National Assembly for Wales

Back to Search

Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

08/07/2020

The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 11:01 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome, all, to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. A Plenary meeting held by video-conference in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006, and the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and those are noted on your agenda. I would also remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings will apply to this meeting, and they as are relevant to Members in the Chamber as they are to those Members joining us virtually. 

Statements on Srebrenica

First of all this afternoon—.

This week marks the poignant twenty-fifth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. The victims, the survivors and all those affected by this most shameful act of hatred are in our hearts at this time. I'd like now to invite the First Minister to make a statement.

Llywydd, diolch yn fawr. As you said, this year, we mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. In July 1995, General Ratko Mladić and his Serbian paramilitary units overran and captured the town of Srebrenica, ignoring the fact that the area had been designated as a place free from any armed attack or other hostile act. In the days that followed the town's fall, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred. Thousands of women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported. This was the greatest atrocity on European soil since the end of the second world war.

Today, we remember those who lost their lives in Srebrenica. Our thoughts are with those who have survived them, and who have done so much to make sure that their memory is never far away from the international community. Srebrenica is another name on the list of towns and countries tainted by hate and genocide, but it is also a reminder of what happens when hate and prejudice goes unchallenged. It's a reminder to us all to stand together against that hatred and division in our own communities in all its forms, wherever we are in the world. At the Holocaust memorial service earlier this year that a number of us here attended, we heard from Srebrenica, and we heard that slogan that is so often said, 'Never again', and the gap that we all must work so hard to close between that ambition and the actions that we still see around us in the world. We must learn from these dark moments of history.

Mae Cymru'n cofio Srebrenica—Wales remembers Srebrenica.

I'm proud of the relationship that our Senedd has built with Remembering Srebrenica and with the people of Bosnia. And the person who has led on that work for this Senedd—I ask David Melding now to speak on behalf of the charity Cofio Srebrenica. David Melding.

11:05

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Can I thank you personally, and the Commission also, for allowing us to have this statement today, which I think is very appropriate on the twenty-fifth anniversary? As you said, it was my honour to lead a Commission delegation in 2015. That year also saw a major celebration—the Welsh national celebration that year—in the Senedd, and it was held with great dignity and purpose.

Now, here we are, 25 years on from this terrible event—the darkest episode, in terms of European conflict, since the second world war. Like the First Minister, I'm wearing the flower of Srebrenica. This flower was crocheted by the Mothers of Srebrenica, mothers of the victims. I think we should remember all the relatives who live with this terrible anguish of having seen their loved ones murdered in that terrible massacre.

I would also like to pay tribute to the Welsh board of Remembering Srebrenica, particularly Saleem Kidwai and Abi Carter, who are the joint chairs and do much—so much—to raise awareness of this terrible event in our history, but also what we should be doing in our own communities to ensure such hatred is never allowed to flourish anywhere in Europe.

I also want to mention how interrelated we are through the work of a Welsh policeman, Howard Tucker, who was the head of the United Nations investigation force in the early 2000s, which led to so much of the evidence gathering and enabled the trials that were held in The Hague of the war criminals. It is a reminder that Wales has its part to play through many of its citizens.

We're a small country, as is Bosnia, and I do hope the links will continue, as they've been led by the Senedd. Also, I commend the work of the Welsh Government in taking opportunities to promote awareness of Srebrenica through the education curriculum, for instance.

We all have our part to play in defending a strong democracy, which can only flourish based on cultural tolerance and the celebration of diverse cultures and traditions. When we do that in Wales, we also help the people of Bosnia, as we do with our direct relations with them, which I hope will long continue. Thank you very much—diolch yn fawr.

Thank you, David Melding and First Minister. Cymru'n cofio—Wales remembers—Srebrenica, and our Senedd does so today.

Personal Statement

We return today, of course, to this Chamber, some of us, and we remember Mohammad Asghar, who we lost during the past few weeks. On behalf of all Members, we will remember today, fondly, our colleague, Mohammad Asghar.

But today also is the day we welcome a new Member, Laura Anne Jones—on behalf of the Senedd, croeso—newly returned for South Wales East. We look forward to your contributions here in the Chamber. So, I now call on Laura Anne Jones to make a few statements.

Thank you, Llywydd. Today, for me, is a day of mixed emotions. I am, of course, immensely proud and honoured to be standing here again representing the people of south-east Wales in this Chamber. But these feelings are tinged with great sadness. I only wish I had this opportunity to serve, and that I could accomplish it, without the sad loss of our dear friend, Mohammad Asghar.

These are tragic circumstances under which to become a Member of this Senedd. I am grateful for this opportunity, therefore, Llywydd, to say a few words about our friend and colleague, who we knew within our party and in this Chamber, affectionately, as Oscar. 

