Y Cyfarfod Llawn
The Senedd met by video-conference at 13:33 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome, all, to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to clarify a few points. A Plenary meeting held by video-conference in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting and those are noted on your agenda.
And I'd like to remind Members that Standing Orders related to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, as do the time limits in terms of questions that will be applied to this meeting, as communicated to Members.
The first item this afternoon, therefore, is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make the statement. Rebecca Evans.
Diolch, Llywydd. There are no changes to this week's agenda. 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.
I thank the Trefnydd.
The next item is the statement by the First Minister on coronavirus and I call on the First Minister to make the statement. Mark Drakeford.
Thank you very much, Llywydd. In my statement today, I will update Members of the Senedd on the latest developments in our response to the coronavirus crisis. In accordance with the Coronavirus Act 2020, Welsh Ministers must review the regulations every three weeks. That three-week period lapsed last Thursday, and on Friday I announced our decisions in light of that review. I will set out our decisions as a Government as well as the evidence underpinning those decisions. We will go on closely monitoring the evidence so as to continue to safeguard the health of the people of Wales.
Llywydd, once again I will update Members of the Senedd on the latest actions in our response to the coronavirus crisis. As in previous weeks, I will focus on matters not covered in the statements that follow from the Minister for Health and Social Services, the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd, and the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs.
Before I do so, I want to start by reflecting on the VE Day celebrations on Friday of last week. Coronavirus obviously changed the way in which we marked this important anniversary, but it was no less poignant or impressive. I had the privilege of speaking to a number of veterans over Zoom and the telephone, and joined tens of thousands of people across Wales in the two-minute silence from the steps of the Welsh Government building in Cardiff. Even in these crisis-dominated times it was absolutely right to find that moment and to recognise the sacrifices made.
Llywydd, last week I updated Members on the progress of the disease. Very sadly, Public Health Wales has reported that more than 1,100 people have died in Wales. Behind each number is a person and a family who are grieving, and these are a sobering reminder of the need for continued vigilance and our shared obligation to go on doing all those things that help us to save lives. And it is because of those efforts that the number of new confirmed cases of coronavirus reported every day by Public Health Wales has continued to fall. About one in 10 people in hospital are being treated for coronavirus at the moment, and around one in five critical care beds are occupied by people with the disease, and this is down from a high point of 42 per cent in the middle of April. Of course, I am very pleased to report that more than 3,000 people in Wales have recovered from coronavirus and have left hospital.
Llywydd, the Welsh Government continues to respond to the impacts of the lockdown on vulnerable citizens, as I set out last week. We know that for some people, home is not a place of safety, and it is essential that those who need help can continue to get it in spite of the current restrictions. The Deputy Minister and Chief Whip has launched a new campaign to make sure victims and survivors of domestic abuse know how they can access support. It encourages bystanders to recognise the signs of domestic abuse and to seek support for those who are unable to help themselves.
And in all this, Llywydd, the work of volunteers in the current crisis is genuinely inspiring. Thousands of people have offered their services. Thanks to the strong partnership structure we have in Wales, county voluntary councils and local authorities moved quickly to match volunteers with the people who need their help, to provide both immediate and long-term support. In Carmarthenshire, for example, more than 360 people responded to a call for help from the local authority to set up furniture and equipment at the county's field hospitals within 24 hours of the appeal going live.
And, Llywydd, the Welsh Government continues to recognise the crucial role of the third sector. Last week, we announced that thousands of small charities in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors will receive a £10,000 business support grant to help them respond to the financial challenges of COVID-19. This new £26 million package will support an additional 2,600 properties with a rateable value of £12,000 or below, and that includes charity-run shops, sports premises and community centres, which, until now, have not been eligible for this type of support.
Llywydd, I turn now to the statutory three-week review of the lockdown regulations in Wales, which was completed by the Welsh Government last week. This was the second review to have been conducted, and it drew on the latest advice from the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and the advice of the Chief Medical Officer for Wales.
While we have passed the initial peak of infection, and rates continue to fall, the clear advice from the experts is that it is too early for the restrictions to be lifted. We have, therefore, kept the stay-at-home regulations in place and made three small adjustments, and these adjustments came into force on Monday. We have removed the once-a-day exercise restriction—exercise will need to start and end at home and be local; we have allowed garden centres to open, if they are able to comply with the physical-distancing duty; and we have enabled local authorities to begin to plan for the reopening of libraries and municipal recycling centres.
The evidence underpinning our decision was that the reproduction rate—the R rate—of the virus continues to fall. It is below 1, but if it were to begin to creep above 1 again, we would see the risk of exponential growth. Now, if sustained, these conditions will allow us to take incremental steps over the coming weeks and months further to ease restrictions, but we will only do so when it is safe for that to take place. We will keep the regulations under constant review to enable us to respond to the latest evidence about how the virus is behaving, the effectiveness of restrictions and the levels of compliance.
In all of this, Llywydd, we continue to support a four-nation response to coming out of lockdown, and continue to work with all other parts of the United Kingdom. But, the actions we take and the timing of changes will be determined by conditions here in Wales. In responding to the virus, we have built on our distinctive Welsh infrastructure. Our NHS Wales Shared Services Partnership and our relationships with Welsh businesses have helped us to secure supplies of personal protective equipment from domestic and international sources. But, where there are UK arrangements that can work well for us, we will be part of those as well. On Sunday, the Prime Minister announced a new joint biosecurity centre to advise the four chief medical officers on the level of infection across the UK. We are in discussions with the UK Government and other devolved administrations about how this can operate most effectively across the United Kingdom, and I will update the Senedd further as the project develops.
Later this week, we will provide more details about our plans for the weeks ahead. These are being developed with our partners in the trade unions, in businesses, in local government, in the NHS and other public services. We are planning for the future, and when services in Wales do open, the public can be confident that the arrangements will be safe and workable.
Llywydd, the coronavirus crisis is very far from over. The progress of the disease demands a continuous and highly focused response. I will continue to report each week to the Senedd on the actions taken by the Welsh Government. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you, First Minister. Leader of the opposition, Paul Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, I'm pleased to see that the Welsh Government has now started publishing the scientific and technical advice that the Welsh Government receives to help inform its policies and respond to COVID-19 here in Wales. As you know, this is something that I've been pushing now for some time, and I think it's important that information is put in the public domain so that the people of Wales can have confidence in the decisions made by the Welsh Government. Now, in that same spirit of transparency and openness with the public, it's important that the Welsh Government comes forward with a road map and a clear plan for exiting the lockdown restrictions in Wales.
The UK Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, was right to call for a lockdown exit strategy in Westminster, and the Prime Minister has now come forward with the UK Government's plans. Here in Wales, you've already said that the Welsh Government is developing its framework to create a more detailed road map, so can you tell us exactly when the people of Wales can expect to see that road map published, along with a clear set of timescales? Will you also confirm that you'll be publishing the scientific advice that underpins that exit strategy?
Llywydd, I thank Paul Davies for those points. I'm very glad that we are publishing the scientific and technical advice. I agree entirely with Paul Davies that it's important that the public is able to see the underpinning evidence that we draw on in making these challenging decisions. My hope is that we will be able to make our plan for exit, as he called it, public on Friday of this week. It is being worked on still. I want it to be clear and I want it to be capable of being readily understood by the readership of the Welsh public. So, that is my ambition—that we will publish it on Friday and do it in a way that does the job that Paul Davies referred to: helping our fellow citizens in Wales to be clear about the plans of the Welsh Government and to understand the basis on which they are being drawn up.
First Minister, I'm asking for a lockdown exit plan because the people of Wales need that clarity, and right now, there's plenty of confusion over the Welsh Government's regulations and guidance. And I'll tell you why there's confusion: because you yourself have said that two people from different households could meet in a park if they adhere to social distancing guidelines, and then we're told that is not the Welsh Government's advice and members of different households are not allowed to meet in parks; your education Minister has said schools in Wales are closed until 1 June, while your Counsel General thinks that they will definitely be closed for the whole of June; and the Member for Bridgend has said that it's okay for people in Wales to start fishing, allegedly based on a response he's had from you, and yet, in response to a written question tabled by my colleague the Member for Clwyd West you specifically made it clear that, while the restrictions are in place people should not go fishing. And now, it appears that even your health Minister is confused about whether or not he can sit on a park bench and picnic with his family.
First Minister, how are the people of Wales supposed to have any sense of clarity in the Welsh Government's guidance when your own Ministers don't seem to understand the rules themselves? Perhaps the Welsh Government needs to rethink its communications strategy so that the people of Wales are receiving the right messages.
Well, Llywydd, I don't know who advised the leader of the opposition to use that as a line of questioning, but if I'd been the leader of the Conservative Party in Wales, I would certainly have told them to think again. Because, if I needed advice on clarity and how not to confuse the public, I certainly wouldn't be taking it from a party that did everything it could last week to make sure that people in Wales were not clear about how the law in Wales was to operate.
On all the points that the Member has mentioned, I think clarity was there. There's mischief making—people are very willing, I find, to try and pull a meaning out of words that isn't there. When I answered a question about people meeting, that's exactly what I said. I observe people not going out to meet other people—that is not allowed under our regulations—but people who are walking from their own front door down their own pavement and see somebody else who, by chance, is also walking on the same street, and they are able just to—. There's nothing prohibiting people who meet in that chance way from exchanging a few words with one another if they are at a social distance from one another. That is quite different to people purposefully planning to leave their homes to engage in such encounters. So, I'm simply reflecting the everyday realities of people here in Wales.
As far as angling is allowed, it is allowed under our current regulations, the ones that were passed into law on Monday, but it must be done locally and people must observe social distancing. Here in Wales, we are encouraging people to stay home. That is the best way in which we can help one another to overcome this crisis. That's why we're all making the sacrifices that we are. But people are allowed now to leave their homes more than once a day for exercise, and if your way of taking exercise is to walk from your home to a river and to sit there, not near other people, and to go fishing, then that is allowed within the rules in Wales. But it must be local and it must be done in a way that observes social distancing.
And let me just finish by making that point once again. The question that people in Wales to ask themselves is: is my journey away from my own front door necessary? If it's necessary, then you're allowed to do it within the terms of our regulations. But the best advice to us all is to minimise the amount of contact that we have with other people because that way, the circulation of the virus can be suppressed and we can all go on providing to the safety of ourselves and to the safety of others.
Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price.
Thank you, Llywydd. Before turning to my question, I would like to make a point of order at the end of the statement, if you would allow that, on the fact that the Government shared its strategy on testing and contact tracing exactly eight minutes before the beginning of this scrutiny session without briefing the opposition parties beforehand, as was promised to me this morning.
Two weeks ago, First Minister, when asked by Channel 4's Andy Davies at the daily press conference if the Welsh Government had gowns in its pandemic stockpile when coronavirus reached the UK, the health Minister confirmed that to be the case. Was that in fact correct?
Well, Llywydd, I don't—. The health Minister provided that answer; I'm sure he was drawing on the best information he had at the time. I do not have in front of me, nor could I reasonably be expected to have in front of me, the details of every item that was in a store on a particular day. If the Member had wanted to have that information, he could have submitted one of his many written questions to me and received it.
First Minister, you wrote to me last week in response to a letter I wrote to you, confirming that there were, in fact, contrary to what the health Minister claimed, no gowns in the pandemic stockpile between June 2016 and February 2020.
Now, in June last year, the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group, the committee that advises the UK Government on the pandemic stockpile, specifically recommended that gowns, which had been one of the main problem areas for PPE, be added to it. Now, when I previously raised that report with you, you said that you would go away and look at it. Can you therefore confirm that someone within Welsh Government saw that recommendation, and can you say when that happened? Or did the UK Government fail to share with you this potentially life-saving information?
Well, Llywydd, I can't answer that sort of detailed question here this afternoon. I'm perfectly happy to answer that sort of detailed question, but it's not one that I think is capable of being answered in the circumstances we are in. I'll pursue the points the Member has made and reply to him.
On gowns, let's be clear: we have managed to deal with the pandemic in Wales without ever having to tell the NHS in Wales that there wasn't a supply of the gowns that were needed. As a result of contact by the Welsh NHS and by the Welsh Government, we have been able to bring half a billion—sorry, half a million—0.5 million gowns in through Cardiff Wales Airport, with which we have been able to help supply other parts of the United Kingdom in dealing with what is, indeed, a shortage item during the coronavirus crisis. But we've never not been able to supply those to the NHS in Wales, and as a result of the efforts we have made, we now have a supply in our stores that will see us through the weeks ahead while we continue to pursue other sources of supply, domestically and internationally.
Leader of the Brexit Party, Mark Reckless.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, have you read Animal Farm? Why, when you cycle through Pontcanna to your allotment, did you think it okay for people to hang out with someone from outside their household—and you didn't say on their own pavement, but in the park? Do you not understand that, while prohibiting people from driving to exercise may be fine for Pontcanna, but it's not for many who live elsewhere? Have you thought what message it sends when your health Minister relaxes on a bench in the sun, with his family, eating a takeaway, when others doing that have been dealt with by the police?
Which Minister considered it so urgent to change the rules the next day that he evaded a prior vote of the Welsh Parliament? Rather than all being in it together at a time of national crisis, it seems that there are some who are more equal than others. Instead of working with the UK Government to co-ordinate a coherent strategy, you seem to take pride in fiddling with rules just to make Wales a bit different. How is it grounded in distinctive Welsh values to require a two-day gap between when garden centres can open in Wales and England?
More significantly, we see the property market fully reopen in England today, while in Wales, it remains in indefinite lockdown. If that means that we don't raise the taxes in Wales that they do in England, how do we raise the money for our NHS? Will you be asking the UK Government for a bail-out?
In England, the law requires Ministers to revoke restrictions as soon as they consider that they aren't necessary to control infection. In Wales, you've just removed that legal requirement. Instead, Ministers can keep restrictions for up to six months, purportedly, under your policy, if they have a high, positive equality impact and provide any opportunities for widening participation and a more inclusive society. First Minister, isn't it time that you were held to account by the underlying UK law that requires all restrictions to be reasonable and proportionate?
Well, Llywydd, the Member is quite wrong in thinking that that law does not apply in Wales. It does apply in Wales; it continues to apply in Wales.
I know. Indeed, yes, it does—
Well, I think you just said a moment ago—and I can do without being interrupted, actually. I think you said—
Carry on, First Minister.
—a moment ago that Welsh Ministers were no longer bound by the need to remove restrictions if they are found not to be proportionate to the need to deal with the crisis. Llywydd, that is not the case. Welsh Ministers are bound absolutely by that requirement and will continue to be so.
I didn't entirely follow the points that the Member made at the start of his many questions, and I think I've dealt with a number of them already. In relation to the point he made about moving in line with the United Kingdom, there was nothing at all stopping colleagues in England from deciding to allow access to garden centres on Monday of this week had they chosen to do so. We had already announced that our changes would begin from Monday. Had they wished to have a United Kingdom-wide approach to that, they could have done the same thing. It is possible—I know Mr Reckless struggles with this idea—for people in England to come in line with what is happening in Wales, not just the other way around.
As for the property market, we don't plan to do what has been announced in England. There are only so many measures, Llywydd, I believe that it is sensible for a Government to take if it does not risk the recirculation of the virus and a rise in the R value. The advice we had leading up to the changes we made were those three modest things and were sufficient to keep R suppressed in Wales while offering some further freedoms to Welsh citizens. Every time you add another issue to that repertoire, you increase the risk that R will rise again. We took the view that allowing people to walk around other people's houses in order to open the property market—that this was not the right point in the cycle to do that in Wales. That remains our view. We keep that, as well as everything else, under review, because we are bound, quite unlike the Member suggested, to remove restrictions when they are not proportionate to the nature of the crisis that we are facing.
First Minister, my constituents have warmly welcomed the decision you took last week to extend the lockdown and to keep the 'Stay Home' message in Wales, and I also warmly welcome the action you took. My questions are around the perimeter of those decisions. Some of my constituents are very concerned about the decision to open garden centres when those items can commonly be bought in the supermarket, for example.
