Y Cyfarfod Llawn
This is a draft version of the Record that includes the floor language and the simultaneous interpretation.
The Senedd met by video-conference at 10:58 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome, all, to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to make 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 these are noted on the agenda. I'd like to remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, as do the time limits on questions that will be applied to this meeting.
I would also wish to inform the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 26.75, that the Health and Social Care (Quality and Engagement) (Wales) Act 2020 was given Royal Assent on 1 June. This is, therefore, the first Act of Senedd Cymru.
The first item this morning is the business statement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make the business statement—Rebecca Evans.
Diolch, Llywydd. There are two changes to today's agenda. The Minister for Education will make a statement this afternoon on an update to education provision, after which the Minister for Housing and Local Government will make a statement on homelessness. 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.
Thank you, Trefnydd.
The next item, therefore, is a statement by the First Minister on the coronavirus, and I call on the First Minister to make the statement—Mark Drakeford.
Thank you very much, Llywydd. Once again, I will report to the Senedd on the latest steps that we have taken in response to the coronavirus crisis.
Last week, we completed the third three-week period where we are required to review the restrictions that are in place. I will outline the decisions that came into force on Monday, 1 June. As we have done previously, we took account of the latest Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies evidence and the advice of the Chief Medical Officer for Wales and, on the basis of that evidence, we have taken cautious steps in relaxing some restrictions in order to enable people to meet each other in conditions where the risk is low. Although the figures are moving in the right direction, it is not safe yet for us to go further than that.
Llywydd, as in previous weeks, I will cover matters in this statement not dealt with in the statements that follow from the Minister for Health and Social Services, the Minister for Education and the Minister for Housing and Local Government.
In my previous statement on 20 May, I drew attention to the impact of coronavirus on the Welsh Government's budget. The Minister for Finance and Trefnydd has set out the changes in the first supplementary budget published last week. This includes £2.4 billion to support the coronavirus response, including £750 million to fund our NHS and public services. We have funded more than 55,000 grants to businesses in Wales, at a cost of £660 million. These businesses are also benefitting from rates relief through the £1.4 billion package announced in March.
Llywydd, the Welsh Government's response has gone far beyond the sums provided by the UK Government, but we remain constrained by Treasury rules that limit our ability to respond to the crisis. The finance Minister will continue to press the case for greater flexibility to enable us to direct resources where they are needed the most.
And, of course, the Welsh Government will continue to make new allocations in response to the crisis. Our initial funding of £10 million helped more than 800 homeless people into housing since the lockdown began. It was an important moment in devolution, Llywydd, when the Minister for Housing and Local Government was able to identify a further £20 million to help ensure that no-one has to return to the streets here in Wales, and she will have more to say on that, I know, later in proceedings.
Last week, the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales announced funding of £65 million to ensure train services continue to operate on the Wales and borders network. This follows funding of £40 million confirmed in March, taking the total support to a maximum of £105 million. We will continue to ensure that vital public transport links are maintained.
Llywydd, I am pleased that the guidance that we published last week on safety in the workplace was endorsed by both the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress. Last week also saw a meeting of the extended social partnership council, attended by representatives of the third sector and commissioners, as part of our partnership response.
Llywydd, I will turn now to the outcome of the three-week review concluded on Thursday, 28 May. The context is that coronavirus continues to present a cruel threat to health in Wales. Yesterday, the Office for National Statistics reported that, in all settings, up to 22 May, there were 2,122 deaths involving coronavirus in Wales. While these numbers are coming down, with patients in critical care beds, for example, reducing week by week, we remember the loss of each individual life, the families who are grieving them and the need for continued care and caution by us all.
Members will know that our coronavirus regulations must be reviewed every 21 days. The test we must apply is whether the restrictions on life in Wales are proportionate and necessary to protect public health. In applying this test, we must have regard to the advice of the chief medical officer and we also rely on the latest evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
This is the third review, Llywydd, and I will summarise the process we have followed. First, we draw together a list of the potential options for easing restrictions, drawn from ideas generated within and beyond the Welsh Government, including the many suggestions we continue to receive from people right across Wales. That list is reduced for discussion and examination to a short list of options, and those are evaluated in detail against the questions set out in the framework document we published in April, including the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 principles. Our aim is to identify measures that have a positive impact and the least risk to public health. We are always mindful of the harms caused by the restrictions, not just directly through coronavirus, but in other ways, to public health and to people's social and economic well-being.
We have held discussions with the other Governments in the United Kingdom and the mayor of London over that three-week period in order to share ideas and analysis, to understand one another's approach and the evidence in each of our jurisdictions. Coherence does not mean taking an identical approach to lifting or, indeed, imposing restrictions. Each Government must be accountable for the balance of measures we decide to adopt.
Finally, we have considered the latest evidence about the transmission of the virus, which determines how much headroom there is for any easement without putting at risk the progress achieved so far. We concluded in Wales that the conditions allowed for some adjustments to the restrictions, but the very clear advice from both SAGE and the World Health Organization is to make only one change at a time and to monitor its impact.
We decided to give priority to enabling people to meet others, as separation from family and friends has been so hard for people over the past two months. In doing so, we responded to the clear message from people in Wales that the lack of human contact was the issue that mattered to them most. The evidence said that the safest way to do this was outdoors, where the virus survives for a much shorter length of time than it does within doors. Accordingly, people can now meet others from one other household in the open air in their local areas, provided that social distancing is maintained. This will also be possible for people in the shielded group, provided they observe the social distancing, and that will be even more essential, of course, for them.
Llywydd, we made some other, minor adjustments to enable students to return to further education colleges for the assessments that are essential for some to complete their courses and to enable weddings to take place where one of the couple is terminally ill. I've also signalled that non-essential businesses that are able to comply with the physical distancing duty can start to make preparations over the coming three weeks so that they would be in a position to reopen after 18 June, provided—and always provided—that the evidence at that time supports them in doing so.
Llywydd, we are already halfway through the first week of the next review period. We are starting to consider options for any further easements that may be possible at the end of the period, supported by the contact tracing system that started in earnest on Monday. We will continue to take cautious steps towards reducing the restrictions, in a collaborative, four-nations approach, protecting public health and responding to the priorities of people here in Wales. Diolch yn fawr.
Leader of the opposition, Paul Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, last Friday, as you've just mentioned, you took the decision to start easing the lockdown restrictions in Wales, and introduced the rule to allow people to visit their loved ones within a 5-mile radius while socially distancing. That rule may have been some comfort to those living in some areas, but this has also been met by many with anger and frustration in other areas, many of whom felt that the Welsh Government simply doesn't care about those who live in the more remote parts of the country. You said yourself that unfairness was inevitable. First Minister, given that you're keen to tell us that your policies are based on the latest scientific and medical advice available, where is the scientific and medical advice that you have received regarding this particular policy, and will you now put that scientific and medical advice in the public domain so that the people of Wales can understand how the Welsh Government has arrived at this specific decision?
Llywydd, let me correct the leader of the opposition on something that he said, and I hope that neither he nor his colleagues will go on repeating something that is simply untrue: there is no rule about 5 miles in Wales. If there were a rule, that would have been in the regulations. There is guidance, a rule of thumb for people in Wales to understand what 'local' might mean, and I have repeatedly said that it is for people to, in a sensible way, interpret what 'local' means in their own individual geographies, because 'local' is inevitably different in a city like Cardiff, where 5 miles will take you to thousands of other households, and what it might mean in a rural part of Wales.
The scientific advice is about staying local, and we know that staying local is very important because it prevents the spread of the virus from one community to another. The 5-mile rule of thumb is there precisely to protect people in the further west and north of Wales from people from places where the virus has been in greater spread from travelling to those communities and bringing the virus with them. The leader of the opposition will know very well just how emphatic people in those localities have been about protecting them from visitors coming to those areas and putting them at risk. The 'stay local' message protects individuals and others, and the 5 mile guidance—and that's what it is; it is not a rule, it is guidance—is there to protect those communities in rural Wales from people otherwise believing that it was fine to travel in large numbers from outside those localities, and in order to avoid the distressing scenes that we have seen across our border where that sensible advice is not in place.
Clearly, First Minister, this is very confusing for people, because you've just said that now this is a rule of thumb, so people will now not know whether they can travel 5, 10, 15 miles. It's a fact that this policy has upset thousands of people across Wales who are watching others reunite with loved ones whilst they have no option but to remain at home.
Now, First Minister, yesterday the health Minister warned some lockdown measures may have to be reintroduced in the winter depending on the prevalence of COVID-19 at that time, and whilst I appreciate that no door can be closed on future restrictions, the comments have made for very grim reading for many people across Wales. Of course, strategic planning must be considered to ensure that Wales is prepared for future lockdown restrictions in the winter months, and allocations must be set aside should Wales be in the position where the Welsh Government needs to reintroduce further lockdown measures. Therefore, can you confirm what financial modelling is currently taking place to ensure that Wales has learnt from this pandemic? Could you also tell us what allocations of funding the Welsh Government is setting aside in the event that there need to be further restrictions in the winter? And what lessons have already been learnt about Wales's response to a pandemic from this period that will inform the direction of travel for any future pandemic spikes?
Llywydd, I thank Paul Davies for those questions. It's important to remind people in Wales that while we believe we have passed, in almost all parts of Wales, the first peak of coronavirus infections, and have done so thanks to the enormous efforts of people across Wales, have done so while avoiding our health service being overwhelmed, that is no guarantee at all that unless we go on doing all the sensible things that we are doing that we might not have a second peak later in the year. Conditions in the autumn will be more favourable to the virus, which doesn't like sunlight and doesn't like the outdoors, but likes the indoors, the dark and the damp, and we will be in that part of the year as we move into the second part of the autumn. So, I agree with what Paul Davies has said about the need to use this opportunity to prepare, should we find ourselves in more difficult conditions in the second part of the year. And he will know that in our framework document, one of the tests we've applied to lifting the lockdown is, 'Could any measure be re-imposed should it turn out to have unforeseen adverse impacts?'
So, we are doing further modelling both on the disease itself, making sure, for example, that in terms of PPE we use the relatively stable position we are currently in to replenish our stocks, so that we would have material ready if it was needed in the autumn. Financial modelling is far more challenging, because the needs of businesses, of local government, of people who have been without work in Wales in this first coronavirus phase have been so urgent and so necessary. We have passed on all the money, the consequentials that we have received from the UK Government, as fast as we have been able to do so. There is no great pot of money sitting idle in the Welsh Government waiting for things that can happen in the second half of the year. Of course, the finance Minister maintains a reserve, as we would need in normal times, and our budget—the one that was passed in the Assembly in March—is modelled over a 12-month period. But if there were to be a second peak and we were to find ourselves back in the difficulties we've avoided so far, then the financial consequences of that would have to be navigated with further help from the UK Government.
Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price.
First Minister, the criminal murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in the United States has re-ignited the debate around racism on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you agree that structural racism lies at the heart of this injustice, and if we truly believe that black lives matter that we have to acknowledge that and address it? And is that structural racism, in your view, one of the reasons we are seeing a much higher incidence of death from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities as a result of COVID-19?
Llywydd, can I thank Adam Price for that question about one of the great issues of our day? Many Members will have seen that utterly distressing footage of the death of George Floyd; I think one of the most awful things that I remember ever having to look at. I was reminded in it—just to say one positive thing to begin with—of the very longstanding relationships that have existed between Wales and the black community in America, from the 1930s when Paul Robeson, that great singer and civil rights activist would visit Wales so regularly, speaking memorably in Mountain Ash in 1938 at an enormous gathering of people from south Wales in support of the Spanish civil war, and the people from Wales who went to fight there, right into the 1960s with the church in Birmingham, Alabama, which has a window paid for by people from Wales as part of our interest in the civil rights movement then. So, our interest in the black population and people from those communities in America goes back many, many decades, and I was forcefully reminded of that when I saw those awful pictures.
There is structural disadvantage for black people in America, but Adam Price is right for us not to simply think that it exists elsewhere. It exists in our own communities as well. And at the worst of it, it is straightforward racism, as the leader of Plaid Cymru has said—it is people deliberately behaving towards others on the basis of the colour of their skin. But there is disadvantage for people from those communities that is less overt than that—it is not racism in that deliberate sense, but it's embedded in the way that institutions operate and decisions get made. And the way that black people have clearly been adversely affected by the coronavirus crisis is, I think, just a vivid outcrop of those underlying structural disadvantages, and we've got to be able to grapple with them here in Wales, as they need to be grappled with elsewhere.
The Royal College of Nursing in Wales has said that the COVID work assessment tool introduced by NHS Wales, though welcomed, does not currently identify those workers from BAME backgrounds as being at a very high risk. Why is that, and will you work with them to get this right urgently? And will you also make sure that BAME voices are well represented in the work on building back better? In June of last year, the BBC reported that, of 170 recent appointments to public bodies by Welsh Ministers, fewer than six were from BAME backgrounds. Can you say how the situation has improved since then? And given that, according to the Wales Governance Centre, we in Wales have an incarceration rate that is more racially disproportionate than England, which itself is more racially disproportionate even than the United States, will you commit to a wide-ranging inquiry into the roots and remedies of structural racism and racial disadvantage here in Wales?
I thank Adam Price for all of those additional questions. The self-assessment tool that we have adopted for the NHS was led by the work of black clinicians in Wales. Professor Keshav Singhal—who I know Adam Price will have heard present the tool—was very clear when he did so that it was always going to be a work in progress, and that there would be more that could be learnt as it was implemented. And I know that he will be wanting to talk both with the RCN and with the British Medical Association and others who have developed other tools. But I am very comforted by the fact that, in Wales, our self-assessment tool was led by and actively informed by the direct front-line experience of black workers in the NHS here in Wales, looking at their everyday experience of being on the front line, and making sure that the self-assessment tool reflected all of that. I am very keen indeed that those voices go on being influential as we work our way beyond coronavirus, and the group that we have brought together under the chair of Judge Ray Singh will be an important part of that at this point, and there will be ways in which we can develop that further into the future.
Our record of appointing people from black and Asian minority communities to public appointments in Wales is not good enough. We had a root-and-branch review of our appointments process in the second half of last year, and we were on the point of introducing a radically different approach to those appointments when the coronavirus crisis struck. It's one of my ambitions to be able to bring that piece of work back to the front burner, from the back burner, as soon as we are able to in the crisis. Because we have to do better; we have to do better in relation to BAME populations, we have to do better in relation to people with disabilities. And we're by no means there, where we want to be, although we've done a little better in relation to gender equality in those areas too.
The work of the centre in looking at the experience of imprisonment in Wales is shocking on a whole range of fronts, and certainly shocking in relation to what it reveals about the treatment of black people in the criminal justice system. And there's wider evidence that with any system that has a choice between a helping and a controlling-type of response to behaviour, black people are more likely to find themselves clustered at the controlling end of things, whether that's in mental health or in the criminal justice system. I'll think about the point that Adam Price made at the end of his contribution, but I do want to agree with many of the important points that he's made this afternoon.
Leader of the Brexit Party, Mark Reckless.
