing a heroic job for every one of us here.
The World Health Organization say that testing is a fundamental part of fighting the pandemic because we need to know where the virus is if we're going to fight it. The testing kits can be readily available, but they're still very difficult to come across. It doesn't have to be like that. So, what action will you take to ensure that all suspected cases of coronavirus are tested? Because this is what the World Health Organization is calling for. So, my first part of the contribution is: will you listen to the World Health Organization and follow advice and take action to make sure every suspected case is tested?
Secondly, I want to raise the matter of people stuck abroad. I've received messages from people, while sat here, in Australia. There are constituents in the Gambia, there are constituents still in Peru, and there seems to be inertia on the part of the UK Government. So, what will the Welsh Government do? Will the Welsh Government step up to the plate and support our people who are stuck abroad? Some people are lacking medication as well. They'll need medication very shortly, because they didn't plan to stay so long. So, in terms of those stuck abroad, what will the Welsh Government do in the circumstances? Diolch yn fawr.
Dirprwy Lywydd, I thank the Member for his personal good wishes at the start, and it's very good to know that his own test proved negative and that he's able to be here this morning.
On the business of testing, of course we are aware of the advice of the World Health Organization, but that advice is mediated for us by the four chief medical officers and by the scientific advisory group, because the World Health Organization, it's a world body, its advice applies across a vast number of countries and it has to be then interpreted in the local context. And we test that regularly with the people who advise us. They're absolutely aware of the WHO advice and they make sure that they then give us the best advice as to how what the WHO is saying can be put to work in the local context. My colleague Vaughan Gething will say more, I'm sure, when he's answering questions, about the rapid rise in the number of tests we are going to be able to carry out here in Wales, and, particularly, in a point that Neil McEvoy made, how we can make sure that those people at the front line and who are out of work because they are self-isolating—how we can accelerate their return to the workplace.
I'm very aware of the points the Member made about people who are abroad. All of us, I'm sure, will be hearing from families in our constituencies who are in that position. My understanding is that the position in Peru has been resolved and that people are being brought home. What we do as a Government is to make sure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are alert to and know about the circumstances of Welsh citizens. We don't have a locus as a Welsh Government that allows us to negotiate directly with other foreign Governments—they will only deal with a state-level organisation. But we make sure that we collect information that Members pass to us and then advocate on behalf of those Welsh citizens with those who have the ability to make those decisions and to make them in a way that provides the help that people who are stuck elsewhere desperately need.
Can I commend the Welsh Government also for the constructive role that it's played in this national coalition that's been formed to cope with and, ultimately, defeat the coronavirus outbreak? In answer to Dawn Bowden earlier on, the First Minister encouraged people to stop buying and start eating. Can I also encourage him to put out another message: start growing? We have a massive deficit in this country in the growth of fruit and vegetables. We import a lot from abroad that we could well grow ourselves, and, in this glorious spring weather, this is the perfect opportunity for people to get their exercise not by running outside their own areas, but actually in the garden itself. I've been digging the garden over the weekend, and I feel a lot better for it. I think this could be, in many ways, beneficial to the country, not just for its physical health, but also its spiritual health as well. In the coming weeks, when people are stuck at home for much longer than they're normally used to, this could be a very useful way of employing themselves and avoiding some of the worst aspects of social isolation.
Neil Hamilton makes an important point about mental health and well-being, and we're very concerned about that aspect of the advice that we're now asking people to follow, which is why people are encouraged to take exercise every day. I do have an ambition, Dirprwy Lywydd, to use my one opportunity for exercise to cycle to my allotment. I've been looking at my packets of seeds to see the most rapidly growing vegetables, because, while it's good for me, and I absolutely enjoy it, I'm not going to be able to rely on that as a source of food over the weeks ahead. But the point that Neil Hamilton makes about people using the opportunities they have, where they have them, to do things that are therapeutic for you in that well-being sense is a point well made.
Thank you. Finally, Hefin David.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I want to thank the people of Caerphilly for the questions that they've sent me on my Facebook page, and an awful lot of the questions that they've asked have been answered, but I want to specifically focus on those that haven't. First of all, I've been asked about education settings and support for children with additional learning needs. For those children with particularly difficult learning needs that require extra support, the education Minister's statement could have fleshed out that a bit more. So, can we have some more information about support for children with additional learning needs?
With regard to the children of key workers, I've had a specific question from a resident who says: if both parents are key workers with children under school age, can the child be transported to a non-vulnerable relative to provide childcare, or can the relative travel to a house to support childcare for those key workers if they are unable to access a childcare setting, for example?
The other question I've had is from a resident who is running a Facebook page called Caerphilly Coronavirus Support. She's been a wonderful volunteer, and Caerphilly County Borough Council have a database of volunteers who have been wanting to help those people in the community who have no support from family, because they don't have family, or from neighbours, because they may be isolated. Those volunteers still want to volunteer. Given that Caerphilly council has that database, how will they be able to volunteer, if at all?
I've had questions about the trains and the fact the trains were overcrowded yesterday. I suspect that overcrowding will reduce, but one issue is that healthcare workers to the Heath are unable to get there for 8 o'clock starts, because the first trains run on the Rhymney line from 08:15, and there was an issue with that.
A number of people have raised a question about getting MOTs in order to keep their cars on the road, and I understand garages are entitled to stay open. Are people then entitled to use the garages to get their MOTs in order to remain mobile?
Finally, I've had a question about community journalism. The Caerphilly Observer receives £24,000 from the Welsh Government's community journalism fund. Hyperlocal journalism is hugely important. Can you ensure any communication revenue funding made available by Welsh Government and Public Health Wales is fairly and evenly distributed among local and relevant independent community news network hyperlocal journalists' press organisations in Wales? And can the remaining pot of money in the fund be distributed quickly now to support those journalism organisations, as it is currently sitting there and unable to be accessed?
Dirprwy Lywydd, I thank Hefin David for those questions. I'll take up the final points about community journalism with the Minister responsible.
My understanding of people needing to take cars to garages is that they are able to do that. So, people shouldn't be driving cars that are not safe or without MOTs.
The specific question about where two people are key workers and have a child who can be looked after by somebody else—I think they are covered by the rules, and allow that child to be transported to the person who will be looking after them. That's within yesterday's announcement.
As to volunteers, of course we will want people to go on volunteering. One of the reasons that people are able to leave home is to help a vulnerable person, and we will be relying on volunteers, particularly for those who are needing to be shielded for many weeks, to help us with that effort, and local authorities, I think, are doing a great job in being a broker between those who need that help and people, those very generous people in large numbers, who've come forward offering to help.
Finally, in relation to children with additional learning needs, my colleague Kirsty Williams remains in discussions with local authorities about special schools. Where children have a physical illness or a physical condition that renders them vulnerable they should stay at home, but we know that special schools and children with additional needs are not always people who are physically compromised, and the school is often the rock around which their life is organised and the rhythm of the school day is what gives their life a sense of order. We're talking with our local authority colleagues on making sure that those children who need that sort of help can continue to receive it.
Thank you very much, First Minister. Thank you.
We now move to item 8, which is the statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on coronavirus, COVID-19. The Minister for health.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. We have already heard the First Minister outline the range of extraordinary measures that four Governments across the UK have taken over recent days—measures that have been necessary to respond to the seriousness of this situation, because this is a public health emergency. My overriding priority remains to reduce both the direct and indirect harm from coronavirus, to protect communities and safeguard vulnerable people, to provide care to patients, to look after the welfare and well-being of our health and social care workforce, and to ensure our health and social care system is as prepared, equipped and as resilient as it can be for the weeks ahead. Ultimately, every step that I take is for the clear purpose of saving as many lives as possible.
Over the last week we have seen a continued increase in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Wales. Sadly, we've had further deaths, and I am truly sorry that any family has lost a loved one and want to extend my sincere condolences to all those who have already been affected.
I understand that people are worried. I am too. I understand that people are looking to protect themselves and their families. I am too. Some people are choosing to stock up on essential items or isolating themselves in more remote areas away from their usual home. I ask people in these uncertain times to remain calm, to be thoughtful, to think of your families, and to think of others too. All of the actions that I am taking with colleagues in the Welsh Government are designed to protect you and your families. I do recognise the temptation to buy extra food or products to care for your loved ones. But there is enough food for everyone if we shop as normal and do not stockpile. Whilst I understand the anxiety that leads to stockpiling, it hurts the most vulnerable and the people with the most limited means. It also hurts people who cannot necessarily get to shops early. As we know, these are often people in our emergency services, in our social care workforce and in our NHS—the very people that we are relying on now more than ever. Similarly, we plan our health services around where people live. It is hugely important for you and your NHS that you go home and stay at home.
The weeks ahead will be challenging and the demands on our health and care system will continue to grow. That is why I took early action to make sure that our health and social care services are as prepared as they can be for what lies ahead.
Our response to this crisis has been to build on our long-term plan for health and social care, to strengthen the structures in place, and to bring forward at pace further measures to strengthen our resilience. For example: 111 and NHS Direct Wales online have been key to the provision of advice; digital solutions are being rolled out rapidly, such as the ability to provide video consultations in primary care and as an alternative to out-patient appointments; the strengthening of regional partnership boards has positioned them to provide integrated health and social care responses to local communities; the establishment of Health Education and Improvement Wales is helping us to address the considerable workforce needs.
I have also taken more difficult decisions so that we are ready to care for larger numbers of very unwell people to make sure that we can save more lives. By temporarily scaling down non-urgent elective activity 10 days ago, health boards have had time to prepare in a more planned and measured way. Across hospital sites, urgent action has been taken to increase critical care capacity and to redeploy and train staff in readiness for the increased demand that we expect to see.
As of yesterday, occupancy of critical care units was about 45 per cent. About 15 per cent of the patients either have suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19. We have plans in place to immediately double the number of critical care beds in Wales to just over 300. Extensive work is being undertaken to maximise the number of ventilated beds that can be provided in Wales, including the purchase of over 600 additional ventilators, and we continue to urgently explore further options.
I decided last week to bring forward the opening of parts of the new Grange University Hospital near Cwmbran. This will provide an additional 350 hospital beds by the end of April. Urgent discussions are also under way with the private hospital sector in Wales to secure additional capacity.
I have agreed to a temporary relaxation of contract and monitoring arrangements for primary care practitioners to ensure the safety of patients and staff. Within that, community pharmacies continue to be on the front line, and they'll be even more important in helping to support vulnerable groups of people who have been advised to self-isolate for many weeks ahead.
I know that there has been quite understandable concern about the availability of personal protective equipment, or PPE. I've taken steps to enhance the arrangements in Wales for protecting our front line health and care staff who are caring for suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients.
I have authorised a significant push of personal protective equipment to the seven health boards, the Welsh ambulance service and Velindre. Whilst anyone who suspects they may have coronavirus should stay at home and should not visit a primary care setting, as a safety measure, PPE has been supplied to all GP clinics, out-of-hours services and pharmacies. Social care has an essential role in our response to COVID-19, and I've authorised PPE to also be released for use by social care providers. Significant deliveries have arrived yesterday, and a further lot are going out today.
I turn now to our workforce. We all recognise that each and every person working to deliver our front-line services will already be under immense pressure, and I do not think there are sufficient words to express my gratitude to our health and social care staff who continue to work tirelessly to care for people in all of our communities.
We know that things will get worse before they get better. That is why we're taking further unprecedented action to support our current workforce. People who have left or retired from health and social care in the last three years are being asked to re-register with their relevant professional bodies or, in social care, to contact their local authority.
We're also exploring ways to harness the skills of students who are keen to contribute. Final year medical students, student nurses and student social workers are all being offered the opportunity to take on temporary fully paid roles to further boost the front line. Those who join will be given a full and proper induction and training.
It is vitally important that we all do everything within our power to stop the spread of coronavirus: to wash our hands regularly, to reduce social contact, to adhere to the advice on social distancing, and to stay at home if you are particularly vulnerable. We are writing out to vulnerable people whose existing health conditions make them susceptible to becoming very unwell with coronavirus. We're asking these people to take even more stringent measures to shield themselves from this virus. We're working with GPs, local authorities and the voluntary sector to make sure that these people can access all the services they need to support them during the difficult weeks ahead.
The situation we face is unprecedented. The weeks ahead will be more challenging than any we have known in 20 years of Welsh Government. Please, look after yourselves and look after each other.
Can I thank you, Minister, particularly? It's been an incredibly stressful time for yourself, your colleagues here, and also your colleagues in other Governments. I think, unusually for an opposition Member, perhaps, you definitely deserve our thanks on this one.