Oscar was a kind, caring and generous man, and I know everyone in this Chamber and far beyond will miss him desperately—that wicked glint in his eye and that infectious laugh. Oscar loved his family more than anything in the world, and he treated his staff and wider community as family too. My thoughts and prayers are with Natasha and Firdaus, his family and friends, at this desperately sad time.

Oscar took his role, both here and in his work defending the communities of south-east Wales, very seriously, and was very committed to both. This became very apparent when I attended his funeral, and there were people lining the streets to honour him. I will do all I can, obviously, to honour Oscar myself, and do my utmost to continue his work and give a voice to those who I now have the responsibility to represent. I will try to champion the causes close to Oscar's heart: fairness, social justice, education, and even cricket—a shared love of ours. 

Throughout his time as an Assembly Member and a Member of the Senedd, he was guided by one belief: that everyone of any background should be able to get on in life, and he was very determined to help them. Oscar was a people person with a heart as big as the city of Newport, which he loved so much. He strongly believed in free enterprise, bringing, of course, the enterprise Bill here to this Assembly containing proposals to grow the economy. 

He was never short of ideas, and I remember one speech to the Welsh Conservatives party conference when, without any consultation, he outlined his proposals for a Welsh airline and his plans to reform the social security system to remove the need for food banks. 

Economic growth was important to Oscar, not as an end in itself but as a means to achieve what he wanted to achieve. Oscar wanted to create a successful and dynamic economy in Wales to tackle poverty, enable social mobility, and to deliver the high-quality services that people need and deserve. 

His fervent desire to help people was based in his deeply held Muslim faith. However, he respected people of all religious faiths and helped them to understand his own. 

There have been many wonderful tributes to Oscar from within this Parliament and far and wide; the leaders in the middle east, where Oscar dedicated himself to promoting peace, and from our own UK Prime Minister, thanking him for his public service and recognising that the work Oscar did will have a lasting, positive impact, which I'm sure his family are very proud of.

It was a pleasure and privilege to know Mohammad Asghar. He was a proud Welshman, a proud Briton, and proud of his Pakistani heritage. Presiding Officer, Oscar's light may have gone out, but the positive impact he had on his community and country will always remain. I will endeavour to continue his good work to the very best of my ability. Thank you. Thank you, Llywydd.

11:10

Thank you, Laura Anne Jones, for your very kind words in commemorating Mohammad Asghar, as we all commemorate him today, and I wish you well in your work here in the Senedd.

1. Questions to the First Minister

Questions to the First Minister is our next item, and the first question is from Delyth Jewell.

Reducing the Risk of COVID-19 Infections

1. Will the First Minister make a statement on reducing the risk of COVID-19 infections in factories and other closed settings? OQ55438

Thank you, Llywydd. Just before I answer the question, may I just say thank you to you and to everyone who's worked so hard to prepare the Chamber so that we can all return here today?

On Monday, Llywydd, I chaired the first meeting of a group to establish a national health and safety forum for Wales, as proposed jointly by the Wales Trades Union Congress and Confederation of British Industry Wales. It will advise on measures to reduce risk in closed settings, over and above the extensive guidance already issued to the sector.

I thank the First Minister for his response. I wrote to Kepak and Merthyr council on 1 April this year expressing my concerns about a lack of social distancing and hygiene procedures in their factory in Merthyr after a constituent had raised alarms with me. The constituent was concerned that, unless proper regulations were put in place, an outbreak of COVID-19 could happen there, a concern that was, sadly, justified. Now, whilst my letter to the company went unanswered, the council did take action: they told me that they arranged for the Health and Safety Executive to ensure the relevant regulations were being followed, and that they arranged to have a full-time Food Standards Agency employee at the premises. But we know that this still wasn't enough to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 at the plant, with 135 people now believed to have been infected. 

First Minister, I'm interested to know whether you were aware that concerns had been raised about this plant and whether you were satisfied with the action taken by Merthyr council. Given that the outbreak still occurred despite their best efforts, do you now agree that you need to look again at tightening regulations for high-risk workplaces such as meat processing plants, and that our excess testing capacity should be used routinely to test workers who work under these conditions so that future outbreaks can be better contained?

Llywydd, can I thank the Member for that question? Of course, concerns about the factory were raised by my colleague Dawn Bowden, and those concerns were taken up not simply with the local authority, but with other authorities that have a responsibility for ensuring safety at the plant. That is now overseen by an outbreak control team, which is drawn from the local authority, the local health board, Public Health Wales, the environmental health department, the Food Standards Agency and the Health and Safety Executive. That team is investigating the causes of the number of cases we have seen at Kepak Merthyr.