First Minister, could you confirm that the data show that five out of the 10 council areas that have had the highest prevalence of coronavirus in the UK are in Wales? Inquiries and their apportionment of responsibility will come in due course, but for your current planning, why do you think this is? Do you believe that the greater centralisation of healthcare and integration with social care in Wales may have been a factor that led to more patients being discharged into care homes where testing in Wales was less prevalent than in England?
Many people tell me that they do not consider the regulations now restricting movement in Wales to be reasonable and proportionate. Would you confirm that, if they are correct in that assessment, then the regulations made for Wales would not be lawful? You mentioned just now in your statement a necessity test as well as a proportionality test when reviewing regulations, please could you reconcile that with having removed a necessity test from the regulations in your third set of amendment regulations? Do you think that people are clear on the difference between those regulations, which may be legally binding, and your guidance, which is not, particularly when both have previously been described as 'rules'?
We have spoken before about the confusion engendered by your insistence on making Welsh rules just a little bit different from the UK Government rules applicable in England, further confusion is surely engendered by your constantly chopping and changing Welsh rules. When you put in the third set of amendment regulations that exercise must be 'local', you then said, in the accompanying guidance, that it would be a mistake to attempt to define 'local', as this would necessarily be different in rural Wales to Cardiff, although you gave the example of Porthcawl at 30 miles as being too far for Cardiff. Why then have you now made a complete about turn and defined 'local' as five miles? That may be the view from Pontcanna, but with belated stirrings of opposition from Conservative Members, do you recognise that your view has failed to command a consensus, and that your rules, whether purported to be law or guidance, will thus become increasingly ineffective?
Well, Llywydd, the first point in the Member's contribution is a reasonable one. Why are council areas in Wales amongst those most affected? I think there are a number of reasons that, at this stage, we might suggest for that. It's very important to remember that those figures are very much a fact of how much testing goes on. The more testing there is, the more you discover, and there will be some places where more testing has been carried out and therefore prevalence looks greater, whereas, in fact, it's just a product of different testing regimes.
But what we know about the virus is that it attacks places where people are older, sicker, poorer and live close together, and Wales is over represented in all of those factors. And when those things all come together, as they do in some of the most disadvantaged areas of Wales, then it's probably—. It may not be the whole of the explanation, and there'll be more that we will learn. But it is part of the explanation as to why you see some concentrations in communities in Wales that would be in other league tables, in the same sorts of places of disadvantage and bearing the burden of the period of austerity that the Member so cheerfully championed in another part of his political life.
Well, I completely disagree with him and I think it's dangerous for him to start suggesting to people in Wales that regulations are not proper law. They are proper law; they are the law of Wales. Don't be misled by what anybody suggests to you in thinking that they're not; they are. And there is a very easy distinction between regulations and guidance, and the Government has never confused people. There are people who have sought to confuse people by saying that the five-mile limit is a rule, whereas I have always, from the very beginning, been very clear that it is a rule of thumb, it is guidance for people to interpret in their local geographies as to what 'local' might mean for them. And, as I explained to Paul Davies, one of the primary considerations for it was to make sure that we didn't get a huge cascade of people from outside the more sparsely populated areas of Wales travelling to those places, where coronavirus has been, thank goodness, in very modest circulation, and that we didn't see a flaring up of coronavirus in those places because people had travelled from their own localities and brought the virus with them.
Llywydd, very far from constantly chopping and changing, what the Welsh Government has done is to introduce very modest changes at the end of each three-week period. We are taking the most careful and cautious approach. We are slowly building up a new repertoire of things that people can safely do in the coronavirus context.
I think that that absolutely chimes with what people in Wales want us to do, far from the sort of suggestion I think the Member is making that people in Wales are champing at the bit to be allowed to go further and do more. What we learn is that people in Wales understand that this virus is by no means beaten. Its impact is felt every day in the deaths that we have to announce every single day from it, and our approach of taking one step at a time, doing it carefully and cautiously, and building things up in a way that goes on providing confidence to people in Wales that it is their health and their well-being that is at the front of everything we do, not only is it the right thing to do, but it chimes very powerfully with the way that people in Wales would like to see their Government operate.
First Minister, one of the consequences of the pandemic is the impact on the aviation industry. All employers in this industry have constructively engaged with trade unions on behalf of their workforces to manage these very difficult circumstances, to protect jobs and to protect skills for the future.
However, sadly, there is one employer who has been described as a 'commercial predator', who has not engaged in this particular way, and that is British Airways. You'll be aware of this, First Minister, that they employ 42,000 people across the UK, and they are proposing in the region of at least 12,000 redundancies. But in attempting to achieve this, their intention is, effectively, to make the entire workforce redundant, to remove 12,000 jobs, and to have 30,000 people who will then be employed on terms and conditions that could result in them having 60 or 70 per cent less pay than they get at the moment.
Now, this seems to be an opportunity—. What British Airways are doing is trying to seize an economic advantage on the back of COVID. In my constituency, British Avionics will be closing and 130 of 186 jobs are proposed to go, there are 30 of 169 jobs in Islwyn, and at British Airways Maintenance Cardiff in Cardiff Airport, 239 out of 546. So, 400 jobs all together. Now, the company knows that it is impossible to negotiate and to consult over 40,000 potential redundancies with 40,000 members in 45 days. The union has insisted that the proper and the moral and the ethical thing to do is to withdraw those notices.
Now, this is going to be the subject of an emergency question in Westminster today, but can I ask that the Welsh Government will give its full support to Unite the Union and all those workers in south Wales who are dependent on these jobs, and all those in Cardiff Airport, because of the linked industries, to actually protect them and to get British Airways do the decent thing—to stand up and to negotiate with its workers in a proper and ethical way to save jobs and skills for the future? First Minister, will you give that support and press the UK Government to do everything it can to support the aviation sector?
Llywydd, can I begin by agreeing with Mick Antoniw about the importance of the aviation sector here in Wales? The sector has some of the best employers in Wales—employers like Airbus, with such a strong history of working co-operatively with trade unions in the joint enterprise, which is making a success of those companies. I know that my colleague, Ken Skates has written directly to the other company that Mick Antoniw has highlighted, urging them to withdraw the measures that they have proposed at present to work collaboratively with the trade union that represents workers in there. Sensible companies know that complying simply with the letter of the law is not the best way to shape a future for those companies that brings their workforce with them—their single most important asset. Those were the terms in which the Minister for the economy has written to the company and I urge the UK Government to use whatever powers of persuasion they have as well to make sure that not just the letter of the law but the spirit and the ethic of the law, as Mick Antoniw said, is complied with here as well as.
First Minister, I was pleased to hear you confirm again that the 5 miles referred to earlier is not a rule as such, because it is not just in rural areas that that is an issue, as you know; it is also an issue in many Valleys communities, including my own, where if that was rigorously adhered to, it would mean that someone couldn't go, for instance, from Cwmbran to Blaenavon to see their family, so I think that's a very important point. I wanted to ask about social distancing, because I am concerned that, as we go through this lockdown, there is a general erosion of people's response to the social distancing regulations generally. I'm seeing it in supermarkets, I'm hearing it from constituents in relation to employers, so I'd like to ask you what more we can do to re-emphasise to the public that we are nowhere near out of the woods on this pandemic yet, and that these matters, these rules, really, really matter, and people have to keep observing them. Thank you.
Thank you, Llywydd, and can I thank Lynne Neagle for making that point again? I believe that the vast majority of people in Wales still want to do the right thing and still do their best to do the right thing, and we mustn't see that fraying at the edges in a way that would lead to more people not complying with what we're asking them to, because we're not asking people to observe social distancing as some sort of penalty; we're asking people to do it because it genuinely protects them and protects other people. And this is a virulent disease; it lives for hours and hours on surfaces. You can be suffering from coronavirus yourself and not know that it's happening to you and you are infectious to other people, so you may feel fine and think, 'Well, what's the harm in me being closer to somebody?' Actually, you could be doing an enormous amount of harm unintentionally, but with really, really significant consequences.
So, we've all got a job to do, certainly I do and from the Government, but we all do, in reminding people that the simple things we ask people to do—keeping a 2m distance, observing hand hygiene, all those simple things. Collectively and cumulatively, these are the things that are making a difference. They really are saving lives and we need people to go on doing those things, because as I said in an earlier answer, every day, we have the sad, sad duty of having to announce the latest number of people who have died from this virus in different parts of Wales and we can all do more to help that not to happen.
Suzy Davies. The microphone is not working for Suzy. Can you try again, Suzy? Okay, I'll call Mohammad Asghar and we'll come back to you, Suzy. Mohammad Asghar.
Thank you, Presiding Officer, and thank you, First Minister, for your statement. I have been contacted by a number of dental practices in my region, who are concerned about the time frame proposed by the Chief Dental Officer for Wales to phase out in dentistry care. The proposal is to resume more face-to-face emergency care from 1 July, followed by routine check-ups in October and aerosol generating procedures, such as fillings and crowns, from January 2021. Private dentistry accounts for more than half of the dental services in Wales, and the number of practices that operate 100 per cent under the NHS is very low. Their financial viability depends either in part or entirely from payments received from patients undergoing AGPs. Other countries are allowing dentists to perform AGPs by using respiratory masks and other PPE. First Minister, will you look again at the timetable and what other countries are doing as a matter of urgency to ensure the financial viability of dentistry practices in Wales? And, secondly, you earlier mentioned BME casualties in Wales during this pandemic. I would like to know how many people, out of the 2,122 casualties you mentioned earlier, actually come from the BME community, which is, I understand, a pretty high number, and what measures you are going to take, at your Government level, to make sure that we stop it in future. Thank you.
Thank you, Llywydd. Shall I take the second of Mohammad Asghar's questions first? I don't have that figure in front of me, but we will have it, and I'm happy, of course, to share that with him. I know that he will have been taking an interest in the group chaired by Judge Ray Singh, and I know that he is personally acquainted with Professor Keshav Singhal and other leading clinicians who've contributed to the self-assessment tool that we are using in Wales. So, I want to give him an assurance that we are drawing on all the expertise we can find from within the community in Wales, as well as beyond, to try to make sure that we have measures in place to properly protect people from black and minority ethnic communities from the additional impact that this disease has on people from those important communities.
On the first point about dental practices, we will publish, Llywydd, the letter that the chief dental officer has provided to dental practices in Wales, setting out her three-stage plan for the reopening of dentistry in Wales. I know that she will remain in dialogue with the British Dental Association and other important interests in the dental profession in Wales. Of course we would like to see more dental activity being available—it's a very important part of what primary care provision in Wales offers to Welsh citizens. But there are some particular challenges in dental practice. You can't practice dentistry at a 2m distance, and aerosol procedures in particular carry a very high risk of the virus being carried from patients to dentists and from dentists to patients. So, the chief dental officer will continue to be in those discussions. We will publish her advice. We want more dentistry to happen in Wales, but we have to make sure that we do it in a way that protects the health and welfare of dental practitioners and their staff, as well as the people that they serve.
First Minister, your Government announced on Sunday that the guidelines for people who've been told to shield were changing the following day. I'm aware that there's a lot of concern from people who were told to shield to protect their lives that these changes were brought forward with little warning and when the R rate is still high. This morning you will have received a letter from 32 health charities active in Wales, outlining their deep concerns about these changes. They want an explanation about the rationale for the sudden departure from existing guidelines. They ask that shielders are told directly about changes rather than finding out through a press statement, and they want the sector to be informed of changes in advance in the future, so that they can prepare. They request that you meet them to discuss their concerns. First Minister, will you do that?
Llywydd, the chief medical officer will write to all people on the shielded list this week in Wales, setting out our advice to them for the coming period. Let's just be clear that what this is is advice. Nobody is instructing sheltered people to do anything that they do not feel comfortable in doing.
The medical advice from the four chief medical officers is that, at this time of year, when the virus is far, far less significant out of doors, we should have offered the opportunity to shielded people who wanted to go outside in carefully controlled conditions—to let them know that it is safe for them to do so if they choose to do so. But nobody is requiring any sheltered person to do anything that they do themselves not feel comfortable in doing.
The chief medical officer will set out his latest advice in a letter that will go to every shielded person in Wales. They remain very much at the top of our list of priorities, to make sure that we continue to offer them the best advice so that they stay safe and they stay well.
Let nobody forget that there is more than one harm from coronavirus, and being confined to your home with no prospect of being able to leave it comes with real harms as well to people's sense of well-being and other parts of their health. That is why the four chief medical officers came to the conclusion that they did, not because anybody wants to do anything that would harm sheltered people—of course not. But the advice to them is that if they feel confident and willing to do so, now they are able to take exercise out of doors and to meet one other household out of doors, in the right conditions, provided that is something that they themselves would choose to do.
First Minister, on 1 May you announced that the Welsh Government would fund an extra payment of £500 to social care workers in care homes and domiciliary care workers throughout Wales:
'This payment is designed to provide some further recognition of the value we attach to everything'
that social care workers do to
'support both our NHS and our wider society.'
My questions are: when will it be paid? How will it be paid? Is it a one-off payment or will it be added to wages? Will it be treated as wages and taxed, or treated as a gift and not taxed?
Well, Llywydd, there will be answers to all of those questions, but those answers were contingent upon a reply from the UK Government to our plea to them to make this payment free of tax and free of national insurance contributions. It was deeply disappointing to receive a response from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on Monday declining to do that. That, of course, now means we will have to think through a whole series of issues to try to minimise the impact of that Treasury decision. It's not possible to answer all of Mike Hedges's questions this morning, because we had hoped that there was a different and far better solution.
We wanted our £500 to go directly to the people who we have identified for the contribution they have made, because they are amongst the least well-paid people in our workforce. We weren't asking the Treasury for money, we were simply asking them not to rob those people of the money that the Welsh Government was providing to them. Now, a significant amount of the money that the Welsh Government is still going to provide to those social care workers will end up not in their pockets but in the pockets of the Treasury.
We will have to reconsider a whole number of the questions that Mike Hedges has quite properly raised to try and find ways of mitigating that decision, but the real answer is that this shouldn't be subject to tax and it shouldn't be subject to national insurance, and then we wouldn't have to worry about finding ways of trying to make that impact less significant.
Just picking up on what you said earlier about dentistry, once we see the three-stage plan that the chief medical officer is going to be publishing, I hope we're going to be able to accelerate the timetable for resuming modern dentistry where we drill and fill tooth decay rather than, as at the moment, having to extract the tooth, which obviously can never be replaced. Obviously, this is very important to people's general health.
Otherwise, I would be wanting to look at small businesses that are completely reliant on being able to operate locally, and obviously the proceeds of their business stay locally as well—in particular, hairdressing. Nobody is going to die of not having a haircut, but for elderly people in particular, that social occasion of going to the hairdresser's can be a very, very important part of their engagement with the community. For example, the Headmistress salon, run by Alison Corria at the Maelfa in Llanedeyrn for over 40 years, has a very high number of elderly customers. She is very keen to restart as soon as she has permission to do so, and has been able to put in place all the restrictions that the NHBF guidance indicates, which I know the Government has been discussing with them. So—
You need to come to a question now, Jenny.