Can I join you also in thanking our front-line staff? But not just those within the health service, but those who support those staff. So, their own families, the garages that provide the MOTs for the nurses who need to drive to work, for example, and for all those who are socially distancing, understanding this is about saving lives—not just their own, but those of people around them as well.
Perhaps it's worth just reinforcing the point that retailers that don't come into the categories that were mentioned a little bit earlier on cannot be obliging their workforce to go in to work when the Government has told them that those workers need to stay at home.
Perhaps I can just ask you a few specific questions, though. I'll start with the beds, if I may, because you said on Sharp End last night that, between the facility in Gwent and some private capacity, you've identified a further 500 bed spaces—it may have gone up a little bit today—and that you were confident that they could be staffed using some of the additional nurses, trainee doctors and so forth that you also mentioned. But in Hywel Dda alone—and I'm picking up a small board on purpose here—they've already calculated that they're going to need an additional 1,600 beds to meet demand peak at May or June. So, I wonder if you can tell us what the calculated shortfall in bed space across Wales for that peak is likely to be? I appreciate you can't get this bang on. Where are you looking to create the extra capacity? Are you confident that you will actually get enough response to your call for trainee nurses, trainee doctors, recently retired doctors and so forth, to staff those beds adequately?
On that in particular, are you looking to the allied healthcare workers as well—your physios, your occupational therapists, podiatrists, and so forth—to help fill some of these skills gaps? And in which case, I appreciate you've said that everyone's going to get an induction and they will be fully trained, but in what exactly? What kind of skills will we be missing and where will we be missing them? Perhaps you can give us an indication as well about how many allied healthcare workers have come forward as well as the trainee doctors, nurses and retired nurses and doctors. Are you in a position to give us any indication on numbers coming forward yet?
Testing: again, you said on Sharp End last night that you're looking to roll out testing beyond the NHS to social care, the police and others—and I appreciate that's not imminent but will be happening—saying that you're significantly increasing capacity. At the moment, the worry is that not all our NHS staff are being tested. So, can you give us an indication of who within the NHS staff is being tested and where they're being tested? Is that that on the site that they're working, or are they being asked to go elsewhere? In which case, where are those sites? Who's doing the testing? Because if we're increasing capacity, we'll need the individuals to do the swabbing, but we'll also need additional lab technicians or other appropriate individuals to do the testing. Perhaps you can tell us where that lab work is being done. Is it still just at the Heath, or are other university settings being asked to give time from their labs over to doing that work?
Then, ventilators. I think you mentioned that there are 600 ventilators in the system. Perhaps you can confirm that; I didn't quite catch it. Again, you said last night that you've got about 75 per cent capacity, or assessed capacity, en route. But again, to quote one of the smaller local health boards, Hywel Dda, they calculate that they need about 200 ventilators. They've managed, between their own stock and getting some from private hospitals nearby and universities—they've got about 80. That's a long way short of 75 per cent, let alone 100 per cent. Can you give some indication about when the new ventilators will be arriving into Wales? You mentioned that the UK as a whole is pooling resources, so it would be quite useful to know where Wales fits into the queue. I know that's a perhaps slightly unfortunate way of phrasing it, but certain parts of Wales will probably be getting these ventilators a little bit later than others, so if you can give us an indication of when some of this kit will be arriving.
Protective clothing, you've mentioned this. Again, there's only so much available just at the moment, and while I completely understand that you're acquiring more, are you able to give us an indication about how you're prioritising where that goes at the moment? Because you mentioned all front-line staff a little bit earlier, I think, but even within a hospital setting there'll be certain areas that perhaps have greater priorities than others—A&E, for example. How would that compare to, I don't know, cancer wards or maternity or something of that nature? Obviously, elective surgery has been cancelled, so I don't need you to cover that, but within a hospital what's the prioritising looking like?
And then, finally: recovery. It will happen one day, just to reassure everybody. What have you told the local health boards at this stage about getting together teams to prepare for recovery? Because we're not just talking about moving everything on six months. This will be catch up, big time, won't it? Hopefully, within a year. Are you asking them to get together discrete teams to start working on forward planning? Again, I repeat that question for within the health department within the Welsh Government—although I suppose it applies to all departments, actually—about whether you have albeit a small group of people dedicated to the forward planning on this and how we will recover when the worst of this is over? Thank you very much.
Thank you for the questions. I'll try to deal as quickly as I can with the questions as asked. On bed numbers, the 350 beds being released in the Grange University Hospital, together with around 150 that we expect to have agreement on from the private sector, makes up 500 extra beds. They are really for step-down facilities; the private sector don't have intensive care capacity.
But the point made by the medical director in Hywel Dda today when describing the action that they're taking together with the local authority, converting some local authority buildings, and the offer made by the Scarlets to use some of their premises too, is again about flow to make sure that people can get out into the step-down facility as well. So, we do think we'll be able to have enough people to come and do that.
Now, the variety of people, including allied health professions, who are engaged in their undergraduate studies are people that we think we can employ in forms of healthcare support roles to get people to work alongside registered professionals. They'll be paid properly for their work; we're not going to ask them to come in and do that for free. I've seen rumours circulating in certain parts of the social media maze suggesting that we're trying to get people to do this for free. That isn't what we're proposing. That obviously means—and the commentary the First Minister gave earlier about the budgetary realignment—a significant additional financial pressure to make sure there is a workforce who can come in to do that, just as the pressure we'll have on having more PPE to come into our service, and the more ventilators that we're going to have to look to purchase individually, but also as part of the UK supply as well.
So, yes, I do think we're going to be able to find enough staff, but I have to repeat the warning I've given previously that the way that we care for people will be different; not just converting facilities that don't normally look like hospitals into a form of health and care, but equally the way in which staff are able to care for and treat people. The sort of ratios that we're used to seeing and expect to see at normal times—well, we may all have to tolerate a different way of caring for people if we're going to be able to prioritise people with the highest need, but also the numbers of people that can be in recovery and move out of that really high-need setting at an appropriate point in time.
So, 5,000 letters have already gone out to people who have left the register in the recent past, and a number of those are coming back in. I'll happily give updates to Members when we're in a sensible position to do so about the numbers of people that have agreed or indicated they'd like to return to the register.
On extra testing, the prioritisation was set out in the chief medical officer's statement last week that accompanied my own on testing. As I said, that significant extra testing that we should be able to achieve within the next week or so should mean that there are more people in the health service and other key workers—. And, as I say, there's been lots of commentary about social care and the police in particular—to make sure that those people can be tested and returned to the workplace if the test provides the right result.
In some of that capacity, as well as Public Health Wales, we are also talking with the university sector, who have been very positive in coming forward with an offer for help, but also, in UK-wide negotiations, I've signed off what should be an agreement we can conclude imminently with a couple of large private sector providers who will be able to give us much greater not just capacity but also robustness and resilience in testing as well. And within that, there are some Wales-only arrangements, but there are also some UK-wide arrangements to actually bolster those testing arrangements.
That also goes on to your point about ventilators. We have about 600 extra ones. There are more on the way. The UK pool is a genuine UK pool; it's not supposed to be on a, 'One nation first and others will get some if there's anything left over', and that's really important because we're genuinely trying to collaborate and work effectively to address needs right across the United Kingdom. And it's worth reflecting those needs may be different in different nations and they may be different at different points in time. We're seeing the figures in London, for example, so they're likely to have the biggest hit first, but it won't always be the case that London will take priority over other parts of England, let alone the different nations within the UK. So, it's important that that's seen within that context.
On personal protective equipment, it's worth reflecting that there's a requirement for different equipment in different settings, and, again, the chief medical officer has issued some guidance together with Public Health Wales on the use of PPE and what is appropriate PPE for people. There should be further reassurance, though, because I know that it's a concern that Members across the Chamber and outside have reflected on, that they're hearing locally. So, I'll be issuing a further written statement today to set out what we are doing, what we expect to do, and if there are individual concerns and complaints about where people can go with those concerns and complaints to get them rapidly dealt with, because I certainly do not want our front-line staff feeling that either there isn't appropriate PPE or that more is not on its way, because that is exactly what we are trying to achieve, and that includes restocking the supplies that we currently have.
On recovery, the honest truth is that I haven't asked and I don't expect health boards to be having teams of people preparing now for recovery because the effort that we require to prepare for what is coming, I just don't think affords us the luxury of doing that. As we move through, and as we hopefully start to see the reduction in the number of cases, the reduction in the number of people who need the most significant amount of care, we'll then be able to judge how much we then put into the efforts for the recovery and to understanding what the new normal will look like. Because if we do have a significant outbreak, it will affect what we normally talk about in NHS performance, and debate, and our searching and challenging questions of each other over. In every nation of the UK, we'll find that we won't be returning to those times very quickly at all, and there needs to be some honesty within the health service about that, but also with the public, about how long it'll take us to recover and to put ourselves into a way where we will understand how the national health service will continue to serve people in the normal times that we all hope and expect to see ahead of us.
I'd like to thank the Minister very much for his statement and to say how pleased I'm sure we all are to see him back at the front line. I know he was working very hard when he was self-isolating, but it's very good to see him here. It must have been a very worrying time for him and his family and I'm very glad to see him here with us today.
I'd like to associate myself with the remarks that other people have made, both about those, as the Minister said, who have already lost those that they love to this virus, and to the wonderful work that our health and care staff—and I think we must make sure we remember to mention them, too, because apart from anything else, they're doing a very important role in preventing people from becoming so ill that they need to go into hospital. So, I'd like to associate myself very much with remarks other Members have made about the excellent work that our health and care staff are doing.
I want to touch on a couple of issues that the Minister's already mentioned, and perhaps drive down into those a little bit more, and then there are a couple of additional issues that I'd like to raise if the Deputy Presiding Officer will allow.
First of all, just to clarify a little bit further on the ventilators. I'm grateful to the Minister for his answers to Suzy Davies. So, we have 600 ventilators. Are those with us now or are they on order? Does the Minister expect them to be sufficient? I know it's difficult to tell because we don't yet know what the pattern of the disease is going to be. When can we expect to be in a position where he can be confident that we have enough of these to meet the needs that are likely to arise?
If I can refer back again to critical care beds, and, again, he mentioned this in his statement, he mentions that we need to double the number of critical care beds. Could he give us—? I know, Deputy Presiding Officer, these things are a moving feast in a time of crisis, but it would help people, I think, if we can have an idea of when we would expect to have those critical care beds in place.
If I can briefly return to testing. I heard what the First Minister said about the interpretation, the UK or Wales interpretation of World Health Organization advice, but it would help me if I could understand a little more about how that advice differs for Wales and the UK. Because it's a headline, isn't it? The public hear the World Health Organization saying, 'Test, test, test'; we are making decisions to do things differently here. And I think it would be helpful, perhaps not now, but if the Minister wants to write to us, so that we can give our constituents an explanation as to why we are not following World Health Organization advice. We know that it's been very successful, for example, doing that has been very successful in Germany.
And can I just ask the Minister, again—? He's mentioned that we're getting to a position where we'll be able to test they key healthcare workers. May I raise the issue with him again, which I know my colleague Rhun ap Iorwerth and others have raised, about testing for the families of key workers? I'm aware in the region that I represent of situations where you have two parents, who both work in elements of the health service, who are staying at home because there is a concern that their children have some symptoms. So I hope that the Minister will give some consideration—. Obviously, we must start with the staff, I fully accept that, but whether we can look to include—. It's a very unpleasant situation for the family, but it's a terrible waste of the national health service resources if you have two highly qualified professionals having to stay at home when there may be nothing wrong with them, or with their family.
I know that the Minister will share my concern about the physical health and well-being, and the emotional health and well-being, of people who are self-isolating for long periods of time. And the particular point I wish to raise with him—my colleague Leanne Wood has asked me to mention this—is the situation of families who may be vulnerable to domestic abuse. We all know that, sadly, for example, when families are together for long periods of time, these situations can worsen. So I'd like to ask the Minister today if he can have some further discussions with the Deputy Minister who has direct responsibility for these matters, to ensure that we are working constructively with the sector to put in place measures. It's been put to me, for example, by some volunteers in the sector that we could use empty bed and breakfasts, we could use empty hostels for emergency accommodation for people fleeing domestic abuse. Because we have to accept—and we have seen, sadly, in other countries that those situations have escalated.
I was very grateful for what the Minister said about community pharmacy. He will be aware that some staff on the front line are having some pretty awful experiences, with people—as the First Minister said—becoming impatient, becoming aggressive. And he mentions that we need to fully respect the community pharmacist's role. I wonder what his view would be about—and this is a difficult judgment call—but it's been put to me by community pharmacists that they are struggling a bit with deliveries, and that if people do have a healthy member of their family who can go out and collect, they would like people to be advised to do that. But I do understand that the Minister and the rest of us may have concerns about further transmission in that regard, but it would be useful to know what the Minister's advice would be in those circumstances.
