Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd01/04/2020
The Assembly met by video-conference at 14:01 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome, all, to our first virtual Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. A Plenary meeting held by video-conference in accordance with the Standing Orders of the National Assembly for Wales constitutes proceedings of the Assembly for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006.
Having consulted with the Business Committee, some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting. Although we do not expect a vote today, I have determined that the quorum for any vote to be valid will be four Members, in accordance with Standing Order 34.10. In accordance with Standing Order 34.11, weighted voting will apply, and the requirements for oral questions will be disapplied, in accordance with Standing Order 34.18. I've also given notice, in accordance with Standing Order 34.17, that it is not practical for the meeting to be broadcast live. A recording will be made available on Senedd.tv as soon as possible after the meeting is completed, and a Record of the proceedings will be published in the usual way.
I wish to remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order and the organisation of business in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting.
Therefore, the first item of business this afternoon is the business statement, and I call on the First Minister to make the business statement.
Llywydd, two additional statements have been added to today's agenda: the first from the Minister for Health and Social Services and the second from the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales.
Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
The next item is the statement by the First Minister on coronavirus and I call on the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, to make his statement.
In this statement, I will provide information to Members about the steps that we have taken in response to the coronavirus crisis since the Senedd last met.
In one week, the Welsh Government has put in place a number of measures to prevent people from gathering together, thereby slowing the spread of the virus. Simultaneously, we have been working hard across Government to help people and businesses in facing fundamental changes that are affecting all parts of our society. We are doing everything possible to support our health service and all public services supporting people. These changes are difficult, but they are essential. They will save lives.
Llywydd, the spread of coronavirus in Wales continues to accelerate. The last week has seen a significant increase in the number of people requiring hospital treatment and a further increase in the number of deaths associated with the disease. Yet it is an inescapable fact that we still stand at the foothills of the mountain that faces us. The measures put in place over the past two weeks will slow the pace of the virus, but that effect will not be felt immediately. The number of people who will be affected and the number of deaths will grow further. The key thing remains that everything we do together to slow down and then reverse that trend will save lives. Today I will focus on those matters not covered in the statements to be made by my colleagues Vaughan Gething and Ken Skates.
Llywydd, in Wales, the Cabinet COVID group meets each Wednesday morning. It receives reports of the latest developments from the chief medical officer, the chief executive of NHS Wales, the emergency co-ordinating centre and the Welsh Local Government Association. In recognition of the uniquely serious position we face, I have invited the leaders of the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru to join that group. I'm very grateful to both Paul Davies and Adam Price for accepting that invitation.
Cross-administration working has, this week, also resulted in a formal agreement through the military assistance to civilian authorities mechanism for logistic planning support to be provided in Wales. As a result, armed forces assistance is now available to our emergency co-ordinating centre and to public services in their efforts to combat the disease. I'm very grateful for the speed and scale of assistance from the military that is now being afforded.
Llywydd, when we last met, the Senedd provided legislative consent to the emergency Coronavirus Bill. It has since completed its passage through the Houses of Parliament and received Royal Assent on 25 March. We drew attention in our legislative consent memorandum to amendments that we anticipated would be laid. I can confirm that these amendments were included in the final Bill.
On Sunday last, on the advice of the chief medical officer that coronavirus represents a serious and imminent threat to public health in Wales, I made a formal declaration to that effect in order to trigger powers under Schedule 22 of the Coronavirus Act. Those powers allow directions to be issued to restrict events, gatherings and the location of people and the use of powers to close premises or limit access by directions. The making of a direction does not require the use of its powers, but it ensures that, if the need arises to do so, we will already have taken the preliminary steps required to enable that to take place. I have made the declaration on that precautionary basis.
Llywydd, the powers of the Act allow normal decision-making systems to be adapted to meet the current circumstances. On Friday of last week, I approved the practice direction, since issued jointly by the president of Welsh Tribunals and the president of the Mental Health Review Tribunal for Wales. A practice direction allows that tribunal to continue its work even when it is not possible to hold face-to-face hearings or where there is a shortage of available members. Over the past week, regulations have been passed in Wales to give legal force to decisions made to close holiday and camping sites, public rights of way and access to land. We have also given full effect to the full measures announced on Monday, 23 March.
Across the Welsh Government, my colleagues continue to take the decisions and to provide the advice necessary to assist our fellow citizens at this most difficult of times. On 26 March, Eluned Morgan wrote to all Members outlining the actions taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to assist UK nationals still abroad. We continue to highlight the cases of Welsh citizens in such challenging circumstances.
On Friday of last week, Julie Morgan issued new guidance to those providing Families First and Flying Start services during the pandemic. Even in the circumstances we face, our aim remains to support those at greatest risk and vulnerability through whatever safe means can be deployed. Also on Friday, Jane Hutt announced new funding to support volunteers and third sector groups. That includes £24 million for Wales's voluntary sector and £50 million for a direct delivery food scheme in Wales for Wales's most vulnerable people. COVID-19 volunteer numbers have passed 30,000 in Wales and I'm immensely grateful to the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and the county voluntary councils for everything they are doing in their partnership with our local authorities to match together the huge upswell of volunteers with the tasks that need to be carried out.
In relation to education, since the decision to close schools and cancel this summer's examinations, we have worked quickly to provide information students may need. Last week, Kirsty Williams announced that year 10 and 12 students, who were due to sit examinations this summer, will not be required to sit those examinations at a later date and that their full qualifications will be provided in 2021. Over 800 schools across Wales have remained open to support our most vulnerable learners and the children of critical workers. I thank school staff for the work they have done so far and for the fact that the majority of these schools will remain open over the Easter holidays.
Llywydd, the demands being made of our public services, businesses and Welsh citizens are enormous. The common task on which we are all engaged, however, is to save lives. We publish figures every day now of deaths from coronavirus in Wales, but each one of those figures is somebody's son or daughter, somebody's parent or grandparent. It is to reduce that loss and that suffering that we are all asked to do what we do, and the Welsh Government remains fully and single-mindedly focused on that task.
[Inaudible.]—join the COVID-19 core group this morning. As I said in accepting the invitation, I'm of course happy to take part in these discussions but, as I'm sure you'll understand, should they interfere with the scrutiny of the Government's work then I'll have to reconsider my role in attending them.
Now, last week, I asked you about the Welsh Government's efforts to reprioritise its finances and publish an emergency budget demonstrating what financial changes had been made in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. You did indicate that the Welsh Government would be publishing a supplementary budget and that Ministers are undertaking an analysis of their portfolios to ascertain where spending could be diverted to the coronavirus response.
Now, the Welsh Government's £1.1 billion announcement earlier this week only consists of 25 per cent of its own money, as the rest is from European funding and the UK Treasury, and so, in order to convince the people of Wales that the Welsh Government is genuinely reprioritising its finance in response to this outbreak, we need to see something more than just 'business as usual'.
As I've also said before, it's also crucial that, where it can, the Welsh Government redistributes its funding to third sector organisations so that those responding to the outbreak are actually at the front of the queue when it comes to receiving Government funding. Therefore, First Minister, can you tell us when the Welsh Government will be coming forward with the supplementary budget?
Can I just check that Paul Davies hasn't completed his questioning?
Sorry. Can you hear me now?
Yes, I can.
Ah, right. Right. So, as I was saying, First Minister, can you therefore tell us when you'll be bringing forward this supplementary budget? Have Ministers undertaken those financial reviews of their portfolios to ascertain where funding could be better prioritised? And, in relation to third sector grant funding, can you confirm that the current allocations of funding, which you referred to in your statement this afternoon, are actually being prioritised to reflect the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, so that those schemes that are delivering vital support and services are actually receiving the appropriate resources to carry out their work?
I thank Paul Davies for those questions and thank him for joining the coronavirus Cabinet group this morning. My hope is that by having the most recent information available that will assist in the scrutiny of the Government's actions, and I'm very happy to remain in dialogue with the leader of the opposition about how that forum can operate in the way both he and I would like it to continue.
He is right to say that the Welsh Government has embarked all last week on a series of reviews of existing budgets. I don't myself think it is fair to describe £1.1 billion freed up from other commitments as 'business as usual'. It has involved difficult decisions right across the Government, and that is an exercise that I have warned my Cabinet colleagues we will have to repeat a number of times during the coronavirus crisis.
Last week, we focused on revenue in order to release as much revenue as we could for coronavirus purposes. We will carry out a parallel exercise in relation to capital expenditure across the Welsh Government. Again, the aim being to release capital from programmes that can now not go ahead in the way originally planned, and to be able to reapply that resource to meet the challenges that we face.
The Minister for Finance and Trefnydd intends to complete these first rounds of discussions over the next couple of weeks, and then we will be able to advise the Business Committee on the timetable that we hope to follow in relation to returning to the Assembly to regularise these matters through a first supplementary budget.
Members will have seen, as I said, that £24 million has already been identified for the voluntary and third sector. That is absolutely in recognition of the part that they are playing, as Paul Davies said, in moving to the forefront of the response being made across Wales to the coronavirus outbreak, both the voluntary effort by releasing people for new duties and by strengthening the response they're able to make at community level, and we intend to go on supporting that sector in that work.
First Minister, alongside reprioritising the Government's finances, it's absolutely critical that the Government urgently addresses how it best supports and protects the most vulnerable in Wales from the threat of coronavirus. I know your statement refers to support for vulnerable people, and I'm pleased that some progress is being made, but can you tell us what work the Welsh Government has done to allow people to register themselves for additional support in Wales, and how that scheme is being promoted, so that anyone who feels that they need additional support can notify the proper authorities?
Now, there are also concerns that the coronavirus outbreak may lead to a domestic abuse pandemic according to the founder of the Stand up to Domestic Abuse organisation. I understand that the Welsh Government is looking at this, but could you tell us a bit more about the messaging and public campaigning the Welsh Government is considering to highlight the support available to those living with domestic abuse during this period, and what lessons have been learnt by the way other countries across the world are tackling domestic abuse at this time?
Two weeks ago, I asked you about the steps the Welsh Government is taking to ensure that those people who are now self-isolating are able to get the essential items that they need on a regular basis, and you said that Government Ministers were working closely with local authority colleagues and colleagues in the third sector. It’s also vital that more is done to encourage volunteers to come forward and help support the NHS and other bodies to carry out their work, as well as playing an important role in terms of delivering vital supplies in the community. As I understand it, the number of volunteers per head of the population is lower than that in England, and whilst there has been some confusion, it's more important than ever that efforts are made to increase the numbers here in Wales.
Therefore, can you tell us what urgent discussion the Welsh Government has had with local authorities across Wales to ascertain the number of people who are at risk of not getting the essential supplies that they actually need? And what further measures is the Welsh Government taking to help increase the number of volunteers across Wales to ensure that they can help both to support the NHS and help the delivery of essential supplies to those who actually need them?
Again, I thank Paul Davies for those. On domestic violence, he is right, of course, that the sobering evidence from other places that have been in the coronavirus crisis earlier then us is that, when people are confined to their own homes, home is not a place of safety for everybody and, for some people, it is a place where real risks are posed to them. My colleague Jane Hutt has published new advice and guidance today to the sector demonstrating how we can improve the responsiveness of services that are already there, and to try to tailor them to the circumstances people now face.
I know that our colleagues in the police service are particularly alert to all of this. I was discussing this with a chief constable earlier this morning about the measures they are putting in place to try and make sure that, where crimes are committed—and an act of violence in the home is a crime—the police will treat it in exactly that way and respond in the way that we would expect.
It is a challenge, as Members will recognise, when people are confined to their homes, for good reasons of coronavirus, some of the ways in which they can alert others to things that are happening in their lives are longer available to them, and we are looking to see what has happened elsewhere to see if there any lessons we can learn in continuing to make the services we already have on the ground as effective as they can be in these difficult circumstances.
I wanted to take the question about the vulnerable and the self-isolating together, because it is really important to be clear that there are two different categories of people here. There are the 81,000 people who have been written to by the chief medical officer to say that their health condition is so significant that they should remain at home for 12 to 16 weeks, and that they should not go out at all and that they should be genuinely isolated from others who might otherwise bring harm to them.
Those are the people that we are offering a doorstep delivery of food to, where they don't have any other way in which food can be brought to them. The majority of those people will already have families and friends, and are likely to be users of existing services, and will be able to rely on those networks to assist them. But for those who can't, we've put in place a mechanism where we can take to people's doors—where that is the right thing to do—food that will be able to see them through the weeks ahead. That mechanism doesn't suit everybody. Some people are too vulnerable even to be able to pick up the box of food from their doorstep. In those circumstances, we are arranging through our local authority colleagues for food to be taken from their centres by volunteers out to people who need a service in a different sort of way.
There is of course a much larger group of people who are vulnerable: people aged over 70, women who are pregnant, people with pre-existing conditions, and so on. They are not required to remain at home in the same exclusive way. Many of those are people who will be able to make a visit themselves to the shop to get food supplies, but we are working with supermarkets to see how, in the services that they provide, the home delivery services, we may be able to identify people in that group as well, when we have finished dealing with the safeguarding group, to give them some priority for home delivery services. There are some data challenges in making people's personal information available to supermarkets in that way, but solutions to that are being devised.