So, I wondered if you could just tell us, if we're only going to be able to make one change at a time, as recommended by the WHO and SAGE, can we really afford to only make any change at three-week periods?
Llywydd, thank you. The answer to the question at the end is that we don't have to wait for the end of a three-week period to make a change, and we've had examples during the crisis in which we've made changes between three-week intervals where there's been a compelling case to do so.
Llywydd, I want to agree and recognise what Jenny Rathbone has said about the wider importance of hairdressing. When I was the health Minister, I vividly remember a GP in a rural part of Wales saying to me that his best source of intelligence about people with the beginnings of dementia came from a local hairdresser in his community, because she was somebody who knew her clientele over 30 years. She spotted when people coming into her salon were not quite as on top of things as they once used to be, and she could make an informal, early sort of referral to the dementia service that he ran in his community. So, I absolutely understand what Jenny meant when she talked about the fact that it's more than just having a haircut. But we will consider hairdressing alongside everything else.
One of the real difficulties, Llywydd, that I have to try and explain to people is that there are so many aspects of life where individually you can make a case for reopening, and by themselves people make the case that this wouldn't materially add to the risk of coronavirus circulating—it'll only be a little marginal addition. The problem for the Government is you've got to add up all those marginal additions, and quite soon all those marginal additions turn out to be quite a significant risk. We have to weigh up, not simply dental practices or hairdressing or tennis playing or all the many things that people understandably have an interest in, and then come to a decision in the round.
We'll do that with dentistry as well. I know, as I said to Mohammad Asghar, that the chief dental officer in her discussions with the profession will want to bring things back on as quickly as possible, and of course her focus with the profession is on preventative dentistry. We want dentists not to have to drill or fill even, let alone extract. We want them working as the new contract rewards them: for making sure that young people grow up looking after their teeth in a way that means they don't need that sort of dentistry, other than in a minimum sort of way.
First Minister, you began this session by telling us a little bit about the methodology you used for introducing rules and regulations, and I'd like to raise the point that, as of 22 May, repeat breaches of coronavirus regulations can land you with a fine of £1,920. That came in under the fourth amendment to the coronavirus restriction regulations, through the made-affirmative procedure, which gives this Parliament 28 days to ratify that law or not. Now, these regulations were ready before the Whitsun break, before the legislation clock stopped. As you said earlier in this session, these are laws—laws made by the Executive, not the legislature—and they do impose a penalty. So, why aren't we debating them today instead of 17 June, just short of a month after they come into force as Government-made law?
Well, Llywydd, they'll be debated within the rules that are set out for those things. We're not breaching those limits. I'm not trying to trivialise the point that the Member makes; it's really important. I completely agree with her that it is the legislature's responsibility to approve or not approve the changes that the Government proposes, and it's very important that the legislature has that opportunity. But we are providing that opportunity.
We wanted to bring a package of measures together so that the Senedd could look at them in that rounded way, because there are choices that have to be made, and, just as I said to Jenny Rathbone that it's the cumulative impact of different changes you have to think of, in some ways, it's the cumulative impact of all the changes to the law that Assembly Members will be interested in as well. So, it's not with any intention of not complying with the necessary and important requirement for Assembly Members to have the final say in these things that we've offered the timetable that we have; it's to bring together a series of changes that we are proposing, allowing Assembly Members to see them altogether and make their minds up as to whether or not they wish to support them, based on the totality of what the Government proposes.
I'm grateful to you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, the overwhelming majority of people in Blaenau Gwent are fully supportive of the approach that you have taken and the Welsh Government have taken over the past few months, and they recognise the importance of continuing with a very cautious approach. I'm interested in understanding how you see this moving forward.
You said at a press conference that, with the trace and testing system now in place, there may be local lockdowns where there may be a local outbreak in terms of the disease moving forward. I wonder if you could explain how you see that working and whether you see the capacity for differential rules being applied in different parts of the country. I think that's something that will be of interest to a lot of people.
And, also, as we move forward over these few months, you've appointed Jeremy Miles to look at recovery from COVID and the impact of COVID. I very much agree with the point that Mick Antoniw made earlier in this session about the impact of job losses in the aviation sector, but we know that the overall economic impact will be most keenly felt in communities such as Blaenau Gwent. How do you see the work that Jeremy is undertaking in order to address those issues of the economic impact of COVID? We've had fantastic public support for keeping people safe through this infection. Now, how do we continue to keep people safe in terms of employment and jobs and the economy as we move forward into recovery?
Llywydd, can I thank Alun Davies for those really important questions? My colleague Vaughan Gething will provide further details of the roll-out of the test, trace and protect process over the first part of this week, and it does provide us—together with the Joint Biosecurity Centre that we hope to be members of, it will provide us with more fine-grained and local information about outbreaks of coronavirus. And it may well be that the best way in the future of trying to make sure that coronavirus doesn't spread again will be to have more local action. In normal public health infection controls, that is exactly what you would see. In much smaller outbreaks of measles or something like that, it would be a local action that would be put in place.
It isn't guaranteed to be like that. If there are measures being taken elsewhere that lead to a sudden and much more general surge in coronavirus, then we can't rule out the prospect that more significant measures on a wider scale might still be necessary. But we want to avoid that if we can in Wales, and one way will be to use the TTP and other sources of intelligence to try and hone our response in more local areas—
Nick Ramsay—oh, sorry, First Minister.
Very quickly, because Alun Davies raised really important questions about recovery and life beyond coronavirus. This is a public health emergency, but it's an economic emergency as well. We have to chart our way through the coming months and continue to do those things that respond to the immediate emergency, but, after that, we will have to think absolutely seriously as to how we fashion a future for people that will be disrupted by the impact of coronavirus not just for those months, but for well beyond that, and that's the work that Jeremy Miles is leading.
First Minister, if I can ask you about two areas, firstly, briefly, I've been contacted by a constituent who is concerned that, as businesses come out of lockdown, there could be a number of issues that have developed over a long period of businesses being closed down, such as legionnaire's disease, for instance, that could generate subsequent public health issues. So, I wonder if you could tell me what advice and guidance is being given to businesses, or will be given to businesses, as the lockdown is lessened and people do return to work and their businesses.
Secondly, could you update us on what support is being made available for mental health services at this time during the pandemic? We know that the ongoing lockdown is resulting in mental health issues for many people—many of those in families, but particularly those living alone. And, of course, in the worst case scenarios this can lead to very severe problems, and even, in some cases, suicide. I wonder what data is being collected to monitor the mental health situation of people and what's being done to support those mental health services, including suicide prevention.
Llywydd, I thank Nick Ramsay for that. So, we published advice and guidance for businesses at the end of last week, having had it approved by the shadow social partnership council, and, as I said, I was very pleased that that advice was jointly endorsed by the TUC and the CBI in Wales. 'Keep Wales safe at work', the guidance is called, and there will be further, more sectorally specific guidance published as well. I will make sure that the specific point that Nick Ramsay has raised about things that may have built up while a business is closed that businesses need to think about and attend to—I'll go away and make an enquiry to make sure that the advice is covering that important issue.
On mental health services, Llywydd, more generally, the NHS is resuming some of its more normal activity. The number of beds that are free in our health service has fallen from 3,500 at its peak down to 1,700 today, and that's because more people are being admitted to hospital for non-COVID-related reasons. We've kept our mental health services going through the whole of this crisis, but we're able to resume more ordinary mental health services as well at this time. I think, last week, my colleagues Vaughan Gething and Kirsty Williams jointly announced further funding support for young people, particularly in families. I can give an assurance to Nick Ramsay, and other Members who take a close interest in it, that mental health has always been close to the top of the things that we have asked the health service to continue to do during the crisis and we are very keen indeed to strengthen the response that we're able to offer to those who have had mental health conditions specifically exacerbated by the experience of this awful illness.
First of all, First Minister, will you join with me in issuing a note of caution to those people tempted to cut their own hair during the course of coronavirus, as I am an example of that? I'd just explain that to Members.
But two serious points: first of all, tennis. I've been asked why tennis is not yet permitted. And, secondly, I have, within 5 miles of my constituency, no fewer than eight beaches, which are very popular. Five of them would normally have Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeguard cover. Now, they're very grateful that they haven't seen the kind of mayhem that we've seen on some beaches in England—Durdle Door, of course, being one example. But the question I have is: what is the Welsh Government doing to make sure that people are aware of the fact that there's no lifeguard cover, when there normally would be at this time of year? And what information is being given to the public to make sure that they are safe, given the fact that that cover is not there?
I thank Carwyn Jones very much for his questions. Viewers to this will be, I think, believing that there was some collusion between him and Jenny Rathbone in her question urging the reopening of hairdressers in Wales.
But, to his serious points, on tennis, the point is this—I've answered it once already, Llywydd—that tennis can make a case for it by itself being capable of being reopened, being organised in a safe way. There are some challenges in tennis that people don't always think of in that. This virus can live on a tennis ball, and, when you play tennis, normally, certainly, a ball comes over the net and people pick it up and the person on the other side of the net picks the same ball up as well. So, it's not without its challenges to make tennis safe, but, even if it can be made safe, then, you know, gliding can be made safe, jet skiing can be made safe, bowling can be made safe. Many Members here will have received letters from different interests. What the Welsh Government has to do is to add up all those marginal extra risks and decide whether or not, in the round, that is a risk we are currently able to take. We decided last week that all the headroom that we have, more or less, was to be taken by allowing family and friends to see one another again, and we didn't feel that we could take the additional risk of opening up other parts of our normal life. We will continue to consider tennis alongside other outdoor sports as part of the current three-week review.
Llywydd, Carwyn Jones makes a very important point about lifeguard services and safety on beaches. Across the whole of the United Kingdom, the RNLI will only be operating 30 per cent of normal coverage this year because of the constraints that coronavirus has caused, and in Wales that means that there will only be 10 beaches in the whole of Wales that will have lifeguard cover, and that from 20 June to the beginning of September. So, it is very important to say to people, even people who live locally, even people who can get to the beach within 5 miles, that they will have to take particular extra care this year, because the help that would have been there normally, the supervision that would have been there normally to make sure that people can use the sea safely, will not be available in Wales in the way that it has been, and people will have to take very direct responsibility for making sure that they factor that into their plans, because safety will need to be their major consideration, and they won't have a fully operational RNLI service of the sort that we've all been so pleased to see in Wales over recent years.
I thank the First Minister.
The next item is the topical question. The topical question is to be answered by the Deputy Minister, and I call on Neil McEvoy to ask the question.
1. In light of the events in the USA, across the world and protests in Wales following the death of George Floyd, will the Welsh Government outline its policies on community cohesion? TQ441
I thank the Member for the question. The death of George Floyd is a tragedy. The impacts of this case are felt globally, and Wales is not immune from racism. We must continue to confront it. Our community cohesion and equality and inclusion programme embeds close engagement with black, Asian and minority ethnic communities to foster good relations and to tackle race inequality in Wales.
Thanks, Minister. I sit here today as the first Welsh-born person of colour to be elected to our national Parliament. My life experience has been the same as a lot of people with brown or black skin in Wales: violent attacks, wrongful arrest, racial slurs and negative stereotyping with the really clever middle-class racism that we encounter. Only last week, I had to correct a published article to tell them that I existed and that Wales's first ever then AM of colour, Dr Altaf Hussain, existed. And BBC Wales were at it again yesterday, in ignoring two Members of the Senedd of colour.
I think we've made progress, but have we really made the progress that we think we've made in terms of class and race? The professional side of the Senedd needs to be more representative of the Wales we live in. In our Parliament it's rare to see people of colour who are not in security, catering or cleansing. Maybe we should look back to the future. The Welsh National Party believes that Wales should have a constitution with a bill of rights, where we can all sign up to being Welsh and talk about what unites us. It doesn't matter where we're from, we can all choose to be Welsh. Our foremothers and forefathers in Tiger Bay showed the way in how to develop a multicultural, loving, harmonious society in the dock area, where my mother was brought up. So, will you support defining in law what it is to be Welsh in Wales through a constitution?
Before finishing, I must say that the murder of George Floyd was horrific. May he rest in peace, and may his legacy be social change throughout the world. Diolch yn fawr.
Diolch yn fawr, Neil McEvoy, and thank you for asking this question and for expressing it in such a direct and personal way, in terms of your own experiences and the experiences that you've shared with us today. I am reminded of the fact that, just over a year ago, in fact, we had our first debate on race in the Assembly, on tackling racism across Wales. What was good about that debate was it was a cross-party debate. We all signed up to that debate. But what is absolutely clear—and it's the responsibility of all political parties, of course, but particularly of the Welsh Government and, indeed, in terms of all the work that we've been doing in the last few weeks to tackle the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities and those who are on the front line, not just in the NHS, social care, but also many in all of the key worker posts. So that's why I'm very pleased that we have got this discussion today, the question from the leader of Plaid Cymru and the response from the First Minister making it clear that we're united to be appalled by the horror of the death of George Floyd last week.
I'm also very conscious of the fact that Vaughan Gething spoke up as the first black Minister of any of the UK's devolved Governments in 2013, speaking after posting his video online, calling on us all to unite. I respect the work of Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter, of course, spoke up and came together over the weekend. Indeed, I've just come this morning from a cross-party group, chaired by John Griffiths, on race, where we heard the details about the Welsh risk assessment tool, which has been mentioned already this morning, which was published and launched last week by the First Minister and the Minister for Health and Social Services. We are also, crucially, importantly, taking on board the socioeconomic issues, and I committed again this morning, as I did a few months ago, to a Wales race action plan.
Mark Isherwood. Mark Isherwood. I can't seem to see him on my screen either, so he's no longer—
I am there. Yes, I'm here.
Yes, you are.
Sorry, my sound might have been off, but I am there.
Yes. You carry on with your question now, Mark.
Right. On hate crimes, ignorance and prejudice, there's some wonderful work, for instance in north Wales, NWAMI, Networking for World Awareness of Multicultural Integration, which recognises that the best way to tackle that is through integration, through engagement, through sharing together. They're doing some wonderful work during the pandemic delivering food parcels, particularly to members of the black, Asian and minority ethnic community who are isolating and who have dietary requirements due to medical or cultural needs. So, how can we better acknowledge the good work of organisations such as NWAMI and support that work, where it's often lost because it's soft as opposed to hard? It's engaging with people through cultural activities and celebration, and food, music and dance, alongside the more substantive solid projects that Welsh Government and others are also engaged with.
Thank you very much, Mark Isherwood, and NWAMI, I know well of their work; we've discussed it. We talked about it in a forum recently, at a BAME meeting that was held, organised by the Ethnic Minorities and Youth Support Team and Race Council Cymru, who have organised many forums over the last few weeks. And the north Wales one, I particularly heard from NWAMI about their work in Bangor particularly relating to supporting the community—not just international students, but the community. And also, I've raised with Lesley Griffiths, the Minister, about the importance of recognising cultural needs in terms of our food box delivery, and this is very much reflected in the community cohesion that we've seen over the past few weeks.