I had some questions to ask about personal protective equipment. The Minister has offered us a written statement, and I won't delay the Chamber by asking those in any detail, but I do hope that that statement will address the distribution issues. I have had care home owners saying to me that the protective equipment is getting to Cardiff and it's getting to Swansea, but it's not getting into the rural areas, and it's not getting into the Valleys, particularly when it comes to the care sector rather than the health sector. This may be people raising concerns in a very fast-moving situation, as the Minister has mentioned, and that may have already been addressed, and I very much hope he can reassure us.
The First Minister, in responding to questions, mentioned some of the skills that people who've worked in hospitality will have, in terms of cleanliness, providing food, providing basic support. I wonder if the Minister has had discussions with the local health boards and with care providers to see what use they may be able to make of those skills, and indeed of some hospitality settings for people when they are in a step-down phase, where what they basically need is care and support—where they don't need acute medical support. And I'm grateful to him for mentioning Parc y Scarlets. We were very pleased that they've been so prepared to work with the local health board and the local authority. And he also mentions in his statement discussions with private hospital settings. And I wonder if we can have some guidance about when those might be concluded, because obviously this is an urgent situation.
Two brief, final points, one that the Minister may regard as slightly left field. I've been contacted by osteopaths in my region, who obviously will not be providing treatment to their private clients. We know that osteopathy is a treatment. We don't provide it on the national health service, but it is a treatment that has got a strong scientific base. Some of those osteopaths were raising with me whether they may be able to volunteer perhaps to come into hospitals to provide support for staff. They say that a lot of their private clients are actually NHS staff who have problems as a result of lifting. So, I'd just like to put that thought into the Minister's mix to see if there may be other groups of people who work in areas of care that are not in the public sector, but who may have skills that they can offer at this time.
And, finally, with regard to third sector organisations, I hope the Minister will agree with me that some of our third sector organisations are vital, both in terms of the care that they provide and the advice and support that they can provide. He will have seen the cancer charities, for example, coming together. I wonder what reassurances the Minister can offer that sector that their long-term future will be protected. I heard what Paul Davies had to say to the First Minister earlier about needing to fund front-line services at this time, but of course we will need those organisations when this crisis is over, and if we find ourselves in a situation—. And, of course, the Welsh Government has to change its budget priorities, nobody would doubt that for a moment, but if we find ourselves in the situation when the recovery comes and we've lost some of those key third sector organisations, because their funding isn't sustainable, I hope the Minister would agree with me that we would then be having to rebuild that network.
So, again, I'm very grateful to the Minister for his statement. Very pleased to see him here today, and I hope he can respond to some of the specific points that I've made.
Thank you for the comments and the good wishes. In terms of ventilators, the 600 number includes provision we have and 200-odd that are on their way. In terms of whether the amount that we think we'll be able to procure will be enough, well that rather depends on the course of the outbreak. And I think it's really important in the honesty that we want to provide with each other that we don't provide figures to give a level of false assurance. I think it would be wrong to try and set an arbitrary time frame for this to be over or indeed to set an upper ceiling on the number of people that will be seriously affected. We will need to continue to understand the challenge and to try to rise to the challenge that affects us and the whole country. So, we will need to procure more, and we'll know what's enough as we get closer to the event. But no Member here or member of the public should take any misunderstanding that there is anything other than a significant effort between all four Governments to make sure that our health and care services are properly equipped to deal with the challenge.
In terms of the doubling of critical care beds, my understanding is that the work to do that will be done imminently. And I'm sure that Members will have seen, for example, the excellent feature that Channel 4 News did on the work across the Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board to show the work that they have done to already double their critical care facilities on a range of their sites, and that's the work that they were able to do because elective activity was paused. And if we'd still had another week of elective activity, it wouldn't just have been the people coming in in that week, it would have been the fact that they'd been in a hospital bed recovering for a period of time afterwards in a number of cases, and our staff would not have been able to do that preparation work. So, I'm pleased that the step to pause that activity has meant that we are now much better prepared for what we know is coming.
And in terms of knowing what's coming, I recognise they are entirely legitimate questions from Members across the spectrum to ask, because there are Labour Members in this place and others who have asked about the difference between the headline advice from the World Health Organization on testing and what we're doing here. And the advice that we directly have from our chief scientific adviser on health and from our chief medical officer, who works with his colleagues in the other three UK nations, is about how we deploy the resource that we currently have. Because if I said that our ambition is to deliver wide-scale community testing now, actually we don't have the capacity to do that, and if I tried to set out a wholly unachievable objective, we wouldn't be using the resource that we have in a way that was sensible or effective, and that's why the testing is targeted as it is. But it's why, as I've said, from the weekend and forward, as we expand our testing capability, we'll be able to test more groups of people and we'll be able to test a much wider group of people thereafter.
So, the testing is a tool to help us understand what's happening with the outbreak. It's also a tool to help us to treat people and crucially to get staff back to work, because your point about families and testing is important, because the objective for having those staff in those groups is to release them to go back to work, and that must mean that you've got to test enough people within the family unit to make sure you can have that assurance for them to return. But, of course, testing isn't the only issue. We wouldn't be here today in this significantly reduced form with not just the guidance, but the requirements on social distancing, if we thought that testing was the only measure. We wouldn't be talking about ventilators and about PPE. So, it's a wide range of different measures that we have to deploy. I really do wish there was a single answer to resolve this but there is not.
And on domestic violence and abuse, I recognise the concern the Member has raised. They've been a regular feature in our conversations in Government, to make sure that people are not trapped in an abusive relationship, in an abusive household, and to make sure that people are still supported.
On community pharmacy, I've announced a range of measures to try to support community pharmacies, both the changes to hours that I announced on the weekend, the comments I've made about PPE delivery as well, but also the point that I'll be reiterating again later today, that if people require the delivery of their medication because they have to self-isolate, for most people it is possible for a trusted person to be able to undertake that delivery for them—it doesn't mean that they themselves then need to go into the home to do that. For example, I went to do my mother's shopping on the weekend. I saw her on Mother's Day, but I saw her after I'd left her shopping at her back door and I talked to her through a closed kitchen window. Now, I'm not a saint—my sister-in-law normally does my mum's shopping—but it is possible to go and do things that mean that that person doesn't need to go out, and, equally, that you don't have to call on delivery services. For some people, though, they won't have people in that position and they will then need to rely on a delivery service from community pharmacy. So, there are significant challenges ahead for our community services, for our community pharmacy network.
On PPE in care settings, just to say I've covered a bit in my statement, and there'll be more today, but it's really important, in the difficult times that we face, that we don't collapse into thinking that something is better in another part of the country, because they got it first and they shouldn't. I've spoken to the Welsh Local Government Association, and to their lead spokespeople on social care, and all social care cabinet members at the start of this particular episode. And when I spoke at the start of this week, they were concerned about PPE going out into social care, and it was across the whole country. It wasn't as if Cardiff thought everything was wonderful, thank you very much—they were all concerned to make sure that deliveries were on their way and would be provided. So, no one part of the country is being advantaged to the disadvantage of another, and, hopefully, by the end of today, there'll be adequate supplies within social care settings.
And on the private sector agreement, the 350 extra beds, I understand that that's imminent, and we should then be able to make use of that capacity. I'm not sure about the position of osteopathy services. I'm sure the chief medical officer will have a view, and medical directors as well about how useful that'll be for our staff.
And on the third sector—not just in the future, but the third sector are really important for us now. The work that we are having to do to protect vulnerable people means that local authorities and the third sector need to collaborate and work with each other. The networks of volunteers that they are helping to co-ordinate are hugely important to actually practically support very large numbers of people that we've advised to isolate, and that's difficult. So, they'll be important in the future, yes, but actually they're crucially important in our effort to fight COVID-19 in the here and now.
The first thing, like many others here, that I want to do today is to thank all the staff that are turning up right across the NHS, right across the care sector and right across the delivery agencies to get things where we need them and when we need them at this critical time. And I think it is really important that those people understand, if they don't already, that we all value them as well. It is in the light of providing both information and goods that I will start to ask some of my questions.
The first question that probably most of us have been frequently asked is where to go for good advice. We've seen plenty of experts popping up on the internet telling people things that are quite dangerous, quite frankly, because the advice is fundamentally wrong at this time. So, I think it's about reiterating where to go for good advice—reliable, dependable advice—and putting that out there.
In terms of supplies, again, if you try to buy something simple like paracetamol, which I did yesterday, you might be asked to pay £3 for it. That isn't really acceptable. And, again, it's about getting those supplies that people will need for their medical care on a day-to-day basis into those community pharmacies that we will all depend on, but also asking supermarkets that do supply to actually put a brake on, which some of them are doing, what people are buying.
I've also had information, and it's fairly evident if you look at supermarkets, about baby formula disappearing off the shelves. I mean, this is critical. Babies need to be fed, and yet I've heard stories about people being baby formula as a means to putting dry milk in their teas and coffee. That is an appalling state of situation. So, again, it's a plea, really, to people to just think that the word 'baby' and 'formula' goes together for a very, very good reason.
I would ask, again, about utility payments. I know it might seem odd that I'm asking you, but if people can't feed themselves and they can't keep themselves warm, they will quickly become quite ill. Some of those people who are on utility pre-paid meters are the most vulnerable in the very first case. And I'll ask again—while I'm talking about people having the right fuel—in my area particularly, lots people are off gas, they rely on oil supplies, they rely on liquefied petroleum gas. It's more expensive. Those people tend to be more isolated by virtue of where they live and they tend to be more elderly in some cases. I don't know whether you've had any conversations to help with those supplies, but if we take oil, for example, you have to generally buy that in bulk, and that is a huge cost for people at a time when their money might be at the barest minimum. So, again, it's about keeping families being able to live effectively by being able to heat their homes and also feed themselves.
I have to ask about cross-border health working, particularly in Powys. I know others will ask about other areas. I'd certainly like an update—I've been approached by many people living in the Powys area—about how that is working for them and how confident we are that those people in Powys who need healthcare will be able to access it.
Finally, I want to pay tribute to you for your daily updates. They have been clear. But I also want to thank people for their co-operation, because unless we get the vast majority of people co-operating with those stringent restrictions that we are asking them to place on themselves, we, quite frankly, will never be able to cope with this virus. I just hope that people will carry on in that way, because as somebody said earlier, this is not a holiday. This is probably a time where those of us who come through it—and I hope all of us can—will look back and wonder about this period of time and people's behaviour as well. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much for the constant questions. Again, I want to reiterate Joyce's point about our staff and, of course, Joyce Watson has Members in her own family who are providing a health and care service, and will understand the commitment they need to provide and the fact that our staff know that they put in themselves in harm's way. They know that in treating people who are ill with a condition that is spreading fairly rapidly through the UK population, there's a real challenge for them as well. They continue to do so, but they understandably want the tools to be able to do their job, and they want the support of the public to be able to do their job as well.
Your point about getting information from appropriate sources is important, so that people don't unnecessarily burden our health and care services while being worried or taking inappropriate action because they've been looking at odd parts of the internet or social media-generated issues. So, the Welsh Government, Public Health Wales, statements by the chief medical officer—they are trusted sources of advice for people to learn what is happening in Wales and where to go for advice and support.
When it comes to co-ordinating local support, local authorities will act as the hub in a co-ordinating role to make sure that support and advice are given, and they will, of course, be working with the third sector. As I've indicated and as the First Minister indicated, we're having conversations with the army about their potential support to provide in the effort, because there is a significant number of vulnerable people in Wales who will need to be supported.
On your point about profiteering, it's a point well made. Whether it's paracetamol, Calpol or other normal goods, it is appalling to see some people take significant commercial advantage, often of the most vulnerable people by significantly raising prices when there is no supply issue, there is simply a commercial opportunity. Just as today, Sports Direct have been quickly put back in their box, it's important other people call out that behaviour. I think that people that undertake that now to make a fast profit may want to reflect that most members of the public have a pretty long memory when it comes to them being taken advantage of in such a transparent way.
On your point about restrictions on goods, and the point you make about baby food is well made, there's just no need to stock up for six months' supply, and what that does for people who are reliant on that, and don't have the means to go out and purchase huge amounts in advance—. Supermarkets themselves are already taking voluntary measures to restrict the supply and the sale of a range of items. One of the things that Governments across the UK have agreed is to relax some of the normal competition rules that mean that supermarkets can't talk to each other to agree on what to do. There are a range of areas where, actually, it's sensible for the supermarkets to co-ordinate what they're doing, and, actually, we're looking for a more consistent position on the voluntary restriction policed by supermarkets on a number of items, but if not, as the First Minister indicated, we may have to step in and use powers that we think we have available to us. But I'd much rather see a method of control that doesn't involve further legal action from the Government and, equally, I'd much rather see a level of public behaviour and co-operation that means that no action at all is required.