As far as volunteers are concerned, of course, we started from a much higher base in Wales. Wales has always had a higher and healthier number of volunteers than other parts of the United Kingdom. We have 30,000 extra people who've come forward in the coronavirus crisis. They're coming through the WCVA, they're coming through the voluntary councils, and then there's a brokerage job to be done to make sure that their offers of help are matched with those who need it. Of course, we are keen for more people to come forward, because as the disease progresses, even people who have volunteered—numbers of those people will themselves find themselves not able to carry out those volunteering duties. So, the best advice to people who want to volunteer in Wales is to go to the WCVA site. It's a very simple process: you can register your willingness to help, and you will be matched in your locality with people who need that help.
May I start by extending my sincere sympathies to those who have lost family members and friends over the past few weeks, and extend my best wishes to those who are ill at the moment, and thank everybody who is caring for us all during this very difficult period? May I also thank you, First Minister, for extending the invitation to me to join the national COVID group that you made reference to in your statement?
If I could start by asking some questions around testing? Can the First Minister confirm that—the company involved in the deal that collapsed recently, Roche—contrary to what that company, at least, is claiming, there was a confirmed written agreement with the Welsh Government to deliver 5,000 tests a day? Is it your understanding that the catalyst for the deal collapsing may have been a similar deal with Public Health England? If that is the case, what confidence do you have in Public Health England—which has achieved, I believe, a lower level of testing so far than Wales, pro rata—in their procuring now on our behalf? Will we still be independently sourcing our own capacity in terms of testing, in addition to anything done on a co-ordinated, four-nation basis? Has the Government, for example, approached the Welsh universities, or have the Welsh universities approached the Government, to see whether their laboratory capacity could be used to increase testing levels in Wales?
On PPE, can you confirm that the emergency helpline that you've created for people with concerns about access to PPE will be made publicly available for individual care workers and nurses and other staff, as it is in England? Local authorities that have concerns about the supply of PPE, I am told, are being advised currently not to procure their own stocks of PPE. Can you confirm, nevertheless, that they are free to do so, should they wish? In the case of care workers going into people's homes, should they not be advised to wear PPE as a matter of course to protect themselves, but also to prevent transmission to the elderly and other vulnerable groups?
Finally, First Minister, on construction, the Scottish Government have issued instructions for all non-essential construction to cease at this time. You have the power to do the same here in Wales, why haven't you?
May I say, first of all, that I agree with what Adam Price said when he was sympathising with those people who have lost loved ones as a result of coronavirus? We are all, today, thinking about the former Assembly Member Bill Powell and his family too.
Vaughan Gething will deal in more detail with matters to do with the health service, Llywydd, but as far as testing is concerned can I say I think a co-ordinated approach across the four nations of the United Kingdom is a sensible approach here? We don't want to be competing with one another for scarce resources. Adam Price is right to say that we've had a higher level of testing in Wales than across our border in recent times. But, working together with colleagues in Scotland, Northern Ireland and England gives us some resilience in the system. It doesn't preclude us from looking for supplies of our own, but this is very competitive, as Members will understand. Working together is, I think, in the interest of Wales and of our friends and colleagues in other parts of the United Kingdom as well.
As far as PPE is concerned, local authorities can certainly secure supplies of their own if that's what they think they want to do. But, again, they wouldn't want to find themselves competing against one another in a marketplace, because that will certainly drive the market in the direction of the suppliers rather than the people who need it.
I don't think we plan, at the moment, to make that number a public number. The course of action for somebody in the health or social care service who has concerns about PPE is for that to be reported through their organisation and for the organisation to use that number. If the number were to be made available for everybody, then I think the risk is that it would get in the way of getting PPE to the places where it is most needed, rather than the system we have, where people who can perceive blockages at the ground level report that through their organisation, and the organisation then solves the problem by being in contact through the line.
In relation to construction, my understanding is the Scottish Government has issued guidance. It's not an instruction; it is guidance. We were in discussions with the Scottish Government on this yesterday and we'll be in discussions with them again tomorrow. I think the thing that we are wrestling with is to find a way of bearing down on construction sites where practice is not safe, where people are not separated by 2m, while at the same time making sure that we don't get in the way of essential construction work that we need for public purposes: the Grange University Hospital development; the work going on in Carmarthenshire in relation to leisure centre preparation; the work going on in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Conwy to respond to people flooded out of their homes; and to make sure that work is done to prevent flooding later in the year. Finding a legal way of identifying the things we want to continue and the things we don't want to continue has been challenging—we're discussing it with the Scottish Government to find whether we can act together on that matter.
Whenever something is clouded in secrecy, obviously that makes scrutiny and accountability more difficult and it also erodes, I think, public trust if you don’t get full transparency. So, given that the Government chose to tell us about the deal collapsing with this supplier, can I just ask the First Minister, again, if you're prepared to confirm if the company is Roche, and if it isn't Roche who else it is? And, specifically, can you address this suggestion that I've heard from several sources inside Wales, several sources outside of Wales, that one of the reasons that the deal with the Welsh Government collapsed was because of a parallel deal with Public Health England? Now, either that is true or it isn't true, and it's causing a lot of anxiety and some anger in some places. If it isn't true, dispel that now, First Minister, by saying so, or at least tell us what you know as to why this deal collapsed.
Llywydd, we have a deal; we believed that the deal was one that we had—. I'm sorry, I'm being told that you didn't hear the beginning of that. So, we did have a deal; it was a deal that we had; it was with Roche. We believe that it was a deal that ought to have been honoured. We now have access to a supply of tests from a consortium of suppliers that will give us a considerable uplift in testing here in Wales. Truthfully, what I believe patients are interested in is that testing will be available, that staff can be tested and go back to work, and some of the detail of how that came about is not, I think, uppermost in the minds of people who need that testing. They want to know it’s there and is going to be available, and available in greater numbers, and we can be confident of that.
Thank you for your statement, First Minister, and my condolences also to all those who've lost loved ones to this terrible disease. The news also that a 13-year-old boy with no apparent underlying health issues has become the youngest victim of this disease drives home the very seriousness of this pandemic. We see, on a daily basis, how quickly the situation changes, and, indeed, since your last update to the Siambr the number of people infected globally has doubled. Here in Wales, despite stringent measures, the disease continues to spread widely. I am grateful for the work being done by your Government to keep us all safe, and for providing us and our constituents with regular updates.
So, First Minister, our NHS staff on the front line in the fight against COVID-19 quite rightly deserve our heartfelt thanks, and once we emerge from this crisis, we must explore options to reward them for their selflessness in protecting us and saving lives. However, NHS staff are not the only ones deserving our praise and support. Staff in care homes are also on the front line, and they too are experiencing shortages in PPE. It has also been broadcast this morning that the care homes are now not able to have deliveries for the people in those care homes, which, again, puts staff outside, shopping and exposing them to COVID-19. So, First Minister, what assurances can you give the social care sector that they will receive the PPE necessary to support staff? And, in terms of recognition, I welcome the fact NHS staff are to receive free travel on public transport. First Minister, does this also extend to social care staff?
In addition to health and social care staff, we have to recognise the efforts made by police officers, firefighters, prison staff, and also those volunteering their services to the entire public sector. But it's not just the public sector; across the private sector, all the stops are being pulled out to ensure we have access to life's essentials. So, unfortunately, despite their best efforts, not everyone can access these supermarket deliveries, as I've highlighted.
And I've been contacted by a number of constituents who have not been deemed extremely vulnerable by NHS Wales, and yet, due to various disabilities, are unable to physically go shopping. So, prior to this outbreak, these constituents have totally depended upon supermarket deliveries. So, now that delivery slots are being reserved by constituents, my constituents face a stark choice between starving or playing Russian roulette with an extremely infectious virus. First Minister, what discussion have you had with the UK Government? I note that you have had a discussion with the UK Government on military personnel, but I'm asking does that extend to deliveries to people such as these? The longer this outbreak continues, the greater impact it will have on our most vulnerable in society.
What assessment has been made of the efficacy of current control measures, and does the modelling the Welsh Government are relying upon make any assessment of whether shorter, more stringent controls may be better than longer term, more lax controls?
And finally, First Minister, we are entering the most critical phase of this outbreak, which is putting tremendous stresses upon all involved in protecting the public. However, we must ensure we are forward planning, not just reacting to events as they unfold. First Minister, can you outline the actions being taken by the Welsh Government to undertake contact tracing once we have sufficient testing capacity within the system? NHS England are believed to be working on an app to aid with contact tracing. The app would track locations and contacts and enable immediate alerting, should someone you have been in contact with develop COVID-19. First Minister, what role is the Welsh Government playing in the planning of this phase, and what actions are you taking to ensure such moves do not infringe upon our civil liberties?
Thank you once again, First Minister, and if we all heed the medical advice, we should defeat this disease sooner much rather than later. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr.
Diolch yn fawr. Thank you to Caroline Jones for those questions; I'll try and deal with them as rapidly as I can. As far as PPE for care staff is concerned, they are part of the supply arrangements for PPE, and a significant amount of PPE was released to care homes in Wales on Monday and on Tuesday of this week—a pack of PPE going directly to every residential care home in Wales. Where care homes are struggling in terms of access to food, then Menter a Busnes, an advice organisation we have in Wales, is contacting care homes to provide them with assistance in that area.
Free travel on public transport does not extend as far as social care staff, and that's for practical reasons only, in that the difficulties of identifying people as they get on a bus, and the responsibility that would put on the bus driver to be making those sorts of decisions, were felt, in discussions with the sector, to be over-onerous and we weren't able to do that.
As far as deliveries for people who are not being shielded but are nevertheless vulnerable is concerned, I certainly hope it's not the sort of choice that Caroline Jones suggested, and people who are in that position are advised to contact the hub of their local authority, because it's exactly the sort of thing that we hope the volunteers that we have identified might be able to assist with.
As far as the modelling is concerned, then, yes, the modelling certainly does have a capacity to contrast the impact of different lengths of period over which constraints on people's normal lives would need to be put in place. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies meets regularly—it will be meeting again this week—to look at those models and to give us advice.
On contact tracing, the dilemma's exactly the one that Caroline Jones pointed to at the end of her contribution, which is that we want contact tracing to be available, but we don't want to do it in the way that it's been done in some other countries, where it's obligatory, and your movements and your personal conduct are collected by the state and used in that way. It would have to be available to people who chose to contribute their data in that way, and then to make use of it for their own safety. But, the decision about it at this point, in the sort of society we are and want to be, would rest with the person who owns the data; that's to say you, me and each one of us individually, rather than being done on a compulsory basis, organised through Government.
Can I just start by placing on record my heartfelt thanks to the NHS staff in the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board area and the local authority staff? Members will have seen that we have been very much at the epicentre of the outbreak in Wales, and I am really grateful to everyone, and I include people like our shop workers, who are supporting everybody within the community.
I've got a few questions for the First Minister, the first was on the issue of access to online shopping. As the First Minister knows, this has been raised with me many times by constituents because of the decision to go ahead on an England-only basis with a registration scheme for vulnerable shoppers. I hear what you said in answer to Paul Davies about the steps that are being taken to resolve this. I think it is vital it's resolved, because, as helpful as food parcels are, many people will simply want to do their online shopping. So, are you able to provide some kind of timescale for when you expect there to be a similar system in place in Wales to that which is currently in place in England?
I'd like to just clarify—you've referred to the local authority hubs—if there are people who aren't in the extremely vulnerable group, but who cannot, for some reason, find somebody to help with shopping and maybe they're inside with symptoms or whatever, is it your expectation that local authorities will provide assistance to those people if they're not on the list for food parcels?
And then, I just wanted to ask a couple of questions about vulnerable children and young people. I'm talking about vulnerable children and young people in the wider sense, whether they are in school, whether they are vulnerable because of safeguarding issues or health problems. I'd like to ask what steps you are taking to ensure that the needs of vulnerable children are being closely monitored throughout this process. We know that for some children home is not a refuge, and we need to make sure that these children don't slip through the net.
And then my final question to the First Minister relates to the excellent work that's ongoing to support the families of key workers and some of our vulnerable children in a school setting. I do, again, thank all of the people who are helping with that. Can I just ask the First Minister for some assurances about how sustainable those arrangements are going to be, going forward, especially as we reach the peak of this epidemic? Thank you.
[Inaudible.]—about our colleagues in Gwent in the health service and the wider public services there for everything they are doing, and they are at the forefront of the epidemic in Wales. We think very much of them.
In relation to online shopping, we are in discussions with supermarkets. Lesley Griffiths, my colleague, has had discussions with them this week and we go on doing that. The first port of call has to be to make sure that shielded individuals who cannot and should not leave their own homes for an extended period come first. Where there are people outside that group who are in a similar sort of position, they've got no family or friends or other networks they can rely on, then using the local authority hub as a clearing house to put volunteers in touch with them is the next step for them.