I also wanted to ask what impact assessments have been undertaken on the decisions that you are taking around the easing of the lockdown. In particular, I'm concerned about the announcement yesterday that golf clubs are to reopen, and I think it's hard to understand that at a time when children are facing so many restrictions. We know too that social isolation is having a massive impact on people's mental health, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, who can't access things like Skype. So, my question is: what children's rights impact assessments have been undertaken on these decisions that you are taking, and also what wider equality impact assessments are being taken? Diolch yn fawr.
Llywydd, I thank Lynne Neagle for those questions. I think she's right—her experience in Torfaen I think is mirrored across Wales. There has been support for the Welsh Government's position in only being willing to move out of lockdown in the most careful and cautious way.
I think the decision on garden centres actually has been widely welcomed as well. Garden centres operate, by and large, in the open air. We know that the circulation of the virus is much less virulent in open-air circumstances, and, where garden centres are able to open and open safely—because they have to be able to do it in that way too—then the advice we had was that we should allow that to happen and that there are other benefits to well-being and mental health from people being able to use those facilities and then to use the products of garden centres in their own homes. And each of the measures, Llywydd—each of the measures—that we have considered has been evaluated against the tests that we set out in our framework document, published over two weeks ago, which showed how we would assess the case for and the case against any specific moves of the sort that we announced on Monday.
I think the point that Lynne Neagle makes about social isolation and children is a very important one. The lockdown doesn't come without its costs. We're doing it because the rewards are greater, because it does save lives in the here and now, and we've seen how that loss of life has such an unequal impact on different communities and different parts of the community. So, it's absolutely right that we do it, but it's also right, in the way that Lynne Neagle has suggested, that we don't lose sight of the impact that that has on people's lives and on children's lives in particular. It's why my colleague Kirsty Williams announced just over a week ago a fund to assist those young people who don't have access to the sorts of facilities that Lynne mentioned, so that they can at least take advantage of the sorts of electronic means of communication for education purposes, but also, as we do, to keep in touch with family and friends remotely, as we must. The Welsh Government will continue to keep a very close eye on the impact of these measures on children and Lynne, I know, will be aware that just this week we set out information about how we are directly gathering the views of children in Wales about what it has been like to be a child during the coronavirus crisis, the impact that it has on them, and what we as a Welsh Government and as a wider Welsh society can do to assist them as we begin to come out of the crisis itself.
First Minister, the purpose of leaving home is to exercise. Going for a walk and then having a picnic or spending a prolonged period on a park bench, for example, is not considered to be exercise, and is not intended to be a reasonable excuse. That was your guidance that was in force last Saturday. If an individual purchased food, ate it on a public bench, they would clearly be breaking the rules. Should they apologise?
Llywydd, I'm not going to get drawn into this sort of personality-bashing approach to the virus. [Interruption.] I can hear—. I heard perfectly well what you asked me, thank you very much, and I'm saying to you that I'm not going to get drawn into that sort of question, which is simply designed to attack an individual out with their family, entitled, I would say, to some privacy in the way that they were going about things, and who will speak for himself.
It's three weeks since GPs across Wales urged you to prohibit the use of second homes and to tighten up enforcement rules in order to safeguard public health, but you have not acted to date. Surely by this point we do need action, given that we are approaching the Whitsun holiday and in light of the change in rules and emphasis in England. So, I would like to ask you what further measures you will put in place in order to ensure that the Welsh regulations are respected. I would also like to know what your decision is in light of the discussions that you are having with the police forces and local authorities—and you mentioned that the last time I urged you for stricter enforcement. Do you agree with the four police forces that we do need to increase the fines imposed for travelling unnecessarily?
Well, I thank Siân Gwenllian for those questions and for pursuing this issue once again this afternoon. Of course, we do take the comments of local people seriously, and that's why we did have those further discussions with the local authorities and the police forces. And, as I explained the last time, there are a number of important things to take into account in taking any decision—human rights do apply and we must take that into account. And we must have evidence in terms of how many people—[Interruption.] Well, we do have to have that evidence; we must know how many people have travelled to Wales and are using second homes at the moment. As I explained in my response to Mark Reckless, we in Wales do still respect the law that says that anything we do has to be proportionate, and, through our conversations with local authorities, my conclusion was that we couldn't be sufficiently convinced that the problem is one where we tell people who are staying in their homes that they would have to return to their primary accommodation. Of course, we don't want people to travel; we do tell people time and time again not to do it.
In the current situation, where people in England are able to travel by car anywhere they want in England, well, that has created a new issue for us, and we have been making arrangements for that with the police forces this week, and, of course, I am happy to speak to them about whether the powers that they have and the penalties that they can impose on people who fail to respect the regulations—whether they feel that we need to do more. We're doing a number of things at the moment; we're using signage on the M4 and in north Wales to convey that message to people who are travelling into Wales that they shouldn't do so unnecessarily. We're trying to get things in the press in England to explain to people why we're doing what we're doing here in Wales. So, we are seeking to do everything we can and we are still having conversations with the local authorities and the police forces, and, if the situation changes and the case is strengthened for taking further steps, then we are entirely open to doing so.
First Minister, during your press conference on Monday, and again in your statement today, you've touched upon some of the important factors that helped to determine your decision making in Wales, including the health inequalities in our population. Now I know that some people see an opportunity for change in our current circumstances, so, for example, delivering on active travel plans or more gardening to produce your own fruit and vegetables, and I wouldn't disagree with any of that, but I believe there's a real danger that without ongoing action by both the UK and Welsh Governments there's a further and a real risk of this virus creating greater health inequalities, caused by ever more deeply embedded poverty and debt. So, can I ask you, First Minister, if these concerns form part of the Government's thinking and planning about the future, and what do you think will be the first post-COVID steps needed to start addressing some of these inequalities?
Well, Llywydd, I entirely agree with Dawn Bowden. All the emerging evidence is that this is a virus that attacks those people in our society who are most vulnerable, and poverty is an underlying vulnerability because poor people tend to live more closely by one another, and the virus circulates where people are in more densely-populated areas. If you're poor, you're more likely to have underlying health conditions, and it's a virus that attacks people who have underlying health conditions. And you just don't have the resources that other people are lucky enough to be able to draw on to protect yourself against the crisis that we face.
So, Dawn Bowden is absolutely right to point to the way in which underlying health inequalities are compounded by the virus. And when we come out of all of this, I just want to echo something that the former First Minister said to me in the session last week: we cannot go back simply to the way things were before, in which we overly value the contribution of some people in our society that has been of no practical use to us in this crisis, and we undervalue the contribution of other people, who are often the least well paid and the least well resourced.
So, it's incumbent on us in the Welsh Government, certainly. It's why we've put, as you know, for example, £11 million more into our discretionary assistance fund to get help directly to people— 11,000 payments made already directly for COVID-related purposes from the discretionary assistance fund; more than £670,000 paid to the poorest families in Wales. And the UK Government will need to match that too. It's very disturbing, isn't it, to hear reports in the newspapers today of the UK Government planning to deal with the consequences of coronavirus by a pay freeze amongst public sector workers—those very workers that we have relied upon to get us through this crisis. That will not be the way to respond and, if we did it that way, then all the inequalities that Dawn has pointed to will be exacerbated rather than eroded, as we are determined to try to do in Wales.
First Minister, in your statement you mentioned people who don't feel particularly safe at home all the time, and my question is prompted by my worries about them and an increasing number of constituents contacting me about their mental health, and questions arising from Welsh Government guidance about staying at home. Just to be clear, this isn't about differences between England and Wales but Welsh Government guidance itself, reflected, actually, in your confusing comments made a few days ago.
When you publish it on Friday, will the scientific evidence on which you rely explicitly highlight the evidence that supports that a gathering of two people from different households is safe, or that it's safe for two people from different households to come across each in a library, but not for two people from different households, where there have been no symptoms for weeks, going for a socially distanced walk together deliberately, as opposed to the chance meeting you referred to earlier?
And will it also highlight the evidence that says that it's safe to drive and encounter anyone at a garden centre, subject to the social distancing, but not safe to drive—you can walk or cycle, but not drive—to your nearest lake or beach to go fishing by yourself? Or can you confirm that 'local' does in fact mean 'nearest' in those circumstances?
Well, Llywydd, 'local' means the common and everyday understanding of what 'local' is. Our advice to people in Wales is stay home: stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. That's been our message for the last six weeks and it's our message now. So, if you are leaving your home for exercise or for other purposes, stay local, because by staying local you stay safe. It's not an invitation to jump in your car and drive somewhere else to do things that you could do just as easily on foot and from home.
So, some things are not done as easily in that way, and you may have to be in your car if you have to be, but it's only when you have to be, not because it's something that you would find convenient or entertaining to do. The more you travel, the more we go around, the more the virus will spread. And all the efforts we have made have been designed to stop that from happening, and we've succeeded in doing that. So, what we don't want to do is to put that at risk by encouraging people to do things that add to the risk levels.
We made a very carefully calibrated decision to do three things that we thought we could make available to people in Wales while still staying below the level at which the R value will rise and the virus will start to circulate again. That's the lens that people should be using to think about any of these decisions. The more we do outside the home, and particularly when we don't do it locally, the more risks we will be causing to one another, and the Welsh Government's advice and the scientific advice that we are drawing on is all clear about that. It needn't confuse anybody. And it's not helpful, I think, to try forever to be finding ways in which you can pull sentences in one direction or another in order to cause a bit of a confusion. The position in Wales is simple: stay at home, stay local and stay safe.
Carers have been woefully underpaid and underappreciated for a long time, and your policy to give £500 to carers is welcome, but it doesn't go far enough. All care home workers, including cooks and cleaners, should be entitled to that payment because they are at risk as well. Unpaid carers deserve to be recognised, in my view, too. So, will you commit to recognising everyone who's a carer, or who works in a care home setting, with this one-off payment? And, as this one-off payment doesn't address the ongoing low pay of carers, will you agree to do the same as the SNP Government has done in Scotland, and give all social care staff an immediate 3.3 per cent pay increase?
Well, I thank Leanne Wood for that, and I want to join her in recognising the work that carers, informal carers, and the people who do such important jobs in the care sector do. Our decision to offer £500 to all those people who provide direct personal care in domiciliary and residential settings was one that balanced our wish to provide that recognition against the current financial restrictions that we face. So, what I am very happy to say is that we go on looking at that. If there's an opportunity to do more, we would really like to do more. It is not about devaluing the contribution of other people who don't provide direct personal care but provide other important services in the sector, but if you're devising a scheme, you have to have some criteria that the scheme can operate within, and you have to be able to deliver it with the budget that the Welsh Government has available. It's going to cost £32 million to provide for the 64,000 people who are covered by the scheme as announced, and we will continue to keep that under very careful review and see whether it is possible to do more in the future.
We've chosen to do it that way rather than in the way that the Scottish Government has done, and our £500, I think, has some advantages, in that it is a progressive measure. We're offering it to all care workers who provide personal care, however many hours they are working. So, it makes the biggest difference to those who have the least. And, in thinking of the question that Dawn Bowden was asking about inequality and our ability to try and make some impact on that, our scheme is designed with some deliberate aspects of it in order to make sure that the help is felt the most by those whose need for help is greatest.
I very much welcome the £500 that we've given to care workers, because they are very much in the front line of risk, looking after the most vulnerable people living in very close circumstances. I also very much welcome the mobile testing units that have been launched to enable residents and staff in care homes to get tested, to see whether they've got the virus. But I'm sure you'll acknowledge that one mobile testing unit for the whole of Cardiff and the Vale is insufficient to cover all the care homes and all those vulnerable senior citizens who we need to protect. So I wanted to probe your plans for enabling us to massively increase the numbers of testing units. One report talks about 94 teams working seven days a week. It would appear that we can't rely on health personnel unless we want to see all the other important health interventions they deliver abandoned, and I wouldn't want to see that. So I wondered what consideration has been given to recruiting other people. In your statement, you paid tribute to the voluntary sector, and I'm aware that, in Sheffield, the pilot for testing and tracing was led by a retired director of public health; it also involves volunteers in supporting the tracing aspect of it.
Can I have a question from Jenny Rathbone now?
So I wondered what the Government's strategy for involving a whole army of new people, including volunteers, in the mass testing campaign required to take control of the spread of COVID-19 might be.
I thank Jenny Rathbone for that question. Of course, we have plans to expand significantly the number of tests that we will be able to provide in Wales when we move into the new world of test, trace and protect. And that will involve new ways in which we can deliver tests directly to where people live—an expanded home-testing regime—as well as the mobile testing units that we now have available. And of course, Jenny Rathbone is right that, when we move to that more community-based system, we will need a lot more people to be involved in contact tracing. And she's right as well that we can't take those people from important health jobs that they are currently doing.
Now, my colleague Vaughan Gething will answer questions on this later this afternoon, Llywydd, and I know you don't want us to just go over ground we will both cover. But in the test, trace, protect document that we have published earlier today, it says that we're looking for about 1,000 people in the first instance when the system begins. And we think that most of those people will come from local authorities—people who are not able to do the jobs they would normally do, but are being paid by local authorities and can then be put to work in this new way. The volunteers have done a fantastic job across Wales in the coronavirus crisis—we've had 7,000 people deployed on coronavirus-related activities across Wales—but those 1,000 people are going to be needed every week for many weeks to come, and volunteer circumstances are inevitably a bit volatile—they may themselves go back to work, they may have other things they need to do. So, our first thoughts at this stage are that recruiting those 1,000 people primarily through our local authorities, so that people are being paid for the job they do and can devote their working week to doing it, will be the way we will set about recruiting the staff we will need.
The reason for introducing the draconian restrictions upon human freedoms and people's right to work started out as being to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed. It seems now to have morphed into stopping the R factor, the reproduction factor for the disease, from rising above 1. But does the First Minister not understand that this is a fool's errand?
Professor Giesecke, the Swedish Government's chief adviser on the coronavirus, wrote an article in The Lancet last week, in which he said that the disease spreads almost always from younger people with no or weak symptoms to other people who will also have mild symptoms. There's very little we can do to prevent this spread. Lockdown might delay severe cases for a while, but once restrictions are eased, cases will reappear. I expect, if we count the number of deaths from COVID in each country a year from now, the figures will be similar, regardless of the measures taken. The First Minister said earlier, quite rightly, that the lockdown is a major generator of poverty and inequality, therefore we must lift the restrictions as quickly as is consistent with stopping the health service from being overwhelmed in its ability to treat severe cases.
In Sweden, the infection rate of the disease is actually less than here in Britain. And in Stockholm county, a quarter of the population have now had this infection, but the death rates in Sweden, although higher than their neighbours, are not dramatically different from the death rates in other western European countries. So, does he not see that the overall best interests of the people of this country are in being bold, rather than timid, which is what the Welsh Government seems to want to do?
Llywydd, apologies that I struggled to hear a little bit of what the Member was saying, but I think the thrust of his argument is that we are 'foolish', I think was the word he used, to focus on the R value and that we should be bold. Well, let me tell him what being bold would mean: the R value in Wales, we think, at the moment is 0.8, and even at 0.8 we have to anticipate that over the next three months another 800 Welsh citizens will die because of the virus. If the R number were to rise to 1.1—so that's a tiny number of one-tenths of one—if it was to creep up to 1.1, the number of deaths over that three-month period would be 7,200. So, the price of being bold is the death of 6,500 people in Wales.
I see that the Member doesn't agree, but I'm not making it up. I am giving him the very best figures that our epidemiologists and public health physicians offer. And this is a figure that will be agreed right across the United Kingdom. At 0.8, 800 people very, very sadly may die over the next three months. At 1.1—just that tiny increase—it's 7,200. It's easy to sit here and be bold. I'm not going to be willing to be bold when 6,500 of our fellow citizens would have to bear the brunt of that boldness.
Before I call Huw Irranca-Davies, can I just make sure that Members have their microphone close to their mouths when they're speaking? I've only just noticed that perhaps Neil Hamilton's wasn't at that point, but it was just about possible to hear. So, just a reminder to all Members, and—who did I say? Yes, Huw Irranca-Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. I hope you can hear me.