On utility payments, that's a point the Welsh Government has made and is well aware of in terms of how utility companies behave. Most of the larger ones are behaving in a relatively decent way. Your point about people who are off-grid for fuel and power is one that I'll take up with ministerial colleagues, but I know it's a real issue and exactly as you describe. Often, these are people who are more isolated physically and often, but not always, people who are older, potentially in at-risk categories as well.
On cross-border health and care, the normal flow should apply. So, if your normal secondary healthcare is over the English border, then that's where your provision should be, should you need intensive care, for the sake of argument, just as if the flow is in the other direction. It is to no-one's benefit to either have a 'fortress Wales' approach, or indeed a 'fortress England' approach where cross-border flows are deliberately cut off in a way that is not about providing the right sort of service that the national health service in every one of the four nations should do for people with real need.
On your point about public co-operation, I agree that's key, because we've only taken the significant measures that we have done within the last 24 hours because most members of the public were co-operating in following the advice and the guidance, but not enough people were. So, we've had to step in to take extraordinary measures that will be backed up by police powers within this week, and there are other measures that we could take, but I would much rather be in a position where Governments don't need to take further restrictive legal action and that the public understand that their behaviour will be key to how coronavirus spreads and is ultimately turned back, and that, ultimately, they're not doing it to make the life of the Government any easier, they're doing it for themselves and their own communities, and those people they probably will never get to meet otherwise.
Thank you for your statement, Minister, and it is good to see you back here with us and to hear your family are safe and well. Again, I also send on behalf of my party and myself condolences to all those who've lost loved ones through this disease.
I'd like to thank our wonderful NHS staff and all those concerned who are working around the clock and helping to limit the spread of this dreadful disease. We as individuals must do all that we can, because we all have a part to play in this. Minister, you have the continuing support of myself and my party during this difficult time, and I have just a few questions I'd like to ask.
I have seen reports that locum GPs are turning down shifts due to lack of sickness cover and death-in-service benefits. Around half of locums who responded to a National Association of Sessional GPs survey said that they were making themselves less available during the current pandemic; three quarters of those taking part in the survey are in the at-risk category because they are either over 70 or have had underlying health conditions themselves. Minister, the current pandemic means that locums are more important than ever. Other health problems don't go away because we're dealing with a deadly virus outbreak. What assurances can the Welsh Government give to locum GPs, and in fact all GPs working in Wales, that they will be looked after during this crisis, and will you ensure that locum GPs receive death-in-service benefits and sickness pay?
Minister, over half of the coronavirus cases in Wales have been in the Aneurin Bevan health board. Has Public Health Wales looked at the reasons this health board has significantly higher cases than any other LHB? What extra measures are being provided to the health board and local authorities in the region to cope with a caseload nearly three times higher than the next highest LHB, and 14 times higher than the health board with the largest population, Betsi Cadwaladr?
I was also concerned to receive an e-mail this morning from a public sector prison officer who has allegedly been told that, although he has had a quadruple heart bypass and is diabetic, he is not in the vulnerable category, and that they're also intent on keeping the gymnasium open in the prison. I just wonder if we could give stronger guidelines if necessary to the prison service, and also provide, in any way that we can, through maybe the army, assistance for the sustainability of the prisons.
Minister, thankfully, the vast majority of the over-70s are following Government advice and socially isolating themselves. However, many elderly people are being forced to leave the safety of home to pay bills, as they don't have traditional bank accounts or online banking. As this age group is the most at-risk category, what discussions have you had with colleagues, with the Welsh and UK Governments, about ways to ensure that our most vulnerable constituents can ride out this pandemic in their safety of their homes?
I welcome the actions of Cardiff council to open up free parking to doctors and nurses working at the health board. Minister, is your Government working with other local authorities across Wales to ensure that there is sufficient free parking for NHS staff during the course of this pandemic? Exploitations, again—as Joyce Watson has previously mentioned—of goods: is that a matter for trading standards, Minister? Because exploitation of prices at this time is a remarkably low thing to pull.
Finally, Minister, I have had a number of concerns raised with me about the availability of supplies to the social care sector—concerns not just about PPE, which, hopefully, are being resolved, but also about shortages of other essential items, such as incontinence pads. Minister, what steps are the Welsh Government taking to ensure care homes across Wales receive adequate stocks of essential items?
Minister, I would like to put on record my thanks to your officials who are working around the clock to ensure the smooth running of health and social care. These are trying times for all of us, but I have no doubt that we will make it through and be stronger for it. But now is a time for reflection, to help others in the limited ways that we can. It is not a time for selfishness and greed, but a time to understand the needs of others, and to try, if we can, to make the burden less for those less fortunate than ourselves. Keep safe, everybody. Thank you.
Thank you for the comments and questions. In terms of your opening about not just locums, but more generally about staff who may be in at-risk categories, it was one of the concerns of the British Medical Association about asking people to return to practice: they may be people in the most at-risk categories, either in age or underlying health condition categories. But they may be able to undertake a range of work remotely. That's why the decision that I took to roll out the opportunity for video consultations to take place—they don't need to undertake person-to-person contact, they can still be providing advice remotely. So, it's about how we make the best use of the resources we have in terms of the people across the system. You'll notice the Bill also gives an extension in the provision for indemnity to make sure that people can return to work and not worry about the risk to them if things go wrong.
In terms of your point about death in service—I think this is a particular niche point, more operational than I would expect, but my own understanding, my own recollection, is that, generally, that tends to be a benefit from a pension scheme, and locums choose not to opt in to the pension scheme. So, I wouldn't want to try and give an answer to that. I'd have to go away and ask for advice about that, about how much of a barrier that is, and whether, actually, there are other things we could do to encourage more locums to continue to practice in a way that is safe for them and patients.
In terms of Gwent, I don’t expect the current incidence that does show a higher incidence in Gwent to be the final position. I do think that, when you look at the fact there is community circulation of coronavirus taking place in significant parts of Wales, you'll see figures in other parts of Wales, and indeed in other parts of the UK, continue to rise.
I am, though, concerned about the potential impact of coronavirus on our least well-off communities. Wales, as a nation, compared to England, in health terms is older, poorer and sicker. So, the risk, therefore, is an obvious one. Now, that will overlay in different parts of Wales differently, just as it will do in England, where they have communities that are much like the ones we have here in Wales as well.
So, that's a real concern, but I don't think the percentage that we currently see in regard to Gwent and the rest of the country will stay as it is now. Our task is to make sure that each part of the country is properly supported, and we don't want to see any one part overwhelmed at all.
In terms of your points about prisons, as you know, prisons aren't devolved, and I'm not in a position to suddenly take on new responsibilities at this point in time to try to deal with issues in prisons. But one of the points that I've made in the regular COBRA meetings that I've attended with the First Minister, and indeed the COBRA sub-groups, has been the point that many of the non-devolved functions have a direct impact. For the sake of argument, if the UK Government decided to undertake an early-release programme, to release pressure from prisoners who are in low-risk categories, well a number of those prisoners have significant underlying health conditions, and they could well be people who would automatically be vulnerable and would need significant support. We would need to know that in advance to provide them with the support that they would need. We also have in Usk a number of older prisoners in any event, and some of those will be old enough to be in the at-risk category in terms of being over 70. So, any choices made around the prison estate, around choices about what happens with prisons that early release or otherwise, have a direct impact on devolved services.
And, on your point about the over-70s, that assistance is being co-ordinated and led, as I said, with local government, and I really am grateful for the work of both Councillor Andrew Morgan, the leader of the WLGA, but also Councillor Huw David, who is the lead spokesperson on health and social care. They've been open and willing to help and support, as indeed have all their colleagues across the political spectrum within local government.
We need to reiterate the example that it's—the reason why we're asking people to stay at home is to help protect them. So, it isn't that we think that people over 70 have coronavirus and give it to other people—it's actually because they're more vulnerable and more likely to suffer real harm. That's why we've given the advice that we have done, and the Government is leading by example—not just that we've all agreed as a whole Senedd to have a reduced session today, but you will know that, once that advice was given, members of the Government who fall in that bracket have worked from home since then. You have not seen them in Chamber, they're not coming into Welsh Government buildings to undertake work, they're having to work remotely, and it's really important that we don’t just ask other people to follow that example, but we do it ourselves as well.
On free parking, we're, of course, fortunate to have free parking across our hospital estates here in Wales, but I am pleased that Cardiff council made additional parking available to NHS staff to ensure that they're able to get to work, and the usual park-and-ride arrangements that may have prevented them getting to work as promptly as possible have been altered specifically for NHS workers, but, of course, it is a fact that, as there are less people moving around, traffic flows are very different and much quicker, as I have found on a number of occasions in the last couple of weeks.
And, on your point about care home supplies, there's a regular conversation between officials and both local government and also the largest organisation of the independent sector providers about how stocks are procured and what that means for them, so I'm confident that there is a constructive relationship and there is a route for people to raise concerns if they have them.
Thank you. Finally, Mick Antoniw.
Minister, firstly, thank you for all the detailed answers and all the regular advice notes and so on, which are of considerable assistance to, I think, all of us who are fielding many, many questions from members of the community at this particularly difficult time. And it is a difficult and very anxious time, so I would particularly like to put on record, I think, my praise and commendation for the staff at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, who, throughout this period, through music and through dance, have produced videos, which have almost gone viral, communicating safety messages. Not only does it raise the morale of the staff in the hospital, I think it is also the most excellent way of actually communicating those safety messages, and, if people haven't seen them, I think they ought to perhaps have a look and share them, because they really are very, very impressive—and impressive that the staff have managed to take their own time in the hospitals to actually produce these and to explain to the public what they are doing.
Can I raise just a couple of short questions? First of all—and it is in respect of testing, because I have had GPs in the Cwm Taf area who've raised the issue of family members with coughs and so on, which has resulted in some key staff having to stay home, and that there have been difficulties in actually accessing the testing, that the helpline number has been unavailable and so on. I'm just wondering what monitoring is taking place to ensure that those particular problems that have arisen have now been resolved, because they can result in significant delays in getting back to work for some key medical staff.
And the second point is in respect of volunteering. As we saw in the floods, certainly in the Rhondda Cynon Taf area, there were many, many people who came to the fore to help their neighbours and their fellow people, and what has been very, very important now, I think, is that we have a lot of people coming forward for volunteering. Rhondda Cynon Taf has, of course, set up a mechanism for the registration of volunteers, because volunteering in itself can be a hazard because of the nature of coronavirus, so responsible volunteering, it seems to me, is the absolute key. And because this may overlap into areas of social care and so on, I'm just wondering what steps are being done to roll out best practice that is being shown in certain council areas across Wales, and ensuring that there is proper guidance for safe volunteering.
Thank you. I'll start on the last one, about responsible volunteering. We've seen a large outpouring of people who are prepared to help organising activity within their own community. I think that the organising role of local authorities is hugely important in this, and certainly through RCT's, but other councils', experience with flooding, about the effort that they themselves have instituted, provides a good base to do that now for an even more extended period of time. But we are looking to learn about what is working, and, seeing a former local government Minister in the Chamber, it is fair to say that there are times when people aren't as keen to learn and adopt what works in another part of Wales, but are much happier to see it distinguished and do their own thing. This is a time for those things to be put to one side, to understand what works well and to be able to share it and adopt it rapidly in every part of the country where there is a benefit—not just in local government; that also has applied at various points in time in the health service as well, where some health boards have not always readily adopted good practice in other parts of the service. There's no time for that, and there'll be no patience for that now. And, as I say, I do think that, right across the political spectrum of local government, there's been a real coming together and it's been a very impressive part of the response.
On testing, the capacity is already increasing and, as I've indicated in my statement last week, the press briefing on the weekend, and earlier in my statement today, the significant increase in testing that is coming in the very near future allows us to test more people. And the points you make about general practitioners and their families—it's part of that wider point already about the more capacity we have, the more speed we'll have to test more people to get them back into the workplace. But there are already NHS staff who are being tested because they're self-isolating, and there will be people who are returning because they've already had that testing rolled out to them in accordance with the guidance that the chief medical officer issued towards the end of last week.