Can I echo what Lynne Neagle has said about vulnerable children? Vulnerability, as she said, is on a very wide spectrum, from some very sinister and very awful attempts by people who are just out to exploit children to use this emergency as a way of perpetrating their ways of behaving, through to children whose families just struggle to look after them in the way that they themselves would like to do. So, I said in my statement that Julie Morgan has been in discussion with and issued fresh guidance to Flying Start and Families First services to make sure that we use all the different safe means that we can to make sure that those families continue to get a service, even in these most difficult of times.
School does remain a place where vulnerable children are able to get help. As Lynne, I know, will recall, there was a fear over one weekend that large numbers of children would present themselves at school, and in fact it's about 1 per cent of the school population who are in school today. Now, the other side of Easter, we have to prepare for what might be a different set of circumstances, where more people are ill and more people need to rely on that service. That's why we're in discussions with the teacher unions and with local authorities—hugely appreciative of the efforts they're already making, but to be prepared for the way that service may need to be adapted the other side of Easter if we are facing even more challenging circumstances.
I've already extended the time for this statement, but I will call another couple of speakers. If I can have succinct questions and answers, that would be useful. Just to give reassurance to everybody, everybody present in the Plenary will be called at one point during the afternoon, though not necessarily for all the statements that they've requested to speak in. Angela Burns.
Diolch, Llywydd. Good afternoon, First Minister. I've just got a couple of quick questions to ask you on your statement. You of course talk about the Coronavirus Act and various Schedules to it being enacted, namely 8, 15, 10, various parts. Could you just enlighten us as to how you're disseminating that through local authorities and through other appropriate bodies and ensuring that the new provisions of the Act are appropriately applied at the correct time and in the correct manner, neither too heavy handed, but doing what we need to be done, and how you're getting that out?
I was very grateful for your intervention for west Wales in particular, but I know north Wales had a problem with camping and caravanning sites and the issues that happened with the bank holiday weekend. Could you outline if you have any tools in your armoury to be able to tackle self-catering cottages, because there are still an enormous amount of holiday lets, particularly in west Wales, where we are seeing people still coming down for holidays or to self-isolate?
My third and final question is: now that you've seen the whole lot in the round and you look across all the portfolio holders, the work that they're doing, are you able to give us an indication of where you believe Wales may still be overexposed, either in terms of lack of facilities, lack of equipment, lack of staff—are there any particular areas where you have specific concerns?
And, First Minister, at the end of your statement you very rightly reminded us all that every loss of life is a family that's broken and hearts that are broken, and I wanted to share with you as well and join with you in offering my condolences. My thoughts are also with all those who are ill, and grateful, grateful thanks to everybody who has come together, from the people we immediately think of, who are our NHS and our social care staff, but all the way through to the unsung heroes, the communities that have pulled together, the emergency services, the delivery drivers, the shelf stackers, the people who just keep the lights on. May God bless them, and I salute each and every one of them.
Llywydd, I thank Angela Burns for that, and particularly what she said at the end. I was very conscious in my statement that we use a lot of figures, don't we? We're always asking about percentages of this and numbers of that, and we track the figures every day, but, when it comes to people who are at the very worst end of coronavirus, every one of those is somebody who mattered hugely to somebody else, and we really mustn't lose sight of that human cost as we continue to grapple with all the challenges that the disease poses to us.
On the Act, Angela Burns is right; it gives different sorts of powers to different types of authorities—the Welsh Government has powers, local authorities have powers, the police, of course, have enforcement powers, and I've had discussions this morning with the lead chief constable for Wales in this area, and I want absolutely to support the way in which police forces in Wales are using their powers. They use them to educate and to persuade, and it's only when those things don't work that they move to using their enforcement powers. But, where enforcement is necessary, then, equally, I fully support our police service in using those powers. The vast bulk of our fellow citizens respond fantastically to what is required of us. When there are a few who don't and put others in danger, then we rely on our police services to keep the rest of us safe, and I'm very keen indeed to make sure they know that they have the support of the Welsh Government in the very difficult job they do.
Part of that, of course, has been around self-catering accommodation, and I asked for specific reports over the weekend, both from North Wales Police and through Dyfed-Powys, as to whether or not the police service believed that there was a further influx of people into those areas. On the whole, their view is that the numbers are low, that they were turning some people back. And let's be very clear with people: a journey to a self-catering accommodation is not an essential journey and therefore people ought not to be making it. There is a different issue with people who are already there and what course of action they should take, but no new people should be thinking that this is a good weekend to go and visit north or west Wales; that's not the way that we will get a grip of the virus.
In relation to Angela Burns's final question, I think the things that worry us are the things that worry the rest of the United Kingdom: levels of illness and self-isolation amongst key staff and whether we can manage to get as many of those people back into the front line as possible; whether we have the supply of ventilators that we might need at the point when there is the most urgent need for them. As we use our stocks of PPE—it's a finite stock; how fast are we going to be able to replenish it so we've got more there for the future? I don't think those are Welsh vulnerabilities. We've said many times, haven't we, that the Assembly was created for Welsh solutions for Welsh problems, and coronavirus is not a Welsh problem; it's a global problem. In our context, it's a UK problem, and the things that we face are the things that are commonly faced across our wider country.
Can I concur and agree with Angela Burns? I think Angela said it all for all of us: we all feel the same way, both thanks for the people who work and also condolences for those who are losing loved ones.
I'll be very succinct, because I hope to come in on other questions to other Ministers. First, free school meals, First Minister. I asked last week about free school meals, because there are a lot of individuals who are now finding themselves in difficult circumstances, and they were originally—or perhaps their children weren't on free school meals originally, but, because of the situation, they've now lost work, they've become unemployed, and therefore they'll now be in a situation where their children may be entitled to free school meals. But it's not yet clear as to who will authorise that situation. Can you confirm whether it will the headmasters who will have the authority to identify children for free school meals in set circumstances, so that no-one goes without? Those children are in families who find themselves in difficult situations now as a consequence of losing work, unemployment and lack of funding, because they may not be on 80 per cent of wages. I have a constituent who started work on 6 March, having given up his previous job on 3 March. Because he wasn't in his current employment on 28 February, he's not entitled to 80 per cent furlough. So, we have various situations as a consequence. We need to know who's going to have the authority to look at free school meals and authorising that.
In relation to the situation on furloughs, what discussions are you having with the Treasury to make sure that no-one falls through that gap? Because there are going to be individuals, through your package announced this week on the self-employed as well, but there are people who may have started self-employment in the last 12 months that will now fall through the gap and are looking for how do they get income—people, like electricians, who do jobs in houses that now can't go into those houses to do that work. So, how are we having discussions with the Treasury to cover the ones who fall through the gaps that are still there and, as such, will be finding themselves in difficult financial situations? I have very many constituents in that area.
And, finally, I'll ask a question of you on the steelworks—it's a major industry, among many other major industries in Wales—and the supply chain to the steelworks. We cannot afford to have the blast furnaces shut down because, once they shut down, the heavy end will probably not restart, and that's a huge blow to our industry. What's the Welsh Government doing to ensure that industries like the steelworks are able to sustain this difficult period to ensure that, when we come out of this, they and their supply chains will still be operational and viable so that the economies of those local areas can continue to grow?
Well, Llywydd, I thank David Rees for all of those questions. On free school meals, he is right, it is an entitlement, and my view is that local authorities should simply use the normal routes. Children become entitled to free school meals all the time in normal circumstances during the year, and each local authority will have a process for those children's circumstances being verified and then entitlement delivered, and they should just use the normal ways in which they would treat any other child in any other circumstances.
As far as keeping the Treasury informed of the way in which the help they've announced so far is being delivered on the ground, there are a series of opportunities to do that. There are sub-committees of COBRA that meet every day. I attended one yesterday, and part of that meeting was an opportunity for people to feed back on the way in which the schemes the Treasury has announced are working out on the ground and where there are gaps emerging. That is not to give a guarantee for a moment that the Treasury will respond to all of that, but David Rees's question was, 'What are we doing to make sure they know about them?', and we are using the different opportunities we have, and information from Assembly Members is particularly valuable to us in being able to make that part of the feedback exercise.
Of course, as the local Member for Aberavon, it's completely understandable that David would want to highlight the plight of the steel industry. Welsh Government officials are in constant dialogue with Tata around the blast furnace, around the challenges that the company is facing, and my colleague Ken Skates is due to speak with senior executives from Tata on Monday of next week. By keeping in as close touch as we can with the company, making sure that they know the different sources of help that are available to them, but also the challenges that they are facing, we will want to do what we always want to do as a Government, which is to support our steel industry in Wales.
I thank the First Minister for his statement and responses this afternoon.
The next item is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services, and I call on the Minister to make a statement—Vaughan Gething.
Thank you, Llywydd. We continue to see, as expected, an increase in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Wales. Sadly, we have also seen more deaths. My deepest sympathies go out to those families who have lost loved ones and my thoughts are with those who are still critically ill.
These are truly extraordinary times. However, the response from across our public services has also been truly extraordinary—extraordinary to help protect our communities and to save lives. People are working tirelessly to respond to this public health emergency. That work matters for today, tomorrow and our preparation for the weeks ahead. I am grateful for and genuinely humbled by the contribution of each and every one of those people to this national effort.
The Welsh Government, the NHS and social services organisations already have existing plans in place for a potential flu pandemic. That plan provides us with a solid base to build upon, and those plans are now being put rapidly in place. NHS organisations are working to increase the capacity of local services, beds and workforce availability. To put this into context and demonstrate the scale of this work, our health boards will have, in effect, created the equivalent of up to 7,000 additional beds with the plans they have in place for field hospitals or Nightingale hospitals—essentially, step-up and step-down care. That is, effectively, double the number of existing NHS beds. That is exceptional in any circumstances and it's been created over a number of days.
Significant announcements have been made over the last week, as Members are aware. For example, I approved £8 million to enable Cardiff and Vale University Health Board to work with partners, including the Welsh Rugby Union, to convert the Principality Stadium into a field hospital with up to 2,000 beds—that's twice the size of the University Hospital of Wales here in Cardiff. That is in addition to the extra capacity that is being created on the health board's hospital sites that exist.
Hywel Dda University Health Board has well-progressed plans on a range of sites, including Parc y Scarlets—as we saw on ITV Wales news last night—a range of leisure centres across Carmarthenshire, and Bluestone in Pembrokeshire. Swansea Bay University Health Board has, with its two local authorities, identified leisure centres and the Bay Studios in Llandarcy. These are all in addition to the 350 beds that will be available at the new Grange University Hospital from April. And we know that north Wales has already identified Venue Cymru as one of its sites, with more to be confirmed in the days ahead. So, all health boards are developing equivalent capacity plans and specifications for a distributed model of additional bed capacity across Wales.
On critical care, we have already more than doubled the number of beds in Wales to 313. As of yesterday, occupancy of critical care units was about 40 per cent. Sixty-nine per cent of those people occupying beds either have suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19. We will continue with the rapid expansion of critical care bed numbers, which will be supported by the purchase of over 965 additional ventilators, with further options to purchase or manufacture ventilators being urgently explored.
I know that there are, quite understandably, continued concerns about the availability of personal protective equipment. Over the weekend, more than 600,000 additional FFP3 respirator masks were delivered to health boards for onward transmission to primary, community and hospital sites, as well as commissioned services, such as independent mental health hospitals and hospices. Further deliveries of PPE were also made on Monday and Tuesday of this week to the local authority joint community equipment stores for directors of social services to distribute within the social care sector. We have now deployed, from the Welsh Government pandemic stocks, more than five million pieces of PPE for use within our health and social care system.
The delivery to the joint stores is sufficient to enable each of Wales's 600-plus care homes to be provided with enough PPE to cover 200 individual interventions. A telephone and e-mail contact has been set up for the NHS and social services to use in an emergency if PPE supplies have been disrupted or there's been an unforeseen or unplanned surge in use. This is the point the First Minister referred to in questions earlier.
Whilst we face an unprecedented time and increasing demand on our health and care services, the response from our workforce has been humbling. We have and will continue to be innovative in meeting the demands placed upon us in the fight against COVID-19. A week ago, we asked our newly retired nurses and doctors to come back to the NHS and they have responded in their numbers. Already, over 1,300 health and social care professionals have responded to that call to return and serve the country.
Our students are also keen to support us. We're exploring ways to harness the energy and commitment of up to 3,760 medical, nursing, midwifery, allied health professional, paramedic and health scientist students as well. Working closely with NHS Wales Shared Services Partnership and Health Education and Improvement Wales, we've been able to make progress at this unprecedented time. And each of those students who undertake an offer will be paid in accordance with their time—it won't be a voluntary service we're looking for from those people.
We have more than 1,200 GPs on our locum register in Wales, and we'll be asking all GPs to consider what further time and capacity they have to offer. That is why we're asking all locum GPs to consider a temporary contract with their health board. Their expertise can help in so many ways in community and primary care.
These are extraordinary times that have called for extraordinary measures, but our uniquely Welsh approach to working in partnership is helping us to make a difference. The COVID hub Wales will be released later this week to support our extended and evolving recruitment solutions across the health service.