So, NWAMI is an important force for good for progress and community cohesion in north Wales, alongside many of the other organisations that I've spoken to. In fact, over the last few weeks we've had virtual online forums; the Wales race forum has met twice; we've met with these regional groups, one in Newport that John Griffiths attended. But I think it's important that we recognise that we'd already put funding into hate crime projects: £480,000 from the EU transition fund, and those hate crime projects and, indeed, further funding of £350,000 for tackling racism in schools. We know that Show Racism the Red Card in schools has a huge impact on children's learning and understanding. And that work, already those organisations, third sector BAME organisations, and it always includes those at the grass-roots level because they have such an impact and they're doing the work, as you say, culturally, socially and meeting the needs of some of the most excluded parts of our community.
I thank the Deputy Minister. We will now break for an hour before afternoon session commences. And therefore, the broadcast should cease.
Plenary was suspended at 12:18.
The Senedd reconvened at 13:20 with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.
Well, we reconvene as our Plenary this afternoon, and the next item on our agenda is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on coronavirus, COVID-19, and I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Prynhawn da. Good afternoon.
Today’s statement will focus on providing Members with an update on restarting more NHS activity here in Wales. I am pleased to report that, while we are still supporting those that have coronavirus, the number of confirmed cases is falling, as are the numbers of people that have lost their lives in the pandemic. Yesterday, there were still 67 new confirmed cases reported by Public Health Wales, and the death figures were in single figures. However, each number was a person, and a tragic reminder of the need for care and caution from all of us, now and in the foreseeable future if we are to reduce the spread of the virus.
No-one should underestimate the importance of continuing to maintain our state of readiness if we are to see and cope with any future peaks of the virus. We still need to support people in our communities that need our health service for other reasons that are not COVID related. I approved the NHS Wales operating framework that was issued on 6 May. It describes four types of harm: direct harm from COVID itself; harm from an overwhelmed NHS and social care system, as we saw in Italy, for example; harm from reduction in non-COVID activity; and harm from wider societal actions, including the lockdown.
I recognise that we need to move slowly and cautiously. So, shorter term planning on quarterly cycles is important for our organisations to demonstrate that they can be agile and flexible. Being able to divert resources easily and quickly to adjust to the demand, between both COVID-19 and non-COVID essential service areas is crucial. While recognising all four potential harms, the quarter 1 plans are particularly aimed at progressively scaling up essential NHS activity, whilst also addressing the current demands of COVID-19. We all recognise that it's important to get essential services operating efficiently for those that need them, but in a safe and effective manner. The fact is that the threat of COVID-19 will be with us for some time to come.
The quarter 1 plans were all received as required on 18 May. They set out how our health boards and trusts are planning to deliver the range of essential services, including cancer, cardiac, ophthalmology and other services, often in new and innovative ways. Many organisations are working to re-zone their estate, to provide areas where staff and patients feel safe to undertake diagnostic tests and receive treatment. The use of additional independent sector hospitals has been helpful for some of those treatments. Health boards are currently reviewing the use of the available facilities to see how they might be used going forward. Our aim is for our healthcare system to rebalance within a more usual hospital environment. This work with the independent sector has been helpful, but we will of course need to review its use, which is being explored in the plans.
The majority of health boards have made arrangements to create additional field hospital capacity. It is a real positive that we should not lose sight of that we have not had to make significant use of field hospitals during the first peak of the virus. The plans reflect the need to review and re-assess as we move forward. A national review of field hospitals facilities during June will support this work.
There are still issues to be overcome as we move to upscale our essential services. Ensuring sufficient PPE, medicines, testing, staff and training will all be required, and this is what the plans outline. In addition, I have asked the NHS to continue to look at where it can make greater use of regional solutions, pooling resources and expertise to ensure patients receive the best care.
However, out of this crisis, we have also been able to embrace innovation. There's much greater use of technology that has been deployed over the past 10 weeks. In the two-week period from 19 to 26 May there were 977 more remote consultations across the NHS using the new NHS Wales video consultation service. Using these new ways of working to the NHS, we can still do much more, with a growing proportion of consultations being able to be conducted virtually. Equally importantly, 97 per cent of patients and 85 per cent of clinicians rated this new way of working as 'excellent', 'really good', or 'good'. We've also seen a rise in the number of out-patient follow-ups that have been able to be conducted by telephone. That shows how, in our response to the pandemic, we're using existing tools and services to deliver care in more efficient ways. So, we're changing the way in which we're delivering services, and using our resources differently.
For example, Swansea Bay University Health Board established a health-board-wide centre to co-ordinate the flow of patients, including rapid discharge, community step-up, and any additional surge or super-surge capacity within their field hospitals. They also have an out-patient modernisation group planning the re-activation of services. And these are developing new models of care and ways of working that have been taken in response to COVID.
My officials will be meeting with each of the organisations over the next weeks to review their plans and support them to ensure implementation. The operating framework contained a number of commitments for the Welsh Government as enablers to support implementation. Examples of some of that action being taken forward include the digital priorities investment fund that I announced last September. It's been used to accelerate new digital programmes and initiatives. This includes the acceleration of video consultation across the whole of Wales, infrastructure and devices to enable remote working, and a new digital system for contact tracing, all of which have been rolled out in weeks. A programme to make Microsoft Teams and Office 365 available to all NHS staff, which started last autumn, has been compressed from three years to one. I will also bring forward a new digital system for use in intensive care units, a new digital platform for eye care, and accelerating an upgrade to our digital pathology services. The pace at which organisations have worked together to deploy new digital technologies has been impressive.
The Wales Critical Care and Trauma Network has developed draft advice on critical care during the next phase of the pandemic and restarting NHS services, alongside newly published guidance. There's an ongoing communications campaign being developed to encourage patients to access those essential services, and funding has been provided for the establishment of field hospitals, private sector capacity, and, indeed, our student workforce.
Using the feedback and review of quarter 1, we will move towards a continuing framework approach for quarter 2. This will include understanding the next steps in planning over the summer months and for winter contingency into quarter 3. I will of course keep Members updated on progress. I have also provided Members with more detail on quarter 1 plans in a written statement that I issued earlier today.
Monday this week saw the launch of our national NHS Wales test, trace and protect service. Contact tracing is an essential next step in our fight against COVID-19. It will help us to prevent transmission of the virus, protect the public, and quickly identify and take action to control clusters and outbreaks. The new national service began, as planned, on Monday 1 June. So, anyone who has tested positive for coronavirus in Wales will now be contacted and asked for the details of all the people they have had contact with while they have had symptoms.
As I have previously said, our approach is to build and grow our local contact tracing capacity. The reality is that a national plan will only work if we make full use of the existing local knowledge, skills and expertise that has been built up over many years within health protection teams in our local authorities and health boards. This partnership approach has enabled us to quickly bring together a Wales-wide workforce of over 600 contact tracers to start the new national service. Regional plans, jointly agreed by local government and health board partners, will enable us to rapidly scale up the workforce, if and when necessary. This follows a successful two-week pilot exercise across four health board regions in Wales. A key focus of the pilots was to ensure that staff received the high-quality training, guidance and support that they need to be able to do this highly important and challenging role effectively.
Since Sunday, Public Health Wales have reported 208 positive cases, all of which have been transferred to our contact tracing teams. Where appropriate, people have been interviewed and, on average, this is identifying a further three to four follow-up contacts per positive case. The early feedback also indicates that individuals contacted by our tracing teams are engaging positively. So far, the signs are encouraging, but we should not, and must never take the public support for granted. So, for now, the focus is on the next few weeks, within which we can make a difference, and to strike the right balance between all four areas of harm as we try and aim to help keep Wales safe.
Thank you. Janet Finch-Saunders.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Thank you for your statement, Minister. You'll be aware that the tragic situation in Welsh care homes has triggered the older people's commissioner to refer the Welsh Government to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. She has highlighted delays to testing as a key concern.
On 16 May, you announced the expansion of testing to everybody in care homes. However, according to one local authority, there's a hope that their care homes, within the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board area, will be tested by 8 June. However, it has been described as an ambitious target. Why has it taken over three weeks since your announcement to test all care homes, to include our residents and care workers there? Do you also agree that this is made even more scandalous by the fact that patients were initially discharged from hospitals to care homes without any tests, putting many at risk?
And finally, Minister, will you explain why there is no COVID-19 monitoring or data being collected on those receiving social care in their own homes? This appears to me to be a forgotten part of our society, placing them and our own social care workers and domiciliary care workers at risk.
I thank the Member for the three questions, I think, but I'll start with the first point. It's really clear that we're not loose and misleading with our language: the older person's commissioner did not refer the Welsh Government to the human rights commission—she's had a conversation and she's clarified that she wants there to be a UK-wide look-back at the position in care homes across the UK, and, as the First Minister has indicated, and indeed as have I, we expect that there will be look-back inquiries and we'll be happy to co-operate with each of those official inquiries. And this Parliament, I would expect, will want its own exercise in looking back on lessons learned and decisions taken at the time.
So, on domiciliary care, on your final question, it's of particular concern to me and to the Deputy Minister. It's an area where we've already had access in terms of testing of key workers. And it's an area that is, I know, a regular concern to the Welsh Local Government Association as well, because we do recognise that there's an issue about transmission and how we protect people and that's often from people coming into that person's home. So, the staff themselves want the assurance that they're not, effectively, acting to provide coronavirus to the vulnerable people who they are helping to care for, and that's why they were always one of the key workers within our system, and, of course, there's now expanded access in terms of online bookings for the system of testing that we have available in Wales.
All care homes will be tested within the next two weeks. Some health boards think they may have that test within the next week to 10 days. Others will be slightly later, but, within the next two weeks, I expect all care homes, residents and staff to have been tested. That's a deliberate policy choice we made, and I actually think that the time that it will have taken to do so compares well with every other UK nation, including, of course, England just over the border, where I understand that about six in 10 care homes are yet to be tested. But, as I say, our expectation is that, within two weeks, all care homes in Wales will have been tested.
Another thing, on the final point that you made, that I need to respond to, is that symptomatic people should always have been tested before discharge from a hospital. There should always have been a current test for people to have left hospital. We moved to a position—which we acknowledged at the time was beyond the scientific advice and the advice of our chief medical officer about whether there was a scientific basis to do so—to test every person discharged into a care home, symptomatic or not, but that was specifically about making sure that there was confidence within the system, because we recognised that more harm could be caused if the whole system clogged up. In regular times, we discuss the harm that is caused to people who are not discharged effectively and quickly, and so this, I think, was a pragmatic measure and the right one to take. And I'm sure I'll have more time to re-discuss the past on other occasions, but I'm content that we are doing the right thing on the right evidence base in the here and now for the people of Wales.
Thank you, Minister. I have to say, whilst you say this testing will take place within two weeks, you know the high figures that have been recorded here in north Wales, it's my opinion that if you were to suddenly test all homes, say within two or three days, we wouldn't just see our figures spike, we would see them skyrocket here.
Now, the testing centre here in Llandudno was opened on 29 April. According to an FOI that I submitted to the Betsi Cadwaladr board, only 258 nursing home and local authority workers were tested at the Llandudno site by 28 May. This actually works out, on average, as eight workers a day. There are criticisms about the testing centre not having much traffic going through it when there is mass testing still required here in the north. So, I would like your opinion on that. Why were so few critical workers seen in this centre last month? And what steps are you taking to monitor testing levels at all drive-through centres across Wales? I would like to see those figures reported.
Testing does remain troublesome here. As of 27 May, testing capacity was over 9,000 a day. On Monday, only 2,492 tests were undertaken. Why is all the testing capacity not being used, when we know out in our communities we have these people—vulnerable people—who need these tests? How can we therefore have confidence in test, trace and protect if the number of daily tests are only around 10 per cent of the 20,000 tests a day the Welsh Government has previously stated that contact tracing could require?
I will deal with the final point first. Contact tracing could require up to 20,000 tests depending on where we are in terms of coming out of lockdown and the rate of the transmission spread. Trying to compare where we are now with what might happen months in the future is a pretty foolish place to get yourself into and it's not at all an honest way of describing where we are. And I just think, at a time when people are worried, to try to put out ideas and figures that are openly and undeniably misleading is incredibly irresponsible.
You're doing that.
On your figures on north Wales and care home testing, we're actually going through and seeing that north Wales has the highest per head testing ratio of any of the health board areas in the country. So, it's already got a higher testing level than anywhere else. But the good news about that is that whilst there are more people who are identified as having COVID-19, we're actually recognising that when it comes to the harm that's caused, in terms of hospital admissions and, indeed, then in terms of mortality rates, in mortality rates its the second lowest of the seven health boards in Wales, and that's good news for people in north Wales.
On the Llandudno testing centre, I regularly have feedback from local resilience fora and other partners, including people representing staff and employers in the social care sector, and they've indicated for some time a significant improvement in access to testing and making use of the referral arrangements. They have been improved now further, with greater ease of access for the public as well as critical workers, who can all now book online to book their own test at a drive-through centre. So, we've made not just improvements in the lab capacity to undertake more tests, but access to those has improved.
Thank you. Rhun ap Iorwerth.
I'd like to return to something that—[Interruption].
Sorry, Minister, I thought you'd finished.
No, I was talking then. A message came up saying my internet connection was unstable. I may have faded out for a second. I was just making the point—
Right. Sorry, Rhun, I'll come back to you. Do you want to briefly finish, then, Minister?
I was on my final point. The two to three thousand tests a day that we're undertaking now is a measure of the current need and demand that exists within our system, but we anticipate that that will increase as we move further out of lockdown, and, as there is more contact between people and greater need, we can actually follow up and test more people. It goes back to what I've said consistently—our test, trace and protect system requires a bigger infrastructure, and we're in a place now where we've got a much more significant capacity to be able to do so.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.
Thank you. We'll try again now then. Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Now, Welsh Government has so far refused to recommend that people should wear face masks when out in public. The latest advice I could find from Welsh Government is that people could wear them if they want to, which isn't particularly useful, because people look to Government for leadership at times like this.
I must say, the evidence that I am seeing is getting much, much stronger on this. A major report in The Lancet this week found that the wearing of face masks could be a very useful contribution towards keeping infection rates low. The World Health Organization is absolutely saying that the use of masks isn't enough on its own, but saying wearing a mask can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including coronavirus. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States recommends them. There was an interesting study from California and Taiwan at the end of May saying that the virus can remain infectious indoors for hours, and that
'measures designed to reduce aerosol transmission must be implemented,'—
and I'm quoting here—
'including universal masking'.
Some 50 countries, I think, now insist that people have to wear masks, at least in some situations—just on public transport in some countries, far more widespread in others. Now, they don't have the physical side effects, potentially, of a new drug say, or the mental health implications of lockdown, so surely, the burden of proof should be lower on this. And if it makes a contribution, then why not? Even if only part of a marginal-gains approach. So, will Government listen to that growing evidence and introduce clear guidelines actively encouraging the use of face covering?
Well, the guidance and decision making of the Government that you referred to, of course, relies on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Dr Frank Atherton. He has reviewed the evidence, and the advice that is current in Wales comes from his advice and recommendations to us, and that is that there is limited benefit and that he is not in a position where the evidence is strong enough to recommend that people do wear masks in particular situations outside, of course, front-line care work as part of PPE.