Finally, on the uplifting point you mentioned about the work of staff in the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, and not just across Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board but right across the health service. By chance, I saw a link to nurses in Morriston this morning singing 'I'll Be There'. Now, in normal times with a microphone and an opportunity to sing a song like that, you'd have trouble peeling me away—[Interruption.] These are extraordinary times, but perhaps not that extraordinary. [Laughter.] Actually, to see what the health service staff are doing for themselves, for their own morale and well-being, but also to understand that there's an impact there for their colleagues and the wider public too, really does reinforce how incredibly fortunate we are to have the commitment and the compassion of our NHS and wider workforce. As I said earlier, we will need them now more than ever.
Thank you very much, health Minister.
Item 9, item 10, item 11, item 12 and item 13 on the agenda, which are all statements by Cabinet Ministers, have all been referred for written statements.
So, we now move to the debate on the legislative consent motion on the coronavirus Bill, and I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to move that motion, Vaughan Gething.
Motion NNDM7316 Vaughan Gething
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 29.6 agrees that provisions in the Coronavirus Bill in so far as they fall within the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales, should be considered by the UK Parliament.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I formally move the legislative consent motion before us today. I am recommending that the Senedd gives legislative consent to the coronavirus Bill before the UK Parliament. I ask Members to agree that the provisions in the coronavirus Bill, insofar as they fall within the Senedd's legislative competence, should be considered by the UK Parliament.
As Members will be aware, the Welsh Government, together with the other three national Governments across the UK, published our joint coronavirus action plan on 3 March. This set out proposed measures required to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. My officials in the Welsh Government have worked closely with counterparts across the UK to develop the suite of measures set out in that plan. The measures proposed aim to be reasonable, proportionate and based upon the latest scientific advice and evidence.
The action plan details what we know about the virus and the disease that it causes. It details what we are planning to do next, depending on the course the coronavirus outbreak takes. The plan also includes information on the four-stage strategy: contain, delay, research and mitigate. We are now in the delay phase, which saw us take the difficult decision to close all schools across Wales from 20 March. As Members know, they are now being repurposed to allow critical workers to continue to return to work.
We want to slow the spread of the virus, which is why the new tighter restrictions announced yesterday are so important. We are requiring people to stay at home and to only go out if absolutely necessary for food and other essentials. All social events and gatherings of more than two people in public should not take place. Whilst local NHS services, including GPs and pharmacies, will remain open, albeit Members will be aware many GPs are no longer doing face-to-face contact, all high street shops will be closed except those selling food, banks and post offices. We all have a responsibility to comply and must do this to save lives and protect our national health service.
We have also asked certain population groups—those over 70 years old, those with underlying health conditions, and pregnant women—to self-isolate for their own protection for at least the next 12 weeks. For those showing symptoms of a new persistent cough or a high temperature, we've asked that they self-isolate together with the households that they live with.
The plan also details the changes to the legislation that might be necessary in order to give public bodies across the UK the tools and powers that we need to carry out an effective response to this emergency. That is why we are debating the motion today.
The purpose of the coronavirus Bill is to enable all four Governments across the UK to respond to an emergency situation and to manage the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The powers being taken are intended to protect life and the nation's public health. A severe pandemic could infect about 80 per cent of the population, leading to a reduced workforce, increased pressure on health services and death management processes.
The Bill contains temporary measures designed to either amend existing legislation or to introduce new statutory powers that are designed to mitigate those impacts. This Bill ensures that the agencies and services involved—schools, hospitals, the police and more—have the tools and powers that they need. However, each of the four nations of the UK have our own set of laws. So, these tools and powers differ to a varying degree in each area. The Bill, therefore, provides a range of tools and powers required to ensure a consistency of outcome across the UK.
The Bill has five main areas of action to support the response across the UK and devolved national Governments. Firstly, it will help to increase the available health and social care workforce. This will be achieved through, for example, the removal of barriers to allow recently retired NHS staff and social workers to return to work.
Secondly, it will ease the burden on front-line staff. The proposals in the Bill will streamline paperwork and administrative requirements to help discharge patients more quickly. We need to free up hospital beds for those who are very ill to help clinicians to focus on front-line care. It will also make changes to councils' social care duties. This will allow them to prioritise people with the greatest care needs and make the best use of the adult social care workforce.
The third set of proposals aim to contain and slow the virus by reducing unnecessary social contact. The powers here focus on restricting events and gatherings and strengthening the quarantine powers of police and immigration officers. This will include the power to detain people and put them in appropriate isolation facilities if necessary to protect public health.
Management of the deceased with respect and dignity is of huge importance at all times, but of particular prominence now. The steps we are taking to respond to this pandemic will save lives. However, sadly, as we've already seen, people will lose loved ones as a result of this disease. The Bill will help the death management system to deal with increased demand for its services. It will enable deaths to be registered when people may not be able to attend the registrar's office in person. It will extend the list of persons who may make the registration and the operating times of crematoria may also be extended.
The final suite of measures aim to support people generally by allowing them to claim statutory sick pay from day one, even if they're self-isolating without symptoms. The measures also seek to support the food industry to maintain supplies.
Some of the changes proposed in this Bill deal with easing the burden on front-line NHS and adult social care staff. Some of the measures will help staff to return to work in health and social care. Some will support people in communities in taking care of themselves, their families, their loved ones and the wider community.
Members will also be aware the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Wales) Regulations 2020 were laid on 17 March and came into force the next day. These regulations match regulations made in England to reduce the public health risks arising from the transmission of coronavirus. The Welsh regulations were made under an emergency procedure set out in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. The coronavirus Bill, when enacted, will revoke the England and Wales regulations and replace them with similar provisions. The regulations are therefore in place as a temporary measure until the Bill comes into force.
But this Bill is just one part of the overall solution. Not each and every one of the tools or powers needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic are covered in the Bill. Some already exist in statute. Some exist in some parts of the UK but not others. This Bill aims to ensure that the action to tackle this threat can be carried out effectively across all four UK nations. The aim is for the Bill to reach the statute book this week. However, the provisions relating to statutory sick pay are intended to have a retrospective effect, going back to 13 March.
The Welsh Government, together with the other three national Governments in the UK, have resolved to review and, where necessary, amend legislation. My aim is to ensure that the response in Wales is consistent and effective. These are extraordinary measures for the extraordinary times that we face. The legislation will be time-limited for two years and not all of those measures will come into force immediately.
The Bill allows the four UK Governments to switch on these new powers when they're needed. Many of the measures in the Bill can be commenced as and where necessary, and I recognise the need to balance my duty to protect the public's health against my duty to respect individual rights. Crucially, the Bill provides for each of the four Governments in the UK to end powers when they are no longer necessary, and that decision will be based on the advice of the chief medical officers of the four nations.
The Bill is a transparent choice to take account of our devolution settlement in a way that enables swift action to be taken by Welsh Ministers when and where it is needed. We find ourselves in unprecedented times in the midst of a public health emergency. I know that I will continue to face your scrutiny, as I should do. However, I ask Members and the public for your continuing trust and support to take these new powers. I ask for that support to take action to save as many lives as possible here in Wales. I ask Members to support the motion before us.
Thank you. Can I now call the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee? Mick Antoniw.
Thank you, Deputy Llywydd. Can I start by saying that I reported on this matter to the committee this morning? The committee has not, because of time constraints, been able to consider the details of the Bill. I have been able to look through the Bill, and I report, really, as Chair of the committee within that capacity.
Can I firstly say that, in taking emergency powers, there is still and always a need to maintain the goodwill and consent of the population at large? Emergency powers are, to some extent, dependent on that actually happening. And one of the concerns that I think I would have would be that, unless some of the issues relating to poverty that may arise are resolved, then those may well present a challenge to the implementation and the use of emergency powers—for example, those dependent on foodbanks, those who have difficulty accessing an income to live on. And, if we are totally frank about it, £94 statutory sick pay is not enough for a family to live on for a week. Those are issues on which, hopefully, there will be further statements from UK Government, but are things that really must be addressed.
Emergency powers, and the Government taking emergency powers, is an exception. Emergency powers are taken where there is a real threat to security or to life. I don't think any of us can doubt that, in the current circumstances, the circumstances are exceptional, and that there is a genuine threat, and that powers are necessary to be taken to protect life. That means suspension of some individual and collective rights, and the judicial and legal processes that normally exist to give those protections. So, it's within that context that these emergency powers are correctly being sought.
In terms of the exercise of powers, Parliament doesn't disappear, and this Parliament doesn't fade into the background, because it is Parliament that is transferring some of its powers for a period of time to the Executive to act. It is therefore very important that there are still some checks and balances. So, I very much welcome the concession that was made to a six-monthly renewal by Parliament of those particular powers. I note that the House of Lords committee that considered this Bill actually raised the same point, suggesting that a year would be appropriate. I know that the opposition to the Government put forward six months, and that has been accepted. And I think that six months is the appropriate period for the exercise of Parliament to consider whether the extension of those powers in six months' time is necessary.
Can I also say that I welcome clause 83, which requires the UK Government to give two-monthly reports on non-devolved areas? The reason I emphasise that particular point is because, in regard to the powers that have been given to Welsh Ministers, there is no similar reporting requirement, there is no similar legal requirement. So, what I would ask from Government is that there is an undertaking that the same reporting provisions that exist for UK Government will be accepted by Welsh Government, and that we will have those two-monthly reports on the exercise of those powers.
The other point I would raise that I think is important is also that, if Parliament is going to be considering the Bill as a whole and the exercise of those powers on a six-monthly basis, then there is a necessity for a review to take place within the Assembly, either by committee or within the Assembly as a committee in its own right, perhaps even on a five-monthly basis, so that when this matter is considered at UK Government level there are full reports of the operation of the Bill in respect of not just the way in which we have exercised the powers given to Welsh Government Ministers, but also the impact of those UK Government powers on Wales themselves. Our concern should be not just with the devolved areas, but also the impact of emergency powers on the people of Wales and the way that interacts.
So, I think within that context, those are the constitutional points that I think deal with some of the concerns that might exist with regard to any Government taking emergency powers. I think it is right that these powers are taken. It is not my intention to go though the detail of those; those have been outlined by the Minister. But just that there will be the maintenance of checks and balances, not only at UK Government level, but also by this Assembly: that we will review those, we will review them on a regular basis and that there will be regular reporting of the exercise of those exceptional powers given to Welsh Government Ministers.
I'm pleased to be able to take part in this extremely important debate this afternoon. The powers that are contained within this Bill are, under the circumstances, given we're in extraordinary times, entirely appropriate and will, hopefully, give the Welsh Government additional tools that will help better equip the Government for the coming weeks and months.
Admittedly, there are some provisions in this Bill that will seem extreme to many people and which could curb people's freedoms and, as someone who came into politics to champion the freedom of the individual, I too find some of the measures draconian, but given the seriousness of the situation, it's important to have these emergency powers as a last resort. But it is worth emphasising, as the Minister said, that these powers are being introduced on a temporary basis.
Dirprwy Lywydd, if I can now turn to some of the specifics in this Bill. It contains important clauses in relation to the emergency registration of nurses and other health and care professionals under Schedule 1 to the Bill. And hopefully these clauses will help deal with any significant increase in the number of those needing medical care, as well as addressing any shortage in the level of approved staff who are able to help at this time. It's entirely appropriate that emergency registrations take place quickly and that our NHS workforce is as prepared as possible throughout this period.
However, it's also important that there are the appropriate safeguards in place to ensure that those treating people are clinically safe to perform their roles. So, perhaps, in responding to today's debate, the Minister can tell us a little bit more about the checks and balances that will be in place here in Wales to ensure that any one advising or treating patients throughout this period are as capable as possible of doing so.
In order to ease the burden on front-line staff, I note that the Bill also contains clauses in relation to emergency volunteering leave and compensation for emergency volunteers under Schedule 6 to the Bill. This is also crucial as it will help maximise the number of volunteers that are able to fill gaps in capacity and thereby help to safeguard essential services. For example, we know that there's a strong possibility that adult social care services will face a rise in demand and a reduced capacity arising from higher rates of staff absence. Therefore, it's understandable that local authorities should be able to prioritise care in order to protect life and reach speedy decisions without undertaking full Care Act 2014-compliant assessments. At the same time, the Bill introduces a new form of unpaid statutory leave, as well as powers to establish compensation schemes, which is entirely right to compensate for some loss of earnings and expenses incurred by volunteers.