To ensure that our primary care services remain as resilient as possible, through the increased demand upon them, we've made significant changes to the way that GPs and their multi-professional teams, pharmacy teams, dentists and optometrists provide care to patients across Wales. The changes that I have agreed are designed to respond to people with the most urgent needs, whether related to COVID-19 or not, and to of course minimise the spread of COVID-19.
We are asking providers to work collectively in their communities to deal with this situation and I am pleased that our stakeholders are supporting this approach. I encourage everyone to follow the advice that has been issued on how to access services during this time. I am grateful to our primary care and social care providers for their continued efforts during this situation.
There are approximately 81,000 people in Wales identified as being at very high risk of severe illness from COVID-19. This week, each person will have been sent a letter from Wales's chief medical officer. It may not have arrived yet; we're waiting until the end of the week for all of those letters to have arrived. The letter includes clear advice to stay at home for at least 12 weeks. The Welsh Government is providing a further £15 million to ensure that people in Wales who are not able to leave their homes will get direct deliveries of food and other essential items to their door, and that was a point covered in the First Minister's statement and follow-up questions.
My cabinet colleague, Lesley Griffiths, has led on our conversations with supermarkets and wholesale suppliers to agree both supply and delivery for this group of shielded people in a very short period of time. Julie James, as you would expect, is in daily contact with our local authorities. And I really am tremendously grateful to the local government family for the way that they have responded to both lead and co-ordinate community efforts to support people in their own homes.
So, considerable progress has already been made across our health and care system. It would be easy to forget that all of this has been achieved within just a matter of weeks, and in some cases just days. The work of our public servants and our volunteers is, I believe, truly inspiring. It is vitally important that we use the weeks ahead to put further preparations in place. But these will only be as effective as they could and should be if each of us adheres to the social distancing measures that we have introduced. Stay home, protect our NHS, and save lives.
Minister, thank you for your statement. In fact, I think that's a very good reminder right at the end. On 1 March, who had any idea that we would be in the situation we are today? Therefore, I really want to add my thanks and my congratulations for the 7,000 additional NHS beds that have been created. I think that's outstanding work on behalf of or by the NHS and by all those partner organisations, from the local authorities to the many organisations that have come behind and offered space. I think 7,000 is a really quick and easy number to say but, my goodness, when you think about the logistics behind that, I really do congratulate all of them for pulling that together.
In your statement, Minister, you go on to talk about PPE, and I am going to have to return to this issue, because it is probably the issue that I have the most contact—or one of the most contacts—from people over. I do think that, in the initial days, there's been a lack of clear communication to people about when and who should use PPE, and I think that this situation has now got even muddier. I understand the scientific advice, which is that if you're dealing with somebody with COVID-19 symptoms then you wear PPE, and depending on where you are in the chain of people who are dealing with somebody who is ill with COVID-19 depends on that type of PPE that you will wear.
But I think the issue, Minister, is really that this is a scary disease; that people are willingly putting themselves in harm's way to help the rest of us; that we know that 30 per cent of the people who have COVID-19 will not show any sign of having symptoms; and we know that about 80 per cent of the Welsh population will have COVID-19 at some point or other. So, I totally understand the concerns of the district nurses, of the midwives, of the morticians, as well as those of the people who are on the front line as we recognise the front line, in other words, on acute wards.
So, please can you perhaps come back and tell us how we're going to get this PPE? When is it going to be available? How clear a guidance are you going to be able to put out there so people understand who should use it? And do you actually foresee a situation where we accept that, if you are dealing with the public, you are going to need to have some form of PPE, whatever that is?
So, for example, a domiciliary care worker may be looking after 10 very vulnerable people and, on his or her travels through those 10 people, they could unwittingly be spreading the disease without knowing it, because we don't know how it manifests itself in everyone. So, I just think that, on the subject of PPE, this is an issue that we haven’t yet got to the heart of. Are you able to tell us how much PPE we need, how much PPE we've got, and whether or not you'll be able to source it at the appropriate times for this situation to move through?
I'd also like to raise two more questions, Llywydd. The first is: now we have a UK-wide approach to procurement, are you able to tell us what kind of data Welsh Government is needing to feed into the UK Government? Do you have a really good handle on the forecasted need for equipment such as ventilators, PPE and testing kits? And are you able to share the clear numbers of where we are now and where we need to be?
Finally, Minister, I understand that ethical guidelines are being drawn up to help doctors prioritise patients for hospital admission and treatment. I understand and have huge sympathy for those doctors, because these are tough decisions for doctors to make, working in stressful decisions, but they are decisions that need to be made fairly. Can you confirm, Minister, when those guidelines will be available? And can you confirm that the Welsh Government has heard the rights statement issued by the Older People's Commissioner for Wales, Age UK, Age Cymru, Age Northern Ireland, and the Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland, among other people?
Because I truly believe that the fact that someone is in need of care and support and is currently in a care home or in their own home should not be used as a proxy for their health status. Do you agree that to make such decisions without considering either older persons' needs or their capacity to benefit from hospital treatment would be discriminatory and unfair? And, Minister, will you ensure that vital end of life palliative care and do not resuscitate and do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation conversations are undertaken in a respectful, compassionate and informed manner?
Will you undertake to provide guidance on this issue? Because I have been approached by many older people and disabled groups who are feeling under enormous pressure to sign up for things that they haven't had a conversation about and don't want to sign up to. Everybody has rights, and everybody wants to try to beat this awful disease.
Thank you for the questions. On the 7,000 extra beds, I'm delighted that the health service has been able to undertake this work in the most difficult of circumstances, and also the response from partners. I think it's entirely appropriate that Angela Burns has welcomed and recognised that too—the local authorities family, wider partners and, of course, the support that we've now been provided with by the army in recent days as well. So, it is a real national effort and it does show what our committed public servants are capable of in times of crisis.
I'll deal with your points on PPE. In terms of our stocks, we're releasing our pandemic stocks that we have built up. The need for the amount of resupply rather depends on the outbreak, and because we can't accurately forecast when the outbreak will end, we can't accurately forecast how much we'll need. But we know we'll need to resupply at several other points, and I've had conversations with the other Cabinet Ministers for health in the other three national UK Governments. We spoke on Friday and again yesterday, and we'll be talking again tomorrow. But at each point in time, each of us have made points about the need to have a UK mechanism to procure and bring in a supply of personal protective equipment into the UK and then for a properly equitable distribution to each of the four nations, and there's agreement on doing that. That's another point that myself, Jeane Freeman and Robin Swann have made and I'm pleased to say that Matt Hancock has confirmed that he agrees that is exactly what should happen.
On the guidance that you've mentioned, there's a real challenge here and I recognise the point you made over the fact people are worried. People are concerned whether they work in health and social care or not. There's an issue about the trust in the guidance as well. Part of our difficulty is there's been widespread demand for PPE in any and every setting, and the revised guidance that is being undertaken, there's a rapid review of the guidance, so all of the chief medical officers across the UK are sighted on it, there's been a range of—. All of the medical royal colleges have contributed and front-line staff too, and that's been important, because there appeared to be a loss of confidence in the guidance and in the way that guidance was being implemented. I expect that rapid review to be available imminently and, when it is, the important point for Governments is to be able to not just confirm what that guidance is to staff, but both who does need PPE and what form of PPE, but also for those people that don't need it. And it's really important that that guidance will deal not just with the settings and the tasks that people have for appropriate PPE, and that's the place it should be provided, rather than whoever happens to employ them, and it will then be our task to make sure that the supply actually matches that guidance.
On ventilation and testing kits, I've given some updated numbers in this statement. Again, we're taking part in UK-wide procurement mechanisms as well as some of our own procurement as well. And the challenge, again, about what do we need, that will be partly about the progress of the pandemic, but I'm happy to continue to give updates not just in the conversations I have with health spokespeople, but in public as well, and to the mini Senedd as it meets, and the people of Wales.
And your final point on ethical guidance, I agree with you that there has got to be a proper decision-making framework to help our staff to make really difficult choices, and it can't be telling people that you need to get out of the way because you're no longer valuable; that is exactly what should not happen. I am happy to say that, today, the Royal College of Physicians have published some guidance for doctors to look at and consider, and that's been done together with 14 other royal colleges and other medical faculties as well. So, that's been published publicly and we'll be re-providing that, making sure people have it, and I'll happily undertake to make sure that's circulated to all Members to see as well.
I'm grateful to the First Minister for confirming the identity of the company involved in the collapsed deal. I was wondering, Minister, if you'd respond to the statement, therefore, that Roche put out last night that it does not have and has never had a contract or agreement directly with Wales to supply testing for COVID-19. Is it your view, therefore, that that statement isn't true, they would have known it wasn't true, and they're effectively lying?
Now we know the 'who' in relation to this collapsed deal, but we're still a little bit unclear about the 'why', so I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about that, your understanding as to why the deal collapsed, and particularly this widely held suggestion that, effectively, it was scuppered by a parallel deal with Public Health England, which the company chose in precedence over the deal with the Welsh Government.
In relation to the new four-nation arrangement for testing procurement, there has been a reference to Wales receiving a population share of tests, I understand. But shouldn't that be higher given the particular demographics of Wales that you, Minister, have referred to previously, and also the epidemiology, the fact that Wales has 4.7 per cent of the UK population, but 8 per cent, I believe, of the current confirmed cases, therefore shouldn't we be getting 8 per cent of the tests?
Will you be publishing a daily figure for the number of tests undertaken as Scotland does, so we can track progress as we move forward? And also, the question that I put to the First Minister, I was wondering if you could address: has the Welsh Government approached the Welsh universities or have the universities approached Welsh Government to see if we can use the scientific expertise within our laboratories there to actually improve our own testing capacity in Wales? And do we have a figure—? We have a figure, I believe, for the number of tests that have been conducted with NHS staff. Do we have any figures about the degree of confirmed cases as a result of those tests? How does that compare with the general population?
Moving on to PPE, you refer to some of the numbers of items that have been sourced and supplied. Do you have, Minister, an idea of the number of total people that currently you're advising require PPE? It would be interesting to see, if you have figures, just to have some sense of that. I noticed that, just today, the Basque co-operative Mondragon has just announced a new production line to manufacture 0.5 million masks a day. Will you be approaching Welsh manufacturers to see whether we could manage the same here in Wales in order to improve our own level of supply?
Just finally, on the issue of local authorities that I touched on as well, I understand the advice to local authorities is not to procure their own PPE independently, but are they free to do so if they feel that that is necessary?
Okay, just to pick up on that final point first, there's no legal bar to a local authority going off and procuring an alternative source of PPE. We're trying, though, to have a co-ordinated approach to the acquisition of PPE and then its transfer across Wales.
In terms of manufacture and supply of not just PPE but other items that will be useful in the response, we've had a significant amount of inquiries, offers of help and interest, and that's now being channelled through a consistent team in the Welsh Government. There's co-operation between my officials and Ken Skates's officials to make sure that we're getting to the right people to support businesses in Wales, but also to understand the potential procurement issues. Now, part of that is actually about understanding the value of the offer that's been made, because you'll understand that whilst lots of people may make an offer of support that, on surface level, looks impressive, we need to make sure that people can deliver what they're saying they can deliver and that that's actually going to be effective.
In terms of your point about the requirements for PPE, well, that will really depend on the revised guidance as to the amount of PPE that we need. If the guidance changes, either about the type of PPE that is to be worn or the variety of settings and tasks for which it is to be worn, we'll need, obviously, to acquire more PPE. The acquisition of PPE will need to reflect what is in the guidance, as I said in response to Angela Burns.
In terms of the written agreement that we had, I just don't think it's at all helpful for me to get into a war of words with a company, when, actually, my job, I think, is to make sure that we are diversifying our supply and our capacity for testing, and making the maximum use of it to provide the maximum benefit. That's what I'm focused on, so I'm not going to get drawn into matters that I'm sure, in the months ahead, when we're past this, we'll want to look at in much more detail.
That's why I was able to announce on the weekend that we've diversified our capacity to increase it this week, and in the next two to three weeks, to get it up to about 5,000 tests here in Wales, not relying on any share from UK-wide arrangements. In that deliberate diversification of supply and capacity, we have, of course, been having conversations with universities for some time about where they may be able to help to provide that.
In terms of what is a fair share from the UK-wide picture, we signed up to arrangements, as indeed have the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, to try to acquire the maximum amount of capacity possible across the UK. Now, we may start from a population share, but, actually, I think when you look at what is a fair share and what is capacity, I'm confident we'll flex that as it's required across the UK. Wales and our share and our need today may be very different in three weeks' time, when other parts of the UK may have greater need, and that's the point—how we have our ability across the UK to provide increased capacity and to meet the needs of people right across the UK, and to make sure that we get our fair share of that.
In terms of your broader point about updated numbers for testing and staff, we'll be providing updated numbers throughout the weeks on the numbers of our front-line staff who have been tested and those who have been able to come back to work, and those who are confirmed. I don't have the numbers with me, so I won't try to make them up for you, but we will be providing more clarity on what our testing regime has produced.
We're obviously in a better position than some other parts of the UK because we started testing front-line staff at an earlier point in time. So, there are already some of our front-line members of staff who have returned to work promptly because they had the right diagnosis, and we'll continue to do that. We'll be transparent with the public about the numbers of people doing that and what that means for our public services.