It is still unclear in the advice that I have seen as to whether or not the rise in cases was caused at the factory, or was imported into the factory from the community. That work continues to go on, and the Welsh Government is regularly updated on the meetings of that team—there's one today—and we will be guided by their investigations and the recommendations that I expect to hear from them.

11:15

First Minister, I note that the World Health Organization is likely to modify its advice on the cloud effect that is generated through breathing and that the particles, very fine, that are so generated can hang in the air for hours, and they are particularly prone to do so in small spaces like toilets where there are hand dryers, for instance. Can you assure us that, as we gain more scientific knowledge of this disease, you will be modifying your guidance as to the proper thing to do, ensuring that it gets to those who need to know about it—[Inaudible.]—?

I thank David Melding for that. Some of us had an opportunity to discuss this issue briefly with the chief medical officer earlier today. His interpretation of the evidence that has emerged at the World Health Organization is that the bulk of transmission is still more likely to be communicated through droplets rather than through fine particles, and that was the view of Welsh virologists yesterday. But, of course, I can give the Member an assurance that we continue to follow the science, and if the science changes and if our actions need to change, then we will take those actions in line with the emerging evidence.

Coronavirus has turned out, all the way through, to be a virus that causes surprises, and we know an awful lot more now than we did only weeks ago. The evidence that emerged yesterday and overnight will form part of the body of evidence that the Welsh Government will continue to draw upon. 

Thank you for the answers to Delyth Jewell's question, First Minister, and thank you, also, for your acknowledgement of the work that's been going on there with the company, with the council and with other partners for some considerable weeks before this.

Can I thank the incident management team in Merthyr Tydfil and the Welsh Government for the updates on the incident? That's been invaluable in keeping us informed. So far, it is encouraging to hear that this incident remains contained and that there is no evidence, at this stage, of community transmission, and I thank everyone involved in co-operating to ensure that that remains the case. However, in light of this incident, can you advise me as to whether any other large workplaces in the area, particularly those with similar environmental characteristics that may not always be able to manage social distancing, are also to be inspected and their workforces tested?

And can I ask what measures the IMT are putting in place to ensure that issues of community cohesion are also addressed, given that there's a very large eastern European migrant workforce at these plants?

I thank Dawn Bowden for that and for her acknowledgement of the work that the incident management team have carried out. They were unanimously agreed recently that an outbreak should not be declared at the factory and that it should continue to be managed as an incident.

Dawn Bowden, Llywydd, makes two important points, firstly, in relation to inspections of other factories; I certainly would expect there to be a heightened awareness amongst the Health and Safety Executive and others of the need to do that. And can I pay tribute, for a moment, to the role of the trade unions in all of these sites? Much of the from-the-front-line intelligence that we get comes through the trade union movement and alerts us to the need to inspect, and were the evidence to point in that direction, to extend testing to other settings.

The second point that Dawn Bowden makes is also very important, Llywydd—issues of community cohesion—and that has been very much in our minds at all the sites that have been involved in outbreaks or incidents. And we have learnt a number of things about the need for messaging in languages other than English and Welsh, to find different ways of communicating with workforces drawn from other parts of the world, and then to communicate clearly to other people in those areas about when there is evidence or, in these cases, no evidence of extensive wider community transmission, to allay fears that inevitably arise that this may be an outbreak or an incident not confined to the plant itself.

11:20
Face Coverings

2. What plans does the Welsh Government have to review its guidance on the use of face coverings by members of the public? OQ55432

Llywydd, the Welsh Government guidance encourages but does not mandate the use of three-layer face coverings in public settings where social distancing is not possible. That guidance is kept continually under review.

Thank you, First Minister. We now know that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be spread not just by coughs and sneezes, but be carried in microdroplets and that it can be spread by asymptomatic carriers. Microdroplets are generated by breathing and talking. We also know that face coverings can help to catch microdroplets and prevent the spread of coronavirus. So, why, then, is Wales one of the only countries in the world that does not mandate the use of face coverings in some settings? I would like to see face coverings mandatory in all public settings.

First Minister, will you now commit to the mandatory requirements of face coverings on public transport and an urgent review into whether that guidance should extend to all public places? Diolch.

Well, Llywydd, what I commit to is to keeping the issue continuously under review and to take the advice of those who are best placed to provide that advice to us. And the context changes and the advice may change, and if the advice changes, then our position in Wales will change as well.

But I should say to the Member, wearing a face covering is not by itself a magic bullet that prevents people from contracting or spreading coronavirus. Our own chief medical officer has always had an anxiety, and it's an anxiety I see being shared in other parts of the world, that when people wear a face covering, they act in ways that they wouldn't if they weren't wearing it; and they act in riskier ways as well. The belief that by wearing a face covering it is somehow all right not to observe social distancing, for example, not to take care in how you put it on and how you take it off, not to avoid touching your face, because we know that that is one of the ways in which the virus is most likely to be spread.