Could I ask you, First Minister, for your emerging thoughts on the work being taken forward by the Counsel General on rebuilding post COVD-19, and the similar work being developed by some of the big city mayors in England on the theme of 'building back better'? In this terrible ongoing tragedy of coronavirus, people have also seen, first-hand, the benefits of cleaner air, lower traffic, and more liveable streets and communities in places that were previously choked with pollution and congestion. And under lockdown, people have seen first-hand the quality-of-life benefits of vibrant, green spaces, as compared to tarmac and concrete, and more space and freedom to walk and cycle rather than to drive. So, First Minister, can I ask what measures can be put into place right now, and going forward as the restrictions may be eased, to enable more and more people to get around for work and recreation by walking and cycling, especially while the capacity of public transport remains constrained, so that we can avoid a calamitous return to traffic congestion, air and noise pollution and the associated health impacts, and so that we can respond to the very real underlying climate change emergency?
Llywydd, I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for that. Can I just begin by admiring the tribute that I can see behind him to people from the Llynfi valley who lost their lives in fighting fascism during the 1930s?
He will have seen the statement that my colleague Lee Waters put out last week, inviting expressions of interest by 21 May from all local authorities to take advantage of the fact that roads are nowhere near as busy as they otherwise would be to try to lock in some of the advantages that Huw Irranca-Davies has referred to. We've all at least benefited during this crisis from the declines in air pollution and noise pollution, and we really don't want to simply go back to recreating all those difficulties if we can avoid them, because of the health impacts and the impact on climate change that we knew they had.
In that call for expressions of interest from local authorities, backed up by money from the Welsh Government, we're looking to local authorities to bring forward proposals for footway widening, temporary cycle lanes, speed restrictions, bus infrastructure improvements and other things and that local authorities, in an imaginative way, as the call for proposals makes clear, use the moment we have to try to lock into our infrastructure some of the advantages that we've seen from being a major reduction in traffic over recent weeks, with the benefits that we're getting from it now and want to be able to go on seeing those benefits in the future.
Can I ask, First Minister—? I listened very carefully to your answer to Andrew R.T. Davies before, but, I have to say, I'm not very satisfied with it. It's very clear, from the guidance that prevailed here in Wales on Saturday that, going for a walk and having a picnic cannot be considered to be exercise and is not intended to be a reasonable excuse. You changed the guidance on Monday, and many people will think that that might be because of the fact that the health Minister was photographed sitting on the park bench having a picnic with his family over the weekend.
Now, it looks to the public that it's one rule for the health Minister and another rule for them. So, don't you agree with me that Vaughan Gething has had his chips? And when are you going to remove him from the park bench and put him on the subs bench, where he belongs?
Llywydd, I've already said, I'm not going to be drawn into that sort of distasteful personal attack on anybody. A brief stop to allow a child to eat is not a picnic in anybody's language, and just for his information, before he tries to spread the sort of slur that he tried in his question, the decisions that the Welsh Government made on the measures that we were going to change were made on Thursday of last week. They were made in a Cabinet meeting that was properly and officially minuted; it had nothing to do with any incident that he is referring to and he should stop trying to imply that it did.
I'm sure the First Minister will agree with me that, while the extension to the job retention scheme, the furlough scheme, is welcome, it's really regrettable that we still have approximately 22,000 Welsh citizens who should have been able to be helped by that scheme who are not, because they were changing jobs at the time that the scheme was introduced.
May I ask the First Minister for two things this afternoon? Will he commit to continuing, as I know the economy Minister has already done, to advocate to the UK Government for those Welsh citizens who have been inadvertently, I believe, but most unfairly, excluded from the scheme? And will he also have discussions with the Welsh Minister for the economy to see if there's any possibility that if the Chancellor remains intransigent on this matter that the Welsh Government may be able to provide some assistance to those citizens who have been let down? I should be clear here, Llywydd, I'm not suggesting that Welsh Government would be able to afford to replace furlough, but there may be some other kind of assistance that can be provided if the Chancellor cannot be persuaded to include these people.
Llywydd, can I thank Helen Mary Jones for those very constructive suggestions? I will share with her that we welcome the furlough scheme and we welcome its extension, and I think she's right as well. But the unfairness in it, particularly to those people who were changing jobs at the time, was not an intentional unfairness, but it is a very real unfairness in the lives of those individuals, and we do and will go on putting those points directly to the UK Government as evidence of some of the unintended aspects of the schemes put in place by the UK Government become more apparent.
Helen Mary Jones will know that we paused our own economic resilience fund to take stock of it, to see whether there is any fine tuning that we could make to be able to meet some additional gaps in the provision made by the UK Government. We're working hard inside the Welsh Government now to see if there are any further ways in which we might be able to collect some money together to bolster that fund still further. And I will absolutely make sure that I discuss with Ken Skates the plight of the people Helen Mary Jones has highlighted this afternoon.
First Minister, as we go through this pandemic, it's becoming increasingly clear that there is greater incidence of the disease in our black and minority ethnic communities. I know that there's work going on at a Wales and UK level to try and understand the reasons for that, and address it as effectively as possible. But, as we move out of lockdown, First Minister, and perhaps we move towards trace, test and protect, I think there's going to be a stronger need still to make sure that engagement with our ethnic minority communities, communication and messaging is everything that it needs to be, given language and cultural differences. So, I just wonder whether Welsh Government will be stepping up its efforts to make sure that we are understanding and engaging with our ethnic minority communities ever more effectively given the particular threat posed to them by this terrible virus.
Llywydd, can I thank John Griffiths for those important questions? I think I said last week in answering questions that I was going, during the rest of the afternoon, to attend part of the meeting of the advisory group that we have set up from black and minority ethnic communities. And I did indeed do that, and I'm looking forward to some of the recommendations from the work that is being chaired by Judge Ray Singh and involves people from a wide range of relevant communities in Wales.
The point that John Griffiths has made this afternoon was echoed in that part of the conversation that I was able to listen in on, which is that community-level engagement will require a different sort of approach, and as we move into trace, test and protect, lots of what that will rely on will be web based and telephone based, but we will need some capacity of people able to walk around in communities and communicate with people in that way. So, we're thinking that through, we're thinking through the points that John made about language and literacy, and how we get messages into communities that are not likely to get their information or their advice from more conventional forms of media. So, I thank him for raising those points. I want to assure him that they were being debated in a lively way inside the advisory group and that that strand in their thinking is making a difference to the way in which practical planning for the test, trace and protect service will be designed and delivered in Wales.
First Minister, Animal Farm has been mentioned, and I'm sure that Mark Reckless was doing a good impression there of being the Boxer to Nigel Farage's Napoleon. I do hope, of course, he doesn't end up being taken away, and nor would I want him to.
The Snowball figure, perhaps, is Daniel Kawczynski, isn't he—the Conservative MP for Shrewsbury who, in answer to not being able to go to the beach, is to abolish the Government and Parliament of the country in which that beach is situated, and in fairness, he's been condemned by members of his own party about that. I'm sure also he'll join me in condemning Darren Millar's parliamentary colleague, David Jones, who is at this very moment on Twitter using the hashtag #StayAlert and is using another Government's strapline. I know he's often tried to pretend he's living in England, but this is another mistake as far as his constituents are concerned. I'm very sure that Darren Miller will join in in that condemnation.
First Minister, do you agree with me that what we've heard today regarding the health Minister is deeply misleading? We have a situation here where somebody goes out for a walk, for exercise with his family, including a five-year-old child. They then have food because the five-year-old child is hungry, and sit down and eat it. Well, I'm sorry, but nobody fair, rational or indeed proportional in any way would see that as being anything wrong. And I'm suspicious about this because on Friday, we had the announcement regarding what was happening in Wales and on Sunday in England. The Sun normally takes no interest at all in Wales. I wonder if the First Minister knows, perhaps, whether The Sun was put up to this by somebody and the fact that it's been used today does give me some cause for concern.
Finally, First Minister, could I ask you this—? You've been very helpful in clarifying the situation with regard to golf and angling particularly, and you have said—and it seems quite clear to me—that the default position is to stay at home but there are, of course, exceptions. One exception is to do something that's necessary—going, perhaps, to the supermarket where it's necessary to drive to the nearest supermarket. That much is clear, I think, to the public. But you've also said, of course, that exercise is another reason. Exercise is not necessary, but nevertheless, it is permitted. And what is clear is that, with exercise, there are more stringent rules in the sense that people should not drive to exercise. There's no need to do that anyway; that's not essential or necessary. But, of course, what you've done today is to clarify the situation with regard to some sports and pastimes. With golf, I think it's probably right to say, isn't it, that golf clubs shouldn't really open, but golf courses could be opened with the appropriate safeguards and following the appropriate rules? When it comes to angling, of course—
Can I ask Carwyn Jones to come to his question, please?
I am coming to it. I know I'm trying your patience, Llywydd. Can I thank the First Minister for providing the clarity again about angling? At the moment, it's not good weather for angling, I have to say—
We don't need to know what the weather's like. We all know that the weather's good. Can we come to the question?
I was simply going to say: can I thank the First Minister for the clarity he's provided with regard to golf and angling particularly and, of course, the clarity he's provided for the whole of the last few weeks in contrast to what we've seen sometimes over the border in England?
Well, I thank Carwyn Jones for those points. I think the position in Wales is clear. The advice is, 'Stay at home'. You leave home by exception, and when you're engaging in one of the exceptions, then you stay as locally as possible for those exceptions, because that's the way in which we help to save lives.
I agree entirely with the points that my colleague, Carwyn Jones, made about Vaughan Gething and his family. I'm afraid I'm not a reader of The Sun newspaper, so I'm not able to help the former First Minister there.
Let me go to the big points that he made at the start of his contribution. I want to be clear, Llywydd, the Welsh Government believes in a four-nation approach. We think we've still got a four-nation approach, because all four parts of the United Kingdom are still moving in the same direction in the same careful and cautious way. What you don't want is to turn the legitimate use of the powers of the Senedd, to fine tune those things so they fit for Wales, into something that is divisive as the Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury so clearly deliberately set out to do, or, indeed, confusing. The advice in Wales is clear: stay home, protect the NHS, save lives. All Members of Parliament should be telling Welsh citizens the position that is here in Wales, and it is only confusing where people are trying to do something different.
Finally, Jack Sargeant.
[Inaudible.]—between Wales and England in Alyn and Deeside. There is, however, a street in my constituency called Boundary Lane, and residents on each side of that street are in either nation. For residents, the Prime Minister's statement on Sunday caused real confusion, particularly in the area of work. Residents who work in Wales are protected by social distancing in the workplace laws that your Government introduced; those who work in England are not. Will you join me, First Minister, in calling on Boris Johnson and the UK Government to introduce similar laws and rules to protect my constituents who work across the border in England?
I thank Jack Sargeant for that. Llywydd, we put the 2m rule into the regulations in Wales to give workers confidence that, if they were going to work, their employers would have taken all reasonable measures to protect their health and well-being, and the huge majority of employers in Wales do exactly that. I think having had that rule in the law here in Wales for weeks past gives us a head start in getting people back to work with the confidence that they need that their health and well-being is going to be protected. So, I think we did the right thing. I think that it has helped. I think that it would help in other parts too to have that rule there in the law, because it's one thing to encourage people to do something, another thing to give them confidence, in a time when people are fearful for their own safety and the safety of their families, that they can do the things they're being encouraged to do in a way that does not put them at risk. We've worked really hard here in Wales with our trade unions, with our employers and employer organisations, and I think that is paying dividends in allowing Welsh citizens to go back to work knowing they're safe, and people who live in Wales and work on the other side of our border are entitled to an equal level of insurance.
I thank the First Minister. A point of order from the leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price.
Diolch, Llywydd. Earlier today, the Government published 'Test Trace Protect', probably, actually, one of the most important documents it's published so far as part of its policy around the virus. It was published at 13:22, so Members will not have had the opportunity, obviously, to study the document—eight pages long—in the depth that it requires. This will be our only opportunity today to scrutinise the Government and ask questions of the Minister in relation to this strategy for the next seven days, so I was wondering if you would consider, Llywydd, using the power that you have under section 12.18 of the Standing Orders to call a short break of half an hour so that Members can have the opportunity to read the document before they respond to the health Minister's statement, or, alternatively, using the power that you have under section 12.17, to change the order of the statements today so we have the health Minister's statement later in the afternoon, once again giving Members the opportunity to read the strategy document first, so they can ask questions fully informed about the Government's policy.
Thank you for that point of order. As Members know, it is good practice to circulate statements in advance of the statements being given, and I appreciate that this is an important statement that we're about to hear, but I don't think it's appropriate at this time to be delaying that statement, so I hope that all Members' attention has been drawn by Adam Price to the document that was circulated at 13:22, and I'm sure that the health Minister will be making references to that during the statement. But it is, as I've said, good practice to give Members as much time to consider important information as is possible.
For now, then, we move on to the item of topical questions, but no topical questions were selected for today.
And then we come to the item and the statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on coronavirus, and I ask the health Minister to make his statement. Vaughan Gething.
Diolch, Llywydd. Members will know that I committed to provide regular updates about the COVID-19 developments here in Wales. We can see from the data that, thankfully, admissions to hospital, the number of people in critical care and the number of people who are sadly still losing their lives to the virus have been falling. We're not yet sufficiently far along the curve to be able to further lift the restrictions beyond the modest and cautious steps that the First Minister announced to the public on Friday, 8 May. As you heard, the Cabinet agreed those measures later on Thursday the seventh.
We must remain vigilant and disciplined in supporting the lockdown so we can continue to protect the NHS and to keep people safe. We have been clear in Wales that we must build on the good work that has been done to date, both by members of the public and of course by our NHS and social care staff. The 'stay home, protect the NHS and save lives' message is still very much at the centre of our strategy and approach here in Wales, and will remain so for, at the very least, the next three weeks. However, we recognise that there is a balance to be struck between the level of harm that COVID-19 is causing us both directly and indirectly.
I issued a written statement last week to alert Members to the new operating framework that I issued to assist NHS organisations to focus and plan in quarter 1. The framework described four levels of harm: harm from COVID-19 directly itself; harm from overwhelming the NHS and social care system; harm from reduction in non-COVID activity; and harm from wider societal actions that may flow from lockdown.
Now, I want to talk more about the harm from a reduction of non-COVID activity. There are still many people living with serious conditions that need diagnosis, treatment and ongoing care. We need to ensure that these people have the confidence that they can be treated safely. They need to know that they will continue to receive the same level of care and expertise for urgent treatment, and that it is safe to come in for procedures and diagnostics. Ultimately, though, this comes down to discussions between patients and their treating clinicians, with honest conversations about whether there are particular issues to be considered. And, at the end of it all, the patient can, of course, choose to follow or not follow the advice that is given. The reality is that striking the balance between COVID and non-COVID care must and will be done with the utmost care. But the message is clear: the NHS is there for you and it remains open for business.
I want to specifically recognise the harm from a reduction in non-COVID-19 activity for those people who require support from our mental health services during the pandemic. During these unprecedented times, we must ensure that we maintain parity between physical and mental health services. I know that the period of lockdown is difficult for many people, but for some people with mental health issues it can be particularly challenging. For some, it will have caused their condition to deteriorate at a time when they're separated from their normal support networks—family, friends and potentially work as well—and when access to non-emergency services will have changed. In response, we've worked with our partners to introduce a range of measures to provide support to those who may need help and reassurance. That includes tailored online information and access to telephone-based support.
A mental health COVID-19 monitoring tool has been developed within the service to ensure that we receive assurance in the Government that mental health services are operating safely and responding appropriately. Health boards are required to submit monitoring information on a weekly basis, which is considered by our mental health incident group. The information provides a live picture of the capacity of mental health services to enable us identify where additional support, advice or guidance is needed. While service models will have adapted during the pandemic, health boards and partners have reported that they've continued to meet mental health needs during this period.