One of the key objectives of the Bill is to contain and slow the virus, and so it's vital that the Welsh Government has the powers in place to effectively meet this objective. Clause 49 provides for powers relating to potentially infectious persons under Schedule 20, and I appreciate that this clause may seem draconian to some people but, given yesterday's announcements, it will be important that police and immigration officers will now be able to direct individuals to stay at home or keep them at suitable locations for screening and assessment. It's hoped that these measures will go some way in filling the existing gaps in powers to ensure the screening and isolation of people who may be infected or contaminated with the virus and to ensure that constables can enforce health protection measures where necessary. Of course, both the UK Government and Welsh Government are working on the assumption that the vast majority of people in Britain will comply with the official public health advice, and as a result, this clause simply seeks to ensure that proportionate measures can be enforced if and when necessary. And I have to say that what we saw over the weekend in some places, where some people just disregarded advice and travelled to holiday destinations in certain parts of Wales, was totally irresponsible, and that’s why these powers are necessary in order to prevent this from happening in the first place. I'm pleased that the Welsh Government took action yesterday to close caravan parks and tourist hotspots.
Dirprwy Lywydd, we all have a role in ensuring that our constituents are aware of the latest guidance and that they are as informed as possible. Whilst I appreciate that the UK and Welsh Governments have made great efforts to advise the public of steps to take if they feel that they may have symptoms of the virus, there are still people contacting their Assembly Members for advice and support. As Joyce Watson said earlier, some are misinforming people online, so perhaps the Minister could tell us a little bit more about what the Welsh Government can do to widen the reach of its messaging so that we’re not in a position where people are detained or isolated by force.
There are also some very serious concerns surrounding the ways in which the deceased are managed with respect and dignity. I appreciate that this is a particularly sensitive issue, however, it’s important to ensure that the administrative processes relating to the registration of births, deaths and stillbirths can operate effectively during the outbreak period.
Dirprwy Lywydd, there are several other areas of the Bill that will be of significant importance to the people of Wales, and I hope the Welsh Government are examining how best to work with the provisions in this Bill. Whilst some provisions in the Bill may seem draconian, we must remember that these are unprecedented times, and as such, they call for unprecedented action. My colleagues and I will, of course, support this LCM and continue to do what we can to support both the Welsh Government and the UK Government to protect the people of Wales and mitigate the spread of this devastating virus. Thank you.
I'm pleased to rise to take part in this important debate. In his contribution to this debate, Paul Davies twice used the word 'draconian', and this is a draconian measure; we cannot pretend it's anything else. I’m sure that most of us in this Chamber will not be supporting it with a light heart. We would have loved to see our fellow citizens comply with what they were being asked and advised to do, but sadly, we know there is a minority—and I believe it’s a small minority of people—who were not prepared to take the very, very clear advice, and that means that powers must exist to protect the population from this unprecedented disease. We really don't know, as the Minister said earlier, what it’s going to do and how it’s going to affect us, and so Plaid Cymru will be, with quite a heavy heart in many ways, supporting this legislative consent motion.
In my contribution, Dirprwy Lywydd, I want to echo some of the concerns that have already been raised, particularly by Mick Antoniw. Not about whether the powers should exist, but how those powers might be used and how this place might be able to participate, because as the Minister has said, the taking of these powers—some of these powers—does not necessarily mean the use of them; it may not be necessary. But there are some areas, and I’m sure many other Members of the Senedd will have had representations, for example, from disabled people who are really concerned that if the requirements, hard-fought-for requirements, requirements that they’ve taken many years to campaign for around the right to support are removed, that they will lose care packages and that would make them vulnerable. I'd argue that it would actually make them vulnerable to ending up in the hospital system, which of course would be the last thing we would want. And the Minister will also be aware that there are concerns about the removal of some protections for mental health patients. I know that this Welsh Government will not likely use those powers, but I do understand why constituents have been writing to me and to many of us, and about the rights of disabled children to access education—all of those things—that those fears are real. I'd like to ask the Minister today, and I don’t know if he would be able to commit to this, that if the Welsh Government is reaching the point where it feels it must use some of those powers, that in addition to perhaps reporting as Mick Antoniw has suggested, whether it would be possible—we will be meeting in this place in one form or another—if it would be possible for the Minister to bring forward a statement to the mini Senedd or whatever we will be by that time, to explain why he is thinking of lightening the requirements on local government around social care, for example, so that we can raise constituents' concerns with him. And he can respond to those, and I'm sure respond to those in a way that would provide reassurance.
The Minister said in his statement that he absolutely understands—and I'm really pleased to hear him say this, and it doesn't surprise me at all—the right to balance respect for individuals' rights around what is necessary for the community as a whole. And in that respect, I draw his attention—he may have already seen it—to the statement released today by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that provides a very useful framework for one's thinking around how some of that balancing might be done in this absolutely unprecedented period.
I refer briefly to statutory sick pay. Of course, all of us will welcome the fact that this becomes available, but as Mick Antoniw has said, people cannot live on that. They certainly can't live on it for very long, and I think we are disappointed. I understand there were amendments that were raised but not discussed that would have provided, in this legislation, some protection for those sole workers, self-employed people and freelancers. I've heard what the Welsh Government have said—and I hope that they are right—that we will be getting a package from the UK Government, because that is, of course, the right level for that package to come. But if it doesn't come and it doesn't come quickly, I would urge Welsh Ministers to look at what they may be able to do in the short term. We've been doing some research ourselves, supported by experts in the field, around the possibility of a temporary basic income that would support those people, and if we find ourselves in a situation where the UK Government won't act, we would obviously be more than happy to share that and see if there's any feasibility.
I mean, there are other things that the legislation doesn't do, as I understand it, and the Minister will correct me if I'm wrong. It doesn't, for example, enable the Government, at any level, to step in and deal with bad employers. I am receiving messages as we are sitting here from people who are being pressurised to go into work in situations where I don't think anybody in this room would feel that their work was essential for the community. Siân Gwenllian raised earlier the issue about construction workers. I'm not a construction worker but my big brother is, and I know what construction sites are like. It is not possible, on a construction site, to be building buildings or repairing them and maintain proper social distancing. It just should not be done. Unless those people are building essential facilities or making essential repairs to perhaps the homes of older people who won't be safe to stay in their homes unless it's done, but construction workers—. I've had several e-mails this morning from people in my region saying, 'I don't want to be at work; I don't feel safe at work; I don't feel my work is essential, but my boss is telling me that unless I turn up, my work is gone.' We know that that sector is quite fragile, actually, that people's employment rights are often not very strong, and it's a disappointment to me that this legislation does not give Governments an opportunity to step in.
Again, the vast majority of employers are going to be being responsible, they're going to be supporting their staff, they're going to be encouraging their staff to stay at home. We've seen some really nice things. Timpson's, for example, who've not only told all their are staff to stay at home and they'll be fully paid, but are giving them additional help and protection.
I can see the Deputy Presiding Officer is telling me that I must draw this to an end, and I will do so. The final point that I want to make in the context of the legislation is that this does give powers with regard to isolation, with regard to distancing, but I think if those powers are to be used, people must have clarity, and particularly today what is facing us is that it is not clear what is essential work and what is not. I don't know to what extent, Deputy Presiding Officer, that will be in the gift of the Welsh Government to get some more clarity about that, but we cannot ask people to behave responsibly and then not tell them what responsible behaviour really looks like.
For my contribution, I want to give a very personal rather than a legal or even a political take on this, really, in terms of what we're considering today.
I reflect back now on when I stood for election to this Senedd in 2016 and, really, all I was hoping for was that my life experiences would bring something to this institution and that I could do my little bit to make life for my constituents—that I'd later be elected to represent—just that little bit better. Not once did it cross my mind that less than four years later I'd be in this Chamber debating legislation that would give emergency powers to our Government in the face of a public health emergency. But here we are. And the speed at which this has moved has been quite frightening.
I was reflecting on when I first heard of coronavirus, and there was general news coverage about the events in China—that that didn't really strike us as being a reason to refocus on our business here. And then I recall I was at a social gathering in January, and there were a lot of us there—a lot of friends together—and we were having a bit of banter about the virus and whether we'd all need to get masks, because there were a number of us in the room, including me, that had the usual coughs and sneezes of our winter colds. We all laughed about it; we just didn't take it seriously. I think it's fair to say none of us are laughing now.
On Friday of last week, I decided to close my office in Merthyr Tydfil, both as a precaution for my constituents, who visit my office in quite significant numbers, but also to protect my staff that I employ to work in that office. As I locked the office on Friday evening, taking with me all the bits and bobs that I'd need to work from home, I was suddenly hit by the enormity of what we're facing—leaving that office and not knowing when we were going to be going back, and then, when I got home, realising that I couldn't even organise online shopping for my 81-year-old mother, who lives alone some miles away from me, because all the slots had been taken for weeks ahead, and, finally, feeling hugely emotional that I have no idea when I'm going to be able to cwtch my six-month-old grandson again, or when I'm going to be able to see my sons and their partners or my mum or my family or my in-laws and my friends, and knowing that some of those are in vulnerable categories, and not knowing what the weeks ahead are going to bring.
As I said earlier in my contribution to the First Minister's statement, from where I live, I can see the Tesco car park in Merthyr Tydfil, and I've watched in amazement and some considerable discomfort the crowds going in and out, ignoring advice on social distancing, panic buying and stockpiling. All these things tell me that we have to do more. We have to now give powers to Government to enforce behaviours that, unfortunately, some people are refusing to comply with voluntarily. The advice has been issued, and that's been done for a reason: to try and save lives. So, I support giving our Government these powers, the tools that they will need to do a job at speed, to take action to try and help bring this crisis to an end, and I thank them for everything that they've done so far, for the difficult decisions to make under the most difficult of circumstances.
I also have insufficient words to thank those on the front line providing emergency responses. I cannot imagine the pressures that they are under now, trying to cope, but they do, and they are delivering for us as they always do.
No more do I want to hear nostalgic references to wartime spirit. We are not at war, but we are in the battle of our lives. We are not dodging bombs from planes, but we are dodging each other, because we are now the bombs. Dirprwy Lywydd, we do this because we all hope to get back to normality soon. We all want to be able to hold our loved ones again and see our friends. Our value of such simple pleasures might even increase dramatically when we look back on this time. To do that, albeit that this is a temporary measure, I'm prepared to make the most difficult decision that anyone should have to make in a democracy, a decision that I had never contemplated in 2016. But I will therefore be supporting these measures that will give our Government the powers it may need to bring this crisis to an end as soon as possible, but also knowing that ending this crisis may well not be in the immediate future.
These powers are truly draconian, and, yes, they send shivers down the spine. The powers being granted to Government Ministers across all four nations impact upon the civil liberties of us all, and most people could not be anything other than concerned. And in normal circumstances, I would not even countenance such a transfer of powers. Unfortunately, these are not normal times, because, in a matter of weeks, coronavirus has spread around the globe, posing a severe health risk to us all. Governments have been forced to play catch-up as they try to minimise the impact this disease is having on their populations.
Here in the UK all four home nations have worked together on a unified approach, an approach designed to limit the impact of COVID-19, while the scientific community seeks a cure through possible vaccines and therapeutics. Unfortunately, a few people have not been following public health advice, and it is therefore necessary to take more decisive actions. We are today being asked to give legislative consent to a Bill that gives Governments unprecedented powers to curtail our basic freedoms and limit our civil liberties. Normally, I or my party would not permit such a transfer of powers, but we are in unprecedented territory, because we have an invisible enemy, one that does not respect borders. Everyone is at risk—not just the elderly or infirm, because young people have also passed away. Unless we take drastic and decisive action, tens of thousands of people will die. This is the stark reality facing us.
So, I accept that these powers are necessary in order to protect us from COVID-19. And make no mistake, this coronavirus is extremely infectious and very deadly. We have tried asking and even cajoling the public to do the right thing, and whilst the vast majority are heeding the public health advice, far too many are ignoring the warnings. The only alternative is for the state to force compliance. We can't allow the actions of a few to put us all at risk.
So, I am glad that the UK Government listened to reason and subjected the Bill to a six-monthly review, because these powers are open to abuse by the state, and therefore it is vital we ensure that these powers only exist for as long as is necessary. I still have concerns about clause 76, which gives the four Governments the power to alter the expiry date, and I would therefore ask the Welsh Government to agree to seek permission from this Chamber before invoking this power. It is vital that these powers are in force for the shortest time possible.
I will support, with a heavy heart, the legislative consent motion before us today. I was elected to support my constituents, and, unfortunately, the best way to do that is to place limits on freedoms that we all usually take for granted. We need to save lives and protect our communities, and I hope the Welsh public will heed the warnings, listen to the advice and act in everyone's best interest. This is the surest way to stop the spread of coronavirus, and the sooner that we do that, the sooner we can all return to our normal lives. Diolch yn fawr.
I think all of us, when we're considering these matters, consider our values, our positions, both within this Chamber, but also our responsibilities to our families and to the people we love. There are many of us who have watched our tvs over recent weeks and have seen what is happening to friends across the way in Italy and Spain and elsewhere, who have seen the suffering of people who have contracted this virus, and seen what it has done to communities and whole countries. Many of us—Dawn Bowden spoke very powerfully about the reasons that she sought election to this place—fundamentally want the same thing. We want to take care of our communities, and we want the best for our communities. I think the leader of the opposition, Paul Davies, said exactly that in his opening remarks.