So, while the Member makes a persuasive case, and I listened to it very carefully, for what she advocates, I think it is important that we attend to the fact that there are potential downsides as well as upsides to this; that's why we keep it continuously under review. And if the position changes, then the Welsh Government's position will change as well.

Does the First Minister agree with me that it's both farcical and confusing to have a different approach from one side of the border to the other, especially when you consider the amount of people travelling on a daily basis from one side to another? Can the First Minister assure me that he'll put aside his difference and his need to be different from England for the sake of being different, and do what the union Unite suggests and urgently review the guidance to adopt a more commonsense approach?

Llywydd, I welcome the Member back to the Chamber, and I think she has just said what I said, which is that we do keep it continuously under review. And I'm very alert to the impact of the border here. There are actions on either side of the border. It is not a matter of England makes a change and Wales must follow. It would be perfectly possible to have had a conversation with the UK Government where we could have reached a joint position; unfortunately, that conversation was never offered to us.

But the Member makes an important point about consistency along the border, and that is very much in my mind as we continuously review our position in relation, both to face coverings, but other changes that have been made elsewhere as well.

11:25

Rhianon Passmore. Rhianon Passmore, we can't hear you at the moment. Can you say something? No, we still can't hear you. Can it be immediately rectified, or I'm going to have to move on? No, I'm sorry, we're going to have to move on, Rhianon Passmore.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

So, I now go to the questions by the leaders of the parties.

Leader of the Conservatives, Paul Davies.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, key to tackling the spread and indeed the eradication of this awful virus is Wales's testing programme and its ability to reach as many people as possible in order to better inform people before they make decisions about socially interacting. We know that lab capacity in Wales is just over 15,000, which, as you know, is still a long way off the potential 20,000 tests per day that the Welsh Government proposed in the 'Test Trace Protect' document. Indeed, we know that the total number of tests in the last 24 hours was 3,054, which means that just a fifth of capacity has been used. And more worrying, according to official figures, no extra tests were carried out between 28 June and 5 July for healthcare workers across Wales. Clearly, this shows that more testing could and should be done. First Minister, can you tell us why the levels of testing in Wales are so low and can you also tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to increase the level of testing across the country?

Well, Llywydd, I think the Member might have acknowledged the fact that at 15,000 tests, that figure is the most we've ever had and has risen very steadily over recent weeks, and more capacity will be added to that as well.

I think the issue on testing, however—the number of tests that are used—is a good deal more complicated than he suggests, because underlying his question is the assumption that more is automatically better. The truth of the matter is that as prevalence of the disease falls in Wales, so there are fewer people with symptoms and fewer people who come forward for testing, and that is not a bad thing in itself, because it demonstrates to us that there is a great deal less of coronavirus around in Wales today than there was a week ago, or a month ago, or three months ago. So, it's not just a matter of saying, 'If you're doing more tests, you must be doing better.'

You need to use your tests for the right reason. You need to use them in the right place. All healthcare settings have direct access to testing, so where clinicians believe that tests need to be carried out, they are carried out, and we are carrying out more tests on patients in hospital than ever before, as more people return to other aspects of the health service. While the prevalence of the disease is falling, there will be fewer people with symptoms and fewer people will therefore come forward themselves, as everybody can, asking for a test. So, it's a bit more complicated, Llywydd, that's what I'm saying, than a simple assertion that if the number of tests are going down, it's a bad thing, and if the number of tests are going up, it's a good thing.

First Minister, last week, you made it clear that Welsh Ministers have the powers through regulations to take local action to reduce some of the freedoms in order to deal with local outbreaks. It's absolutely crucial that freedoms are not curtailed any further, so, if at any point the Welsh Government decides to take the decision to introduce localised lockdowns in the future, then it must be made absolutely clear to the people of Wales exactly why that decision has been made, along with providing the latest scientific and medical evidence to justify the Welsh Government's decision.

Therefore, First Minister, can you tell us what discussions you have already had with public health officials about the ability to create localised lockdowns, if the evidence was strong enough to suggest that the virus was prevalent in certain communities across Wales? Has the Welsh Government started undertaking any modelling in relation to introducing localised lockdowns in the future? And what assessment have you made of the impact that having different lockdown restrictions in different parts of Wales could have?

Well, Llywydd, let me begin by agreeing with the first point that the Member made. I don't think we should ever restrict people's freedoms unless the case for doing so is very clear and that we have the evidence to justify it. I'm quite sure that, when his political colleagues in London made that decision in relation to Leicester, those matters were very much in their minds at the time, and we would expect to follow exactly that approach.