Thank you for your statement, Minister. There has been much criticism about the lack of testing in Wales, and comparisons are being made with other countries. I won't rehash the arguments about the failed deal to secure additional testing for Wales, but what assurances have you received from the UK Government, and the other home nations, that we are not competing for the same limited supply?
South Korea is cited by the media as an example we should be following. South Korea did not start, though, from a standing start because they already had significant testing facilities prior to this outbreak due to ongoing issues with SARS. Minister, have you discussed with nations outside the UK, such as South Korea, the best way of ramping up our testing regime? Other nations, such as Germany, are also so far ahead because they have the lab capacity, which is why the test for this new coronavirus, developed in German laboratories, is being used around the globe. Minister, I accept that increasing testing is not just about buying a stock of reagents: we need personnel to collect samples; a vast logistical network to move the samples; trained lab technicians to conduct the test; and IT infrastructure to collate the results. We are far behind where we need to be. Minister, can you outline the discussions you have had with the pharmaceutical sector in Wales regarding their role in supporting the fight against coronavirus, and can you also outline the steps the Welsh Government are taking to ensure we can meet not just the immediate testing needs, but also for future demand? This is a global pandemic, and we are facing a new, mostly unknown, virus so we do need a global response. Can you outline how public health officials and researchers in Wales are working with other nations to tackle this new viral threat?
Minister, we have all received a letter from the British Medical Association regarding issues surrounding the vulnerable patients lists. Yesterday, I was contacted by a constituent who is vulnerable but not on the extremely vulnerable list, to their knowledge. This constituent has, for many years, relied upon deliveries of food and medicine, but is now unable to do so because they are not on the Welsh Government list. According to the BMA, GPs cannot assist patients as they do not have access to the lists of patients. So, Minister, what steps are you taking to ensure our constituents are not faced with a choice between starvation or possibly contracting the disease, which has a strong chance of being fatal because of their health conditions?
Hospitals are being erected in days and people are lining up to help in any way they can, but there has been some confusion regarding ways to volunteer in Wales following the publicity surrounding the GoodSAM launch in England. So, what steps are you taking to ensure that everyone in Wales who wants to help in the effort to combat this disease can do so?
Also, Minister, in the last few weeks, universities, industry, and the maker community have been developing novel methods to produce everything from face shields to ventilators, and new CPAP machines have been developed and automated bag valve masks have been trialled to ensure ventilators can be reserved for the more serious cases. So, what discussions have you had with industry and the higher education sector in Wales about increasing Wales's supply of ventilators? Diolch yn fawr.
I think, to be fair, Llywydd, that I've dealt with the point about ventilators, both in terms of supply and manufacture, in response to the questions that Adam Price asked, and also Angela Burns in terms of the collaboration between officials in my department, Ken Skates's department, and people making those and manufacturing them here in Wales.
In terms of the point about volunteering, we've had a really significant response from people in Wales, so whilst there’s been some confusion over the headline messages that are being played out, actually, lots of people in Wales have found a way to go to be able to volunteer within their local communities in either smaller groups that have been set up, but also through the national Volunteering Wales portal. So, we've got over 30,000 people registered as volunteers, and within the last week we've had a rate of 1,000 people a day registering to be volunteers to support people in their local community. Part of the challenge was that there was, I think, a misunderstanding in the way that the England-only scheme was launched. Some of our colleague elected representatives in Wales didn't understand that there was, simply, an England-only scheme and not a scheme that was designed and delivered by the four Governments across the UK. So, we've got a good response already, and that's being put to use, with the third sector and local government working together to do so.
In terms of GP access to the list of vulnerable people, we've been really open in developing both the lists and criteria for people on the shielded group of 81,000 people. So, we've worked together with the British Medical Association and the royal college of GPs, and, by the latest, from 2 o'clock today that list will have been available in the GP portal for every GP practice to review the groups of their patients on that list so they can exercise their judgment and knowledge of their group of patients if they believe there are other people who should be on that group of shielded people. We'll continue to develop our response in supporting the wider group of vulnerable people over the coming days, as I say, working together, I'm sure, with local government and the third sector.
And, in terms of your broader points about testing and learning with other countries, well, it is fair to say that South Korea, for example, is in a different place because of its experience of having been much harder hit by SARS in the past. Now, there'll be lessons for us to learn in the here and now, and Public Health Wales are in regular contact with public health organisations in countries in Europe and the wider world, on help and advice in the here and now.
So, for example, we've definitely learned lessons from Italy; that's why we've put so much energy and effort into creating field hospital capacity at such pace, because that's about getting people out of hospital when they no longer need to be there. And it's even more crucial now, because people who are delayed getting into a hospital are people who really may well need life-saving care. So, that's one of the lessons we've already learned, and we're talking about lessons as it emerges that some of the social distancing measures will start to be relaxed. That's really important for us about our response to the pandemic here in Wales and the rest of the UK. But, equally, that conversation will continue.
Public Health Wales are actually in a very good position in the global public health community, and certainly within the World Health Organization European region, in terms of the respect we have, the ability we have to share learning on a variety of different topics, and that will be really important—to look back about what's happened to learn lessons where we think we may have been able to make different and better choices during the period of this pandemic, but also for the future. And that will be a whole society-wide conversation, because, if we want to have extra capacity in place for a future pandemic, we need to fund that and create that capacity and have that ready and available. And that's a different sort of choice for us to make about the way that we support public services.
Some of my questions have been answered, but I did want to return to the issue of the shielded letters, because I think that is incredibly important. Because, for many people, that will unlock the support that will enable them to stay at home for three months. I've been advising people to contact their GP if they haven't had a letter and think they should be shielded. I welcome what the Minister's just said about everybody having access to that list today, but GPs are now telling me locally that they don't have the capacity to deal with the numbers of queries they anticipate getting from people who think that they should be shielded. So, I'd like to get the Minister's comments on that—what assurances can you offer that people who should be shielded will be able to get on that list in time to get the support that is available?
Similarly, also picking up issues with pharmacy as well, people who've always had their prescriptions delivered who aren't well, because they're not on the shielded list are now worrying they're not going to be able to get their prescriptions delivered. So, your response on that as well, if possible, please.
I know that you've dealt with the ventilator issue in relation to Angela Burns and Caroline Jones, but I have sent through a number of companies who have made offers of help to the Government. I understand that there's a process to be gone through, but can you just say a little bit more about how Welsh Government is dealing as quickly as possible with those offers of help from manufacturing companies in relation to ventilators?
[Inaudible.]—support. That may come up again in questions with Ken Skates, because his department, in terms of the business support for those people, is actually really important to make sure they're helped to manufacture. So, there's more than one potential opportunity to manufacture CPAP machines, which are a level down from invasive ventilation but can be helpful. The faculty of intensive care have actually produced some guidance about the increased use of those machines. So, we're supporting a range of companies and working alongside them to assist in the manufacture of those in the here and now. I know UK headlines are very excited about the Mercedes Formula 1 team being involved in doing something, but we have a range of examples here in Wales where we are manufacturing those machines as well.
So, it goes into a central team here in the Government to understand what's on offer, and then to understand the technical specifications of what's potentially on offer, and then, if there's business support need, that's where Ken's team comes in. We've got a centralised process, so it's not going to three or four different people, we understand which group of officials are supposed to be dealing with it, provide the support and also in a reasonable time frame.
On your point about shielded letters, to people who are to be shielded, the 81,000 people have been tightly drawn up on clinical criteria. Now, there is a wider group of people outside that who we've also advised should really be staying at home if at all possible—so, for example, women who are pregnant and people over the age of 70. Not every pregnant person, not every person over the age of 70 will have a shielded letter; they shouldn't expect to have one. I think there is some confusion within that, but it's important to be clear with our constituents that, if you're over the age of 70, that doesn't mean you will automatically get a shielded letter, and to have some patience and to ask people not to ring GPs, because otherwise they will be overwhelmed.
Now, the work we're continuing to do with the third sector and local authorities, and indeed the food supply sector, is initially about getting support to people in that most vulnerable group—the 81,000—who don't already have a mechanism to get supplies themselves, whether that's food or medicine or other goods, and it's then to work on support for that wider group of people. Now, some local authorities are already in a place to be able to do that. We're looking to be able to provide some clarity on a national basis about how that wider group of people are continuing to receive support to be able to stay at home. That's why the wider volunteer network is so important to us, to help the widest group of people possible.
On prescription delivery, I've tried to make it clear several times, and I'm happy to do so again, that if people can get their own scripts—if not them, if they're supposed to be staying at home, their friends, family or trusted people who can go and get the script for them—they should do so. If they rely on delivery and they have no other means of getting that, then their pharmacy should deliver. We had an incident last week where there were localised challenges with a well-known pharmaceutical company, and I had direct contact with that company in Wales on what's supposed to happen. That was unhelpful for people who were caught in a position where they didn't get the supplies delivered to their door as they should have expected, but it was helpful in the sense that it meant that that group went out and told all of their store managers the guidance they'd issued on making sure that, if people can't get their own scripts, then they should make sure that they're delivered, and there should not be delivery charges during all the time that we are facing the COVID-19 pandemic as well. I hope that's helpful.
Two very brief issues I just want to raise with you, Minister—first of all, I'm sure you'd have seen the concerns raised last night in the media by the Tenovus cancer charity, who are extremely worried that hundreds of cancer patients in Wales could die because of delays in treatment and screening as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Of course, I fully understand the Government's need to tackle the spread of coronavirus head on. However, this will undoubtedly lead to a great deal of anxiety and frustration for many patients living with cancer and their families. Indeed, I've been contacted myself by constituents asking about cancer care during this crisis period. So, therefore, can you tell us, Minister, what the Welsh Government is specifically doing to support those living with cancer in Wales during the COVID-19 outbreak and will you be bringing forward a specific cancer strategy at this time?
Secondly, Minister, of course, we owe a great deal of gratitude to front-line staff, including Wales's community pharmacists, who you've referred to today. However, respecting social distancing is proving difficult in many pharmacies, due to their design up and down Wales. You basically can't keep 2m apart, for example, in many of our pharmacies. So, can you tell us what additional guidance and support the Welsh Government is giving to pharmacists to help them address some of the significant challenges that they're currently facing, and is the Government planning further guidance to pharmacists and their staff, given that they are feeling vulnerable in these circumstances?
Following on from Lynne Neagle's question, I understand that there has been some relaxation in the rules around dispensing repeat prescriptions, but this may have an impact on the supply of medicines. Therefore, what action are you and the Welsh Government taking to ensure that pharmacists are indeed able to access sufficient supplies at this time, and what discussions have you had with the pharmaceutical companies about the supply of medicines and treatments?
Okay. Thank you for the questions. On cancer care, I did see what Tenovus had to say yesterday, and our expectation is that we're able as far as possible to maintain urgent care across the health service. But our challenge is—and this is why, in all of the choices that our clinicians are making and are being supported to make—there really aren't a range of easy choices, and this is a good example of them. So, on some areas where it can make a difference between whether someone survives or not, we'd expect that treatment to go ahead if at all possible, but if we know, as we do, that more and more people will come into our hospital system, and we're talking about large numbers of people living or not living because of the choices we make across the whole system, we're having to balance each of those choices. But, for example, we're certainly not saying that people who have an urgent need for care, whether it's an emergency, or whether it's indeed cancer care or other long-term or life-threatening conditions—we're not saying that all of that treatment has to stop; far from it.
But we are seeing a public response to the way they use the health service. You'll recall from the conversation this morning that there's been a significant reduction in people presenting to our emergency departments, because people would otherwise be having a much higher attendance rate—I think three or four times what we're currently seeing. So, that public response is helpful to allow our capacity to be protected, and, as I mentioned in my opening statement, of all the people who are currently in intensive care beds, 69 per cent of them are COVID or suspected COVID. That means that over 30 per cent of those people aren't suspected of having COVID or don't have it. So, we already have a number of people in intensive care, so it does show that our system is continuing to treat other people. I'll continue to listen to what our clinicians are saying about their capacity to do their job, and we may then have to make some system-wide choices. If we do, I'll be happy to be upfront with the public and Members on any of those choices.
On pharmacies, I recognise that, in the design of some of these, it's difficult, if not just not possible, for staff to maintain a 2m distance. Now, the advice we've given is as far as possible to maintain social distancing, but, given the critical role that pharmacies do play, we want community pharmacies to stay open to supply people and support people in managing the range of their healthcare conditions. It's important that the public behave in that way. We know that within the last few weeks we saw some unacceptable instances of behaviour directed towards our pharmacy staff, and that appears to have calmed down now. I've also made choices about the way that pharmacies operate to allow them to make sure they're in a position to continue providing a service to the wider public. My officials and I are of course happy to keep on listening to community pharmacy if there are more things we need to do to enable them to do their job at this hugely important time, but I've yet to hear a further bid from either the Royal Pharmaceutical Society or indeed Community Pharmacy Wales on further steps that we need to take to allow community pharmacists to undertake their role in supporting the public.