When it comes to what might happen in the future, as I've said and will say on a number of occasions, where the evidence changes, we'll be happy to shift our position. And indeed, the chief medical officer will, of course, continue to review the evidence. In each of these—as we've seen on testing policy—it's possible that that evidence changes fairly rapidly.
We made three different choices on policy over a six-week period on care home testing because the evidence base had changed at a really rapid pace. And that's pretty disconcerting for the public, I know, but it's pretty disconcerting for decision makers as well. But if we're not prepared to be agile in decision making and being prepared to reconsider where we are as that evidence base firms up, then we won't be in the right position.
So, it is possible that there will be a change in the future, but the current advice from our chief medical officer is not to do so. But as I say, I wouldn't want to close off the reality that that advice could change and the chief medical officer's advice could change. At which point in time, of course, you would expect Ministers to make a different decision.
And I'd urge you to ask the chief medical officer to look at this. You say it might be something for the future, but when we're fighting coronavirus, the future is now in a way. What's going to happen with the pattern of the disease in Wales over the coming months can be affected by decisions that are taken now.
I've spent much of the past three months pushing for the best possible protection for front-line staff. You mentioned them, of course. I still need to do that. Maybe you could comment on reports of out-of-date PPE still being in use—masks expired in 2008 being seen by nurses with stickers underneath saying 'expiry 2016'. I'd be grateful for a copy of guidance on the process that's followed to decide when expired PPE is fit for re-issue.
Again, to finish, on that issue of the public wearing of masks—a homemade mask is much better than nothing. Of course, it means there's no impact then on PPE stock for key workers. No real cost either, so issues of equality are addressed in that. Worldwide, there are community schemes making masks, including groups in Wales. This is my mask, actually. This has travelled across the world. It was made by a friend in the United States—part of a community group making masks to give to others. Will you support a mask Cymru initiative urging more people to get involved in making masks, sharing simple templates and so on? This is something we can all do, bonding us as communities. We can even have competitions: who can make the best looking masks and that kind of thing. It contributes to the normalisation of the wearing of face coverings, and just perhaps, if the growing evidence is right, as I believe it is, it could save lives, too.
On your point about PPE, all of our PPE that is issued goes through a quality control process, including if the initial expiry dates mean that that PPE can still, no less, be used and used safely, because that is the test that we apply: have we got adequate PPE—adequate in terms of the protection that it provides, making sure that it's in date and appropriate for staff to use? And as you know, we're in the position where we have not just managed to resolve our own current PPE challenges for our front-line health and social care staff, but we've provided mutual aid in significant numbers to other UK countries, including England, and that's been the right thing to do.
So, we're in a good position on PPE compared to where we were just a matter of a few weeks ago. There's got to be a warning note on that, because as we move forward with the peak of the disease, it's entirely possible that there'll be more pressure on where we are as we ease and come out of lockdown and what might happen in the winter, and equally, demand in other parts of the world might mean that there's again greater competition for PPE supplies that we're acquiring, but again, I want to put on record my thanks to those Welsh companies that have created PPE for our front-line staff. There has been a tremendous response right across the country.
On your point about mask and face coverings, I think it's important because when people talk about masks, I think there's a lot of confusion about those being things that are the sort of grade you expect front-line health and care workers or others to raise, but I recognise you're making a point about face coverings, which are different. If the advice changed, then we'd of course need to think about how that would be, because I don't think the Government will be in a position to provide face coverings to every member of the public, but these are things that people can provide themselves. And it's actually important to remember that this is about protecting other people in case you have coronavirus. But the starting point is, if you're symptomatic, you shouldn't be out in public anyway: you should be self-isolating and getting tested.
If the advice changes, we'll of course need to consider what that means in terms of how those face coverings are provided and in what settings. So, like I say, going back to my first answer, if the evidence changes, if the advice changes, then the Government will be happy to explain that and to change our position because our aim, as ever, is to keep Wales safe.
Thank you for your statement, Minister. Despite your assertion, what we saw this week was not a significant easing of lockdown. In reality, it is a minor change, because for the vast majority of people living in Wales, family will live more than 5 miles away. When announcing the changes, the First Minister said the decision to impose a general principle of not travelling more than 5 miles was based upon scientific evidence. So, Minister, will you publish that evidence? Has that evidence been peer reviewed? Minister, can you explain to my constituents unable to visit loved ones why it is perfectly okay for them to travel more than 5 miles to queue with strangers in a garden centre, but they can't travel to stand 2 metres apart from a family member or friend?
On Monday, you launched the young person's mental health toolkit, which recognises the enormous impact this pandemic is having on everybody's mental health, and the longer the restrictions last, the greater the impact they will have. I know that tackling this disease is a balancing act between the direct harms of COVID-19 versus the indirect harms. Minister, do you believe that you have struck the right balance in this instance?
Our path out of lockdown is contingent on track, trace and protect. However, it is currently taking too long for tests to be conducted. Minister, what steps are you taking to speed up the process and expand our testing capacity? Many activities will require a much wider, more streamlined testing regime, and we know that routine dental treatments can't start until next year, but surely, if we were to test dentists and patients and certify them COVID-free, then treatment could be undertaken. Without such a system in place, how will my constituent, the owner of a wedding dress shop, Elin Baker, conduct her business? She's using her spare time now and her facilities and her knowledge to make PPE for the NHS, so she's using her time wisely, but we must understand that wedding dresses have to be fitted, and they can't be fumigated, so does she have to wait until there is a vaccine before she can reopen?
And finally, Minister, the First Minister said on Monday that you can only make one change to measures every three weeks due to the scientific advice from SAGE and the World Health Organization. So, please can you confirm that this is the approach you are taking and will you outline how long you anticipate it will be before most lockdown measures are relaxed? Thank you.
Perhaps I can start with that final point, because we've consistently said—and it's been in some of the papers that we've already published on the scientific evidence—I think we've been as open if not more open than any other Government in the UK on making available that evidence that we're receiving as Ministers—that advice—and then actually going out and making our decisions and taking accountability for them. I think it's really important that our advisers understand that we're taking responsibility as Ministers and really are taking their advice seriously. That includes this point about there being one significant intervention, and I want to be able to assess and understand its impact before including a further significant intervention as well. And that's why it would be entirely cavalier and wholly wrong for me to try to forecast when lockdown will end and life will return to normal as we knew it in February this year. I think the public are wise to that and recognise that those sorts of artificial deadlines don't provide the sort of reassurance that they are looking for and it's much better to be honest and honest about the level of uncertainty that we are dealing with.
Within each review, when we conduct a review of our lockdown regulations, we'll consider what we're doing, we'll then confirm we're doing that and as I say, the regular publications and advice that we're receiving will continue to be made available to help inform the public, to maintain the essential trust that we need as well. And I do think one significant change that we made this time around in—. People can go out and meet as long as they adhere to social distancing, expanding that and giving some shape to travel, because in the previous period, we had quite a lot of criticism from a range of people, in particular those representing valleys and rural areas, that telling people to simply exercise their judgment on what was local wasn't really working. And in providing a 5 mile default as a rule of thumb, as the First Minister set out from the moment he introduced the new easements, I think it's given some shape to that without it being a hard rule, because that would not have taken account of the different circumstances that some people live within, so I think we have done the right thing, and the rationale for staying local is about containing and not spreading the virus. If we removed restrictions for people to travel around the country, then I think there would be enough people in Wales who would act in such a way that you would start to see parts of the country—beauty spots and others—having larger numbers of people in a way that none of us should want to see or encourage. So, I think we're doing the right thing in maintaining a 'stay local' message and you'll see that that's not inconsistent with the messages from Scotland and Northern Ireland and, indeed, the leader of Bournemouth council herself has said that she wants the same approach in England.
On our testing speed, that's improving all the time; on the reopening of dentistry, the letter to the chief dental officer will be published; I'll provide a short written statement so that Members are notified on when that is available. I don't think that you're suggesting that you just certifying people as COVID free is necessarily as simple as that sounds. It tells you what the position is at the time someone has had the test, and so I don't think that's necessarily a helpful way forward.
On your constituent, who is a wedding dress maker, as we know, most weddings aren't taking place, and so actually, there isn't business for her in her normal business and that's because of the reality that people go to weddings and mix with other people. I had a great time on my wedding day, but you certainly couldn't have a wedding like that at this point in time.
Then finally, on the balance of harms, you'll have seen that balance of harms in the difficult decision that the education Minister's made today. Balancing the harm that lockdown causes by schools being closed, needing and wanting to return in a way that is as safe as possible and not just in doing that, but thinking about an entirely different way of managing the school day, and recognising that not providing education to more children until the start of September would cause harm to those children for their future educational prospects, and the greatest harm would be to our most vulnerable children and their families. So, we're always having to balance the different harms that come from coronavirus, that come from the lockdown, and we'll continue to see the difficult balance being struck by Welsh Ministers as we continue to keep Wales safe.
Thank you. Dawn Bowden.
Okay, thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Sorry, I had to unmute.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement. One of the things I'd like to say was that I'm very grateful for the continued briefings and updates that we get—Members of the Senedd and the Members of Parliament across my area—for meeting both the health boards and getting the regular information from them. I think it probably is worth placing on record again our thanks to everybody that's working in the NHS and doing absolutely amazing, amazing things during this pandemic. Without in any way being complacent, I've been really pleased to see the number of people actually being discharged from hospital having fully recovered from COVID, and seeing that the capacity in hospitals across my area, including in ICUs—actually coping quite well. However, what does remain a concern for me is the high levels of infections across Merthyr Tydfil and RCT, and that seems to be in direct contrast to what's happening across the rest of Wales. Now, we know that in Merthyr and RCT we have lots of terraced streets and families living close to each other, and that may well be considered as one of the reasons for the high levels of infections, as I think the First Minister alluded to in response to questions on his statement this morning. But it's also true that other Valleys communities and some of our inner city areas also have terraced houses and families living close together and don't seem to have the same levels of infections there. Now, anecdotally we've heard reports—
Can you come to your question, please? Thank you.
We've heard reports of people not respecting social distancing in some areas, but I'd like to know if there is something more that's going on in these communities? And I'd be grateful if you could advise what work the Government's epidemiologists are doing to try to establish if, in fact, there is anything other than behaviours going on in these communities which is keeping infection levels so relatively high.
Thank you for the question, Dawn, and it is a matter of fact—to put this in some context—that whilst the peak of the epidemic is different in different parts of Wales, it is a fact that the Aneurin Bevan, Cardiff and Vale and Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board areas have had a higher incidence in terms of per-head infections, and the harm that has been caused and, in turn, the mortality rates—Cwm Taf Morgannwg area has a higher mortality rate than any other health board area in Wales. So, it is a matter of obvious concern. But you're right to point out that there are other communities with similar physical and geographical characteristics, and we don't fully understand yet from our epidemiologists the exact reasons why this is different within RCT and Merthyr, because even the points about the physical health and well-being of the communities that are served—well, they're not so radically different from lots of other Valleys communities, but we do see a materially different level of an infection. So, we are still looking at that as we're looking and learning across the whole pandemic.
I do want to provide more information, not just on where we are, but what we think we need to advise people to do. But I think the starting point is that everyone should take seriously the social distancing messages. The guidance is there to help people to stick to the rules, to make clear what is allowed and within the rules and the spirit of the rules that we've created, and they'll also help people understand what isn't, and to recognise that this is about preventing harm to those people and their families and their communities and people they may never meet. If people don't follow the guidance that we've provided and don't—. In the overwhelming majority of Wales, we had really high levels of agreement with and support for those rules, and we all need to stick with it because the ONS figures this week show over 2,100 deaths in Wales, and there are still deaths every day. So, no-one should think that we can go back to normal and behave as if this never happened. We'll have months and months of difficult behaviour when we'll ask people to be self-disciplined, because if we don't, if we see coronavirus take off again, we'll see many thousands more people being harmed by coronavirus. And, again, the fantastic commitment we've had from our whole NHS and the people recovered now—we're going to need to call on those people even more, and I don't think we should press their commitment beyond that. It's up to us to make our own choices, each one of us, as to how will we all play our part in keeping Wales safe.
Thank you. Mark Isherwood.
I can't hear him.
We need to unmute Mark's mike.
I've done it. Can you hear me?
Yes, go on, you can speak now.
Thank you. I thought it was automatic, apologies.
Nursing homes are receiving a temporary fee increase for adult social care placements, but this excludes health board-funded placements. With regard to continuing healthcare funding, Care Forum Wales has highlighted that nursing homes in north Wales are disadvantaged by comparison with elsewhere. How do you, therefore, respond to sector concern that although continuing healthcare-funded residents have even more complex needs, there's been no mention of an uplift related to COVID-19?
In England dental practices are allowed to reopen from 8 June, provided strict criteria have been met before aerosol generating procedures can be performed. In Wales no provision has been made for dental practices to be allowed to do this. How, therefore, do you respond to the north Wales dental surgeons who tell me that unless you change tack, dental services and the livelihoods of thousands of hard-working and committed professionals in Wales will be destroyed?
Thank you. On the two questions—on nursing home fees, we have regular dialogue, as a Government, with Care Forum Wales. We've had that dialogue in the regular engagement that I and officials have had about improving testing, and that's now in a much better place for the residential care sector in particular. And the Deputy Minister, Julie Morgan, meets with Care Forum Wales on a regular basis each week. So, there is regular dialogue and opportunities for Care Forum Wales to raise concerns they have, in addition to not just the Deputy Minister but, of course, in the regular dialogue they have with officials as well. So, we'll continue to review—[Interruption.]
Sorry, could somebody put Mr Isherwood's mike off? We're not having heckling or intervening on questions, sorry. Vaughan Gething.
We'll continue to talk with them about what's possible as we continue to review what we're able to do across the whole of our response to the pandemic. As I've said in answer to questions earlier, if the evidence changes, we'll be happy to change the position we're in and, of course, the way that we use the resources available to us.
On the position about dentistry in England, it's not quite as simple as reported. I think the impression was given earlier this week that there was going to be a wholesale opening of dentistry in England, and that isn't quite the case there. We've had direct advice from the chief dental officer in Wales. She's written out to every dental practice to indicate how we'll want to restart safely more dental activity.
But it is a point about safely restarting dental activity, because there is a risk to both the patient and the person working in very close proximity to them. Just as we've had to balance all of the risks, the harms and the evidence that we have in the difficult decision the education Minister has made today about a different form of schools' operation for four weeks for the end of this school year, we have to think about the balance of risks for people working in dentistry. I would not want to try to place the opportunity to make money ahead of seeing a range of our dental professionals losing their lives if we're taking a cavalier approach. That's why the professional advice of the chief dental officer is so important. As I said earlier, we'll continue to be guided by the evidence, and I will be making public her letter and her advice to dentists across Wales.
Minister, last month, you announced that care workers in Wales would receive a £500 bonus payment for their contribution during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has now become apparent that the sum will be liable for income tax and national insurance deductions, meaning the actual sum people earning over the personal allowance will receive will be £360, not £500. Plaid Cymru believes that this bonus payment should not be taxed and that it should be extended to all care home workers, including cleaning staff and kitchen staff.