In relation to evidence, I am very keen to see us reach a point where we are formally able to agree Welsh membership of a joint biosecurity centre. So, I discussed this matter with Michael Gove yesterday morning. This is the body that will draw together intelligence from all sorts, from all parts of the United Kingdom, and give us the very best evidence of local developments in relation to the disease, and that will be available in all parts of the United Kingdom, and they will be common standards and common approaches, too—the evidence that is used, the triggers that will be identified and, indeed, some of the approaches that will be taken as a result of that. I've always thought that a joint biosecurity centre would be something that would be helpful to us in Wales. I believe, from the advice that I have had from my officials, that we are close to a position where we can sign up to it formally, and I pressed Mr Gove yesterday to accelerate those discussions so that we can reach that position. When we have a joint centre—and the word 'joint' is very important; it cannot be a UK body to which devolved administrations are an appendage—it must be a genuinely joint centre and then I think the information that it provides will go a long way to answering many of the questions that Mr Davies has raised with me this morning. 

11:30

First Minister, as new cases continue to fall across Wales, the Welsh Government and local health boards must start looking at other NHS treatment and services, and, as you know, nearly 500,000 were waiting for treatment before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Now, the Royal College of Surgeons have warned that delays to surgery will already have resulted in an increased need for complex surgery, and the British Heart Foundation have also said that, as services remain unavailable, the urgency of these procedures is increasing, creating a significant cohort of patients who need urgent treatment. First Minister, this in turn will continue to stretch the capacity of the NHS. Now, in light of the very valid concerns raised by organisations like the Royal College of Surgeons and the British Heart Foundation, what strategic discussions is the Welsh Government having with local health boards to ensure that urgent and planned surgeries can take place and that the workforce can cope with the backlog of elective operations? What assurances can you offer to people across Wales who are waiting for treatment that they will be able to access NHS treatments and services, and how are you best supporting local health boards to accelerate the resumption of planned surgeries across Wales?

I thank the Member for that important question. On Friday, when I will be able to make public the results of the current three-week review period, I hope to be able to explain to people in Wales the extent to which we are using the headroom we hope we have to go on lifting the lockdown regime in Wales, and the extent to which we are using that headroom to go on reopening the NHS here in Wales, because that is an important part of the way in which lockdown restrictions are being eased, opening up more of our primary and secondary care services. I don't want to say to the Member or to anybody else that this is a straightforward process. An enormous amount of work is going on to create green zones, as they are called, inside our hospitals—coronavirus-free zones—so that operations can resume and people can be confident in returning to those settings that they won't run the risk of being infected by people who are already suffering from the disease. By itself, that will limit the number of operations, for example, that a theatre can carry out in any one day, because the levels of biosecurity that are necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus are very real and will have a limiting effect in the best of circumstances on the extent to which activity can resume. At the same time, Llywydd, the NHS is having to prepare for the winter that lies ahead, the flu season that lies ahead, and the warnings we all hear of a resurgence of coronavirus in winter conditions. So, while our colleagues in the NHS are making enormous efforts, demonstrated in the second-quarter plans that they have submitted to the Welsh Government to reopen the health service, this will be a balancing act of many competing demands, and nobody should believe that there is an easy or straightforward path back to the levels of activity that the NHS in Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom were able to conduct in a pre-COVID world. 

Thank you, Llywydd. May I at the outset endorse the comments on the appalling genocide in Srebrenica? They will not be forgotten.

First Minister, I've been contacted by the owner of a care home in my constituency. His employees, as he puts it, are hard working and undervalued, and he urgently wants the Welsh Government to honour the promise made in May that every worker in a care setting would receive £500. Waiting for Westminster has never served us well in Wales and, yes, the UK Treasury needs to find its moral compass by making the payment tax free. But there is something that the Welsh Government could do to ensure workers receive in full the amount of money they were promised, whatever Westminster decides. In December last year, doctors were promised that their tax bills would be covered by the NHS while working overtime. Will you, if necessary, offer the same tax cover to carers so they are not left out of pocket?

11:35

Llywydd, it's an important point that Adam Price makes, and we continue to discuss exactly that with the trade unions, in particular. But to make that decision today would be simply to allow the UK Government off the hook, because any suggestion that we will pay it will guarantee that they will not do the right thing and, as you say, rediscover their moral compass on this issue. So, we have continued to be in what we regard as constructive discussions from our point of view with the UK Treasury, outlining ways in which this payment could be made free of tax and national insurance. 