So, when I consider this Bill, I consider certainly the situation we're facing, but also how do we contribute to resolving this issue. And I ask myself three questions. Do the powers exist to deal with this? Are these powers appropriate? And how is the exercise of these powers supervised? I think there's broad agreement that we do not have the powers, and the Government does not have the powers, that it requires to deal with the growing situation that we are facing. All of us saw the scenes over the weekend of people pretending it's a bank holiday or pretending that it's a day off. And all of us, I think, were appalled by that. I saw reports in my own constituencies, where pubs were open to finish off the barrel. In fact, what they're doing is endangering not only the people there, but all of us in our communities. And it is also clear that there is a lack of clarity about where the powers lie, and how powers are enforced. So, it is clear to me that we need and Government needs these powers in this Bill in order to deliver the sort of programme it must do over the coming weeks.
And then we have to ask ourselves: are the powers appropriate? And I have to say, I am clear in my own mind that the powers are appropriate. But these are not measures that I would have supported in the past. These are measures that, frankly, I find abhorrent, and in any other circumstances are measures that not only would I not support, but I would fight against with all of my strength. They are measures, Deputy Presiding Officer, that quite frankly I would not have voted for only a few weeks ago. The growth of cases that we've seen, and I've seen in my own part of the world in the Aneurin Bevan health board area, where there are more cases for us than any other part of Wales—. I've seen and I've felt the fear that that creates in our communities. So, it is appropriate that we have these powers in order to protect the national health service, to strengthen the national health service, to strengthen the public services that are delivering the protection we require, but also to ensure that people act responsibly.
And therefore, how do we supervise those powers? For me, I hope that Ministers will make reports to this place whenever these powers are used. I hope that Ministers, and I expect Ministers, to come to this place to explain why these powers are being used, for how long these powers are used, what is the objective of those powers being exercised, and when they expect these powers to be removed. It is not right and it is not proper in a democracy that these powers rest on the statute book. These powers need to be limited, and I'm very grateful to see that Ministers here welcome the limitations of those powers. I'm grateful to see a six-month review, and I agree with what our colleague Mick Antoniw said about regular reporting. But there must be accountability and proper parliamentary oversight and supervision throughout the whole of this time, and we all need to take that seriously. But also we need to look clearly at what powers do exist. I'm not convinced that there are sufficient powers at the moment to regulate the actions of supermarkets and the actions of people within supermarkets. I'd be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. I have some real concerns about some of these measures and what they will do to the rights of people who suffer from mental health issues at the moment, and I think we need proper supervision of that.
But in closing, and in supporting the Government today, I want to say this, Deputy Presiding Officer: what has shocked me over the last few weeks is that we do not have in place sufficient civil contingencies legislation that is workable and able to be used by Government when they are facing an emergency. It is not good enough that the statute book does not include emergency legislation adequate to deal with a crisis. I would hope that when we have dealt with this matter, we will again then be able to look at the statute book in its totality and ensure that Governments, under supervision and with consent, have the powers they require, without going through this process, because there is no real scrutiny of this legislation taking place, either here or in Edinburgh or in Belfast or in Westminster. It is being rushed through in a week, in a few days. The most draconian limitations on our freedoms to act and our freedoms as citizens are being rushed through four Parliaments in three days. We therefore need to have on the statute book legislation that is considered, that is robust and provides Ministers and Governments with the ability to act where necessary, but to act in a way that has democratic accountability, supervision and clear reasons there at its heart. We do not have that at present.
I support the legislative consent motion, I support the powers, I support the use of these powers, and I hope that at the end of this dreadful period of time we're living through, we will have learned some lessons and we will be able to again review where we stand as a Parliament and the powers that Ministers have to keep us safe. Thank you.
Alun, I've just got to say, until those last few sentences, I was with you all the way, because one of the points I think that is worth making in this debate—and it has been made already; the word 'draconian' has been used more than once—is we're not like Spain; we haven't got these draconian powers sitting on our statute books, however well considered they may be. And actually, I wouldn't support that. However clunky and dissatisfying the current process has been, for us to have these sort of Franco-esque powers sitting on our statute books ad infinitum is not something I think I could support, even though I understand the argument that Alun Davies was making. Everything else he said I do agree with, which is slightly unusual, but we may as well accept that.
But I wonder—I mean, I agree with the point that Dawn was making; if we're going to have Governments having the power to stop me seeing my father or my sons, you've got to really prove that you need those powers—the very point that Alun Davies was making as well. So, perhaps I could just take you through some of the specifics, harking back to some of what Helen Mary said, actually, about this balance between our human rights and the necessity for these powers. In particular, I think we've got clause 9 and clause 14 that are of specific interest to me. Clause 9 is the reduction of the number of doctors needed to sign off somebody with mental health problems from being sectioned. Personally, I don't see why you can't find two doctors in those extreme situations, there aren't going to be that many of them. But if we are in that position, perhaps we could be reviewing the decision more frequently than the legislation allows. There's nothing preventing you from doing that and making the very statements that Alun Davies was talking about if they're needed.
Clause 14: assessing the needs of not just people with disabilities, but carers and paid carers in particular. We have a situation now with the legislation where you may be entitled to an assessment, but there's no obligation to meet the needs that are assessed. But in the circumstances that Helen Mary described of 'things will be okay for now, but we might reach a peak where there just aren't enough staff to do assessments', what is your view of just presuming that the arguments put forward by either a carer or somebody cared for that what they're saying is correct? Giving them what they need if it's possible to do that and then reviewing their assertions later on in the process when we have a workforce back to normal. I wouldn't normally support believing people without the due process of assessment, but I think in these circumstances, I don't think people are going to be taking the mickey; they're going to be asking when they're desperate.
Clauses 35 and 36: I just wanted to ask, because there are powers here to suspend the DBS checks, which I completely understand. There are still former teachers in our population who were struck off the register for good reason and I'm hoping that whatever relaxation is taken into account here, that those individuals won't be allowed back into the workforce.
Again, Helen Mary's point on 'essential': what does essential work mean? What does that mean? There are opportunities within individual companies or small businesses for it to mean 'some of your staff is needed and some of your staff is not'. So, the example I was given this morning: 'I work for a small gas firm. If somebody says they've got a gas leak, am I allowed to go out and fix that for them anymore?' Going back to the construction point, I've had a gardening firm get in touch, saying, 'Well, we can work at distance. I understand flower beds not being particularly important, but if somebody rings me up and says a tree is about to land on them, am I allowed to go out and do some tree surgery on it?' That kind of guidance would be necessary.
Because I wasn't able to ask in a question about renting before, can you just confirm for me that the position in England and in Wales about the lengthening of the notice required for possession proceedings is framed in that way for England and Wales, so that we don't have evictions? I appreciate that the principle is accepted by everybody, but it's just to clarify that England and Wales are exactly the same. If they're not, that's fine, but an explanation would be quite useful.
And then, I think, finally from me was a question on—. Yes, Hefin David raised the question of MOTs earlier on. Now at the moment, he's not here, but garages can stay open to do MOTs. As the workforce was generally becomes smaller, because of people either self-isolating or becoming ill, sadly, do you anticipate—and I appreciate that this is a UK question, really, but you will be asked this in COBRA meetings—that we will ever be in a position where legal requirements are likely to be further suspended, as with DBS checks, simply because we don't have enough people to enforce them and in those circumstances, what will we be asking people who would normally be subject to those legal requirements to do? Thank you ever so much.
May I say first of all that I identify entirely with the comments made by Dawn Bowden? It is hugely important that we do share our concerns and it’s important that we express that emotion that we are bound to feel. That is so important at a time such as this. So, I thank you for sharing some of your concerns with us today, but we will get through this. We will get through this together—that is certainly possible.
We, as a party, have been working constructively with the UK Government and the Welsh Government on this legislation in order to ensure that the Government does have the powers to keep us safe. This legislation should lead to more staff being available in the NHS and in social care. It should make volunteering easier, put a stop to groups of people getting together, enable more support to be provided to businesses and give dignity to those who lose loved ones. But, of course, as others have already said, it’s important that these powers should only be used if entirely necessary, and we do need full scrutiny of the use of these powers, too.
I do agree entirely with the concerns expressed on the two-year period, and my colleagues in Westminster have been calling for this six-monthly review. I do believe that assessing the impact of the powers contained within this Bill, the impacts on Wales—be they powers held here in Wales or powers that are not devolved to us as a Parliament—it is important that we assess the impact of any powers that come into force and, as Alun Davies said, there should be regular reports and opportunities here for us to scrutinise this in an entirely constructive manner in order to ensure that everything is working appropriately.
It is important to note, I think, that the clauses in the Bill related to devolved issues do mean that the Welsh Government can decide not to make use of those clauses. That is to say that it could decide not to turn on the switch on those powers. I do think that that’s important. It does show respect to our Senedd here.
Just very briefly, some of the issues that do concern me. Social care: by relaxing the requirements on local government in terms of social care, there is a risk that this could lead to an unacceptable level of care, which could lead to unnecessary deaths. We do need to ensure that only if the pressures become extreme we would actually make use of those powers. On DBS checks, I agree entirely with the comments made by Suzy Davies. We do need to take care in hastening those checks in order to allow more volunteers to help, but we must also bear in mind what the purposes of those checks are, namely to safeguard the most vulnerable people and children amongst us.
Now, with schools, I agree entirely that schools need to remain open, but it can place huge stress on teachers, and the teaching unions do have concerns about the health of their members although, of course, the provision for the children of key workers is entirely essential.
On mental health, the Bill will allow far-reaching changes to mental health legislation, which could mean that people could be held in a unit or a hospital for a lot longer than they currently would be.
To conclude, Deputy Presiding Officer: women. Women, generally speaking, care for children and older relatives and even to this day that hasn’t changed. This unpaid work will increase over the next few weeks and months, and we do need to respect that work and that contribution. Women, including pregnant women and those on maternity leave shouldn’t be placed at a disadvantage in their careers by following the guidance put down.
You will know that our party has a long and honourable history of supporting and promoting the rights of our people but, temporarily, we do need this legislation. We have no option, and therefore we will not oppose the motion before us today. Thank you.
Minister, I think I speak the same language as everybody here when I say that never, ever, in our wildest imagination would any of us who are sitting here today imagine that we would be here and be asked to press a button that will actually implement quite draconian legislation and visit it upon people in their homes and in their daily lives. That is not what we came here to do. But what we did come here to do—I'm fairly certain—is to protect people, to try to keep them safe, and to do all that we feel is reasonable and needed and justified to that end.
We find ourselves in the most unusual, unprecedented place that we could ever, ever have imagined. And it is in that light that I will support, as will everybody else here today—. I'm not claiming a personal victory here, because there is no victory in all of this; this is absolutely necessary. It's a means to an end. And the only reason, I suppose, that I will support it is because it is time-limited. These emergency powers are time-limited. They will be reviewed, and I'm sure that they will be reported on when they are used. We hope that we won't have to use every single one of the powers that are written down here today, but the behaviour, as many have said before me, last weekend was truly staggering. Some people clearly didn't understand—I'm sure of that—what it is that they were doing, and people all decided to do the same thing. When they were told to go out and have fresh air, they all ended up en masse in the same place. So, we know now that that won't be able to happen under this ruling.
But I think there are a few things that we need to look at. We're asking other people—. We're passing the legislation, but we're actually asking other people to enforce that legislation if that is the case, and I think we have a duty to make sure that those people who will be enforcing the legislation, and, sometimes, with a hostile population, we have to make sure that they are protected and we have to make sure that they're protected through insurance policies, through any protective gear that they need and some clear guidance also, because some people will now be in the front line.
We've heard a lot of talk about the front line, but the front line is moving all of the time. Yes, the NHS staff are the front line if you need medical care, but it's the supermarket operatives if you need food; it's the lorry drivers if you need that food to get to where we are going to pick it up. So, the front line now is anybody and everybody who is working to keep this country running at this particular moment.
Some of the powers are also here to protect businesses, and I've had an e-mail while we've been sitting here about a business that's been asked to pay rent, but they haven't got any business, and the person they're due to pay it to is also a small business as well. So, we need to take care of people from both sides and understand that when we put some legislation in to help one side, it doesn't negatively impact on the others.
I'm sure that everybody will be here with a heavy heart voting for this. We hope that we'll be able to very, very quickly take those powers away and give people back their freedom, but more importantly, their future.
Thank you. Neil McEvoy.