NHS organisations will submit their quarter 1 plans next week, setting out how they can undertake non-COVID-19 activity. To support that work, Public Health Wales has worked together with the Welsh Government and the wider NHS to develop advice built on three strong pillars: the need to understand the current infection level and transmission rates for coronavirus in Wales; principles that are both grounded in scientific evidence and address the wider societal and economic impacts; and the need to test, trace and protect. I am pleased to announce that earlier today I published our 'Test Trace Protect' strategy. It sets out, over seven and a half pages, how we will work in close partnership with Public Health Wales, health boards and local authorities to deliver one of the biggest public health interventions of a generation.
Working together, we will enhance health surveillance in the community, undertake effective and extensive contact tracing, and support people to self-isolate where required to do so. To support this activity, we will require a testing programme of a different scale. We've significantly expanded our testing capacity in Wales over the last week, with laboratory capacity now available to process over 5,000 tests a day, and with testing centres now open around the country. We'll continue to increase this capacity in Wales over the coming weeks and months, within the range of 10,000 tests a day. That will enable us to test more people staying in hospitals and care settings, together with workers in other critical-worker settings.
To support our move to mass population testing, we'll draw on the testing programme operating across the UK. Now, NWIS, our NHS Wales Informatics Service, are working with Public Health Wales and NHSx—that's the joint unit that brings teams from the Department of Health and Social Care in the UK Government and NHS England and NHS Improvement to help deliver digital transformation and care in England; they're behind the development of the app that people have heard about in the Isle of Wight. Working together with NWIS and Public Health Wales, they're developing a data solution so that test results will be reported electronically back to Wales on an hourly basis, and that now means we can take our population share of the UK testing programme. It is crucial that this test record is able to be integrated directly into Welsh clinical record systems. Participation in the UK programme will significantly further increase the number of tests available and allow people to have tests delivered to their home for them to self-administer.
In total, we could require as many as 20,000 tests a day to support diagnosis and treatment, population health surveillance, contact tracing and business continuity. That will, of course, enable key workers to return to work more quickly and safely. It will also, of course, depend upon the progress not only of the coronavirus but our phasing out of lockdown and further activity for members of the public. But this number is highly dependent on the spread of the disease, the prevalence of symptoms and the emerging evidence on how testing can best be deployed to prevent further infection. We'll continue to keep that evidence under review and to adapt our estimates of need accordingly. Combining our own capacity here in Wales with that of the UK puts us in a strong position to test as needed.
We have to learn to live with the virus that is circulating in our communities for many months to come. Adopting this approach is a way in which people can be told quickly of their exposure to the virus so that they, in turn, can limit their exposure to others. This will help us to prevent infection and track the virus as lockdown restrictions are eased.
Finally, the people of Wales are our most important partners. It is only through their willingness to do the right thing—to report their symptoms, to identify their contacts and to heed the advice when told to self-isolate—that we can break the chain of transmission. I want to thank the public for continuing to support lockdown arrangements. I have been reassured by the response both from those within the NHS, social care, policing and, indeed, the general public. They support the cautious and realistic approach that we're taking, and it's been widely welcomed.
I don't doubt for a moment, though, that it's difficult to continue with the restrictions that have been imposed. However, keeping these extraordinary measures in place, together with that widespread public support for them, remains the single most important factor in protecting the NHS and keeping our family, friends and loved ones safe. More than that, it makes the biggest difference in keeping people safe who we may never know and may never get the chance to know.
Diolch. I'm happy to take questions on the statement, Llywydd.
Minister, I'd like to welcome the statement, and I am pleased to see the test, trace and protect initiative being launched today. However, I do have concerns. As you know, I would have put a dedicated team with a very visible lead in place, and I'd be really grateful if you could tell me whether or not you do have an entire department or group that is literally focused on this, because it's so important that we get testing right to ensure access for all, to ensure prompt delivery of test results, to show that everyone has the same ambition and targets.
As we heard from the very shambolic evidence given to us by the head of Public Health Wales, there was a distinct divergence in targets between Welsh Government and the Public Health Wales ambition. We need to ensure appropriate laboratory capacity to ensure the data and results get to the right people. And we need all of this because we need to get safely out of lockdown. So, are you confident that Public Health Wales will be capable of managing the test, trace and protect programme?
Your ambition to have 10,000 tests—you don't say by when; it just says 'over weeks and months'. Is this an actual target, and is it a target that all of the people working in the health services cleave to?
In terms of health surveillance work by Public Health Wales, are you confident that this will be able to be done in an accurate way given the problems we've had over the last few weeks with data coming out of health boards?
In terms of the contact tracing element, have you more thought about how many people would be needed to do this? You talk about 1,000 and I note that Scotland want about 2,000 for a population of 5.5 million to our 3 million. Is that what you're basing it on? I'd be interested to know that, because we know how difficult it is to get people into the right roles.
And are you really confident that NHS Informatics, not necessarily the most stellar organisation, are able to deliver a single digital platform for contact tracing in the time required? Can you tell us now, once you put the proximity tracing in place, will the follow up after the proximity tracing be the same?
And finally, on this suite of questions, may I ask about the protect element? You talk about people having to self-isolate maybe multiple times. I absolutely understand that and the reasons why, but what support will be put in place for those people, because if they've got caring responsibilities, children trying to go to school, if they live in an environment like a big block of flats, they may constantly be being asked to self-isolate, and this is going to damage their mental health even further?
Thank you to Angela Burns for the series of questions. I'll try to go through them briefly. Yes, we do have a director, a senior civil servant, who's been empowered with oversight, not just within the Government but the Welsh Government needs to co-ordinate and lead the system to make sure that the test, trace, protect programme actually works and that everyone buys into it and understands the varying roles and responsibilities that the different parts of our system will have.
So, that's going to draw together right across not just Public Health Wales, but our other trusts, our health boards and local government, and that is working well. I've been really encouraged by the way that health boards and local government have been working together on the planning phase for wanting to move ahead and to deliver this programme. But Public Health Wales won't be managing the whole programme. They've provided lots of the ideas and some of the clinical oversight. They've provided the public health evidence about what we need to do in overall terms. This is now the operational end of it, and they're not going to lead the operational end of the system. That's again why we've empowered a senior civil servant to lead that, to hold the ring, and, of course, I've got ultimate oversight for what is taking place.
On the 10,000 or so tests we expect to have, I want those to be able to be in place for the end of May. That's set out in the 'Test Trace Protect' document. That's when I want us to have that sort of capacity in place. As I say, that's a combination of the capacity we already have in place in Wales together with a share of the UK-wide arrangements. So, I've got a reasonable measure of confidence that that will be in place for the end of May, when we want to be able to potentially roll this out on a wider basis.
But our use of those tests, of course, will depend on where we are with the amount of circulation that is taking place from the public. If there's a further release in lockdown measures and people circulate more freely, there's a potential for more contacts, even with the social distancing rules in place. So, at each stage, we may need more tests, and in particular as we get up to the autumn period of time where flu and colds and other illnesses that are often like coronavirus symptoms are in wider circulation as well. That's where we've got to forecast and anticipate a change in demand.
That also comes back to your point about staff as well, because the initial figure in the document of 1,000 staff comes from plans that health boards and local government are already working together on, and I'm really grateful for the way that the local government family across Wales, of varying political allegiances, have worked together with health boards on planning for this. We're making use of the resource that exists in local government—the staff who aren't necessarily at work. Some of them want more things to do and this is an area where we can help those people to work, and including people in their own homes depending on the digital solution.
So, that's the initial point, but, again, we may not need 1,000 people sat waiting for calls on 1 June, but that's the figure that we're working to with the sort of staff numbers we're going to need. And you're right—it is a rough approximation of the numbers in Scotland, but we'll have to judge the evidence on the extent of the programme and what we're going to need and whether we need more people. That's an active conversation that local government, the health service and, indeed, my officials are having.
On your point about NWIS, NWIS aren't looking to build their own system within a few weeks; it's actually about what they're procuring and the work they're helping to lead on, but to make sure that that digital system works and is able to integrate with other systems we have in Wales. So, they've got a really important role in helping us get that right.
It's also important, I think, to recognise what I said earlier about the UK Government testing programme. We're now in a position where the data transfer issues are being resolved, and that gives me a much greater amount of comfort, because previously we could have had tests but not understood what the results were, so the utility of them would have been really, really limited. We're now in a much better position, and so that will be useful.
We've got the same issues on the NHSX app that's being developed as well, because if it works, if we resolve all the privacy issues about who owns the data and how it's resolved—and I think we're in the right sort of place on that—then, that will help us in terms of contact tracing, and if that works from the trial, then I'd want Wales to be able to take advantage of that, but, again, to make sure those data transfer issues are resolved.
On the conversation with local government and the wider voluntary sector on supporting people, that is a conversation we're starting. I've had a very constructive series of rapid conversations—and this is an extremely rapid development of policy, and putting it into action, that we're undergoing—but they recognise, as we do, that if we're going to have a group of people, who are being supported now, and they go out into further circulation, doing more things in the future, if we then ask them to self-isolate again, they'll need to be supported. We'll need to have mobile teams around those people who may need to isolate more than once. But the purpose of this really matters. There's harm caused by being in lockdown, and there's potential harm being caused if we ask people to self-isolate again in the future. But it's to balance that harm, and as you heard in the First Minister's statement and questions afterwards, if the R value goes up to 1.1 over a three-month period, that's thousands of extra deaths that will take place in Wales, and we have to bear in mind that difficult balance we have to take. But I certainly won't take a cavalier attitude that could potentially risk the lives of thousands of Welsh citizens, and I will of course continue to keep Members updated.
Thank you for that. So, just for clarity's sake, I want to confirm that it's 10,000 tests by the end of May, because your document says,
'We will continue to increase this capacity over the coming weeks and months, potentially to as many as 10,000 tests a day',
and I think we just need that clarity, given the shambles we've seen over the last few weeks.
I'd like to just turn quickly to non-COVID harms, and particularly to the diagnosis and treatment of critical conditions such as cancer. You mention the non-COVID harms in your statement. Now, we were already behind on so many metrics before the pandemic. People are contacting me because they need investigative treatment, they can't get it, they think they have cancer, or they've been told they might have cancer. They're really worried, and they see that hospitals are under less pressure than we all thought that they would be, and so these people are suffering excruciating mental torment, not sure what's going on and when they can get that treatment.
I understand the health boards are working on this, but when will services start? Can you give us a rough time frame? Are we talking a couple of weeks or a couple of months? And can we restart the screening programme, such as for breast cancer, because that's not hospital based—that's a mobile unit? Can we use the mobile units of organisations such as Tenovus to actually give and to administer treatments? Because, again, those kinds of areas should be easy to keep as green zones. What plans do you have to cope with the backlog, and how do you plan to engage with the public to get them to come back into these vital services for the treatment that they so desperately need?
Yes. Thank you for the follow-up questions. On cancer, actually, we had better waiting times relative to England before lockdown took place and, of course, we'd also introduced the new single cancer pathway, which is a more honest measure of waits within the system, and it's been widely welcomed both by clinicians and the campaigning third sector. So, actually, on cancer, we're in, relatively, a better position in many ways than over the border in England, particularly given the fact that in Wales, as a poorer, older country, you'd normally expect cancer outcomes to be markedly different and more adverse in Wales. So, actually, we were in a better position at the start, but I don't want to lose sight of the fact that there are some people who are not coming into our cancer services, even where there's an urgent need. Cancer services never stop. The urgent need never stops. What we've seen, though, is a drop-off in some of the referrals in and a drop-off in the number of people attending, and that is a choice that people are actively making. I've had conversations with NHS chairs and chief executives, and they've had their clinicians actively speak with people to try to reassure them that the system is safe to treat them, but people are still fearful and are pausing or postponing their own treatments. Now, that's part of the point about wanting to keep on reassuring the public that we're doing this work, we want people to come in, and, in the wider restart of our system, including the screening service that is actively under consideration, there are things that I'm looking for, just as Members are as well, because those urgent care needs that have been paused over a period of time, well, that is building up need that isn't going away of its own accord.
That's why the operating plans for the first quarter will be important, and I fully expect to update the Chamber and the committee again on those plans as they're being developed, because, in terms of the balance of harm, some of the things that I've been particularly aware of and concerned about over the past weeks are the figures and information that we've seen.
So, I can give you a very clear reassurance that urgent cancer care services have not stopped; they're still available today. We want people to use them, but we need to build the confidence of the public to use them, which I think was Angela Burns's final point, and that's why I think statements from myself, from the NHS Wales chief executive and, indeed, clinicians across the country encouraging people to use our services will be really important in a consistent way to rebuild public confidence, to make sure that this treatment really can make a difference in limiting harm in the future, and that people have the confidence to come and use them, because the NHS, as I said in my statement, is open for business.
I'd like to start with the 'Test Trace Protect' document and thank the Minister for its publication. It's useful because it adds to our sum of knowledge about what Government is trying to achieve, but I think a detailed plan for testing, tracing and isolating was long overdue, and I think it remains, unfortunately, long overdue. What we have here is largely a statement of principle that few would disagree with, in reality: that having a test and trace strategy is vital in the battle against coronavirus and that it will need to bring lots of different partners together to deliver it.
We all, surely, hope to be able to start moving towards significantly lifting restrictions in the not-too-distant future. That's what we all hope for, but we can't start thinking of significantly lifting lockdown restrictions before we have a robust test and trace plan, and I don't think this can be described as anything like a robust, comprehensive or detailed plan, so we'll wait for that.
The document mentions, as we heard, potentially, the need for 10,000 tests a day—it's clear on that—double the current capacity that we know has taken a very long time to reach, yet Public Health Wales suggest the range of numbers of symptomatic people you may have to test is between 7,500 and 17,000. Surely, that's what we should be aiming for. There is reference to 20,000 later in the paper, but it's very unclear from the document what that refers to. I think you may have made it a bit clearer in your oral statement, but, in terms of the document itself, it's very unclear.
It's not just about the numbers, it's about how you process those tests and go about the tracing. You talk of easy and rapid access to testing. How quick do we need—how rapid does it need to be in order to be effective? What's the local level of access to all our communities going to be to this, given that we only have a certain number of mass testing centres?
A strategy, at the end of the day, is only as good as the implementation plan that we need to put it into action, and there's no detailed plan here that I can see to put the already widely accepted principles into practice. So, when can we expect that strategy that we have to turn into something that can get us ready to actually lift restrictions, not just talk about it in abstract terms?
In terms of the strategy document, it's similar to the strategy document that Scotland published, in the sense that it's a public-facing strategy document to give an explanation of the strategy we're going to follow, about what the ask is of the public and how our whole system is gearing up to deliver that. There will, of course, be a detailed operational plan that's in development between the different parts of our service, and we'll learn more about that as, at some point over the next week, we'll have health boards and some of their partner local authorities looking to trial some of the contact tracing element of it, with a particular focus on the care home sector. There'll be lots of learning to take from that. I'm expecting to have confirmation of the particular pilot areas, if you like, in different parts of the country that are going to move forward. That again comes from the work that the health boards and local authorities are undertaking themselves. There'll be lots of learning over that trial period before we get to the end of May, not just in those pilot areas, but to deliberately share across the rest of the country.
So, actually, in a really brief period of time, we've had lots and lots of development, and real progress. We'll have a trial that's going to start in different areas next week, we'll have learning that comes from that, and, of course, I expect that not just in terms of confirming who's undertaking trials, but then the learning from those as we build towards having that more detailed operational plan in place—so, all the detail about the scripts that the tracers will need to use, and the detail of it you can expect to find in those documents available in the service to go with the training for people. This document, though, is a public-facing document that says, 'This is the strategy we're going to take. This is the approach. Here are more of the numbers following the leaked draft report that people discussed. We now have more finesse and understanding across our whole system of what's needed and how we're going to go about it'.
In terms of your point about local access, that's why we've got mobile testing units and it's also why our ability now to make proper use of the home testing service is really important. It's UK led, but there's been sign-up and agreement from all countries in the UK to make use of that home testing service, and that will mean that our reach in remote areas of the country—and they exist in rural, semi-rural and urban Wales as well—will be increased. So, that's a really important step forward, and, again, the point I made in my statement really does matter—to have the ability to have the results of those fed back into the clinical record to make the maximum use of it I think will be really, really important. Of course, that will make more of a difference when we have a reliable antibody test and we're able to deploy that within our system.