I am not at the point where I think those discussions can be drawn to an end and simply to allow the UK Government to be absolved of its responsibilities, and to spend more Welsh Government money on responsibilities that they themselves ought to discharge. We're not asking them for money, as I know Adam Price understands; we're simply asking them not to take away money that belongs to Welsh workers. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of the care sector and, I have to say, after reading the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee report today, also its neglect. The care sector has been characterised by zero-hours contracts and low pay for decades. PayScale research estimates the hourly rate on average, for example, to be £8.19. Valuing our care workers must surely start with a decent pay structure comparable with other professions. In February, your Government promised that the lowest paid NHS staff would receive the real living wage of £9.30 an hour. Should not that principle, as a first step to parity with the NHS, be applied now to workers in the care sector? First Minister, in truth, can we afford not to? 

Well, I agree with Adam Price, Llywydd, that the coronavirus crisis has shone a spotlight onto the sector and the way in which it has been undervalued over so many years. In the end, the challenge is not for Government; it is a challenge for the whole of our society as to the extent to which we are prepared to pay for decent levels of wages and proper working conditions for people in that sector. And Governments successively at the UK level have failed to come forward with proposals for paying for social care. We were very close to it at one point in 2015 as a result of the Dilnot review, and then necessary legislation fell because of a general election, and we've never been able to get back to that. 

The Welsh Government directly pays through health boards for NHS staff, and I was very pleased when I was the health Minister to be able to strike a deal that has guaranteed that the lowest paid people in the health service have always been paid, ever since, the real living wage. We are not the employer in relation to this sector. But I want to be positive in my reply to Adam Price's question because I agree with him that the result of coronavirus ought to be that, as a society, we have to be prepared to find the money to make this a sector that recognises the significance of the work that it does every single day. 

The Royal College of Nursing and 13 health unions have written to the English Prime Minister, as he's come to be known, asking for discussions on an early NHS pay rise. Will you show the way and also reward our NHS staff? If the current health crisis has taught us anything, it is that valuing those who look after us at the dawn of our lives, the twilight of our lives, and every point in between, should be the priority of any caring nation. During your leadership bid, First Minister, you said that you would not change tax rates unless compelled to do so. Do you now believe that the hard work of health and care workers is a compelling enough reason for you to change your mind?

11:40

Llywydd, we will continue in the way that we do, through the spirit of social partnership, to negotiate with the health unions and the local health boards in relation to pay and conditions in the health service. That's the way we do it, and that's the way we intend to carry on doing so. Those discussions are not always easy, nor should they be. Social partnership is not a cosy regime, but it is a place where we get together to try and find common solutions to common problems, and that's how we will approach the pay issue with our NHS staff. My party made a commitment, Llywydd, not to raise income tax rates during this Senedd term. That remains our policy position.

First Minister, do you consider it satisfactory that this Senedd, operating under Welsh Government guidance, should just have two opportunities to question you in person over a period of six months? Do you prefer to have scrutiny through daily press conferences, broadcast live, with no opportunity for opposition reply? With many of those media outlets financially dependent on the Welsh Government, do you consider it to be in the public interest for the state broadcaster to subject us to a disquisition on what your favourite cheese is? And how is it consistent with the BBC charter, in all fairness, that, last night, just for example, on Ineos, we were treated by BBC Wales to the Labour Minister, the Labour council leader, the Labour MS and the Labour-funding union, with no opposition reply whatever? You say your urgent priority is to review every street name and every statue in Wales, to see whether it accords with the demands of an organisation that wants to de-fund the police. Isn't it time instead to de-fund the BBC?

Well, Llywydd, there's never a dog but the Member is prepared to whistle at it, and he's here doing it again today. I answer questions on the floor of the Senedd whenever the Senedd asks me to do so, and it's not my decision as to when that should be, nor should it be. I've answered questions throughout the coronavirus crisis every time the Senedd has asked me to, in committee or in Plenary, and that's my position.

I am not responsible for the BBC and neither should I be. It is not a state broadcaster in any sense, and the Member should know better than to imply that it is, or to imply that it is not right to have a broadcaster to interview those people who are elected to represent people in a particular area, whatever party that may be, in whichever part of Wales that might be.

So, the First Minister is content with that scrutiny—four Labour voices, no opposition voices? And it is far from the only example. If one depends on one's news on BBC Wales, and many of the organisations funded by Welsh Government to provide news, one would have the impression that, under our great helmsman, Mark Drakeford, there has been a great success in management of the COVID crisis in Wales. Is the reality not that infection rates in Wales have been higher than in England, and substantially higher than in Scotland and Northern Ireland, despite far less testing? Isn't it the case that 1,097 people were moved from hospitals into care homes without testing? And, talk about Westminster and waiting for them, it was two to three weeks after England and Scotland before we saw testing in care homes. Isn't the reality that the management both of the COVID crisis and of the economy has been worse in Wales, and the people of Wales will be paying for it for a very long time?