Minister, the carers who heard your announcement last month may have made plans to spend that £500 already on a well-deserved holiday after all of this is over or to pay overdue bills. Does the Welsh Government regret not being open about the fact that this bonus payment would be taxed when you announced it on International Workers' Day?
I think there are two things—the first is that the Welsh Government was never in a position to give a guarantee that it would not be taxed. We made clear publicly that we wanted the UK Government to agree not to tax this so it could be treated, as Mike Hedges said earlier, as a gift, not as a taxable payment. They've done that in the past in extraordinary circumstances—for example, it was a welcome move on behalf of the UK Government not to tax the hardship payments that some councils were able to make during the recent flooding that we saw. I find it deeply disappointing that the UK Government have decided to apply tax to this payment.
The Welsh Government made direct representations, not just public statements, to the UK Government, and they've now responded by saying that they expect to make a tax deduction. That's a decision for the UK Government. I think that they should reconsider, they should think again, to make sure that what is essentially a low-paid, largely female workforce should get the full £500. But it's a matter for the UK Government to decide whether it's more important to them to take tax out of this payment or to do the right thing by our care workers. I hope they do the right thing.
Minister, we've heard some reference today to the health service increasingly addressing non-COVID conditions, and the quarter 1 plans, I know, are to be submitted shortly. But I know that the cancer charities, for example, remain very concerned that we're not seeing the consultations, the diagnosis, the detection and early treatment of these very serious cancer conditions, which are all too prevalent, that should be taking place. So, I just wonder exactly how Welsh Government is working with the cancer charities, the health boards, the health sector generally, to make sure that that return to dealing with these non-COVID conditions, as would have taken place prior to the pandemic, is taking place comprehensively and consistently across Wales, while at the same time, obviously, balancing the treatment of the ongoing pandemic, as has to happen.
Thank you for the question. It's one of the concerns that I've had and expressed for a number of weeks now, that a range of our urgent care services that have remained open haven't seen people going into them, partly because people have been more frightened of going into a healthcare facility than the symptoms or concerns they would have had. Six months previously, people would have been more likely to go and seek help or advice from a health professional. It's also the case that we discover a range of cancers when people attend for a different reason. For all of those appointments and attendances that are not taking place, there's a risk not just of the direct harm someone understands may well be taking place but other harm that gets discovered.
We are now starting to see a recovery in those numbers of people attending. I indicated some of this yesterday in the press conference and I've referred to it in the written statement as well. However, we've also seen a welcome change in referring behaviour as well, so the more people that are attending, the more people are being referred, for example, through primary care. We saw a fall off in the referrals, we're now starting to see a recovery.
In the statements that have been made on the quarter 1 plans, we're also in the position where we're seeing diagnostic services recovering. We're looking to see a return to endoscopy services. That's going to be difficult because there's going to be large amount of demand going into those services, but we are starting to see a staid recovery.
And in the regional plans I referred to, cancer services are a very obvious area where there'd need to be co-operation over more than one health board area. We already deliver cancer services over more than one health board area on a regular basis. We'll need to see more of that in terms of planning our recovery. And in terms of working with the cancer charities, I'm due to see the cancer alliance before the end of this month, I believe.
But this is part of our broader programme, and if I could just make a separate point, which is that in a range of areas we're having to think about how we do things differently. A good example outside the cancer ward of having to do things differently because there's still a risk is the way that we've re-engineered our diabetic retinopathy service for people who are pregnant. So, pregnant women who are diabetic are at a particular risk of suffering harm to their sight. We've now got a new pathway that's been rolled out to make sure that we're able to provide that service, otherwise significant and permanent harm could have been caused to their sight. So, we're already going through this, and in each area of activity, not just in cancer services, having to redesign our services and aim that at how we do the greatest good to avoid the greatest amount of harm being caused.
Minister, I've suffered a dental abscess during the lockdown. I'm told that it could well return; it happens frequently after people have had the antibiotics. It's non-urgent, so I'm just keeping my fingers crossed. So, the fact that it may not be properly treated until January 2021 obviously directly affects me, but we're being written to by many patients and many, many dentists—and I'm sure all Members would agree with this—and I do urge further consideration of the plan. And I do completely accept that it needs to be considered very carefully, but the British Dental Association, in response to the recent hints, has said—I quote—there's 'great, growing demand' for swifter action before January 2021. That's non-emergency treatments. And it has also said, and I quote:
'There are very good, robust policies in place to make sure patients and the team are protected.'
So, can we look at this with great care? Because I think the initial plan has come under a lot of comment and probably does need some careful review, and I hope the British Dental Association will be fully involved in that.
Well, I'd be very happy to make sure that the Government and the professional leadership provided by our chief dental officer maintains the regular dialogue that we do have with the British Dental Association here in Wales. I think we should, again, accelerate the reform of the way we deliver dental services to have a greater focus on doing the greatest amount of good with the resource we have available. I would, as would the chief dental officer, want to return to having a greater amount of dental activity sooner rather than later, but it's got to be in a safe manner, and that's where we are. So, whilst I will be clear and transparent in publishing her current advice to dental professionals in Wales, if there's a further update in that ongoing dialogue, then I'll be happy to keep Members updated and to give that undertaking. And if there's any further change in the way we're able to do that and the pace that we're able to do that in keeping patients and dental professionals safe, then I'll happily make sure that all Members are informed of that at the same time.
Minister, just two points: I'm very pleased that the Welsh Government made the announcement that it would test all residents and staff in care homes. My own health board indicates that they expect to complete theirs in this area by the end of this week.
However, I am concerned about the retesting scenario, because there are situations where some tests have come back positive, because they were asymptomatic, and therefore there are residents and staff who did not demonstrate signs or symptoms of COVID-19 but have proved positive through the testing. And there could be a situation where other Members of staff, therefore, could also, as a consequence, prove positive in the future and therefore put more residents at risk. So, can you provide a detailed update as to when retesting for care home staff in particular would be available to ensure that, as they go in and out of the homes, they're not taking the virus back in with them, being asymptomatic?
Can I also concur on the situation with dentists? I'm sure, as David Melding highlighted, we all have received correspondence regarding dentistry. I know, under Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, that the dentists took very special measures, so they're already well-versed in safe practices in relation to dealing with patients. But I also accept the responsibilities you have to ensure the safety of the staff in the dentist practices as well.
Well, the point on dentistry is understood and, of course, from my own position as a constituency Member, I've got people who will want to access dental services. Actually, we have struggled in the past to get people to take up those services in the way that we would want them to, and it's another point about the way that children and young people actually behave together and our ability to intervene earlier to actually inculcate good habits about dental hygiene. So, I do take seriously the points that Members from a range of parties have made, both here but also outside this setting, about the desire and the benefit from restarting dental services. So, I'm not ignoring or brushing that to one side; I am genuinely taking it seriously.
On your point about retesting in care homes: I expect, before the end of the completion of the initial phase, to have advice about the period of time within which retesting will take place and what that retesting programme will look like, so we don't end up with a position when, in three months' time, there's another head of steam to retest people in the care home sector, but we have a regular and understandable programme. And I then have to balance that with the need that we'll need to maintain and protect capacity within our testing programme to do that, and still to make sure that we have sufficient capacity to make sure that contact tracing isn't compromised as well. Because I certainly wouldn't want our new NHS Wales test, trace, protect service to be compromised in some way. But, equally, we need to make sure we're balancing the risks that are run in all parts of the service. That's why the increase in lab capacity to more than 9,500 we've seen take place is such good news; it allows us to have those choices, to not be constrained by capacity. But I need to see the evidence, to see the advice, and, as soon as that's available, I'll be happy to inform not just the Member but all Members of what that means and what our expectation is for retesting to take place for staff and residents in the care home sector.
Helen Mary Jones. No.
Helen Mary is silenced.
Can we—can somebody help Helen Mary? We can't hear her. Can somebody help her to unmute the mike, please? No. Can I leave Helen? I will come back to you, Helen, unless—have you got your mike open now? No. Okay, I'll come back to you. Jack Sargeant.
Diolch yn fawr, Deputy Llywydd. Minister, coronavirus, the need for isolation and the financial toll that residents across Wales are paying will, of course, have a huge impact on their mental health. Now, news that 1,700 patients were wrongly discharged in north Wales fills nobody with the confidence that services in north Wales are all that they should be. Now, I understand that there are currently huge pressures on our NHS, but this is obviously not good enough. Residents in north Wales need to have the confidence in services.
Minister, we have all been suffering a mental health pandemic long before COVID-19. So, not just as parliamentarians and Governments, but as human beings, we need to do more. Minister, what can you say to my constituents to reassure them that the lessons are being learned and that those affected are given the support they need as a matter of urgency?
I think it's a point I've dealt with before, but it's entirely a fair point for the Member to raise in this setting as well, about the mistake, and it was a mistake, that was made in discharging people when they should not have been. The health board in north Wales are recovering that, because the guidance that we provided to every health board I thought was very clear that mental health services are essential services and should continue throughout the pandemic.
And there's this broader point—and it's part, again, of the point that was raised earlier in questions about the different harms that are caused by coronavirus, and one of the harms, in keeping us physically alive and in saving lives, is that we will undoubtedly have seen harm caused to people's mental health and well-being. So, there'll be more demand coming into each tier of our services, so the tier 0 and tier 1 services, where they're relatively low level, will undoubtedly see more demand, just as will other areas where there's more significant demand.
That's why myself and the education Minister made our announcement on providing more resource for children and young people, and it's why I'll continue to keep on looking at the mental health issues being raised not just in the children and young people committee, and may get raised in the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee tomorrow, but to make sure that the extra infrastructure we've put in place to test and to check that mental health services are still functioning and dealing with need continues in place. We bought more beds at the start of this pandemic for the highest level of need; I have made more money available through the budget. So, I can assure Jack Sargeant that not just the treatment end, but the point about the conversation we have about mental health in this country, going back to, 'It's okay to say you're not okay'—it's really important that we do that as well in the way we live our own lives with the people around us, and what we say and how we act in public as well.
Thank you. We'll try Helen Mary Jones again.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. So, I'm very sorry, Minister, but I am unsilenced again. [Laughter.] If I may take you back to the issue with regard to shielding that was raised earlier with the First Minister by my colleague Delyth Jewell, I hope that the Welsh Government will be able to provide the 32 organisations that have written to you concerned about the way that announcement was made and asking for more clarity—I hope that you'll be able to provide them with a fuller answer than the First Minister was able to provide to Delyth Jewell this afternoon.
But, very specifically—and I hope you'll take this opportunity to reassure people—is it the case, Minister, that those people who have been advised to shield will continue to receive the support services that they currently receive? I'm thinking of things like the food boxes, the supermarket slots. I don't know if other Members have been, but I've certainly been contacted by constituents who've been left a little bit confused as to whether they will continue to get those services and for how long. So, I hope, Minister, you'll take the opportunity to reassure them this afternoon.
It may be worth me putting on record that the announcement about shielding came on the back of advice from the chief medical officer. So, this wasn't a case where I decided that I wanted to change the category and so I made a choice to do that without any evidence or advice. We did think we were going to be in a position to make a unified announcement with other UK countries, and then the time frame for that shifted. The announcement in England was made on a Saturday night, when I had expected that it might have been made later. We certainly would have been able to make it on a Sunday afternoon. That was my expectation, and we'd have had not just Saturday getting ready, but then the whole of Sunday to speak with stakeholders, including people in local government—not just local government, of course, but the healthcare professions caring for people, and a range of others—to indicate that a change was on its way and to set out what it was.
When the English announcement was, effectively, made through a newspaper article that went online on Saturday night, and I had an unusual and unexpected telephone call on my Saturday evening to tell me that that had gone out, I then had a pretty straight choice to make, both of which are messy. The first was to try to go as planned and to make an announcement in the second half of the Sunday, which would have meant that inevitably we'd have had questions about what we were doing through the first half of the Sunday, and I think that would have put us in a farcical position where, despite us telling stakeholders to get ready for an announcement, we'd be telling the press, 'No comment. We haven't got anything to say', and that would have been ridiculous. By that point there already would have been uncertainty from shielded people, their families and friends, as well as people providing care and support for them in Wales, as to whether or not we were going to make an announcement in Wales. So, I made the decision—and, again, it was my decision to do this—that we should make our announcement on the Sunday morning. It's not ideal to make that announcement by press release when the written statement wasn't available and completed until later in the day. As I say, it was messy, but it was my judgment that that was the right thing to do, rather than to spend the morning explaining why we weren't going to do anything or avoiding questions.
I'd prefer it, as we review the shielding category and the support provided to them across the UK, not just in Wales, that we're able to do that by open conversation between chief medical officers and indeed the four health departments, and I know that's a view shared by colleagues in other parts of the UK. For shielded people in Wales, the chief medical officer will be writing directly. There are letters being printed that will start to go out from tomorrow. They'll hear directly from him about the future of the shielded category. People can expect that shielding to take place for at least a further couple of months. He'll set out the details of that, and he'll also be taking the press conference tomorrow to speak directly to the public, but Members can expect to see a copy of the letter that will be going out to your constituents as well. I'll make sure that's provided to you as it's ready and signed off. We did that previously. You can expect to see that again, because Members in constituencies and regions of all parties can expect there to be contact from your constituents asking what is happening. So, I think it's important that you see the text of that letter.
To your point about the support, as I have made clear on a number of occasions, and I'm happy to do so now on the record in the Senedd, the only change made is that shielded people are now advised they can go out, if they wish to, to exercise and to see one other household at a social distance. That is the only change that we're making—so, seeing people outside, being able to go outside for exercise. All other measures are in place, so we're saying to shielded people, 'Do not go and do your own shopping. Don't go into a shop to do that.' We're saying to shielded people, 'If you can't work from home, don't go into a workplace with other people, because the risks in terms of being in an indoor environment are still significant'. That means, of course, that we continue to provide that additional support in terms of food, so, both priorities for supermarket deliveries, those people that are taking the food boxes, that support is still available, and including other things like medicines delivery as well. So, all that support remains in place, but, for shielded people, the ability to go outside now, whereas the advice had previously been not to go outside for exercise outside your own home, that's changed, and I think that's a significant matter for shielded people. But we may need to revisit that. If we get into winter months, into the autumn, we may be in a position where that advice needs to change again, and it reinforces my point that we're a long way from being at the end of coronavirus.
Minister, I listened to that answer to Helen Mary and I have to say it always seems to be someone else's communication problem, doesn’t it? Let's go back to the £500 for the carers. I heard the First Minister's response to Mike Hedges, which I thought was disingenuous, and I heard your response to Delyth Jewell. So, are you telling me that either the Welsh Government did not know that, under UK law, wages are taxed in accordance with earning levels and therefore that £500 would be taxed, or are you telling me that the Welsh Government wanted the Chancellor to give it as a gift but you hadn't bothered to ask him before you made the announcement?