Diolch, Dirprwy Llywydd. Dirprwy Lywydd, actually—there's a mutation there.
It is an extreme measure. I do have lots of concerns. I have concerns that councils can downgrade, as mentioned, care for the elderly and disabled with the suspension of the Care Act. I'm concerned about the use of remote technology in court cases in terms of fairness of trial. I'm concerned about how people can be detained.
It is an extreme measure, but we do live in an extreme time—unprecedented. I think, as everybody has said, there are aspects of the Bill that I certainly dislike and have huge concerns about. I have huge concerns about giving away liberty to people for any period of time. Individual rights are the cornerstone of what we should be about, but there are community rights as well. When we saw the crowds on the weekend, people out and about, treating it as if it were a bank holiday, then something had to be done. It's a pity, I think, that things weren't done beforehand, when maybe some actions could have been taken sooner.
I'm pleased to hear that Welsh aspects of the Bill can be stopped here, from this Senedd. I'd like a bit more detail on that. I'm very uncomfortable with a two-year timeline. Six months is much better, but I just want to flesh out the detail on what is needed after the six months. Is it a straight majority? Is it two thirds?
I think concerns have been raised about people suffering domestic abuse at home. There's also the issue of children in care having less supervision now. I'm concerned about the amount of things being conducted online, especially education. There's a loophole in the law that you don't need a DBS to tutor online, and I think that's a huge loophole that this Bill could address, actually.
Ultimately, I don't think we have any choice here but to vote for this measure. We're unable to amend it from here. Just an appeal, really, to people watching on tv: we are all in this together. We may not realise it yet, but when people go out and they press the button to cross the road, if they're infectious, then the next person is going to pick up that virus. All they have to do is touch their face and they ingest the virus, through nose, mouth or eyes. It's very difficult not to touch your face at times.
I'm going to finish by saying that I think we really, really should be testing every possible case. I hear that we don't have capacity at the moment, but I think the priority of this Government must be to build capacity, and as quickly as possible, because these testing kits are available. They are available to this Government if the orders are put in, because we're not going to get back to some kind of normality very quickly unless we identify who has the virus, where the virus is, and we can isolate it in that way. These are extraordinary times, but I'll finish urging the Government to build capacity immediately to test every single suspected case of coronavirus. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you. Can I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to reply to the debate?
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thank you to all Members who've contributed in the debate. I'll try to run through as wide a range of the points that were raised in my response, of course. A number of Members repeated points, or built on ones, that were made earlier on.
I want to thank Mick, and in fact all Members who spoke, for giving an indication of their support for the motion before us. Mick in particular asked, as did Alun Davies and Siân Gwenllian and a range of other people, about the reporting requirement that's in the Bill. I think it's now in clause 99 following amendments made yesterday, together with a six-month review that I think is in clause 98 now, and so I'm happy to give an undertaking on the record about the Welsh Government reporting to this Assembly on the use of powers on a regular basis. In practical terms, I think that in reality we'll be making public statements about the use of powers every time we use them, but then to want to gather together in one place a report on what's been done over a period of time. I'm happy to give that undertaking.
The one note of caution I'd give in regard to some other responses provided to other Members is that, first of all, it’s then for this institution to decide how it wants to use that report in terms of scrutiny or otherwise. And the second point is that, in terms of how the institution functions, not just in terms of reduced numbers, but we'll all need to have in our own minds that we may be in a different position in three months, six months or nine months, and just to be aware that we can't give absolute hard and fast guarantees about what definitely will happen. But, certainly there, from the Government's point of view, the reporting undertaken, I'm more then happy to provide.
In Paul Davies's comments, on the points about the safeguards, professional regulators will still be in place, but the standards they apply will have to be in relation to the ability to practice at that time. So, three months ago, you'd have expected something different to what you might expect in the middle of an epidemic when intensive therapy unit capacity may be full, for example. But that doesn't mean, for example, that the expected requirements about integrity, about conduct with colleagues—those things will still be in place. A fully staffed ITU bed at the moment has nine nurses around it. We may be in a different position if the outbreak reaches anything like its worst case potential.
In terms of your point about the reach of Welsh Government communications, there are regular conversations with broadcasters but also local media as well, and I think they're a really important source of information. Even though lots of people don't buy a local paper now, lots of people look at local websites for their news, and every Member with a constituency or region is pretty obsessive about their most popular local website, whether it used to be a newspaper or not. They're sources of information people regularly go to, so we are definitely thinking about how we try to get information to them. Again, trusted and consistent and as clear as possible.
And I think at the end of this, many more people will know who the Chief Medical Officer for Wales is than may have done six months ago, because Dr Frank Atherton will be a regular feature in communications to the public because he's a figure in whom lots of trust is invested. He's not here to seek election at any point in the future. He's an independent medical advisor to the Welsh Government, and I think it's really important that he and his three colleagues are taking a prominent role in not just advising Government, but in that public communication exercise.
And I know you mentioned points, as other Members did, about behaviour over the weekend, in particular in caravan parks and beauty spots, but more than that, we saw crowds on Barry Island and other places too. So, that explains part of the reason why we took the extraordinary steps we did yesterday when the First Minister announced some restrictions, and then the four Governments took further restrictions again. The powers in this Bill would allow us to take further measures in the future and allow the measures we've already taken under some of our Public Health (Wales) Act 2017 powers to put those on a different footing, because the review requirements for them are different.
It's worth, I think, making this point, though—even though it’s not strictly about the Bill—but it is about those people that have moved from their own home and the 'return home and stay at home' message. We're about to send out tens of thousands of letters in Wales to vulnerable citizens, to advise them about why they're in that group and the support that they should find available to them and why we're asking them to stay at home for at least three months. Similar letters are going out to people in England and other UK nations. If those people have left their normal home, where they're registered with their health service—whether they've gone from Caerphilly or Kent to Tenby, it doesn’t really matter—they're not in their normal home, they're not going to receive that advice or guidance, and they won't be in a position to safeguard their own health to protect themselves. So, actually, it isn't just about the pressure on parts of the whole of the UK, because there were similar issues in Cornwall and in the highlands and islands of Scotland as well, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland yesterday said they'd had similar problems too, but actually all of those areas are set up for minor injuries provision; they're not set up for the additional pressure that we expect will happen in the coming weeks, even if we do manage to flatten the peak of the outbreak.
Helen Mary Jones, I was grateful for a range of the comments you made. I think on some of the questions, in terms of if we're considering using the powers to lighten social care support arrangements, it will be covered by the reporting duty. We'd certainly want to report on what we're doing and why. We may not be able to do that prospectively, because we may need to use powers at the sort of speed, to be effective, where we'll have to use the powers and then tell the Assembly that we've done that, as opposed to saying, 'Next week, we'll be doing something.' In normal times you can do that, but these are anything but normal times.
On the points made by a range of Members on statutory sick pay, we recognise those comments and you'll have heard the First Minister call for the universal basic income. It's not often the First Minister is in the same place on a policy response as the United States' Republicans, but there are US Republicans who are calling for, effectively, a universal basic income too. It just shows the extraordinary times that we're living in and the recognition that, if we don't provide people with means, then their behaviour may be driven by the need to pay their bills and they'll act in such a way that the public health emergency will get worse, not better. I don't think the First Minister and Mitt Romney are due to share a platform anytime soon.
The Welsh Government have been clear in our call for further support for self-employed people from the United Kingdom Government. We understand that the Chancellor is due to make an announcement in the next day or two about that. The sooner the better. But, within the Welsh Government, Ken Skates is already leading work on what more we can do within Wales with the levers and means that we have available to us.
On construction, again, it's not strictly in the Bill, but if the powers are given to us, then we'd certainly be on a firmer footing to make further interventions, should they be necessary. But I recognise, as indeed do the First Minister and other Ministers, the points made about the construction industry. It is certainly not always possible to work on a construction site and to socially distance yourself. My older brother worked in the construction industry and my father-in-law works in the construction industry as well. There is real concern that other Governments share. I understand, though, that safety-critical work would need to continue and, equally, work that is critical to the fight against COVID-19. So we wouldn't want to see the work being done to convert leisure centres in Carmarthenshire being ended. We actually need that work to carry on to equip us with the means to fight the disease and save as many lives as possible, but I recognise the points about the fact that this is a fragile sector in terms of workers' rights. People are often required to be self-employed where in reality they are under direct control in a way that most employees feel they are as well.
I was particularly impressed by Dawn Bowden's contribution, reminding us all of our role and our expected role as elected representatives and the very human impact of coronavirus and—as, indeed, Suzy Davies mentioned—about the interruption to our own family lives as well and the reasons why Members are reluctantly supporting these new powers. It doesn't give me or any other Minister in this Government any relish to ask Members to pass this motion, but the truth is this is not easy, not simple, and we're not certain when this will end. I think there was also a point raised by Alun Davies that he would not have voted for these measures only a few weeks ago.
On supermarkets, we think we do have some powers to intervene to regulate behaviour and purchasing now, but the Bill will give us a surer and firmer footing to do so, if that is required.
Can I press you on the supermarkets? I think many of us are concerned as well for employees. A number of people have contacted me quite upset, overnight, who have been told that they have to go to work. It's clear that their work is not essential in any realistic way at the moment. Are there powers, or do powers exist, to enable either this Government here or the United Kingdom Government to take action and to protect those employees from future actions from unscrupulous employers?
Well, if you're talking about further additions to workers' rights, then that may be difficult. However, we do potentially have—particularly if this Bill is passed and becomes an Act—further and clearer powers to close down additional undertakings, and that would give those members some of the protections. The Sports Direct example and the commentary circulating around the Wetherspoon chain and the message they've given to their trade union and their workers are good examples of exactly what we do not want to see. So, yes, there are powers that are on their way in this Bill that will give us a firmer footing. The Welsh Government will act and do what we think is appropriate at that time. We would rather have an agreed four nations position on almost everything that we're doing, but where we think there's a need to act, then we'll do so anyway. So the measures that we took on caravans and beauty spots, for example, yesterday, were in advance of the UK Government making announcements and, indeed, in advance of Scotland and Northern Ireland, because we had powers available to us that they currently don't have as well.
On a range of the comments that were made by Suzy Davies on the workforce shortage around mental health assessments, it's important to recognise that we may not have a ready supply of doctors at some point in the future and, actually, we may not be properly safeguarding people who need to be in a different place for their care if we don't change, or have the ability to change, the way those assessments are provided.
In terms of essential work, I recognise that we'll need to finesse the guidance—there have been questions about it—to provide answers and to have consistent answers for people in both businesses and the workforce. I can also confirm the eviction protection does cover Wales as well—Julie James has been very clear about that and I'm very clear about that as the Minister in charge of the Bill from this point of view—and it is, of course, possible there will be further measures.
In terms of Joyce's points about people on the front line, I think it's worth reminding that this Bill is about protecting people on the front line. We think of the front line in a different way now—people who drive distribution trucks, people who work in food retail, they're very much on the front line, just as much as community pharmacy and health and social care workers are as well.
I want to thank Members for their questions and for their support for the ability of this place to agree that this Bill should be passed to give Welsh Ministers the power to protect the public. With that, I'll close and ask Members to formally support the legislative consent motion before us.
Thank you very much. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Item 15 and item 16 on our agenda have been withdrawn.
Item 17 is a motion to suspend Standing Orders. I call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motion.
Motion NNDM7317 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Orders 33.6 and 33.8:
Suspends Standing Order 12.20(i) and that part of Standing Order 11.16 that requires the weekly announcement under Standing Order 11.11 to constitute the timetable for business in Plenary for the following week, to allow the next item of business to be considered in Plenary on Tuesday, 24 March 2020.
Fine, thank you. The proposal is to suspend Standing Orders. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed, again in accordance with Standing Orders.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Item 18 is a motion to amend Standing Orders and, again, I call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motion. Any member?
Motion NNDM7318 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly, in accordance with Standing Order 33.2:
1. Considers the report of the Business Committee ‘Assembly Business and Emergency Procedures’ laid in the Table Office on 24 March 2020.
2. Approves the proposals to:
(i) revise Standing Orders to add new Standing Order 34, as set out in Annex A of the report of the Business Committee; and
(ii) revoke Standing Orders 6.24A-H and 12.1A-C agreed on 18 March 2020.
3. Notes that these changes are temporary, and will cease to have effect on the dissolution of this Assembly or when the Assembly so resolves, whichever is sooner.
Thank you. So, the proposal is to amend Standing Orders. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
That brings us to the close of today's proceedings, but can I thank you for your forbearance? We haven't got a true list and we were adding people and taking people out, so thank you very much and I hope that we'll all stay safe. Thank you.
The meeting ended at 13:47.