And, in terms of medicine supply, it's a matter I discussed yesterday with Cabinet health Minister colleagues from across the UK, and we don't see at this point in time a medicine supply issue, but it's a matter of fact that the national health service across all four nations from time to time has to deal with supply issues. That's a regular challenge, and most people don't notice that it's happened. At this point in time, I'm not aware that there is a specific medicines resupply issue, but obviously that's something that we'll not just discuss across the four nations—we have well-run decision-making methods across the four nations, which is, if you like, a positive result from our 'no deal' Brexit preparations; we had to think of ways to deal with potential medicine supply issues. Those arrangements are still in place to ensure equity in supply across each of the four nations.
Minister, I'm seeing a disconnect here between the reality on the ground and what I'm hearing from you. The reality is that front-line nurses do not have protective equipment. The reality is that care companies do not have protective equipment. So, this weekend I've dealt with constituents, disabled constituents, showing symptoms, unable to be looked after and just left. I interviewed Ashley Morgan. He's a young man in Caerau, and he's got a 3D printer, and he's made his own masks to a very, very good specification, and he's now supplying the Heath hospital and other areas. There are queues of medical staff outside his property, almost. So, we have an army, almost, of people—literally some of them working in their own front rooms, own back rooms—producing good quality protective gear. Ashley can make thousands per week if he gets support. So, first of all, the first part of this is there's a reservoir of people out there ready and willing. I think that the large supply chains have failed us. What can we do to enable those people? Who can they contact? When can they contact them? And how and when can they be supported?
The second thing I want to talk about is testing. You received an e-mail on 19 March—so did the First Minister—offering testing kits, I'm advised already validated, and nobody responded to that company. Equally, Public Health Wales was then contacted afterwards, and not until I intervened was there any contact with that supplier. The contact, basically, stated—I saw the e-mail, it said they'd be contacted, maybe, as need arises. Well, the need is here. We're not following the World Health Organization advice, I know that, but I think we all agree that we need more testing anyway.
There are still medical staff, whose families have symptoms and who cannot be tested, sat in isolation needlessly. So, my question to you is: how and when are we going to enable people to be tested? We should be testing every person who is suspected of having the coronavirus. I think it's really essential that we realise the absolute emergency on the ground, where people are simply not safe doing their everyday work because they don't have the equipment.
And to go back to the carer, if a carer has the virus and is not showing any symptoms and they're visiting vulnerable people on a daily basis, they're going to give them the virus if they're not wearing protective equipment—gloves, masks. I just don't understand why the front line is lacking so much at the moment. So, my question, really, is: when, how and who do these people contact?
Thank you for the questions. If I deal with your point about manufacturing, because that is exactly the same point that I dealt with in an earlier question. Whether they're ventilators or whether they're PPE manufacturers, the opportunities are there to be supported in the delivery of that. We've also got the ability to validate the quality of supplies with the facility that we have here in Wales.
I've also seen the Royal Mint, for example, producing visors for front-line staff who now need them. That's advancing the old guidance of what we expected for a flu pandemic, potentially. I'm expecting the new revised guidance to say more about protective eyewear and, actually, that's why we distributed a range of protective eyewear earlier than we would otherwise have expected.
I'm happy for whoever thinks that they have the ability to help produce something to a right specification to contact the Government. They can contact my ministerial address and I'll make sure it gets to the right place to be reviewed, as I explained earlier on the ventilator manufacturing point as well.
For testing kits offers, actually, they are all being reviewed by Public Health Wales. Now, we've had a significant response with people coming in and making offers, and the point I made earlier in response to Adam Price was we need to understand the value of the offer that's being made, the efficacy of any of the potential testing routes that are being offered, and the value that they then provide. We've got to be able to do that, because otherwise we will potentially see ourselves burning up resources on kit that we don't find to be effective. Now, I don't want to get into individual cases because, as you'll know, I don't read every single e-mail that has my name on it, but I do make sure that those are dealt with and responded to.
On your point about personal protective equipment, I've responded to questions not just today but in a wide variety of fora—when speaking to trade unions, when speaking to local authority leaders, when speaking to health board chairs and chief executives, when speaking to staff—and they all recognise that there are challenges in some parts of our system in PPE getting to people on the front line. It is not the case that all of our staff are being left without PPE; it is the case that some of our staff are now. If we provide the PPE to 98 per cent of our staff, that doesn't mean to say we don't worry about the 2 per cent that don't have it.
I'm genuinely concerned about front-line staff who need PPE not having adequate supplies of the right PPE for them to use. It's taken a huge amount of my time and energy, and that's why we've sent out so much PPE—as I said in my statement, over five million items. This is not a small or marginal undertaking, and the Government is absolutely aware of the scale of the emergency that we're facing. It's an emergency the like of which none of us have ever seen in our lives in public service and none of us expected to.
So, we will continue to work in accordance with the guidance that I know is being reviewed, and you know is being reviewed from my earlier statement and in answers to all the questions, and we'll take on board our responsibilities to procure the right PPE in accordance with that revised guidance.
And finally, David Rees.
Diolch, Llywydd. Most of my questions have been answered by the Minister, and I'm very pleased to hear that the 965 extra capacity for ventilators is there and that the five-million-plus PPE items have been distributed. But I have to agree that there are still deep concerns over the number of PPE available, particularly for the front line in hospitals and also for those social care workers. I have many constituents who have expressed deep worries over carers coming into their homes, when they themselves are vulnerable or their partners are vulnerable, and maybe bringing the disease into their homes. So, I think there's an area we still have to get to grips with.
Now, I know you were talking about the new guidance, I remember you on the weekend saying that you expected that to be on Monday. Yesterday, at your press conference, you said that you hoped that it would be available yesterday. Today, you said it was rapidly evolving. I think it's important that we have a timescale as to when that new guidance will be in place, so we know what PPE is going to be appropriate for who and in what situation, so that we can ensure that the PPE gets to the right people in the right place at the right time. There’s huge concern, both in the professions themselves and from the constituents who are receiving the care, regarding the availability of PPE.
Can I also ask—? I support Paul Davies's question on cancer, because there are many constituents who are deeply worried about the delay. They've had appointments for surgery that have been cancelled because of the coronavirus situation. We all understand the demands upon the NHS, but when you're facing a situation where you have breast cancer and you have an appointment for surgery and then that is cancelled, there are clearly deep worries. So, we do need to look at health boards and how they are scheduling such surgery to ensure that people who have other life-threatening conditions are not going to be disadvantaged by not having the surgery as and when that surgery is required. So, can you look at that aspect and ensure that health boards are delivering those types of details to Welsh Government and to ourselves to know that?
On the field hospitals, it's come out today that NHS Nightingale may require 16,000 staff to deliver that. Now, if you have 7,000 extra beds, do you have the capacity to actually staff that type of extra number of beds? Because we already understand that there may be some reduction in capacity because staff themselves may get the virus. Where are we with making sure that, if we create these field hospitals, there will be sufficient staff and resources to deliver the care in those field hospitals?
And finally, you might be aware of a letter that was sent out by a GP practice, not in my constituency, but, actually, I've had constituents who've received that letter, asking them did they wish to be considered as 'do not resuscitate' if they got the virus. I will contact all health boards urgently to ensure that no such letter goes out again from another GP practice, because every patient's life is worth a huge amount. It is not something they should be asking: 'Do you want a do not resuscitate note put on your notes?' Can you imagine a patient getting that letter, saying, 'If you get the virus, stay at home. We'll look after you, but we won't put you down as needing resuscitation. We won't take you into hospital as an urgent patient'? It is not acceptable—I'm sure you agree with that. Will you ensure that all health boards tell their GP practices that that is not the way to move forward? Diolch.
Thank you. I now expect the PPE guidance to be provided tomorrow. I'm providing all of these time frames in good faith, but they're time frames that I'm not in control of, because the guidance is being provided by a range of different expert advisers—CMOs are working together and we're looking at what the scientific evidence is. I can honestly say, 'The sooner the better', though, because I know that I'll continue to face questions even after the guidance is produced. But once there's some more certainty and clarity about who needs PPE and who doesn't, that will help to improve the situation and then we'll be able to make sure that we procure that PPE in accordance with the guidance. So, I recognise the concern and frustration that you and other Members who are here and, no doubt, who will be watching the later recording of this will be stating, because that's a concern of front-line staff as well.
On cancer and other life-threatening conditions, as I indicated to Paul Davies, we'll of course be looking at how the health service continues to provide care for those people. But you can't avoid the honest truth that the national health service can't pretend that it can carry on as normal in every other sphere of life with the significant challenge that COVID-19 provides. The way that I've already closed down significant parts of NHS activity to allow people to prepare for it will have some consequences for the way in which we provide other forms of treatment.
The important point is that people have conversations with their treating clinicians about what's happening and, if surgery is postponed or moved on, that they have a way in which to understand why that's happened and what that means. Because a number of our patients, for example, don't want to have treatment if there's the possibility of them going into a clinical area where there may or may not be people with COVID-19. So, some people are looking to defer their treatment in any event. I know that there are calls that are taking place between treating clinicians, their teams, and the people that they are looking after.
And that point about not carrying on as normal goes into your point about the 7,000 extra beds and the ability to staff them. That's why we are looking for people to return to service; it's why we are looking to recruit people into the service; it's also why we're managing to persuade some of those over 3,700 undergraduates who are undertaking medical and other health professional degrees to undertake work within the service.
It will be a different way of working and, as I've said many times before, the way that we currently work, or the way that we would have worked, say on 1 March, will be very different to the way that we will be working within the health service and providing care for a period of time ahead. But I understand, it's a matter that I raised today in my call with chief executives and chairs of the national health service organisations in Wales about making sure that the extra bed capacity we create aren't just beds in a room that are abandoned, but we can adequately staff them. So, I'll happily not just take that up but make sure that I can provide more assurance for members of the public on the staffing issue.
And on the GP letter, I am aware of the issue. The constituency Member Huw Irranca-Davies notified me of the challenge and the conversations he was already having with the practice and the health board. And I've been assured, before this morning, that there'd been a conversation that had taken place about the letter itself; the GP practice is contacting people to try to recover that; and I know that they've issued an apology.
Having a conversation about a 'do not resuscitate' notice is difficult at any time, end of life care is difficult at all times in the public cycle, and it's a conversation that requires some sensitivity. I am confident that, after this incident, you won't find similar letters going out from general practices to their patients and there'll be a real sensitivity and dignity in the conversation between general practitioners and their patients. And, taking on board Angela Burns's point earlier about the way that people make really difficult choices, there will be an ethical framework for doing so to support our staff to take the best possible care of all people, regardless of what age they are, right across the country.
Thank you to the Minister for his statement and his answers. As Members will have realised, I've considerably extended the time allocated for both previous statements in order to aid with scrutiny, but I will understand if Members or Ministers need to leave the meeting at any point now due to diary commitments.
We now move on to the final item, the statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales on the economic response to COVID-19, and I call on the Minister to make his statement—Ken Skates.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd. I'd like to start by thanking colleagues right across the Chamber for their support, their ideas and their advice over the last few weeks. It's been one of the most challenging periods any of us can remember and, in dealing with the economic fall-out of COVID-19, I've appreciated the many conversations that I've had with Members of all parties about how we can best support the Welsh economy and our public services through this incredibly difficult time.
That spirit of bipartisanship is something that has hallmarked our approach throughout this crisis. The Welsh Government has worked constructively with partners in the UK, Scottish and Northern Irish Governments to help all economies of the UK through the COVID-19 challenges that we face. Though there is a huge amount still to do, I hope that Members can begin to see a basic framework of support emerging that can help businesses, organisations and public services in Wales chart a way through the challenges that they face.
UK Government's coronavirus job retention scheme helps underpin support for businesses by relieving significant fixed-cost pressures, and the self-employed income support scheme enables many sole traders and freelancers to get through the crisis with the financial support that they desperately need. Only the UK Government, with its resources, could have played this role, and I welcome what they have done. Now, with those schemes having been announced, it's allowed us, as a Welsh Government, to target the more limited funding that we have into supporting those businesses in Wales that fall through the gaps.
The first element of our support was announced with a full package back in early March, on 18 March. That announcement included more than £350 million to help businesses with their non-domestic rates bills, and I'm pleased to tell Members that the new rate relief will be in place from today. It also included automatic small business grants of £10,000 for businesses across all sectors occupying properties with a rateable value of £12,000 and less, and £25,000 for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses occupying premises with a rateable value between £12,001 and £51,000. I'm incredibly grateful to local authorities who'll be dispersing these grants on our behalf. We're hoping that businesses with start receiving these grants this week.
On Monday, we subsequently announced our new £500 million economic resilience fund, which aims to plug the gaps in the support schemes announced by the UK Government. This Wales-only fund will support firms of all sizes, including social enterprises, with a focus on those that have not already benefited from the coronavirus grants already announced by Welsh Government. Now, the fund is made up of two main elements. Firstly, a new £100 million Development Bank of Wales business loan scheme. And then, secondly, a £400 million emergency grant pot. In total, we've committed more than £1.7 billion into mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on our economy.