I'm pleased the Minister mentioned the care sector. I want to turn to care homes now. It's a very real concern for me that more robust steps are not being taken to safeguard this sector, which of course is facing such a huge risk. The Minister will know that I'm of the view that the Government needs to have a plan to extend asymptomatic testing to include all care homes, whatever their size. The evidence is very strong on that.
But we need to look at how we can close the door on the virus reaching care homes in the first place. I still have people in the care sector telling me that they're extremely concerned about people who are released from hospital after treatment into care homes, with the possibility, of course, of bringing the virus with them. There has been some tightening up on testing. It is shocking that there isn't automatic testing already for people who are released from hospitals, but we need more than that. Would the Minister agree with me that we need to put steps in place in order to ensure a barrier, or quarantine, if you like, between that area that could be at risk, namely the hospital, and the care home—perhaps providing seven days' quarantine for an individual before they go back to a care home, in a hospital green zone, or even in a hotel, in order to ensure that we close the door as firmly as possible on the risk that this virus could reach care homes, because we know what the dangers are when that happens?
Thank you. As I said before, and I guess I'll have the opportunity to say this on every single occasion I come here, when the evidence changes, if the advice changes, the Government will be happy to reconsider its position on any of the areas of activity we're undertaking. That includes the developing evidence base on asymptomatic testing in care homes. We made a move on changing our policy on testing across the whole care home environment, you'll recall, a couple of weeks ago for areas where there was either a confirmed case or a suspected case where someone was symptomatic, so we'll learn more from that about asymptomatic testing, the likely prevalence and also the value in how we deploy our testing resource, and the value we expect to get from that. It's really important to understand how we use it in the best way to keep as many people safe, well and alive as possible. So, again, if the evidence does change, then I'm happy to move, and I'm certainly not looking to be stubborn and dig my heels into the ground on any of these issues, because it's all got to be about the overwhelming priority and purpose, which is about keeping people alive and well.
On hospital discharge, we've introduced a policy where there should be testing on discharge in hospital before they go to a care home. If Members of any group are aware of somewhere where they think that isn't happening, or they've got cases of people who have come to them, they should take that up with the health board initially, but if there isn't an appropriate response, then by all means contact my office, because I would want to know if those issues aren't being addressed in accordance with the ministerial decision on this that I have already made and communicated.
The points about quarantine are rather more difficult because, again, we need an evidence base on where the value is for that. The Member and others will know that the phrase 'quarantine' is probably unhelpful, but I understand what the Member is trying to get at. But if you're going to hold people in an environment, what environment is that? Are you still making sure that people are mobilised, because real harm is caused when people are kept in an inappropriate environment, where a hospital is no longer the right place for someone, especially older people, then real harm can be caused, not just healthcare-acquired infections but also physical deconditioning as well.
When we're talking about the harms that are caused, what we don't want to do is ignore that harm that really can be caused and the wider social harm that can be caused by people becoming deconditioned and losing their independence as well. What I don't want to do is to fill up all of our field hospitals as centres where people are held before going back into the care home sector. We've had a proper national conversation on how we make use of that capacity. What I would not want is that we potentially have a further rise in coronavirus in September and our field hospitals are then full of people who could and should be in care homes.
We need to understand the evidence, we need to have a conversation with all parts of our system, and that includes local government and people like Care Forum Wales, who represent many people within the care home sector, to understand what the right answer is, how we build confidence in the system, how we understand the different harms that can be caused by making different choices. So, it's not a closed-door response, but I do think we've got to think about what that evidence looks like, and there's already a conversation that I've asked for to take place between health and local government, and then to draw in our colleagues in Care Forum Wales to understand what that could and should look like.
Minister, on Monday night, many of us watched the heroic actions of the ICU staff at the Royal Gwent Hospital as they battled to save the lives of those infected with COVID-19. It was both truly heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. It brought home the sheer horror of the disease and it highlighted the fantastic levels of care and compassion of all the staff working in our critical care departments. We simply cannot thank them enough. They went through hell to save lives, and the least we can do now as a public body is to stick to social distancing rules. Minister, thankfully, we seem to be over the worst of the outbreak and, according to the modelling update provided by the technical advisory cell, the number of cases is halving every 10 days or so. However, history tells us that pandemics come in waves. Minister, we were woefully unprepared for the first wave. That was no-one's fault, but we have to learn lessons. So what steps are you taking to ensure that we are fully prepared for future outbreaks of this or any other pandemic?
We must also ensure that we are not prolonging the current outbreak. I was contacted by a constituent yesterday whose elderly mother was sent home after being told that she probably had coronavirus. This lady was sent home to spread the infection on to her family and carers. My constituent is still extremely unwell and is aged 79. Minister, why aren't we testing everyone leaving hospital to ensure that we are not adding to infection rates?
Minister, there is emerging evidence of a strong correlation between vitamin D deficiency and COVID-19 mortality rates. Given this, and the evidence that the risk of spreading the virus is much less outdoors, shouldn't we be encouraging people to spend more time outdoors, provided they stick to the social distancing rules, remembering that not every family has a garden for children to play in, and whilst also noting at the same time the rise in cases in Germany after relaxing some of the measures?
Minister, our whole approach must be a balancing act, and the harms of coronavirus have to be weighed up against the harms of strict stay-at-home orders. So, can you give us your assurance that tackling the harms associated with loneliness and isolation will be a key factor in the Welsh Government's approach, going forward? Will you also outline a timeline for when our NHS will be open for all patients and not just those with life-threatening illness?
And, as ever, I thank you and your department for all the efforts in the fight against coronavirus. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you for the questions. I'll try to get through them as quickly as I can, Llywydd. On pandemic preparations, we'll have lots of lessons to learn on the back of this. Our primary preparations were for a flu-style pandemic, but this is a slightly different form of pandemic. We'll have lots of lessons to learn. We're learning as we go, and the way that we're not just stocking but restocking our personal protective equipment stores is part of what we're doing in the here and now, but we'll definitely need to take a look back ourselves. And as I've said before, I'm sure that, in every Parliament across the United Kingdom, there'll be a desire across parties to look back at what's happened when we finally reach the end of this to learn lessons, to understand what we did, but, crucially, to understand what we need to do for the future. I hope that inquiry can take place sooner rather than later, because that would mean that we're actually at the end of the coronavirus pandemic, but I do appreciate that this is going to have to wait until we really do reach that point in time.
On the point about testing every hospital resident, I think, from the example you've given, if they were symptomatic, as you suggest, then that's the sort of thing where there should have been a clinical view on that and a test offered, if appropriate, before they left. And again, I think this is the sort of thing to take up with the health board directly, and if you don't get a satisfactory response then do come back to me. As I said in response to Rhun ap Iorwerth, we're continuing to review the evidence on what we should do, and that may well change what we need to do around testing of both hospital patients but also of our staff in health and social care as well.
In terms of spending more time outdoors, we changed the regulations in Wales. One of the modest and cautious easements we made to the lockdown regulations and approach here in Wales was to say that people could go out for exercise more than once, because the evidence the First Minister referred to was about the fact that the half-life of coronavirus is significantly reduced outside and in sunlight. So, that's a change that we have made to encourage more people to go out more than once a day for exercise.
And in terms of your point about loneliness and isolation, it's been a point that Ministers considered at each stage in the changes we're making, and it's a matter of real concern. There are many Members in the Chamber who I know, like me, have older parents who they are effectively caring for, and it's something that bothers me about my own family and I know other Members take that seriously too as well. So, the strategy for loneliness and isolation is part of the support we've put in place and that we funded especially with the third sector to provide support. That will absolutely be one of the key factors we need to consider in terms of exiting lockdown and the eventual path to and through recovery.
And in terms of a timeline for further NHS activity, I should be in a position to provide a better idea about that as I both receive the plans on quarter 1, and, as I indicated I think in response to Angela Burns, I do intend to bring back a further statement to give some more detail on that. And I believe I've had the pleasure of an invite from Dr Lloyd to return to the health committee in the next few weeks as well. So, there will be opportunities for me to set out where the NHS is and to face questions from Members on that.
[Inaudible] COVID-19-related inflammatory disease, which affects children in the UK and, indeed, other parts of the world. Will the Minister give an assessment of the risk to children and young people in Wales, and update us on any action taken by the Welsh NHS? And could you also confirm that any evidence that emerges in respect of child-specific COVID-19 illness risks will be factored into the decision-making process in respect of school reopenings?
And can you also comment on reports that, in England, the UK Government is recruiting unpaid volunteers, working alongside paid workers, to carry out COVID-19 tests? Do you agree with me and with the trade union Unison that this really takes the notion of volunteering way too far? So, will you be able to confirm on behalf of the Welsh Government that those contracted to carry out testing in Wales are properly trained, properly provided with protective equipment and that they are being properly paid whilst carrying out this work?
Thank you, Mick, and I think it's important to acknowledge that Members may or may not have seen reports of an inquest that opened today of a very young child who had passed away after their mother passed away, with COVID-19 being I think the primary cause of the death of the mother. And whilst not the primary cause of death of the very young child, I think the child was just a few days old. The general evidence is that despite the tragic circumstances that are being resolved by the coroner there, the general understanding is that younger children have a different response and are a lot less likely to come to harm. That doesn't mean, though, that we should be cavalier about our approach to young children and their care and treatment, and that's why this Government is taking a properly cautious approach to school opening, because we don't fully understand all of the evidence about the transmission both between children, and between children and adults of this particular virus, because there was real concern at the start of this that you could potentially have children mixing with older grandparents, where people in a lower risk group could be mixing with people in a higher risk group and you could end up transferring harm. And one of the really difficult parts about this, I know, is that there are grandparents who aren't able to see their grandchildren. I know that there are grandparents in the Assembly and that we've all got constituents who feel some of that real pain and difficulty in not being able to see their family.
But the school reopening will have to take account of the developing evidence and the developing understanding we have of the impact upon children, but crucially about the behaviour of adults around school openings as well, because, actually, if children themselves are less likely to come to harm, you've still got to think about the staff and how staff mix if they're going back to a school that's been reopened. You also need to consider parents dropping off and collecting, in particular in a primary school environment, around the school gates. So, we've got to think through how all of that could work. We're not at the point where that decision is being made in Wales, but I can give you the assurance that you're looking for, that the evidence will definitely lead to and inform the choice that the Welsh Government makes. And when that choice is made, you'll hear from our education Minister first.
On your point about volunteers and the testing programme, I'm happy to confirm that our approach in Wales is not to ask people to undertake voluntary work to either administer tests or, indeed, to undertake the contact tracing that we've been discussing earlier today. Where it's paid work, they should be paid, and the appropriate conditions for that employment adhered to, including if there is a need to wear PPE. So, that's not the way that we're looking to roll out the service here, and it's for England to explain what they're doing in England, but the approach we have here in Wales is that you can expect paid staff and proper terms and conditions to do that work.
Yesterday, an e-mail from the Welsh Government detailing the criteria for the extra £40 million for adult social care, announced on 14 April, advised that eligibility is limited to local authority commissioned care only. So, I therefore query why care homes with NHS or privately funded clients have been excluded. Now, because of this amended guidance, issued only by e-mail and not published, as has been mentioned, by the Welsh Government, one local authority has just this morning asked their nursing homes to clarify which of their PPE is used for social care and which is used for nursing purposes. I find that to be outrageous, Minister.
And, during last week's Plenary, the First Minister denied my claim that local authorities knew nothing as yet about the £500 bonus for carers announced on 1 May, and how it would be distributed. I have had it confirmed very robustly this week that no criteria or guidance have been issued. So, when will this be the case, and when will this money actually reach the pockets of all our valuable social care workers? Diolch.
Okay. On the £40 million, it's been issued to local government to support the social care sector. I would expect that those people who have care commissioned through the national health service will find they're having the appropriate support for their businesses as well. I'm happy to take up a further conversation with her. I know that our lead director here on social care and integration is having that direct conversation with the Welsh Local Government Association, with the Association of Directors of Social Services, and I expect that's a conversation that should reach a proper conclusion. We also have regular engagements between myself and the WLGA, and, of course, there's a regular—three times a week, I think—leaders call from all 22 leaders with the local government Minister, and opportunities to have those conversations to understand how we use that money. I also think it's really important to recognise that this isn't a one-shot. We're going to be in these extraordinary circumstances for months to come, and we need to make sure that the calm, rational and, at times, searching conversations we need to have are the way that we deal with this rather than making rather more extraordinary claims.
On PPE, I'm not sure that I really understood the point that the Member was making; it seemed to be confused about whether or not local councils are asking about how PPE is used for nursing and non-nursing care, or whether it was about the provision. But, ultimately, the Government is paying for all of that. We are paying for the PPE that is distributed to nursing homes. We're paying for PPE whether people are receiving nursing care or not. In normal times, we wouldn't be doing that, so it's another marker of the extraordinary times that we're in—the fact that the Government is providing that care to employers who have legal responsibilities for PPE. But it's the only way to make sure that adequate PPE reaches our front-line members of staff where they're actually providing care for our constituents.
On the £500 payment, there are ongoing conversations and negotiations about the terms of how that payment is made to people delivering front-line social care. And I welcome the fact that the Member wants to see people have that in their pockets; I hope she'll join with us in asking the UK Government to make sure that's provided free of tax. That would be a welcome bonus for these relatively low-paid members of staff. And I hope that her and her group will lobby the Chancellor and the UK Government to make sure that happens, rather than seeing some of that money snatched away in the form of tax and national insurance. But it's an active conversation between employers, trade unions and the Government about how the detail of that should be worked through, for example, to make sure that a one-shot payment doesn't compromise in-work benefit payments to some of these members of staff. I wouldn't want to see these people penalised for a real gesture of recognition of the extraordinary times that these members of staff are living with, and the care that they're providing in each and every one of our communities.
Minister, local government workers and national Government workers are clearly designated as key workers by the Welsh Government for the Government's testing programme. However, we have heard examples of workers within the Department for Work and Pensions in Wales being refused testing for COVID. There are reports that the DWP itself is telling its staff who are working here in Wales to go to Bristol to access testing. So, can the Minister confirm that he will ensure that key workers who need a COVID test can access that test here in Wales, including those here in Wales working for departments of Government that have yet to be devolved to this Senedd?
Well I won't draw up the invitation that the Member has given to get involved in the wider constitutional debate about which departments are and aren't devolved, but I'm aware of the issue at both the DWP and also the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and those issues are being addressed. If the Member still has people coming to him towards the end of this week who are saying the issue hasn't been resolved, then I'd ask him to write to me, because it's a matter, like I said, that I'm aware of and is being addressed with both the local health board and indeed Public Health Wales.
In my discussions with public health bodies, a figure of 3,000 staff has been identified to make the trace system work. The latest figures I've been given is that, for every one person who is identified with the virus during the tracing process, a further 20 to 30 people would need to be traced. You've said that staff doing that tracing will come primarily from local authorities. So can I ask, from what kinds of jobs should the staff doing this work be deployed? What training and expertise will they require, and who will design and deliver this training? And are you confident the staff can be found in sufficient number?
Okay. Thank you. In terms of the numbers, we've updated the numbers from the initial draft that Public Health Wales provided. That's why we get to the figure of 1,000 that we published today; that's the reason. But as I explained earlier, you can expect the number to move around. And that's part of the challenge here, because when we start—if we're going to start from 1 June, for the sake of argument—we may not need everyone and that full 1,000 at that point in time. We need to have enough people trained though so the system is robust. And, actually, Public Health Wales are working with the rest of the system on the training for what people will need to be able to do, how they run through that and the scripts they'll have to use, and then how they will need to record that information. That's all being worked through. And you'll see the trial of that—some of the trial of that, at least—next week, which will help to inform and I think further advance that work.