Finally, can you clarify to everybody who will get this payment? Because, on 28 May, you told me that all care home workers who work in a privately funded care home—i.e. a care home that does not take any state-aided people—would not get that £500. So, when we say that all care workers in Wales will get it, that is actually, technically, as my understanding is from my conversation with you on 28 May, incorrect, and I would be very grateful for your clarification because when we use the words 'privately funded', we have to remember that this is a lot of Welsh people who are just scraping by on the last of their savings to get into a private care home. They don't have a lot of money, their staff won't have much money.
Well, the final details of who is going to receive the payment will be announced when we've finalised the negotiations with employers and trade unions, which I understand are near final, so you will hear that in the coming days, and I think it'll provide the clarity that you're looking for, Angela.
In terms of the tax on the £500, it's always been a UK decision. We did make representations through officials in advance about the taxable treatment of it, and we wrote directly to make representations. It was also raised by the finance Minister in conversation as well. So it's a matter for the UK Government to decide whether or not this money should be given as a gift, and it was their choice to apply tax to it. I still think it's the right thing for them to reconsider and to not apply tax to the £500 for social care workers. I'll be disappointed, as I'm sure other Members across other parties will be, if the UK Government don't reconsider taking tax from this money so it doesn't go directly into the pockets of relatively low-paid women workers and instead goes into the Treasury. I think that would—. Frankly, it wouldn't be a good look for the UK Government, and they're not expecting to have this money, so it essentially would be a tax windfall for the Treasury, and I just think that a windfall from social care workers to the Treasury is absolutely not the place where the UK Treasury should be. It's within their gift to make sure that tax isn't applied and again I urge them to do so.
In terms of the shielding, well, it's a matter of fact what happened with shielding. It's not a matter of saying it's someone else's—. It's a matter of fact that that is what happened. I've been able to work really constructively with health Ministers across other Governments, with the unionist health Minister in the multiparty Government in Northern Ireland, the SNP health Minister in Scotland and, indeed, the Conservative Cabinet health Minister in England, but there are times where we don't always agree. We're grown up about that. There are times where what each of us does affects the other; this was one of those occasions. So it's simply a matter of fact. We were not expecting an announcement on shielding in England to be made through a newspaper column on Saturday night, but that is what happened.
I can't hear Mick. I can't lip read, either.
No. We're not getting—. Can somebody assist Mr Antoniw? There we are.
How's that? Is that okay?
There we are. Start again.
Minister, there are many consequences of coronavirus, not just the disease. We've discussed the associated consequences of lockdown, such as mental health. The one I want to raise, though, is the increased risk in respect of gambling addiction. You will be familiar, Minister, I would have thought, with the case of Chris Bruney, who was a 25-year-old who lost £119,000 in five days. He was then offered by the gambling company a bonus of £400. He took his own life, and the company has just been fined. Now that was just one of the examples pre-coronavirus.
Of course, what we have now is a captive market in respect of online gambling, and the March data alone for 2020 indicates that virtual betting increased by 40 per cent, poker by 38 per cent and, of those who placed more than one bet, online betting increased by 88 per cent, online poker 53 per cent and, of course, there are many other similar data as well. I suspect the April figures will show even higher levels of online gambling participation, leading to the public health risks that had been identified before the lockdown. I'm wondering, Minister, if you could let us know whether this is something that you've discussed with the chief medical officer. If not, will you discuss it with the chief medical officer to see what we can actually do to prepare for what I suspect is going to be a significant increase in problems associated with online gambling addiction, and it will be a legacy that we will have to deal with as we come out of coronavirus?
I think it's a point well made, actually, by the Member, and I recognise his longstanding and continuing interest in the real public health harms caused by gambling. I don't think now is the time to go into the division of powers that exist, but we do still need to understand what that means and we do understand that there has been a significant increase in online gambling, as the Member sets out. So, I will definitely take it up specifically with the chief medical officer about where we are and what that means in terms of not just our understanding of the harms caused now, but what that means for the future. If more people are spending more time on online gambling, there's no guarantee—in fact, we'd expect that it would be not the case that those people will disappear and stop online gambling in exactly the same numbers as we progress out of the lockdown. We could be talking about longer term challenges in terms of the addiction that gambling sadly is for some people. So, I'll happily take it up with the chief medical officer, and I'm happy to undertake to write to the Member in due course.
Thank you. And finally, Neil McEvoy.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Minister, in terms of COVID, you say that you've followed scientific advice continuously. I wouldn't agree with that, actually, but you say that you've relied on science. So, there's a proposal to dump 780,000 tonnes of mud from outside Hinkley Point nuclear power station into the waters just outside Cardiff, 1 mile off the coast. Now, scientists tell us that they're convinced—and they've said it on the record—they are convinced that the mud contains plutonium. So, in terms of you being the health Minister and also the AM for southern Cardiff, will you support the scientists' call to test the mud for plutonium, because it has never been tested for that? Diolch.
As the Member knows, I'm here to answer questions as the health Minister in the Welsh Government. I'm very well aware of my responsibilities for the constituency that I've had the privilege to be directly elected to represent twice to this Parliament. And as the Member knows, there is plenty of scientific evidence and advice around the removal and transfer of mud within an estuary environment, and I recall the spiky conversation the Member had in the Chamber with Alun Davies, who actually had spent some time looking at this during his time before the Assembly, as it then was, and indeed during his time as the environment Minister. And the Member is taking the view of some scientists rather than the accepted scientific consensus.
So, Lesley Griffiths, as the Minister with some responsibility in this area, will be guided by the scientific advice that she receives. It's a matter for Natural Resources Wales, though, of course, as you know, to understand that science and decide what to do in the granting of licences. And I think trying to return to a scare story over nuclear mud at a time when we're dealing with a pandemic that is far from finished is entirely the wrong thing to do when it comes to questions to the health Minister about where we are with this once-in-a-century event. But, no doubt, Mr McEvoy will continue to make his own choices.
That's an outrageous comment, Minister—outrageous.
Thank you. Thank you, Minister, for that.
We now move on to item 5 on our agenda, which is a statement by the Minister for Education and an update on the education provision. So, I call on the Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and good afternoon, colleagues. The response to COVID-19 has been a profound challenge for the whole of the education community. Our schools and colleges have already stepped up in the defence against COVID, establishing provision for children of critical workers and for vulnerable children, and managing remote learning on an unprecedented scale with astonishing pace. Once again, I want to thank the education professionals as a whole, and especially those who've supported the operation of the hubs, for their dedication, professionalism and hard work over this period.
The Government has today published a paper from its COVID-19 technical advisory group, representing the latest understanding of the virus with respect to children and education. I am satisfied that there is now space and opportunity to increase operations. To this end, I have made the decision that schools and pupil referral units should plan to increase their operations from 29 June. This gives schools, and indeed parents, three and a half weeks to continue preparing for the next phase of education. And it also provides the time needed for governing bodies and councils to progress the necessary statutory actions.
Almost all learners will have the opportunity to attend their school. I am describing this as a chance to work together for pupils so that they can check in, catch up and prepare for the summer and September. I recognise that for some learners who are shielding this contact may need to be via digital means.
I am also proposing that schools open for an extra week, ending on the 27 July, and this week’s holiday will be redistributed to the autumn term. This allows schools more contact time before the summer and gives an extra break in what is likely to be a very long and challenging autumn term.
In practice, I would expect schools accommodating reduced numbers of learners each day according to their own individual capacity, whilst ensuring appropriate social distancing is in place. It is expected that this will mean no more than a third of pupils present at any one time, although I recognise that some schools may not be able to reach this level of operation.
During this time, I would expect schools to use this period to support the health and well-being of learners and their staff, and that should be their foremost priority; check in with learners and support them in their preparedness for learning and consider next steps for learning as appropriate; to test the operations ready for the autumn term; and to continue to build the confidence of families in the very careful approach that we are taking. This is an opportunity for both learners and staff to prepare and get used to the new normal as it will look in September.
For the foreseeable future, learners will experience a blend of face-to-face and online learning. In the autumn, I expect that schools will have to continue to accommodate all learners who can attend at a reduced time to allow for social distancing. And when they are in school, it will feel very different, with staggered arrivals, departures and breaks, with far more time being spent outdoors, weather permitting, and in much smaller classes. However, I expect them to enjoy secure, dedicated time with teachers and classmates that they know well.
Decision makers, whether you are a Minister, a parent or a headteacher, always have to balance risks. In this current period, all of us have to think about the possibilities of direct and indirect harm. I have made the decision to increase operations before the summer holidays for a number of key reasons. Waiting until September would mean that most children would not have stepped foot in a school for at least 23 weeks, and I believe that this would be to the detriment of their development, their learning and their well-being. I am convinced that it is only by returning to their own schools that we will see increased attendance from our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
It allows us to make the most of the warm weather and sunlight, which has an important impact in combating transmission of the virus. It ensures that test, trace and protect will have been in place for a month and will continue to expand. And I can confirm that school staff will be a priority group in our new antibody testing programme, starting with staff who have currently been working in our hubs. And, crucially, the evolving science tells us that an autumn spike in the virus is a very real possibility. We could be losing even more learning time, and it would be made even worse without this period that I’m planning for today.
It is, of course, critical that schools have the proper support to operate at this time, and we're working with councils and schools to get all the necessary hygiene stock, safety measures and cleaning regimes in place. Next week, I will publish guidance to support schools in operating under these new conditions, and to support learning. The guidance will be revised and updated over the summer to help schools prepare for the autumn, in light of these experiences.
For further education, from 15 June, colleges and work-based learning providers will begin to reopen for face-to-face learning for a limited group of students and learners. My officials have worked with colleges and training providers to agree priority groups of learners who will be included in this initial phase of reopening, focusing on those who need to return to their college or training centre in order to continue to progress in their learning. This includes learners who need to carry out practical assessments to complete their qualifications, and those students who need extra support and guidance to stay on track and to stay in education.
Guidance for childcare providers will also be published in the next week, supporting them to increase the numbers of children in attendance alongside schools.
For schools, we now have over three weeks to continue planning, and to continue to get ready, and to continue, crucially, to focus on safety and well-being. We will work with the profession to ensure that they are supported both now and into the autumn. Headteachers will have the opportunity to work with their staff in schools to prepare fully for pupils. It also provides the time needed for governing bodies and councils to progress the necessary statutory actions and risk assessments to support staff and pupils to return.
I acknowledge that this is and continues to be a very worrying period for us all. I know that many will feel apprehensive. But I want to say we have not rushed this work or this decision. The three-and-a-half-week period before the next phase also gives me time to keep watch on developments elsewhere, and provides further check-in points to review evidence, and to watch the successful roll-out of testing and tracing.
This is the best practical option that meets my five principles. Working together, I know that we will secure equity and excellence for pupils as they check in, catch up, and prepare for summer and September.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer.
Thank you. Suzy Davies.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. And thank you to you, as well, Minister; I think there will be many—children, not least—across Wales who have been looking forward to an announcement of this kind. And can I just associate myself with the remarks that you made for all our teachers and families, and, of course, support staff who've helped work in the hubs as well as at home during this period?
I just wanted to ask you this: if we look at countries across western Europe where lockdown was imposed roughly the same time as in the UK, lifting lockdown is being done differently in different countries and, actually, within some of those countries. And on the face of it, the same actions don't always produce the same consequences, as between these regions, beyond the obvious that isolation limits the spread of the virus. Even so, their way forward, almost entirely, has been to open in a phased way in year groups. So, what has happened to allow you to be satisfied that there is space and opportunity to increase operations? And why have you proceeded to do this by application of a three-weekly cycle for a third of the school population, rather than that more popular year-group approach? And in so doing, how have you weighted factors such as emotional well-being and loss of learning against the primary concern of limiting the spread of the virus in the community?
The success of this approach, of course, is going to depend on community confidence, and I do welcome your remarks on protecting staff and children who remain vulnerable, so that no-one will be punished for not taking up the offer of school attendance. But will your guidance to schools include ascertaining which children don't want to go back to school? Can you tell us what a three-weekly cycle actually means? Is this going to be extended to the foundation phase, for three to five-year-olds—in which case, will non-school settings be affected? And will key workers' children be able to attend their own school five days a week along with vulnerable learners, or will they still have to go to hubs?
Thank you very much. I'll do my best to try and cover the multiple questions that Suzy Davies has asked. Key worker children will be able to attend their own schools, for the same hours that they are currently attending their hub schools. And that is the same for vulnerable children who already have an entitlement—they will do that now in their home school, when we move to the next phase at the end of June.
With regard to those families, I respect that each family will make a decision based on a number of factors, and what is right for them, and I respect families in their ability to do just that. If a family, for whatever reason, decides not to take up the opportunity of a check-in, then we will respect that and nobody will be fined, nor will attendance form part of any measurement of school performance either. I think that's important to say to teachers.
We do know that, at the moment, there are 4,000 children who themselves are in receipt of a shielding letter. Not all of those children will be of school age, and our advice to those children is that those children should not take up this opportunity of a check-in, and our expectation is that their needs will be met in a different way. And for those parents who are in receipt of a shielding letter, again, our advice would be that their children should not necessarily take up the offer, although it's a matter for them to weigh up. But again, they will not be disadvantaged—the check-in will happen in a different way for those children also.
What's been really important for me is the principle of equity and recognising that all children have an equal opportunity, and although it would be in some ways logistically simpler to have year groups, that means that, for some children, they would not have set foot in a school, as I said, for a considerable length of time and I believe that is detrimental to them.
We are moving very cautiously and, as I said, we will severely limit the number of children who can be on site at any one time. Our expectations are that classes will be very, very small, with a dedicated member of staff. And I need to make it very clear to Members, as I have hopefully to parents earlier today, that this in no way resembles school going back to normal. So, children will not be doing a full week in school, attending school every day— they will be allocated check-in slots for them to do that.
Now, in terms of ascertaining the level of demand, I would expect headteachers in this next three and a half weeks to be contacting parents to ascertain which parents will take up the offer of check-ins for their students and then be able to plan accordingly to ensure that numbers are kept to a manageable-to-safe level. I think it is important that all children have the opportunity to check in with their teachers, that all children's learning can be assessed at this point and that all families can be helped for the next phase of education.
Thank you for that. I think there's a serious point here about parental confidence, and I suppose one way that you could help improve that is by helping them understand, for example, how any adults in school hubs across Wales have been tested and with what returns, and whether there are any plans for testing asymptomatic adults in schools during the phased return, and also whether there's going to be some extra funding here for schools to implement the social distancing and hygiene measures, and for councils to provide sufficient school transport provision to comply with those same requirements.
I think there's also a question about consistency of application of the existing guidance across the whole of Wales. This is something I've raised with you before. If some children are still not going to be going to school and two thirds of those who do will still be getting their learning at home, I think we could do with some reassurance really on how you've been following councils and schools over this period to ascertain that the guidance that you've provided has been followed consistently across Wales.
Firstly, I think it's really important that we have a testing, tracing and protect regime that is robust to support the safe next stage of educational operations. You'll be aware that SAGE papers made it very clear that, in opening up schools to more pupils, testing and tracing had to be in place. We will have a month of the testing and tracing regime here in Wales before additional children will be going into school. That gives us the confidence that that system is up and running and is robust.