Llywydd, as I said to the Member, I will answer questions on the floor of this Senedd whenever the Senedd asks me to do so. So, it's a matter for him, not for me, how often that takes place. I entirely reject what he said. There are always people who happen to live in Wales that wish they didn't. The answer to that is in their own hands rather than mine.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Economy

3. What assessment has the First Minister made of the impact of COVID-19 on the economy in South Wales Central? OQ55436

11:45

Llywydd, Wales remains in the grip of the coronavirus crisis, but, as circulation of the virus diminishes, economic activity in South Wales Central continues to recover with the support of both Welsh and UK Governments.

I thank the First Minister for his response. Getting a co-ordinated response from different Governments within the UK has been one of the problems of the crisis we are living through, and it is clear that the economy in Wales will suffer more because of the First Minister's insistence on doing things differently here. I feel the problem may be aggravated by the First Minister possessing an inflated idea of his own importance. One issue may be that the salary of the First Minister of Wales is almost equal to that of the UK Prime Minister. Given that an important trade association in Wales has just declared no confidence in the First Minister, I wonder if he really believes he is worth such a salary.  

Llywydd, I work as hard as I can every day to attend to the needs of the people in Wales. I understand that the Member has a great deal of difficulty in understanding the difference between what is possible for Wales and what is possible elsewhere. I see, in his last contribution—. My attention was drawn to his contribution on 24 June, when he said,  

'we know that Mark Drakeford didn't even attend COBRA meetings for several weeks, when he was able to do so.' 

Llywydd, maybe I'll put on record, because I'm sure the Member wouldn't intentionally wish to mislead people, that there is not a single COBRA meeting—to which I had been invited—that I did not attend. 

Could I put on record my thanks as well to the Commission staff and to yourself as Presiding Officer for making these facilities available today for the first hybrid Assembly?

First Minister, the economies of south Wales are very intertwined, and the news yesterday about the the Ineos reconsideration—shall we call it—of their proposals in Bridgend affects South Wales Central and, in particular, the Vale of Glamorgan, where there's a lot of transit back and forth for jobs. Can you clarify exactly what is going on with the proposal? As I understand it, Ineos have put a halt on consideration of advancing the project at the moment, but they haven't actually stopped the project. And comments about not trusting the company are deeply unhelpful from the constituency MS, who was on telly last night saying such things. Surely, we should be working night and day to convince Ineos that Bridgend and the wider south Wales economy are an ideal home for their ambitious proposals for this new facility. 

I thank the Member for that. I want to say to him that the Welsh Government and the contractors we have employed have worked tirelessly to ensure that the site was made ready in line with Ineos's tight timescales and that that work continued despite flooding earlier in the year and the coronavirus crisis. So, we have worked really hard to try to meet the requirements that the company had laid out. So, we were inevitably disappointed, on 2 July, when officials were told—not Ministers; officials were told—that the company intended to suspend its plans for investment in Wales and in Portugal, pending a review. The company was due to sign an important agreement with the Welsh Government on Monday of this week. It was very disappointing to us, after all the efforts that have been made, that that wasn't possible. 

But, let me agree with what Andrew R.T. Davies has said: while there is a possibility that this company would yet come to Wales, we must work positively with them to make every argument to bring that about. My colleague Ken Skates spoke directly with the company on Monday evening, and I know that he made that point to them: that, despite our sense of disappointment, so very late in the day, to find that the company may be having second thoughts, anything we can still do to persuade them of the merits of coming to Bridgend and the outstanding workforce that is available to them there—we will never give up on making that case up until the point where that company makes a final determination. 

First Minister, I've been in discussion with very many businesses in Cynon Valley who are extremely grateful for the financial support that they've received from the Welsh Government under the economic resilience fund. I note that, in order to access that fund, they need to sign up to the Welsh Government's economic contract. Would you  be able to give us an assessment of how you think signing up to that economic contract will be of benefit, both to the economy and society of the South Wales Central region, moving forward? 

11:50

I thank Vikki Howells for that, Llywydd. I know that she will recognise that the incredible speed at which everything has had to happen during the coronavirus crisis means that the sort of detailed discussion of an economic contract that we would normally have with businesses hasn’t been possible.

Before the crisis hit, we had agreed economic contracts with 385 companies in Wales. Today, that's over 4,000 companies who have committed to the principles of the economic contract. And the principle is very important. It says to companies that when the Welsh public is finding money to support them in the work they do and to help them to sustain and create new jobs, the Welsh public is entitled to a return on that investment that goes beyond the interest of the company itself, and that there are important things that we want to create across Wales: a low-carbon future, increasing levels of investment in skills, and a fair-work approach to Wales. All of those things are important, and when we strike an economic contract with a company, it is those additional returns on the investment that the Welsh public is making that we seek to negotiate.