In terms of not just the numbers, but where they're coming from, local government have been really keen to play an active part in this, because they already have people who have got IT skills, who are used to using IT as a regular part of their job, who are keen to have work to do. They're really committed public servants, even in their specific area of work they were doing before lockdown, and because of lockdown, some of those activities aren't taking place as well. So, there are people who want to be redeployed, who want to work in this area. Now, that means that we've got a group of staff. The Welsh Local Government Association, again across all different political leaderships, in different parts of the country, say that there are enough staff to meet the need that we'll have for, if you like, that contact tracing team. So, we're relying on the detailed conversations that are taking place there.
But there will then be a challenge, if we are able to successfully unlock further areas of activity over a period of months, as to what that will mean in terms of the financial pressures, but also then, if other areas of activity are returning, it's about how we make sure that we don't suddenly lose staff who are working in this way, but to make sure that the whole system is still robust and can effectively work. And those are things we're continuing to work through with local government. But I really do think that, for the first stage of contact tracing, it'll be essentially a local government resource that will do that, in partnership with their local health boards. I do have a good measure of confidence that we'll have enough staff to make this work and we will of course need to address a range of challenges to make sure those staff are still in place in the right number in the months ahead, because we're talking about many, many months of a contact tracing system in place when the test, trace, protect model will need to be active right across Wales.
Minister, could you tell me what testing is being done in Wales of prisoners before they're released back into the community, please?
That would depend on the referrals made from the prison service. It's difficult, because when they're within the prison service, they're in a non-devolved service and then, if they're going to leave, they'll very quickly come into contact with, in the great majority of cases, devolved services, whether it's housing support or whether indeed it's social care needs that a number of people have. If you think about the prison in Usk, a lot of people there are actually quite old and they have a range of care and support needs. But the testing should be in accordance with our broader testing policy, whether people are unsymptomatic, and, of course, that goes for staff as well.
Can I ask you, Minister, one of the issues that we went into before this pandemic was that on the agenda of many local health boards was the prospect of significant reorganisation of some of their services? Now obviously, because of this particular crisis, many health boards have frozen their plans and aren't progressing with them, understandably, but you may be aware that the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board is due to look at its vascular services—it was due to receive a paper at its health board meeting this week. I'm pleased that they have deferred consideration of that paper, because it was not published within sufficient time to meet the Government's requirements of the board—i.e. before seven days in advance of the meeting. But can you tell us: will you reassure the public that there will not be significant reorganisations of services done in the background while we're dealing with this crisis, in order that all of the energy of the health service can be focused absolutely on dealing with what is the major challenge at the moment, which is COVID-19?
Well, the health service has been reorganised, effectively, to deal with this major challenge. We were talking earlier about some of the challenges of non-COVID harm that had taken place because we've had to refocus our whole service in the way we scale up different parts of the service, from creating a field hospital to the extra critical care capacity that we've got. So, the broader reform agenda that 'A Healthier Wales' set out has obviously had to be largely paused.
But as we return to having more activity, we're still going to need to consider how we operate effective services in this changed environment and what it means for the future. But I would not expect that there would be a new and radically different proposal that we introduced—it's rather difficult to engage our own staff in those or indeed the public. The caveat that I think we do need though, and we all need to be grown up about this, is that there could be changes to services that have to take place from a patient safety point of view, and what I wouldn't want to do is for us to be saying that that could not take place because of the wider pandemic. But if there's any idea that change will be sneaked through or pushed through under the radar, that isn't going to happen. But more than that, though, we will need to think about how we take forward some of the things that have happened, so, for example, the changes in greater use of technology and the opportunity to reform out-patients. There'll be a range of things that we will want to do and not simply go back, in every aspect, to the way things were before. But on vascular services, for example, I certainly don't anticipate there being a major change, but that would be a matter for the board, with the paper that they consider and the review that they've already instituted and have put in place.
Research published this week from the Office for National Statistics shows that people living in poverty are more susceptible to catching COVID-19, no doubt for a variety of reasons relating to poor housing and the likelihood of them being in jobs where social distancing is not possible. People living in poverty are also more likely to have medical conditions that make the virus more severe. Now, I represent an area where poverty is particularly rife, so these numbers were really sobering.
Minister, none of the factors that have led to this poverty were inevitable; they're the product of political choices of Governments that have condemned some sections of society to an increased risk. If poverty were treated with the seriousness of a national security threat, it would not have been allowed to proliferate. But it does undermine our biosecurity, so I'd ask you, Minister, what assessment you make of this link between poverty and the deaths from the virus, and what steps the Government will take to counter this scourge of poverty that's risen over the past 20 years? What measures will you take to reduce the R rate in poorer areas?
Thank you. Well, it's no surprise to me that people who are the least well-off in our country run the greatest risks in terms of their health. There is a direct relationship between poor health and poor economic outcomes as well that don't match the talent that exists in those communities, and I see that within my own constituency that I'm proud and privileged to represent. It's a picture that many of us in the Assembly will recognise.
The challenge of where you have poorer ill-health outcomes to start off with and then having widespread communal spread of COVID-19 and then you have the overlay of how closely people live together, people's inability, potentially, to travel to work in their own car—. I represent one of the parts of the country that has one of the lowest levels of car ownerships; there are different challenges that people face in how they live their lives. But it also reiterates the importance of the test, trace and protect scheme that we're going to be introducing across the country. It's about protecting people from that harm that would otherwise take place. It's the importance of the social distancing rules. The further people adhere to that guidance and those rules, the more likely we are to prevent harm taking place in any family or any community.
And I can honestly and absolutely say that, for this Government, the achievement of social justice drove us and Government-supporting backbenchers into politics in the first place. It's the reason I gave up my other job to stand for election; it's the reason I joined my political party; and it's right at the centre the reason for being of this Welsh Labour-led Government. I'm proud that it is.
We'll have a great deal more to do at the end of the coronavirus pandemic, though, because we will see harm that will have been unequally distributed across our country, and that's why the path to recovery has to take account of that and think about how we rebuild and remodel, not just our economy, but the values that drive our choices. For example, the value we place on social care workers, who we'll all applaud on a Thursday evening, but then to consider how much we are prepared to pay them, what we expect them to do in caring for some of our vulnerable citizens and what sort of society we want to build around that to make those choices possible.
Minister, earlier this week, BBC One Wales aired the programme Critical: Coronavirus in Intensive Care. It was filmed by staff themselves in the Royal Gwent Hospital in my constituency showing them working together in extreme circumstances with dedication, kindness and humour, expertly caring for patients with compassion. The struggles and challenges were there for all to see: working long shifts in full PPE, not being able to see facial expressions of those you're working with and seeing so many people not able to pull through. It's difficult to watch, but the camaraderie and spirit shown by the incredible NHS staff is nothing short of amazing and we owe them our deepest gratitude. The staff are under no illusions in these difficult times that it will end anytime soon.
While in the Royal Gwent Hospital and Aneurin Bevan University Health Board more generally, the numbers on ICU are back within their normal capacity, the concern over any further waves is most certainly there. What support and guidance can the Welsh Government give for those who've been at the front line of this pandemic for over three months to ensure that they have time to recover and are prepared for whatever comes next? And what assessments have you made of the needs of the workforce over the coming weeks and months ahead? And how can workforce planning reflect this?
Thank you. I think it's—[Inaudible.] I've obviously visited the Royal Gwent with Jayne Bryant in her constituency on a number of occasions, and there are people who I know and have met on several occasions who work there, and I'm not surprised at all to see compassion, care and camaraderie reflected in the programme that went out.
In terms of what we're doing, we're working with the Welsh Partnership Forum that brings together the employers and indeed the staff side within the health service to look at what happens in the future. It's a regular feature, one I'm really proud of. We invest lots of time, energy and effort in those workplace relationships here in Wales, and in particular in our health service.
I've actually agreed to further fund the health for health professionals service. We've trialled that and we've rolled that out more consistently so there's more practical support for staff who I know are finding some of the challenges that they have gone through on behalf of all of us difficult. And we shouldn’t try to pretend that these people are able to simply carry on and on and on working the length of time they work for with all of the challenges and the real difficulties that they see as well. So, the scaling up of critical care capacity doesn’t come cost-free—there is a cost for our staff that they have paid as well.
And for me, in so many ways, it reiterates the importance of our 'stay at home, stay safe, stay local' message, because the best thing that we can do to support those staff is to follow the rules. These aren’t silly rules that have been thought up capriciously by a Government that is doing something because it can do; these are serious rules to help protect the public and to keep more of us alive. And it's why we're in this position now, with a peak that we reached earlier than initially expected, and fewer people having suffered real and unavoidable and permanent harm, including mortality, because of the rules that the public have followed.
And that will be really important as we phase out of lockdown—that people continue to remember that, because those staff need a break. And when we get into more stages of reaching past lockdown, people should not behave as if the world can be normal again and ignore social distancing rules when they’re in place. Because that will see more people going into those intensive care units and more pressure on our staff. And I hope that people consider that, not just on a Thursday when we're out applauding and cheering the NHS and key workers, but when we go about our day-to-day business as well.
What additional support can you offer scientists at Bangor University who are carrying out research into levels of the virus in the sewerage network? Although it isn't infectious at that point, this approach can be used to measure how much COVID-19 exists within a city or a town environment. And do you agree that this approach and this research in measuring COVID levels could be very useful in monitoring the spread of the virus at a local level, thereby assisting in creating a local response as circumstances change?
Yes, which is why I highlighted it in my press conference yesterday. I made specific mention of the research that scientists at Bangor University are leading on. And whilst we don't necessarily like to think about what happens with our sewerage every day of the week, it is a really interesting and useful way to find out—and potentially at a much earlier stage, as you mention—what is happening within each local community, within each local system, both to give an early warning of where coronavirus is on the rise, but also to give us a better idea, crucially as well, of if there's been a sustained fall-off as well. So, you wouldn’t normally get excited about testing sewerage, but this is a really crucial area of research for us, and if we're able to understand it at scale, then it can be really useful, not just in Wales, but across the UK, and I'm very proud of the work that Bangor scientists are doing with Welsh Water and the United Utilities.
Minister, a couple of points. In your document, 'Test Trace Protect', it highlights the 10,000 that have already been mentioned and possibly up to 20,000, but there's anticipation in that document that some of the gap will be filled by UK Government-type testing. It's been previously mentioned that the testing in England is two swabs and testing in Wales is one swab, and therefore, they're not necessarily compatible in how they get the data into the Welsh NHS system. Are you now confident that that difference has been resolved and that, if you are using the UK test base, the data will be able to come into Wales and work with the Welsh NHS? That's one issue.
On care homes, can you please ensure that the advice from Public Health Wales is consistent with the guidance from Welsh Government? I have seen evidence from Public Health Wales telling a care home that, even though they've had COVID-19 in their home, that's an old situation and not current, and therefore, they would not be tested. Now, after some arguments, effectively, we managed to get that home tested and the staff tested, but they have a sister home in the same town that is not being tested and there are staff that'll transfer between the two. Again, the guidance from Welsh Government says that that's possible. Can you please ensure that Public Health Wales follows Welsh Government guidance and gives that information out to the care homes? Because it is confusing for the care homes when we're telling them your guidance and Public Health Wales is not, and it's important, therefore, that staff get tested.
Thank you. On both points, if I deal with—I think there are three points, if I may. Because on the data transfer, as I said earlier, that first point, that's been a key factor in being able to unlock that UK testing capacity and that system to come into Wales, because previously, it would have been of much more limited value, but now I think we can make proper use of it.
The difference between the two-swab and the one-swab test is the capacity that we've created here in Wales using the one-swab test we'll still make use of, but we'll also now be able to make use of the UK testing capacity. We just need to make sure that it goes to the right lab. So, for example, the home delivery service will be taking advantage of and taking part in the UK-wide arrangements. That means that those people will only get a two-swab test to self-administer, to return, and then that will be tested in the appropriate lab to make sure that we get the right result. So, I'm positive about the fact that we're not going to see a significant problem in the way that that's administered, but it's a fair point, and like I said, for me, the bigger issue is the data transfer.
On your point about care homes, I spoke today with NHS chairs and chief executives and I went through each of the health board areas the position they're in with care home testing specifically, and I've asked each health board to make sure that, within their local area, together with local government and the care home sector, that they provide a singular message within that local system about what testing is available and how to get hold of it and who to contact so that there's clarity within each part of the country. Because it's not a matter that gives me any great pleasure to understand that there are anecdotal differences in different parts of the country.
I know that Members are raising them because they're concerns that are being raised with them, but I'm more positive, as we sit down now, that real progress has been made over the last week and that the wrinkles that I recognise do still exist in other parts of the country are going to be resolved. And I could not have been clearer about my expectations, but the clarity in that message, should, I think, give reassurance to yourself and other Members across parties who want to hear that consistent message, and then, of course, the consistent implementation of it as well.
Minister, I was very pleased to see the strong focus on mental health in your statement. You'll be aware that organisations like Hafal, Mind, and, indeed, the Government's own suicide prevention adviser, Professor Ann John, have raised concerns about the impact of the pandemic on mental health.
I'm pleased to see that there is to be a COVID mental health monitoring tool. Can I ask you for some more detail on that? How, for example, will action be taken if there are any deficits or particular problems identified? What assurances can you give that support for those who are self-harming, at risk of suicide or in mental health crisis will be prioritised? And as we come out of this pandemic, I am confident that the mental health implications are going to be significant, and on that basis, mental health really must have priority with physical health, as we plan to come through this pandemic. What assurances can you give that mental health will be just as much a central consideration as we look to make those exit plans?
Okay, perhaps on the specifics, I think it might be helpful—. Because I think you'll want more detail than a 30-second answer, so perhaps if the Member writes to me, I'll happily write back to the Member and share that correspondence with other Members as well on the details you have. I know that also means I'm asking for something because I wouldn't be surprised if you managed to add more questions into the letter, but to give something in writing, to give the level of clarity and detail that I know you want to look for, because to be fair, when we went through some of this at the children and young people committee in terms of in particular children and young people's mental health, I know it's a consistent area of interest for you and the whole committee. So, I'd like to be able to give you a more comprehensive answer that can be shared and put into the public domain.
And that must then lead to the continued work that we've done over a period of years in making sure that mental health is a priority. That's not just about the budget settlement, where we put more more money in, but the unfinished business of continuing to both deal with the stigma that still exists within the country about mental health, mental illness, but also then about the work we do in terms of parity of esteem in the way that the health service sees it as well and then recognising how mental health and physical health are sometimes linked as well. So, I'm really determined that, when we come out of this, when we know there'll be more physical harm to deal with, that isn't seen as the priority over and above mental health, but, actually, there's got to be genuine parity and understanding of how we address those very real concerns. As I say, all of us can probably point to areas in our own experience where we have concerns about people that we know, and that is very much the case in the constituents that we represent as well, so I'm more than happy to give that assurance and I look forward to receiving your letter.
Finally, Dawn Bowden.
Can I just follow on from a question asked earlier by Angela Burns? Because this week I had reason to use an NHS facility myself, on a matter that was non-COVID related, and, following a remote consultation with my GP, I was able to promptly get an x-ray, a service that in my area has been transferred now from Prince Charles Hospital to Ysbyty Cwm Cynon for non-COVID related matters, and perhaps I should just take this opportunity to say a big thank you to all the staff there, who welcomed me, and they treated me with the dignity and respect that I think has become the trademark of our NHS workforce. However, I have to say that what surprised me was how empty the hospital was. And I'm sure there were people on the wards, but I expected to see a range of people in waiting areas who needed x-rays and other standard procedures, but that wasn't the case. And I know that you've stressed the need to resume a range of routine services, and you dealt with the issues around cancer in your answers to Angela Burns, but can I ask what practical progress is being made to get patients routinely back into the Welsh NHS so that we don't see this backlog of illness and disease? Because, despite the messages that the NHS is open, if my experience at YCC is anything to go by this week, it certainly doesn't seem to be getting through.
Minister. Minister's microphone. Yes.
In a reversal of fortune. Excellent. [Laughter.] I share the concerns you have, because, when I look at the figures, and when I can see the fall-off in activity for areas that are still open for business, we're still not at normal activity, even in our front-door services like A&E. We're still seeing people opting not to come in, and that concern that is leading to those choices being made is something that—in response to both Lynne Neagle's questions about recognising the mental health harm that can be caused by lockdown, there is of course physical harm potentially where people are not coming in for those urgent care needs. I don't believe the number of people who would have had strokes in the last two months has fallen off, but, actually, our activity over the last two months isn't what we would normally expect at this time of year; the same with other harms as well.