Now, the Development Bank of Wales has already received over 500 applications for loans. I'll be meeting with the high street banks again tomorrow, and I’ll be raising with them the need to be more flexible and more considerate in responding to clients, particularly for those self-employed or who need bridging support between now and June.
At this point I'd like to pay tribute to the staff at both the Development Bank of Wales and at Business Wales, and also my officials who've been working day and night to develop the schemes. The Business Wales helpline has now dealt with almost 4,000 queries since 9 March. I'd also like to salute the many Welsh companies and universities who are now directly engaged in addressing specific challenges. This includes considerable activity in the production of ventilators, face shields, PPE, beds, mattresses and sheeting. We're not merely relying on current supply routes, but building alternatives where the demand cannot be met.
I'd briefly like to touch on our response on rail, bus and air services. The ambition of Welsh Government remains to create a sustainable integrated public transport network, including community transport right across Wales, and I've made a series of decisions to help to safeguard public transport across Wales. These were announced in my written statement just yesterday. I've agreed a package of support worth up to £40 million for Transport for Wales over the next few months to allow us to give certainty to rail passengers in Wales. As well as recommending that local authorities continue to pay a minimum of 75 per cent of the contract value for school and other contracted local passenger services, I've now injected £29 million of grants to help bus operators through the inevitable uncertainty of the next three months. And finally, after discussions with Eastern Airways, I've temporarily suspended the Cardiff to Anglesey public service obligation air service for an initial period of three months.
So, to close, my key message to businesses and to employees is very clear: if you had a good business in 2019, we want to support you to have a good business in 2021; and if you had a good job in 2019, we want to support you to have a good job in 2021. We must work together with compassion, with urgency, and with care to get through the significant challenges that we face and to come out the other side to the fairer, more equal and kinder economy that I think we all wish to see.
Can I thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon. I think those last words he used, of compassion, urgency and care, are well-founded. Minister, you've saluted those running our small businesses, and I think that in the same way that we salute those who've been working in the NHS and the care industry, I think that we should also be saluting those running our businesses at the moment and trying to carry on in very difficult times.
If I can just first of all pick up on an issue that was raised by the leader of the opposition in questions to the First Minister earlier, it's an issue really that's for the finance Minister, but it does touch on your brief as well, and that is this extra money. I think it's around £1 billion that was announced by the First Minister for jobs and supporting jobs. I understand that a good chunk of that money is coming from the EU, from EU funds that were originally designated for supporting existing jobs, but that's now going to be redirected to—. Sorry, that was originally supporting new jobs; that's going to be redirected now to support existing jobs. I'm just wondering about—. I think that's a good idea, by the way. I'm just wondering about, down the line, what this situation is going to be in terms of either paying that money back or arguing successfully for that being used in the right way, so that's probably a discussion that you'll have to have with the finance Minister. It does seem to me that, at this point in time, it is very wise to be redirecting funds as much as possible to support employment, so that when we come out of this, there are jobs there and SMEs capable of carrying out the job of rebuilding the economy.
You mentioned support, a framework for supporting businesses. Clearly, that is incredibly important. It's not just important that we have a framework for supporting businesses, it's also important that we have a framework that businesses are both aware of and they're able to access easily. I'm sure I'm not alone—with other Assembly Members, and I can see them, Minister, nodding—I'm not alone in thinking that. A number of businesses have contacted me and they've not been aware in the first instance where that support can be accessed. In this situation more than any other, it's a very fast-moving situation, so they need to know exactly where those avenues of support are as quickly as possible, so if you can tell us what you're doing to make sure that that framework is broadcast to businesses and they know exactly where those points of call are at the earliest opportunity, so that that can be accessed.
You've mentioned—well, supermarkets were mentioned to the health Minister, but I suppose it comes under your remit as well. I've had two e-mails from constituents today, asking about the situation when it comes to shielded individuals and the fact that there's not a similar register within Wales that there is on the UK level for registering with supermarkets to make sure that deliveries are available at home. People are concerned about that. I know the First Minister mentioned it earlier and the health Minister mentioned it, so I wonder whether you'd like to say something as well about any discussions you've had with supermarkets—they are a big chunk of our economy—about what can be done to make sure that those shielded individuals and shielded families are looked after as well as possible.
If I can just turn to the secondary part of your statement, the second part of which was relating to transport. I've got some questions for you on the bus industry. You've asked local authorities to continue to pay a minimum of 75 per cent of the contract value for school and other contracted local passenger services. Can you confirm that there's no legal obligation on local authorities to do so? And are you aware of any that aren't intending to follow your advice and guidance? I think what we need to avoid is ending up with a postcode lottery across Wales, and it is my understanding that at least some local authorities aren't playing ball in this regard and are saying that when times are difficult, if it's not a statutory obligation to provide that support in the first instance, then do they need to?
You're asking the bus industry, reasonably, to report weekly, showing how every bus has met its obligations with regard to limits on passengers, social distancing and the like. I completely understand that and think that's a good idea. However, again, I understand that some local authorities are asking for personal details upfront before funding is released. I don't think that's in the spirit of the written statement that you issued yesterday, so I wondered if you could give some clarification on exactly how you are intending that reporting process to happen.
Finally with buses, it looks as though the Department for Transport in England are going to provide extra support for the bus industry there—at least that's my understanding. Have you had any discussions or could you have any discussions with your counterparts in England, and indeed the finance Minister, to see if that money is forthcoming in England whether there are going to be any Barnett consequentials for Wales. That's an important aspect for us to understand here. Also, would you intend that to go to public transport within Wales?
Very finally, you mentioned at the end of your statement, Minister, that we are in unprecedented times, and you mentioned aviation and Cardiff Airport. So, if I can just put my Public Accounts Committee Chair hat on for a while, your written statement yesterday referred to the suspension of the Cardiff-Anglesey air link. What's your assessment of the impact on travellers and Cardiff Airport, given the suspension of the public service obligation for three months? I'm thinking particularly of travellers that we talk about needing to travel north-south for essential businesses. I wonder whether you've got any figures relating to those. I think this is something that we'll obviously be looking at in the longer term, and with the aviation industry in the situation it is, this might be lower down on your list of priorities at the moment. But, as I say, as this is something that we've looked at on public accounts, I'm interested to know what the situation is with Cardiff Airport and what assessment you've made.
Very, very finally, you mentioned the £40 million for the rail industry in Wales, and that is to be welcomed. Have you had any discussions with the rail franchise provider about where that money might go to support the industry in the short term? Social distancing clearly isn't compatible with public transport, so I think we all understand that there are difficulties at the moment with public transport. But I'm sure that we all agree with you that when we come out of this crisis, we want to make sure that our public transport sector, and, indeed, our wider economy, are on the best possible footing to deal with the challenges and to come out of this, so that the economy is on a much more solid footing than it does look as though it is on today because of all the understandable pressures upon it.
Minister. Minister, I'm not hearing you at the moment.
Llywydd, can you hear me now?
Yes, carry on.
Excellent. Can I thank Nick Ramsay for the very kind comments that he made at the outset and for his questions? Can I also just put on record my gratitude for the remarkable efforts by social care workers, NHS workers and other key workers, for the way that they've responded to COVID-19, and say, Llywydd, that it is good to see you yourself recovering so well from this virus? Fear and anxiety are very deep right now, and widespread, so to see somebody in such a position as you hold recovering from it really will provide some hope and optimism to people.
Nick Ramsay raises a number of important points in his contribution, first and foremost, the repurposing of Welsh Government money and EU funds. He is right, this is a matter for the finance Minister, but the challenge of COVID-19 is a problem that the Welsh European Funding Office recognises. It's greater than anything that we've encountered in recent decades, probably since world war two, and so there is flexibility being allowed in terms of how we bring forward that money to use it to sustain employment.
In terms of the framework that we've developed, I think we now have pretty much plugged every gap and provided a safety net for virtually all businesses and self-employed people. I said earlier that if you had a good business in 2019, we will be there to support you to have a good business in 2021. The criteria of a good business are clearly set out in the economic contract that we have: you have growth potential, you look after your workforce through applying fair work principles, by improving the health and the mental health of workers, you also ensure that you're contributing to the decarbonisation effort that we're going through. So, I think we have created now that framework to support all good businesses.
The Business Wales website is the first point of contact that I would urge businesses to go to; the Business Wales website has now been repurposed itself to provide comprehensive information regarding support for businesses throughout this period. It contains links to UK Government-sponsored support, to the Bank of England, the Development Bank of Wales, the British Business Bank and local authorities, ensuring that that is the one-stop shop for all business inquiries.
In terms of supermarkets, my colleague Lesley Griffiths discussed the issues that Nick Ramsay raised. I believe that they were discussed again just yesterday with all of the supermarkets. I'm sure that the Minister will be writing to Members shortly or providing a written statement regarding discussions that have taken place. But I would just like to say one thing: I've personally witnessed shop workers face abuse. It's totally unacceptable at the best of times, it's utterly, utterly reprehensible right now, and I would urge all customers of all shops to be patient and to show respect to shop workers. They are doing vital jobs right now and they deserve our thanks.
In terms of the question Nick Ramsay asked concerning bus support and the 75 per cent contract value, I've got to say this: I would not respond happily whatsoever if local authorities were choosing not to support vital bus services and bus companies right now. The bus services support grant and other funding streams are designed to support bus services and should be used to maintain—even if it's a skeleton service right now—bus services until we can bring forward solutions for the medium and longer term. And we are discussing the possibility of further support from the Department for Transport. Clearly, I would be keen to ensure that any additional support could be used for improving and enhancing public transport for the medium and longer term, and I understand that an announcement from the Department for Transport could come very soon indeed.
With regard to Cardiff international airport, the airfield will absolutely stay open. It must stay open to meet regulatory requirements, so that it can ramp up activity immediately once we're through this difficult period. In terms of the north-south service, I think I've issued a statement that pointed to the fact that more than 90 per cent of passengers were simply not showing up. The service was not being used. It made no sense to continue a service that was draining revenue that could be used elsewhere. But, of course, once we are past this difficult period we’ll be reinstating that service as soon as we possibly can. I've also been in discussions with numerous UK Government Ministers and with Ministers from other devolved administrations regarding support for not just airports but for our other ports as well. Most recently, I spoke with my counterpart in Northern Ireland yesterday about the situation that ferry businesses and ports are facing.
And, finally, in regard to the £40 million that will be made available to support the rail franchise, this revenue support will keep trains operating in the short run whilst we discuss longer term solutions for the franchise and the rail network. I should also say that we've been in regular contact with rail unions regarding the difficult working conditions that some of their members face. And, again, we have heard reports of union members who work, particularly in stations, enduring conditions that would not be appropriate at any time, where customers are invading their personal space and not showing respect. So, I'd again, Llywydd, just take this opportunity to urge all users of public transport to respect those people who are maintaining vital services right now.
I thank the Minister very much for his statement today, and also for his offer of a weekly conversation with the main party spokespeople, where we'll have a further opportunity on an ongoing basis to raise concerns with him. He said in his statement how much he values that non-partisan approach and I know that we wish to work with him to ensure, in this very difficult time, that lives and livelihoods are preserved.
I have a number of specific questions. To begin with, further to the Minister's response to Nick Ramsay with regard to information about business support, I'm sure that the Minister will acknowledge that it is quite a complex picture still for businesses to understand what might be the appropriate support for them.
I wonder, as the set of packages come together, the UK packages and the Welsh Government packages, whether the Minister would consider contacting businesses directly—just as the Government has made a Herculean effort to contact the 81,000 people we believe are vulnerable to ensure they protect themselves, whether he would consider a direct contact to businesses. Because I'm certainly getting a lot of contact from businesses myself saying, 'I'm not quite sure if we fit into this; I'm not quite sure if we fit into that.' So, I think it would be very helpful if the Minister would consider, once we know exactly what's going on— and it may take a few more days for that to be the case—writing to businesses direct, because there may be many who will perhaps be making assumptions about them not being eligible for support when, in fact, they may very well be.
Businesses are also saying to me that they would appreciate further guidance—and, in some cases, direction or instruction—as to what is or is not to be regarded as essential work. Adam Price raised with the First Minister the issue of non-essential construction, and I've raised this previously, that this is a very difficult area for people to maintain appropriate social distancing, for example. So, will the Minister give further consideration to looking at the powers that he has, now the emergency legislation is in place, to look at, where appropriate, issuing clear instructions to businesses about what is or is not essential? For example, it may enable non-essential construction to stop if they've got a direction to stop, whereas, if they choose to do so, that might put them in breach of contractual obligations and lead to financial difficulties for them. So, I wonder if the Minister will do that.
I wonder if he could also have further conversations with the Minister for health about the guidance that's available on the Public Health Wales website. I was contacted by a business saying that they were looking for advice and that they didn't feel that there was enough there to tell them how they should socially distance safely. Now, it's my understanding that there is much more detailed advice available on the Public Health England website, and it may just be that we're in the process of catching up with that. But, if we expect our businesses to act responsibly at this very difficult time, we need to ensure—I'm sure the Minister would agree with me—that they have the appropriate advice and support in place so that they know exactly what to do in what is, of course, as the Minister has said, an unprecedented time.