With regard to antibody testing, we will be including teaching and educational staff who've been working in our hubs to undergo antibody testing. That will be able to enhance our understanding of how—if there are any—the disease works in a school, childcare setting. The latest figures that I saw is that the vast majority of tests that have been carried out on those working in educational institutions have come back as negative. We have had some cases but, of course, it is impossible to know whether that person acquired the virus within their workplace or whether they acquired it when they were in their local supermarket or when they were having, potentially, other interactions. What we do know is that children are very, very, very rarely the index case in any provision of the disease—very, very rare indeed that they have passed that disease, the virus, on to anybody else. And, of course, all teachers are currently eligible—as is the Welsh general public now—for testing, and we will take further advice as to how routine testing should happen, but the TTP regime is absolutely crucial to us.
With regard to checking what is happening at the moment, we have a number of ways in which we are doing that. Parentkind recently did an independent survey of parents. Eighty-four per cent of Welsh parents said they were satisfied with the support that they had received from their children's schools. Obviously, there is a continued road here for local education authorities. Their job of supporting their schools hasn't gone away, neither has the role of regional school improvement services.
We have asked regional school improvement services to begin a methodical way of looking at practice at the moment. Their first report will be published on 19 June, and then we would expect that report to follow on a regular basis to ascertain the levels of engagement and the nature of the engagement of online learning, and that will report at regular intervals so that we can have assurance as to what schools are doing. Estyn have already begun work on good practice guides, looking at how the system has responded to the emergency and ensuring that best practice is understood and spread as we move forward.
Can I just say that I think schools have moved with tremendous speed to embrace new ways of learning? That will continue to develop, because what we are facing is a prolonged period of education where there will be a mixture of online learning and face-to-face contact. But all the evidence suggests that online learning is greatly enhanced when that can be supported by regular face-to-face sessions.
I have grave doubts about the reopening of schools at the end of June. It's too soon. Many parents and teachers, as well as children and young people, will also be concerned. The test and trace system is not in place as of yet. We don't know quite how this virus works and how it transmits between children and from children to adults. And I think garnering the confidence of families that it's safe even for small groups of children to return before the summer will be a very difficult task indeed.
We in Plaid Cymru had suggested an alternative plan, a plan which would have meant a change to the pattern of school terms: not reopening in June and July, and then, only if it was safe to do so, to gradually reopen for small groups of children from mid August onwards. By that time, hopefully, we would have a better picture of what is happening with this virus. I would like to know why you didn't take up that plan, because I do understand that it had been discussed.
In terms of opening for all pupils—and you've just been discussing that—the unions, as you know, are in favour of opening for years 6, 10 and 12 as a priority. We have discussed this, and I do have some sympathy with your stance in terms of offering an opportunity for all pupils to check in. How are you going to ask schools to provide that opportunity? And will you be encouraging schools to look specifically for those children and young people who haven't been engaging in online learning, and who haven't been maintaining a regular contact with schools? Will you be encouraging prioritisation for that particular group of children?
Can I thank Siân Gwenllian for her questions? She'll have to forgive me, I don't recall her discussing an August return with me in our weekly meetings, but she is right to suggest that we had explored the possibility of ending the summer term early and starting the new academic year in August. There were many attractions to that particular scheme. Firstly, making the most of the summer months, whereas I said earlier, we know that the sunlight and the better weather and the ability to have children outside and to better ventilate school buildings is easier to do during the summer months, and it would have allowed even more time for the TTP regime to bed in.
This was discussed with all our union colleagues—headteacher unions, teacher unions and support staff unions. We would have broken up that autumn term into a set number of periods to create natural breaks. But actually, every single union rejected that opportunity. And given the fact that this, of course, would be a profound change to the terms and conditions of our teaching staff, we can only move forward with such a profound change if that is done with the consent of our professionals, and their consent was not there. So, it was a good offer, but I believe what we've come forward with today shares many of the similar opportunities: it allows for the bedding in of testing and tracing for an entire month; it allows us to make the most of learning opportunities in the summer; it provides us with a natural break to reflect on our practice during the six-week summer holidays; and allows us to put in a little extra break—a fire break—in the autumn term when, potentially, things could be becoming difficult once again. And that's how we have decided to proceed.
I think it's important in recognising that it's very difficult to identify which children's education is more important than other people's education. For older children, it's not simply a question of identifying exam groups—different schools have different patterns of exams. There are some children who currently find themselves in year 8 who would begin their GCSE courses in the autumn. There are children who will be sitting unit 1 of their GCSE exams. So, there's a whole variety of exam classes—it's not simply the ones that Siân Gwenllian had outlined, and I think it's absolutely right, in terms of year 6, that they have an opportunity to say goodbye to their teachers and to their schools before they move on to high school. But in terms of curriculum, actually, they've come to the end of their curriculum before they move on to the next stage of their education. I received many overtures from teaching professionals that said that year 5 should take priority over year 6.
What we are doing is ensuring that every child has an opportunity to check in with their teachers, to catch up with what has been going on in their lives, how things have been, how things have been at home, how learning has gone for them, what has been difficult, what's been easy, do they have the facilities that they need in terms of the kit and equipment to allow them to learn, and what are the next phases that they need to work on over the summer and in preparation for September.
And when we think that we could have been asking some very young children to go back in September, when they haven't set foot in a classroom for over 23 weeks, that's a big ask of a small child, and also, that classroom is going to look very different to what it would look like the last time they were in it, and the operation of their school is going to look very different from the last time they were in it. This allows us to have a phased return to be able to slowly introduce our children to what education is going to look like, going forward, and that's why we need to take the opportunity of doing so before the end of the summer term.
It's crucial, of course, that no child is left behind and that every child gets the best possible education under the current circumstances. Our teachers have been very flexible indeed and have done excellent work, but are you confident that every child is engaging with his or her education? Does every child have a device, access to broadband, a space to work in and sufficient support in order to participate in learning? And how are you going to place robust expectations on all local authorities and all schools that remote learning does have to be a core part of our education system for the future, not just during this coronavirus period, but there will be expectations that education should change substantially in light of the new curriculum, for example, with a great deal of emphasis on using technology? So, do you believe at present that enough is being done to polish and refine remote learning, including streaming lessons live? Now, I'm not sure if that's happening consistently across Wales at the moment.
If I can just turn finally to the curriculum Bill, can you confirm to us when the draft will be published? I'm given to understand that this is about to happen, but I also understand that there's some threat to the practice of immersing young children in the Welsh language because of the wording on the face of the Bill, and that would be a very grave blow to the target of a million Welsh speakers. So, can you commit to changing this clause before the publication of the draft curriculum Bill? Thank you.
Well, Siân Gwenllian is right: this period has certainly led to a real boost to developing everybody's digital competence skills—children, teachers, indeed, Members of the Senedd. We're all, I'm sure, much more digitally competent today than we were 10 weeks ago even though some of us, from time to time, still struggle with our mute buttons.
It is a real concern to me that everybody has an opportunity to be able to learn online. That's why the Member will be aware of the financial support that we have put in place to address the digital exclusion of pupils. To date, as a result of direct support from the Welsh Government, some 10,849 Wi-Fi units have been distributed. That is support that has been made available across and utilised by all 22 local authorities, and requests for additional support keep coming in and we are meeting those requests.
With regard to repurposed devices, I can say that we have issued licences for some 8,966 devices. Those are devices being distributed across 14 local authorities that have benefited from the Welsh Government's central arrangements, but the actual total number of devices that have been lent out is higher than that because some local authorities very proactively gave those devices out at the very beginning of the crisis, and so have not necessarily availed ourselves. So, we know that a significant amount of support has been made available with regard to digital exclusion. And that's why, Siân, we do need everybody to have a check in or at least give people the opportunity of a check in because, you're right, I cannot guarantee you that every child has been engaging in their learning, and that might be for a whole variety of reasons, whether that be digital exclusion, whether that be because mums and dads are working very hard from home and are struggling to be able to provide that support. For some, the motivation of not being amongst their classmates might be very difficult. And that's exactly why we do have to not pick year groups, but actually provide an opportunity for all students to be seen by their teachers so these discussions can be had so we can find out what's been going on in children's lives; we can find out why maybe they have not been engaging and what we all need to do to support them better.
Live lessons are a matter for individual practitioners and schools. Welsh Government has provided guidance on how practitioners can do that safely and appropriately, so they may be able to do that and I can assure the Member that there is nothing in the forthcoming curriculum Bill that prevents or undermines the practice of immersion; indeed, the very opposite: for the first time there will be a legal underpinning to the practice of immersion.
I was disappointed that this came after rather than before the press statement earlier, but nonetheless I would like to welcome this statement from the education Secretary, and that we are going to see at least some reopening of schools. Unlike Siân Gwenllian, I would have preferred it to be earlier rather than later but it's happening and I welcome that, and I'd like to thank the education Secretary for her work to bring that about. You were very frank, I felt, in your remarks earlier that it was the unions that prevented what sounded like your preferred sort of option of opening schools in early to mid August. Could I also clarify whether the unions were also influential in the decision of when to give back this additional week to be worked late in July? Wouldn't it have been better perhaps for parents and pupils if that week had been over the coming few weeks when only online opportunities were available, rather than being an additional week that will be missed now in the autumn term? I wouldn't like, though, for that question to be interpreted as anti-union or at all criticising the Minister for the engagement she has had with the unions. Clearly, if the unions are able to bring their members with them, it is pragmatic and sensible to work with them to try to get more teachers back to work and to come back in a more positive, participative and supportive way. That's to be welcomed. Can I, though, also ask: has she considered the interests of parents and pupils within that as well, because they're also clearly very important stakeholders within this?
Overall, I think what she says about bringing all the children back at least for some education strikes me as having merits. She mentioned the equality aspect of that, but the supporting online learning and meeting physically as well, clearly, that will have benefits: checking on children, knowing where children are, being able to signpost and intervene where appropriate, and to support that online learning with some physical contact for all does seem positive.
Can I just finally clarify the situation in terms of roughly a third of pupils returning was what the written statement said? I think you said just now that it was no more than a third of pupils. Similarly, the reference to their capacity, their own individual capacity for schools, and I think in a written statement: schools may need time to reach this level of operation. I think that was then changed to: schools may not be able to reach that level of operation. Clearly, it's for the Minister to update written statements and give the verbal version, which is, of course, the record and I appreciate it, but I just wonder, though, does that suggest that that area is one of some controversy? Did she have questions at her statement earlier that led to any change of mind or emphasis on that? And she mentioned more the schools that might find it difficult to get up that level operation, are there other schools where they may feel that they can operate safely with rather more pupils than a third, and will she give schools discretion on that side of the equation as well as the other? Thank you very much.
Thank you for that, Mr Reckless. With regard to his disappointment that I had not done this earlier, I do not feel that it would have been safe to do this earlier. As I said, the SAGE advice was very, very clear, we need to have a TTP regime up and running before we could see more children accessing education. That TTP system has only began this week and I was not prepared to see more children going back to school until that system had been up and running and had been tested. So, that's why we haven't gone back any earlier. It's also very interesting to read the SAGE advice—the independent SAGE group, actually—that said the difference between children returning on 1 June and the difference between children returning on 15 June sees a halving of the likelihood of a child contracting the virus. We're going back even later, which is in line with the very cautious and careful approach that Welsh Government is taking to all of the unlocking measures, and that's based on, as I said, SAGE advice, which subsequently, I think, is in the public domain.
With regard to the extra week, I'm proposing to extend the term by a week to grasp that opportunity of learning during the summer, because, as I said earlier, we know that that gives us the best opportunity to have face-to-face. We're coming to the end of the academic year; that additional week means that we can make the most of this opportunity and maximise the amount of face-to-face contact children can have with their teachers this side of the summer. With regard to an additional week in October, I have taken that decision to reallocate that week. I have done so, again, because as was discussed at length yesterday I think by the health Minister, we are increasingly concerned about the pattern of the disease in the autumn. I hope to goodness, my goodness me, there is nobody—and I'm sure we're all the same—nobody wants to see a resurgence of the virus in the autumn. It's too early to tell whether that will happen, but there is—. The advice that we're getting is that we could well see a return. Therefore, having a natural fire break and prioritising face-to-face contact now, when we know we can do it, as opposed to additional lost face-to-face contact time in the autumn, is an important part of my strategy. Also, it's a very long term anyway, and it just gives us the opportunity to create a natural fire break at a time when the disease may—and my goodness me, we all hope not—but may begin to show itself again.
With regard to the size—sorry. There's no controversy. I just get picky and once it's all out in print and given out to people, sometimes I just change my words and I prefer a different word, Mr Reckless. That's my prerogative as a Minister. Sometimes I just want to change my words, but it's certainly not done out of any controversy. What we're trying to do is recognise that Welsh education is massively diverse. You know, we have some schools that have 40 pupils in, and we've got some schools that have got a lot of pupils in, and we have to trust in our headteachers and our local education authorities, to make sure that there is enough flexibility to reflect the very, very different nature of our schools. We also have to accept about the availability of workforce. We know, and our recommendation and our advice is, that a teacher that is in receipt of a shielding letter should not return to the physical workplace. There are things that they can do at home and online to support learning, but they should not be in the workplace. So, we have to have some flexibility in the system. The third is the maximum amount of children that we would want to see. But, again, we have to have some flexibility and we have to rely on the discretion of individual headteachers and governing bodies of how it will work in their environment, as long as that is working within the national context and the framework that we will have set out to them. But we have to recognise that Welsh education is diverse, and individual school buildings and settings may be more easy to manage than others, and we have to recognise that as a very practical response to the situation. One size is not going to fit all.
Thank you. I'll now call Lynne Neagle, as Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee. Lynne Neagle.
Thank you, Deputy Llywydd, and thank you, Minister, for your statement. Like many people, I want to take some time to digest it and the associated documents before giving a considered and measured response to it, but I did just want to say that one of the huge concerns for me in this pandemic is that most of our children are largely unseen and hidden. So, the opportunity for welfare checks for our children, and the opportunity to touch base with teachers, is, I think, something that I, personally, would welcome.
I've got some specific questions. I wonder if you could say a bit more about how social distancing is going to work in practice. You referred to guidance that is going to be issued next week. Can you say whether that is going to be—how prescriptive that guidance is going to be? I think that would be helpful to know.
You said in response to Suzy Davies that what tipped you towards having all children back rather than specific year groups, which is what had been discussed previously, was the fact that you wanted an equality-based approach and for all children and young people to be seen. Can you just confirm that that was the only thing that tipped the balance in favour of having all children back?
I'd also be interested to know to what extent children's rights have been a factor in this decision. I'd like to know whether there's been a children's rights impact assessment done on this, as I have asked throughout this process, really.
I'd like to ask what the key things or triggers are that might lead to a rethink on this or to prevent this happening on the timescale that you've set out. Would that be a change in the R value? What would be the factors you would consider?
Just finally from me, I think this lockdown has been traumatic for all of us, but for no-one more so than our children, really. How will you ensure that schools are well prepared for managing and supporting what could be a lot of very traumatised children, when they do eventually come back? Of course, there is also the issue of the well-being of our schools' staff as well. Diolch yn fawr.