So, I'm really keen—which is why I want to come back with a further statement that we'll set up when I've had those operational plans for the quarter from health boards—to be able set out what 'more normal' could and should look like, to help rebuild the confidence of the public to make use of those services, because I think, without a regular restating of that, that we're not going to see a return to confidence on the sort of treatment that all of us would want for our constituents and, indeed, ourselves.
And if I may, just at the end, Llywydd, I hope that the Member didn't just have a good experience, but I hope the Member is now fit and well again following her recent appearance as a not-so-secret shopper in the national health service.
Thank you, Minister, and thank you, Members. We'll be taking a short, 10-minute break now, and we will pause the broadcast, therefore.
Plenary was suspended at 16:04.
The Senedd reconvened at 16:16, with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.
Okay. We resume, then, with item 5 on our agenda this afternoon, which is a statement by the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd—the fiscal implications for Wales of the impact of and the response to COVID-19. And I call on the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans.
Thank you. It was on 3 March that the 2020-21 final budget was passed by the Senedd, and so much has happened in the 10 weeks since then. We had already faced an unprecedented set of circumstances in setting our 2020-21 budget plans against the backdrop of ongoing UK-driven austerity, continued Brexit uncertainty and the devastating impacts of the recent flooding. The delayed UK Government budget of 11 March also meant further changes to our settlement. Members will recall that, as a result, I made a commitment to make a statement to provide an update on the forecasts and any other changes to funding for Wales. I am providing that detail today, but obviously we now find ourselves in a dramatically different situation.
We are now responding to the evolving and devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, which is requiring unprecedented levels of Government spending at a pace and scale without rival in the post-war era. I will, therefore, focus today on the extraordinary efforts that the Welsh Government is making to use our budget in the best possible way to respond to the coronavirus crisis, and to show how the decisions we have made reflect our values as a Government.
The outlook for public finances is stark. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK's fiscal deficit could be £273 billion this year. That is five times higher than expected just two months ago at the time of the UK budget, and significantly higher than at the peak of borrowing during the financial crisis a decade or so ago. This increase will be partly due to higher public expenditure to deal with the current crisis, but also to much lower tax receipts, arising from the reduction in economic activity. Devolved tax revenues will be affected by the lockdown in the same way as other taxes; we can expect a substantial hit. However, the fiscal framework protects our budget from UK-wide economic shocks. As a result, the net impact of reduced economic activity and tax receipts on our budget this year should be small, but we will, of course, be monitoring this situation carefully.
In terms of the wider economic context, both the OBR and the Bank of England have acknowledged that it is virtually certain that the epidemic, and the necessary measures put in place to contain it, will result in an immediate reduction of economic activity to a degree that's unprecedented in living memory.
Unemployment in Wales will certainly rise sharply, despite the measures that have been put in place by both the UK and Welsh Governments. The most disadvantaged—those on low pay, in insecure employment, and people with poor health—will be most at risk. Young people entering the labour market will face a particularly tough time, and the evidence from previous recessions shows that this could result in lasting negative impacts on their incomes, health, well-being and even life expectancy.
To fund the action we've taken, we have received an increase in our budget in the form of consequentials from spending by the UK Government on measures in England. To date, we're expecting over £2.1 billion, which is well over 10 per cent of our planned budget.
In order to protect the NHS and save lives, we have needed to take difficult decisions to fund activities that prepare us for the worst in the hope that they're not fully required. We have also taken decisive action to free up, through reprioritising and repurposing, more than £0.5 billion from our own budget and European funding to support the Welsh economy and ensure our public services are equipped to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
From this coronavirus response reserve, we have already provided over £300 million to the NHS to support priorities including the supply of PPE, field hospital provision, investment in testing and tracing, and NHS recruitment.
We're also taking decisive action to protect the most disadvantaged people in society. We've provided an extra £11 million of immediate support for those facing hardship as a result of the pandemic, £15 million to establish weekly food parcels for those who are shielded, and £24 million for a third sector COVID-19 response fund, targeted at the pressures that charities and the third sector are facing. We have also announced additional support of up to £6.3 million for hospices in Wales.
Alongside these actions, we're also giving an extra £500 to everyone working on the front line in social care, recognising that the market rate for the job in no way reflects the huge importance of the work that they do.
We have acted to protect the vital public services provided by our local authorities through a £110 million local authority hardship fund, and this includes £40 million to get food to families entitled to free school meals while schools are closed, £40 million to support the extra costs adult social care services are now facing, in addition to the £500 payment I have just referred to, and £10 million to help councils take immediate action to protect the homeless and those who are sleeping rough.
We've also deployed an unprecedented package of measures to support the economy and protect jobs. We're investing £1.7 billion in addition to vital measures launched by the UK Government, such as the job retention scheme. Our support includes more than £1 billion that local government is distributing on our behalf in business rate relief and associated grants to businesses in the hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors.
We've also established a £500 million economic resilience fund to offer vital support for businesses, charities and social enterprises, over and above that which is available in England. Of this £500 million, the £100 million Development Bank of Wales loan fund has already approved over 1,300 loans, totalling over £100 million, safeguarding 15,000 jobs.
The remaining £400 million grant fund is offering support particularly to those small and medium-sized firms that are crucial to the Welsh economy, alongside our charities and social enterprises. The application process for this fund saw an incredible 9,500 claims submitted in little more than a week. As of today, £70 million of support from this fund has already been offered to more than 5,000 businesses, charities and social enterprises and is starting to land in bank accounts across Wales. As a result of the actions we've taken, Welsh businesses, charities and social enterprises can access the most generous business support offer in the whole of the UK.
The Minister for economy and transport and I urged the UK Government to extend the job retention scheme, and I welcome the announcement made by the Chancellor yesterday. Only the UK Government has the fiscal capacity to operate the major schemes that we need to protect people and businesses from the worst excesses of the crisis.
As is the case with other devolved nations, this means that the major funding we deploy as a Welsh Government would be severely undermined if the job retention scheme was weakened or terminated at the wrong time. The UK Treasury did not consult devolved nations on the latest decision, but the Chancellor can improve on this and work now to engage with us before major decisions are taken in the coming weeks.
I will be publishing a supplementary budget on 27 May, providing greater clarity on the changes to our budget since March, which will focus on providing more detail on the actions we have taken to respond to the coronavirus.
As our focus shifts from the immediate impacts of this crisis towards recovery, there are many remaining uncertainties ahead. We may need to find more funding to deal with the immediate crisis and fund restart and recovery efforts, and we also face the risk of further changes to our budget by the UK Government later in the year.
I will also continue to press the UK Government to provide greater fiscal flexibility to help us manage in these unprecedented times. In particular, I am seeking greater access to the Wales reserve this year, relaxation of our borrowing limits, and greater scope to switch between revenue and capital budgets. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has also recently argued for such changes to be made to help Wales respond to the crisis.
In conclusion, every day we are facing tough choices about using our stretched and limited resources. While these circumstances will continue to require further difficult decisions, we will continue to make the right choices, based on the best evidence, and on our values. Thank you very much.
Thank you. Nick Ramsay.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you, Minister, for your statement this afternoon. These are, clearly, dark days for the economy as the lockdown inevitably sees the reduction in economic growth and GDP that you've outlined. So, the role of the Welsh Government in supporting business and preparing for the future at this time is, indeed, vital.
With this in mind, you'll be aware that there's been great concern, over the last couple of days, at the announcement by Debenhams that it'll be forced to close all five of its stores in Wales, including flagships in Newport and Cardiff, if the Welsh Government doesn't reverse its decision to cap business rate relief. I think this is a clear warning sign. If these stores don't reopen after the pandemic, there will be significant knock-on effects for the economy. Many of my constituents rely on the Newport store—there are jobs provided there, customers are going there. Now, I understand that you are meeting with Debenhams, or you might already have had discussions with them and with their bosses. I wonder if you can update us on any discussions, and will you listen to them and review your decision to exclude shops with a rateable value over £500,000 from being able to access support? I know that you've said in the past that that policy allows you to support other businesses, but I think it's very important that larger businesses are also supported.
Can I secondly ask you—you've mentioned the supplementary budget you're planning on bringing forward—how are you reprioritising Welsh Government spending at this time? Can you say a little bit more about your supplementary budget? My party have called for a full emergency budget where you will give greater transparency, a greater opportunity for scrutiny of Welsh Government's spending decisions at this time.
Can I finally ask you about the implications for tax policy? You've previously said that you don't anticipate there being changes to tax rates before the next Senedd elections. Is that still the Government policy, particularly if there are changes at UK tax level later in this year? I think it's very important that the public and our constituents do have clarity on budget decisions at this time.
I'm grateful for that set of questions, and Nick Ramsay is right that I did have the opportunity to meet with the chairman of Debenhams yesterday. But, just to provide the background to the thinking on the Welsh Government's decision to limit rate relief to those businesses with a rateable value of under £0.5 million, we did so because we're very keen to ensure that that funding, which freed up £100 million of funding, could be redeployed to support small and medium-sized enterprises across Wales, which are the backbone of our economy. So, we're able to support, for example, 2,000 businesses with grants of up to £50,000 as a result of that decision. But, as I said to the chairman of Debenhams yesterday, Welsh Government really wants Debenhams to succeed. It is really important in terms of supporting some of our high streets in particular, as one of those anchor stores. So, I have said I will reflect on the discussions we had yesterday. I don't think it would be fair on Debenhams if I were to go into too much of the detail of those discussions, but I've certainly undertaken to write them in the next couple of days, following those discussions.
I will also say on the matter of the supplementary budget, it's my intention, as I say, to publish that at the end of this month, but I'll certainly be providing a greater level of detail. As Nick Ramsay knows, supplementary budgets are normally quite technical exercises, just detailing funding as it moves between or within main expenditure groups and the funding that comes from UK Government and so on, but the level of change on this occasion has been extraordinary. So, I set out at the start that we've had an allocation so far, or expect an allocation of over £2 billion, which is around 10 per cent of our budget. So, I will be providing a greater level of detail with the supplementary budget than we would normally do, describing in some more detail the allocations that we've made, but also those areas where we've had to free up that funding where activity will no longer take place, because I think it's important to give that kind of clarity as well.
We did that work by discussing with colleagues across Government on a MEG-by-MEG basis, looking through every line of their budget to explore what could be freed up this first time round. But I'll say to you what I've said to colleagues, and that is that it's probably not the first time that we're going to have to do that exercise. I think we'll have to repeat it again to explore what further funding could be freed up for the COVID response and for recovery.
And on the matter of Welsh rates of income tax, it is still our intention not to raise Welsh rates of income tax over the course of this Assembly, and, of course, we voted on our Welsh rates of income tax for this financial year just a few weeks ago, and it's not the intention to change that. I think people are having a tough enough time as it is at the moment, so I don't think that we would be looking to ask them to contribute more at what is a really, really difficult time.
Thank you, Minister, and, as you say, I am used to the technicality of the supplementary budgets, but this one will be more important than ever, for obvious reasons, so we look forward to that.
In terms of the business rates answer that you've just given as well, as I say, I appreciate there are certain reasons for the policy, but I think there are really strong arguments for giving that support to larger companies like Debenhams to make sure that those big anchor stores are still there at the end of this to provide the knock-on effects for the rest of the economy—the positive knock-on effects that we're used to receiving from them.
In terms of borrowing and taxation, you did touch on borrowing in your statement, and I think you said that the anticipated current budget deficit, UK wide, is looking at around £263 billion. That's around £100 billion more, I think, than the budget deficit was at the peak of the financial crisis back over 10 years ago. So, given that that involves a significant amount of borrowing already, how realistic is it to put the eggs in the basket of looking for huge flexibility in Welsh Government borrowing powers, given that money is clearly going to be tight over the next year?
Secondly, in terms of taxation, I've discussed income taxation. Of course, the other major taxes under the remit of the Welsh Government—landfill disposals tax, stamp duty—in terms of landfill disposals tax, I imagine that revenues there have fallen off significantly. It doesn't include fly-tipping, which has been going on at quite a rate in some areas, as we know. In terms of stamp duty, there's been a total slowdown in the housing market. I know that, in the UK, there are attempts to try and kick-start the housing market, so I think it would be good if we could look at ways to support that and estate agents here. Would it be a good idea for us to have a dedicated statement, maybe, on the devolved taxes in Wales and the amount of revenue that we're expected to lose, so that we can plan for the future?
Very finally, on the future generations report—a very hefty document that I've just been leafing through it here—there's a lot of stuff in there that I'm sure you're going to be taking account of as we come out of the pandemic. Procurement is mentioned in there and the possibility of allowing greater stability, maybe five-term contracts for bodies when the Welsh Government looks to procure in future. Are you looking at all of these aspects to make sure that businesses in the future will have as much stability as they possibly can to put money back into the economy and to get things moving?
Thank you for those questions. The first related to borrowing, and of course Welsh Government has very, very limited borrowing powers in any case, so the kind of flexibilities that we're asking UK Government to think about would be to just increase our borrowing on that annual basis—so, potentially not even looking to an aggregate increase in our borrowing, which stands at £1 billion, but just to give us some more flexibility to respond in a more urgent and agile way through borrowing should we need to. Also, we're looking for some greater flexibility to use the Wales reserve this year, so, accessing everything that is in the reserve should we need to. I think that that seems like a reasonable request in the circumstances. And we're also seeking some agreement with the UK Government to switch capital to revenue, because of course that doesn't change the overall size of the Welsh Government's budget. So, that is something that I hope the UK Government will look on favourably in the discussions that we'll be having. I know that colleagues across the other devolved administrations are also having those discussions and giving that thought as to what kind of flexibilities they would wish to see.
In terms of the fully devolved taxes, land transaction tax and landfill disposals tax will be inevitably, I think, affected by the COVID crisis. The extent to which it affects our budget, however, depends on the block grant adjustment, so it depends on whether things move in Wales and across the UK in a similar kind of way, and that will show up whether there is a gap or not. On Welsh rates of income tax, of course, revenues from the Welsh rates of income tax and block grant adjustment will be affected by the current crisis. We expect it to be small at the moment, but I think we need to keep an eye on what's happening with the economy; if we are worse affected than other areas, for example, that could become significant. But, of course, we'll only have the outturn information in the summer of 2022, so this will certainly be an issue of ongoing concern for myself and potentially for future finance Ministers as well.
On the last point, about the future generations commissioner's report—it certainly is a thorough and comprehensive document—and that issue of longer term contracts and longer term budgets, I'm always very sympathetic to it, but, as you know, we only have a one-year budget at the moment, and we were expecting that comprehensive spending review later this year. Now, to what extent we can guarantee or count on that, it will remain to be seen, I think.
As this is the first opportunity I've had to question the Minister during this crisis, I want to pursue a few fundamental issues. I will ask first of all for a little more information about the issue you just mentioned in terms of persuading the Treasury to look differently at how the Welsh Government can use its borrowing powers. I appreciate the clarity in terms of what you're seeking as a Government, but may I ask you whether there's been any indication from the Treasury as to how willing they might be to respond positively to this request made by the Welsh Government so that we can try and assess where we stand at the moment?
There are other elements in terms of flexibility that are required, too. I agree with the Minister when she said that flexibility is required at the moment. The Barnett formula is one such element. This is a formula that's entirely inappropriate, and it's been criticised over a period of decades now for failing to respond to need. If we look at a number of factors here in Wales, we know that COVID-19 hits the elderly more than young people. Our population in Wales is older than the UK average. It hits the less privileged economically and more of our population is in that category. So, what discussions have taken place in terms of introducing a new system at this time? It's an exceptional time, and therefore we do need exceptional fiscal arrangements. We could have very intense pockets of cases of COVID-19 either in Wales or in parts of England, and we will need flexibility in the system, including the fiscal system, in order to secure cashflow.