Now, we also know, Llywydd, that there are many businesses who are behaving in an absolutely exemplary way at this time, who are putting people before profit and who are providing, absolutely, an excellent service and supporting their staff. But, unfortunately, we also know that there are some businesses who are not doing that. I have numerous examples of businesses, for example, pressing staff to work when they should be socially isolating if, for example, they're not unwell themselves but a family member is unwell or vulnerable; businesses where people are being expected to work in circumstances where there is no proper social distancing, where they can't change in and out of uniforms effectively. Now, I should stress, Llywydd, that these are the minority of businesses, but what they are doing—I'm sure that the Minister would agree with me—is absolutely unacceptable.
As individual citizens, we've been asked to relinquish a lot of our personal freedom at this time, and we have done so gladly, in the greater cause. But where there are businesses who refuse to respond to advice and guidance, will the Minister consider looking at what powers he has to enforce compliance and will he consider using those powers? If he comes to the conclusion that he doesn't have those powers himself, will he have further discussions with the UK Government to make sure that there are sanctions for businesses who refuse to comply? I'm sure the Minister will agree with me that we, as a political community in Wales, and, more importantly, the public in Wales, are watching the performance of business and industry at the moment, and we will remember those exemplary companies who have behaved very well and we will also remember those who have not done so.
With regard to rural businesses, I'm sure the Minister will agree with me that they face particular challenges and difficulties. There are issues about what is and isn't essential travel, for example. Now, I'm aware that his colleague Lesley Griffiths has issued a statement of some kind—I don't know if it's a press statement or a written statement to the Assembly—about support for the farming industry, but I wonder if the Minister would give consideration with his colleague to potentially bringing forward at the right time a statement to this virtual Senedd so that we can scrutinise the support that the Government is making available both to rural businesses more broadly, but specifically to farming businesses? I know the Minister will agree with me that the businesses are the backbone of our smaller communities, and we need to make sure they're protected.
Finally, the Minister in his statement refers to the emergency grants that may be coming forward, and this is a matter that David Rees raised in his questions to the First Minister. We know that some of the support packages are not catching all of those who are affected. I think David Rees mentioned, and I would reiterate, those self employed people, for example, who haven't been self-employed for more than a year, so don't have the paperwork that's required for the UK Government scheme. Will the Minister consider what further support can be given to those citizens, and will he consider in the short term introducing an emergency basic income scheme for people in Wales who are falling between these cracks? In that spirit of non-partisanship, we have in Plaid Cymru done some research as to how such a scheme might operate in the short term, and I'd be very happy to share that preliminary work with the Minister and his officials, because I'm sure he would agree with me that in this very difficult time we want to ensure that no citizen is left behind.
Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for responding in such a constructive and collaborative way, as is always the case, actually, with Plaid Cymru's spokesperson on economy? The suggestions that Helen Mary Jones have made are very welcome indeed, and, if that piece of research could be passed on regarding the possibility of an emergency basic income scheme, I'd be really grateful. We've run some figures ourselves and found that it would be very considerable indeed and it would be something that would have to be implemented by the UK Government. Indeed, we've called for a universal basic income scheme to be introduced for this period. It would be, I think, an appropriate test of such a scheme as well, for the potential to have it introduced for the long term.
Indeed, for those individuals who have only been self-employed for a short time there is considerable concern, and all of the great minds in Treasury, Welsh Government, we have all considered how we might be able to support individuals who are caught in this particular bracket. We're looking at various options, including the possibility of using the discretionary assistance fund as a means of being able to support them through the next three months. We recognise that further work does need to take place, and we're engaged with UK Treasury, and indeed with the other devolved administrations, in trying to find a consistent approach for a key group of individuals within the labour force.
Helen Mary Jones made a number of important points about the provision of information and the accessibility of important information. We have already begun direct business communications with tens of thousands of businesses that are captured on the Business Wales database, and I'd encourage all businesses to register on that database. Larger companies—so-called anchor companies—are being contacted very regularly indeed by the business development managers within Welsh Government, and our regional response teams are also in contact with them very regularly indeed as well. I'd also urge any businesses that have any ideas—. We've talked earlier—Vaughan Gething in particular talked with Members earlier—about the national effort to produce ventilators and other important equipment. There is a dedicated e-mail address now for businesses to share ideas with us on how we can recover, how we can step up the national effort. That is email@example.com.
And, in terms of clarification of what 'essential work' actually means in practice, this was discussed just today in our quadrilateral meeting with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other economy Ministers across the UK. We were all at pains to say we need as consistent an approach as possible, given that the vast amount of information that flows to businesses in Wales actually comes from the UK media. Therefore, if we can have a consistent approach across the UK it would be very helpful indeed. Both myself and Minister Hepburn from Scotland also pressed the point for this to be done at pace, with urgency.
I certainly take the point that Helen Mary Jones made about the advice that is contained on our digital platforms. There's the Public Health Wales advice, and there's also the Gov.Wales coronavirus advice for businesses as well. I'll step away from today and take a look at the advice that was captured on both platforms to see whether it's consistent, and whether we can add information to either or, indeed, both.
In terms of bad business practices, there is no doubt whatsoever that the vast majority of Welsh businesses are showing great responsibility—supporting workers, communicating with workers, and many are stepping up to help the NHS and care homes as well—but there is no doubt that there are some businesses where good practice is not being shown, is not being demonstrated, and Helen Mary Jones is absolutely right that we will have long memories from this period.
In terms of enforcement, we're looking at the questions that Helen Mary Jones has raised with both UK Government and with local authorities as well, but I can tell Members today that the criteria for support from Welsh Government—the grants that we've announced that we will be administering and that Business Wales will be administering—will contain an additional line to the economic contract. The economic contract is really simple, it's just got four points to it: decarbonisation; fair work; a commitment to skills, health and mental health in the workplace; and growth potential. We will include now a coronavirus-specific strand to the contract, and any business that is found to have failed to adhere to social distancing will be exempt from getting our support, or that support will be clawed back. So, we'll be using that important tool to ensure that as many businesses as possible are behaving responsibly.
In terms of rural businesses and, in particular, the farming industry, I had a really good discussion with the president of the National Farmers Union, alongside Lesley Griffiths, just last week to talk about the pressure that the farming community is facing. I believe that a statement from Lesley Griffiths is intended possibly for next week's virtual Plenary session. So, I'm sure she'll cover all of the issues that you've raised when she gives that statement.
I've just been unmuted. Thank you, Presiding Officer. Can I also join my thanks to those people working in the essential part of our economy? We often talk about the foundation part of our economy; we're now discovering what the essential part of our economy is. I hope that we will use that term much more often.
I've had a number of issues raised with me by constituents that I'd like to raise with the Minister. The first one relates to small brewers. The large brewers can move from production of barrels to cans and bottles sent out to retail outlets. It is not possible for smaller producers to do exactly the same thing, who are used to sending to pubs, clubs and restaurants. They haven't got the capacity to turn everything into cans and bottles. This sector, as the Minister knows, is a growth sector of the Welsh economy, not least in Swansea. What advice or help can the Minister provide to them?
The second point is regarding small and medium-sized manufacturing units and call centres staying open where social isolation is not possible and where facilities are shared. Is there an intention to close down non-essential manufacturing and call centres? Because a number of them, because haven't been officially closed down, are staying open.
Two final points. What is a rugby club? Is it a pub, is it a leisure facility, or is it a social enterprise? According to the general laws that define it, it will be picked up differently. There are an awful lot of rugby clubs in Wales that wished to sell lots of beer at the last rugby international that didn't, and they're not quite sure where they fit into this situation.
Finally, something that has come to my attention this afternoon. Some shops are now telling people they can't take their children into the shops with them. Now, for single mothers, if they can't take their children in to do their food shopping, they can't do their food shopping. So, are you aware of that? As I say, it's only been brought to my attention this afternoon. If you are, are you doing something? If you're not, can you actually do something? Because these people are going to be unable to get access to food unless they can access the supermarkets and other shops that are now telling them, 'You can't come in with your children.' Well, if their children are four or five, there's nothing else you can do with them.
Can I thank Mike Hedges for his questions? With regard to small brewers, I've been in contact with a number of small brewers who face a number of challenges. You're right, one of them is that they can't compete with the bigger breweries that can swiftly turn to bottling or canning their products. A second challenge that they face is that there are many, many independent pubs that have independent breweries attached, breweries within factory facilities, and so in some parts they were excluded from the business support that we announced at the initial stages of our effort to combat COVID-19, but they have subsequently been captured by Monday's announcement.
I think there is a question to be asked as to whether we can assist smaller brewers to supply to supermarkets over the coming months, and how quickly some form of consortium could be arranged. We'll certainly be looking at this. It's not been an urgent priority, as you can imagine, in the first few weeks of our efforts, but it is certainly something that we recognise. What we would wish to see happen as we emerge from the coronavirus crisis is for the brewery sector to be enhanced, not to be damaged. We would wish to see more microbreweries spring up. We would wish to see more independent pubs develop. We do not wish to see whatsoever the loss of good independent pubs or breweries, so we will certainly be supporting them in any way that we can.
The point that Mike Hedges made about non-essential manufacturing facilities and call centres really goes back to the definition and the points that were raised by Helen Mary Jones. But I would say just one thing: it's important for a business to ask two questions. First of all, are they part of the essential effort to combat COVID-19? If they're not, can they undertake work in a way in which allows for social distancing to be practiced at all times? If the answer is 'yes', then work may continue, but if the answer is 'no', then clearly their workers should not be put at risk. And if that means hibernating for the coronavirus period, then so be it. We have put in place the support mechanisms, and UK Government likewise, to enable hibernation to happen where there is no other option.
With regard to rugby clubs, I do not believe that rugby clubs should be open at this present time. Other sports facilities are not open at this time and, regardless of the definition of what a rugby club is, if it's a venue where people can gather in close proximity, I don't think that should be the case. I can see Mike Hedges shaking his head. If there was any misinterpretation of the question, then I'll certainly take it up in writing, absolutely. Yes, I will, and I'll circulate my response to all Members as well so that any guidance can be distributed across all rugby clubs in Wales.
I'm not aware of any supermarkets telling customers that they're not allowed to enter premises if they have children. That certainly would not be acceptable whatsoever. However, it goes without saying that, if children are taken into any stores, it's important that parents are able to keep their children as close to them as possible, because pretty much all supermarkets, from what I can tell now, have brought in social distancing measures that should and must be adhered to.
Before I call on the next speaker, can I just remind Members that this is a formal session of the National Assembly and taking phone calls during a formal session is not permitted? So, it's not to be repeated. Neil Hamilton.
The overriding objective of all restrictions on economic activity is of course the saving of lives, and we all agree with that objective, but does the Minister agree that we shouldn't throw out altogether questions of proportionality of response? Supermarkets are allowed to remain open because obviously distribution of food is an essential service, but there are other businesses of similar kinds that operate in the open air that are not open because of the Government's restrictions. I'm thinking in particular of the difficulties currently being faced by plant nurseries, garden centres, and so on, and I wonder whether one might keep an eye on this to lift the restrictions at as early a date as possible. Because, at this time of year, with the seedlings and so on that are regarded in effect as perishable goods, businesses stand to lose very substantial sums of money by not being able to trade. If social isolation is possible in these circumstances, then I see no reason why they shouldn't continue to trade. So, I wonder if the Minister would agree that—obviously, at this stage in the pandemic, maybe questions of proportionality do fall away—as we move through this crisis, these restrictions should be lifted as quickly as possible?
I would agree with Neil Hamilton that, as soon as we can lift restrictions, they should be lifted. What I would say is that we don’t want to close down the economy, we really do not want to do that; what we want to do is protect it for the longer term. The message that I was giving to the tourism sector when we saw a lot of people coming into Wales and coming from parts of Wales into the more remote parts Wales just two weeks ago was: 'If you're trying to salvage the tourism season in 2020, you're putting at risk the tourism season of 2021.' We cannot afford to see coronavirus return and, therefore, it's essential that, whilst we would wish to see restrictions lifted as soon as possible, we should only do it once it's safe to do so.
I would agree that garden centres are often places where social distancing can be adhered to. Of course, we'd be willing to consider whether they could be opened. But actually, a good number of garden centres are already innovating in this space and are selling more online. We would encourage them to do that first and foremost during this period. But I can assure garden centres that as soon as we can reopen them in a safe and practical way we will do so.
Thank you, Minister, and thank you to all Members and Ministers. I'm going to draw to a close now this quite extraordinary meeting of our Senedd and thank all Members and Ministers for taking part. Unusually, I'd also like to take the opportunity today to thank the officials that have worked behind the scenes to make this meeting possible in the most extraordinary of circumstances, and to do that in a very short space of time. Democratic accountability is important, and continues to be important even in these most trying of times. Therefore, I want to thank everybody who's taken part today in making sure that democracy is alive and well in Wales, and we will look to repeat this for as long as we need to do so. Thank you all, and keep safe. This draws our proceedings to an end.
The meeting ended at 16:42.