I have regular discussions both with my counterparts in the other devolved nations and then also on a quadrilateral basis with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and at our most recent meeting we all talked about the importance of flexibilities, and the Chief Secretary agreed that he would give serious consideration to the proposals that we put forward. So we're having those discussions amongst the three nations. Now, given our different situations and the different settlements that we have, we'll be seeking different kinds of flexibilities, but nonetheless we've undertaken to work together because this is an important issue for the whole of the UK. Those discussions are going on at the moment. I'm hoping that they will lead to some successful outcomes. I don't think that what we're asking is unreasonable by any stretch of the imagination and I think that, actually, some of it will help the UK Government in terms of managing its finances because what we're not asking for is more, we're just asking for more flexibility to access what we already have and what we already plan that we will have as well.
The point about the Barnett formula is well made. We are in complete agreement that it isn't based on need. In the first discussion I had with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury at the start of this crisis, I was very keen to make the points that Rhun ap Iorwerth has just made in terms of our population having a greater need: that point about having a generally older population or a larger proportion of older population within our population in Wales; and that point about the virus having an impact in the communities that are less prosperous. But, also, I think it's important to recognise that there are economic reasons as well why the response should be based on need, one of which is about our economy: we have a larger proportion of small and medium-sized enterprises; we have a larger proportion of manufacturing industries, which, again, are all hard hit; and, of course, the tourism industry is a larger proportion of our economy here in Wales as well. So, all of these factors point to the need to recognise need and recognise the fact that Barnett isn't sufficient in this case.
These are arguments that we continue to make. There's been no movement on the fundamental of using Barnett as a starting point for this, but I feel more hopeful about having some movement on the flexibilities issue.
That is good news, I think. I should have mentioned the figures from the Wales Governance Centre. I think they estimated a month ago that the additional funding provided to Wales through Barnett was some £500 million less than the cost of coronavirus to Wales, so that gives us some sort of context. In addition to that, there are other areas where we could look for flexibility from the Treasury. Can I ask what discussions the Minister’s had with the UK Treasury on providing clarity on the shared prosperity fund, for example, which will be crucial as we move forward, and also to ensure the flow of funds for the city deals more swiftly? The north Wales growth deal is an area where swift action from the Welsh and UK Governments would be very beneficial indeed now. But, of course, within the direct expenditure plans of the Welsh Government, funding needs to flow quickly through the system as well. Can I ask what plans are in place to hasten the usual fiscal processes to ensure that local government, for example, receives funds in a timely manner so that they can cope with the huge pressures upon them at this time?
The shared prosperity fund and the city deal—both city deals—will be crucial in terms of the recovery as we move out of the immediate impacts of the crisis, and those discussions of course are ongoing. The Federation of Small Businesses today published an important document about how we can support small businesses, and they recognise actually the huge potential of the shared prosperity fund as well. We're having those discussions with the UK Government, or at least trying to. We don't seem to have any clarity on information, but we're certainly making the cases that we've discussed many times before, and also continuing those discussions and continuing to listen to stakeholders, who see the shared prosperity fund as being an important lever for the future as well.
In terms of local government, we're really aware that cash flow is a particular issue for them, so the Minister for Housing and Local Government has been providing advanced payments and early payments to local authorities to help them with some of that cash flow that they're facing. We also have put in place the £110 million hardship fund for local authorities, and they will draw down that funding as they spend it, but it does give those local authorities the confidence to spend in those areas of free school meal provision, for example, additional funding for social care and the other areas where we've agreed funding, so that they can have the confidence and the freedom to make the decisions that they need to without having to undertake onerous paperwork before accessing that funding.
I want to make three very quick points on the Barnett formula and Barnett consequentials. Of course, the Barnett consequential is the minimum amount that we have to have; there's no reason why we cannot be given more than the Barnett formula, and we know that Northern Ireland quite regularly gets more than the Barnett formula. On the consequentials of English-only expenditure in devolved areas, where the money has not come from within the devolved areas, has the Minister actually had her officials do the calculations to make sure we're getting the right amount? And if I go on to one specific position, England has written off health board expenditure that is over 10 per cent of their total expenditure for the year. Can the Minister explain how that was achieved without triggering a Barnett consequential increase for Wales?
So, those questions, I completely agree with Mike that Barnett consequentials is the minimum and there's no reason why we shouldn't have additional funding, and that fact was, I think, well recognised by the fact that the UK Government has said that it will provide additional funding to help us deal with the February floods, for example. So, that recognises that there will be special circumstances in parts of the United Kingdom that do require funding over and above the Barnett consequentials. And, again, that precedent is there that funding should be based on need; so, the funding for flooding was certainly in response to need. So, I think that we can continue to press those arguments.
And clearly, before the coronavirus outbreak, we were starting to make a bit of progress in terms of the fiscal framework and to explore how it can better work, and the statement of funding policy can better work for Wales alongside the other devolved nations. And I hope that work will pick up again as soon as we're able to and as soon as appropriate to take that forward.
I also got excited when I heard about the write-off of the funding in the UK Government, but officials very quickly made some enquiries and that funding was actually accounted for within the budgets of the health department in previous years. So, unfortunately, there was no additional funding for us on that occasion.
Thank you for your statement, Minister, and it's good to see you and good to—. We're seeing you again on 27 May for the supplementary budget. Could I ask in the meantime—? You emphasised, certainly with the £500 million for the economic resilience fund, spending in Wales is over and above what the UK Government is doing for England. We know that about £100 million of that you're able to fund because of exempting the largest retailers from the business rates comeback. Can you give me any idea of what the other £400 million is in terms of what the UK Government is doing in England to deal with this crisis that you're not doing in Wales, for whatever reason we've taken those choices?
Can I also ask you about the furlough scheme? I saw figures earlier saying that 74 per cent of businesses in Wales had taken it up compared to 67 per cent in England, and you mentioned some of the sectoral differences as well. I'm concerned that come now perhaps mid July, given that the UK Chancellor's looking for funds to contribute towards that furlough, perhaps 20 per cent of the cost of the wages from the beginning of August, and there's this need for a consultation if firms are going to make redundancies, do you share my concern that there may be significant job losses and that they may be greater in Wales from mid July onwards, as that's anticipated? And is it inevitable that that happens at some point? I mean, the cost of this scheme is greater than funding the NHS, and even the UK Government will struggle to fund that for very long. I don't know what the Minister's expectation is for how that huge £270 billion-odd deficit is dealt with. Presumably, she doesn't want to see renewed austerity. Does she anticipate substantial tax rises across the UK, or does she think it's more likely that that debt and borrowing will be inflated away as money is printed? That choice will make quite a difference to our finances in Wales.
And, finally, can I ask around land transaction tax in particular? She says that we're protected from UK-wide shocks like this, but surely, if we're choosing in Wales to keep the property market shut down, while it reopens in England today, and there are fiscal consequences of that, is she saying that the UK Government should compensate Wales for that decision, or is she expecting to have to find extra money in her budget to make up for the land transaction tax that we won't be receiving for at least a period?
Thank you for those questions. It's always nice to see you as well, Mark Reckless. The £500 million spend that we put in place for the economic resilience fund was brought together as a package of funding from different parts of Government. So, it included financial transactions capital, for example—£100 million of that. It also included funding that we were able to free up from elsewhere in Government, so I'm not aware that there is a great deal that the UK Government is doing to support businesses that Welsh Government isn't. However, I'd be keen to explore that.
One thing that we've been trying to do is use our additional funding to close the gaps in support. So, there are some significant gaps in support for business by the UK Government, which the economic resilience fund seeks to do. I'm really aware that there continues to be gaps, which is why the fund has been paused, so that we can consider how we can potentially look to fill some of those existing gaps, whilst also considering how we can focus some of that additional funding on the recovery as well.
In terms of furloughing, Welsh Government wrote earlier this week, actually, to the Chancellor on the issue of furloughing, and we really welcome the fact that the scheme has been extended. Some of our concern really though is that the scheme shouldn't have any reduction of support for businesses that can't legally open. So, there could be a time when businesses in certain sectors still can't open. So, those businesses, I think, should continue to be protected. And the scheme should continue to offer the same kind of level of intensity of support to tourism businesses, I think, in particular, because we have a larger proportion of them here in Wales. Obviously they have been hard hit and they are telling us that they're facing what's effectively three winters, one after the other, in terms of the kind of profits that they will be able to make.
We're also keen that the job retention scheme in future has some more flexibility built into it. So, the Wales TUC has asked for businesses to be able potentially to claim as workers come back on a part-time basis, and so on. So, all of those things, I think, are important considerations. The UK Government has agreed that it will be discussing with the devolved nations the next steps for the scheme, and I understand that a meeting with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is being arranged for next week, so I look forward to continuing those discussions then.
In terms of how it will all be paid for, I think that is really going to be quite a difficult challenge for the Chancellor, moving ahead with various different options, of course, in terms of whether it means long and sustained austerity. We saw the leaked report earlier on today. So, I think the most important thing—really that has to guide us—is that it can't be the people who are on lowest pay and the poorest people who continue to bear the brunt of this. It seems incongruous that you would be looking to freeze public sector pay at a time when we're all celebrating how important our public sectors workers are to us, and these are the people who are keeping us going at this time. I wish I had a crystal ball, but I think that there are going to be very, very difficult challenges ahead, and difficult times for the economy, as we've seen in lots of the commentary and the projections that have been published.
On land transaction tax, I don't think that we will see a great divergence. I've asked officials recently, actually, to look at how we can safely reopen the housing market here in Wales, but clearly we won't undertake those steps until we are confident that it is safe for us to do so here. But, this is one of the features of the fiscal framework that we have. Potentially, we could see a negative adjustment were we to have a larger impact on that here in Wales, but we'll keep that under close review.
Although the top-up business grant announced by the UK Government for England includes grants to bed and breakfast businesses that pay domestic rates rather than business rates, the Welsh Government omitted this when it extended its COVID-19 grant scheme. How do you therefore respond to the bed and breakfast owners in north Wales who have asked me to tell you that if they don't receive the grant, their businesses will cease trading this month?
And the Welsh Government is receiving £35 million of the £750 million charity support announced by the UK Government, including £1.7 million from the extra £76 million announced to support survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and modern slavery, and ensure that vulnerable children and young people receive the help they need, and is receiving £12 million in consequence of the £200 million for hospices in England—a lot more than the £6.3 million it's announced for hospices in Wales. So how much of this will the voluntary sector providers in Wales delivering these specialist services, taking pressure of statutory health and care services, receive?
I'll start with the issue of hospices in Wales, which you've described. You're correct that the amount that we have allocated to hospices in Wales is less than the amount that we received as a Barnett consequential, but that is simply a reflection of the fact that we have fewer hospices here in Wales. So, we have worked closely, actually, with the hospices to find a way in which we can fairly meet the income that they're unable to generate at the moment through their various activities, and so on. But, as I say, we've worked with that sector, and I think that we've provided a settlement that does enable them to continue to do the vital work that they're doing at this moment. I haven't heard that the funding has not been sufficient for that, but certainly if Mark Isherwood has evidence or representations to make on that I'd be happy, of course, to listen to them.
The funding that we announced very early on was over and above the funding that then came from the UK Government for the third sector. But I do have to be clear here that we're not just a halfway house for UK Government funding, where we just administer it to the same projects; we will take decisions based on the needs of our society and of our economy. So, it won't always be the case that exactly the same amount of money goes to exactly the same project or group of stakeholders, because of the nature of devolution and our ability to be more responsive to the particular needs that we have here.
On the issue of B&Bs, I'm very aware that they're not currently able to access support, and I did say that the economic resilience fund has currently been paused in order for us to continue to consider where the gaps remain in terms of the support that people are able to access at the moment, and also to consider the balance that we've put on continuing to respond to the immediate crisis, but then also turning our focus onto the recovery and the reopening of the economy. So that work is continuing in terms of the next phase of the economic resilience fund, and I know that my colleague, Ken Skates, looks forward to making an announcement as soon as he is able to.
Minister, a leaked internal Treasury report contains reference to freezing public sector pay for two years as one measure that's being considered as a response to coronavirus expenditure. That would be a betrayal of the sacrifices made by dedicated public servants during the crisis—a point that was made by the chair of the Police Federation today. And if there's one lesson that we should learn from the pandemic, it's that austerity left us under-prepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. Minister, we don't yet know what the UK Government's plans are for certain, so this is only speculation at this point. But I'd like to ask you, do you agree that further austerity should be ruled out as a response to the pandemic, and, if so, what economic and fiscal levers does the Welsh Government think should be devolved so that we in Wales have the option of taking a different financial route from England?
Unfortunately, I missed the start of your question, Delyth—in fact I only picked up from 'considered'. I think there was an issue with the sound. But if you're asking if I think further austerity should be avoided and is a bad thing, then absolutely, I would agree with you on that count.
In terms of what should be further devolved, of course, Welsh Government has had that programme of work that asked the people of Wales what they would like to see in terms of additional tax-raising powers for Wales, as we set out the taxes that we would seek to explore in the first instance. I think perhaps, as we move through the crisis, it probably will give us pause for thought in terms of the future of those taxes and those areas where we would like to focus our attention. So, at the moment, within Government, we've paused the work on developing those tax ideas and pursuing those tax ideas. The staff involved in that are now working on the coronavirus response. So, I think, I don't have any answer for Delyth on this today, but she raises an important point that this is an area where, I think, fresh thinking will be required as a result of coronavirus and everything that it's taught us.
Thank you for your report, Minister, but there is definitely fresh thinking that is required by the UK Government because what the leaked report showed was that one of their first ways of thinking was to freeze public sector pay for two years, at the same time, raising income tax across the board, I presume, by 1 per cent. So, we've gone back to exactly the same place that led us into this crisis, as you've already said. That austerity left us ill-prepared, but more than that, we've seen public sector workers in the care sector, in nursing, really putting their own lives and those of their families, on the line for everybody else, and we've seen people, quite rightly, outside their homes at 8 o'clock every Thursday night paying tribute by clapping in honour of their sacrifice. So, I hope that you will make serious recommendations to the Chancellor when you next speak to him, that, in Wales, at least, most people would find that absolutely appalling—that they would take that pay away from the people who've given so much to this country.
I can absolutely give Joyce that guarantee—that those will be the nature of the discussions that I do have when I have the opportunity to speak to the Chancellor or the chief secretary very, very shortly.
I can imagine that it must be extremely demoralising for people in the public sector at the moment, who are giving absolutely everything to provide an excellent response to the coronavirus, to hear that that's the first place that the Government would look to go in order to pay for the measures that have necessarily been taken. So, yes, I give Joyce that undertaking that I will be that voice for our public sector workers here in Wales in those discussions.
Thank you, Minister, for you statement. My point is, our charities are playing a crucial role in Wales in this current emergency, backed up by an army of volunteers who support those most in need here in Wales. Fundraisers across Wales face a challenging time and while all the measures such as economic resilience fund and the COVID-19 funds for voluntary services are welcome, many charities are still not getting the support they need in the current crisis. Furloughing service delivery staff is not an option, Minister, as services are still required to run to meet the needs of the beneficiaries. Charities need longer term funding support to safeguard services in the future, so can I ask, Minister, what further support you can provide for this sector during this difficult time to help the work in our communities to take the pressure off our NHS? Thank you.
Charities are playing an absolutely crucial role in our response to the COVID-19 crisis. We'll all be aware of charities operating in our local areas doing incredible work to support people in need at this time. I was really pleased that we were able to provide £24 million from our COVID response fund for the Welsh Government third sector response fund to support them through the crisis. That has several different streams to it, whereby charities can seek to find support from the Welsh Government and, of course, only the week before last, I made an announcement that would allow the charities—charity shops— sports clubs' operating premises and others to be eligible for that £10,000 grant, which I think has been very much welcomed by charities, community centres and sports groups here in Wales. So, I share Mohammad Asghar's admiration for the work that they're doing and recognise their importance as part of our communities' response.
Helen Mary Jones. Helen, yes?
Sorry. May I start again? I'm sorry, Dirprwy Lywydd.
Yes, we can just—. Yes, start again.