And the good news is, Llywydd, that companies in Wales very readily see the benefits of that. They too want a future in Wales that allows them to go on trading successfully in a country where we don't have low pay, where we don't have low skills, and where we are focused, as the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 requires us to be, on making decision today that give those who come after us a proper chance of a successful future.

Question 4 [OQ55414] is withdrawn. Question 5—Rhun ap Iorwerth.

The Tourism Sector in North Wales

5. Will the First Minister make a statement on reopening the tourism sector in north Wales? OQ55437

Thank you for that question. Llywydd, lifting the stay local requirement allows people to travel around Wales. Outdoor visitor attractions can open, subject to strict social distancing and hygiene guidelines remaining in place. I have noted that self-contained accommodation and outdoor hospitality should prepare to reopen in the next week.

Thank you for that response. There are two things I'd like to raise. First of all, an appeal once again for extending support to tourism and hospitality businesses. Losing so much of their season will mean that they will have already lost a great deal of their annual turnover, and time is short to make up for that, of course.

But the second point is on the nature of tourism. The First Minister will know, as do I, about the very real concern that exists about the return of tourism, because the threat of the virus has not disappeared. Therefore, I support a campaign on Anglesey, for example, to remind tourists to stick to those steps to safeguard communities and to respect the people around them. But I also think that now is an opportunity to reconsider the nature of the relationship between tourism and our communities in a more fundamental way. So, would the First Minister agree with me, and tourism representatives who I've been speaking to in my constituency, that we need to use this period to lay the foundations for a new kind of tourism, that gives greater ownership and control to the local level, which makes the sector more sustainable, which responds to local concerns about the impact of too much tourism, and ensures local benefits from tourism?

Well, Llywydd, may I thank Rhun ap Iorwerth for that interesting question? And just to say in the first place that I acknowledge the fact that tourism is extremely important to the people of Ynys Môn. The reason why we have proceeded carefully, step by step, is to ensure that the sector will be ready to welcome visitors back safely, and doing that by taking the communities with us on that journey. And it's important that the industry works closely with the local people to prepare and to do it in a way where the voice of the local people impacts the nature of the industry. That's exactly what Rhun has said about the opportunity that presents itself for us to rethink all of this. It's important. And when I have had discussions with the group that we've convened—and I had the opportunity to do that recently on 18 June—one thing that struck me was the point that the people in the group raised that they are eager to use the opportunity that they have to recreate the relationship between people working in the field and people living locally. I agree with what Rhun ap Iorwerth was saying about optimising the opportunity that we have to do things together and cautiously over the ensuing weeks. Because if we do it successfully, there will be more that we can do to help the sector in the remaining season and to do more to support the sector by doing so.

11:55

First Minister, 24,000 people work in the manufacturing industry in food and drink, with around 230,000 employed in the wider supply chain. There are around 3,700 different Welsh food and drink producers on retail, and a vital stage is the hospitality sector. Will you consider reopening the hospitality sector indoors from 13 July, but more importantly, advise them of this now? If not, what do you say to the Welsh Independent Restaurant Collective, whose survey found that at least 30,000 job losses are expected in the sector and that nearly half of these have happened already? Could you explain to me how it is seen to be safe for children to be in classrooms eating their lunch but yet unsafe for adults to sit inside a restaurant? Diolch.

Well, Llywydd, I think it's very easy to explain the difference: as far as I know, alcohol isn't being served in schools in Wales, whereas it would be in the context that the Member refers to. The idea that these things are somehow comparable is clearly nonsensical as soon as you begin to consider it. No, I won't be reopening indoor hospitality from 13 July, but I'm very glad indeed that we've been able to work with the sector and that outdoor hospitality will be reopening in Wales from that date. What we will then do is work with the sector to see that they make a success of that reopening, that they deliver on the many compensating measures that they have, I think, in a very committed and imaginative way, come forward with—measures to mitigate the impact of coronavirus—and provided we can see that that is being done successfully, then we will be able to move to reopening indoor hospitality.

What I think the Member never seems to grasp is that unless you're prepared to do this in a careful way, then people won't come back to use those facilities; people won't have the confidence to come back to restaurants and cafes and public houses in Wales unless they know that we have worked together to make those places safe. The weeks ahead in which the sector will deliver, I feel confident, on the promises it has made will be an investment in making sure that when we are able to move to indoor hospitality, people in Wales will have the confidence to return to it and that will have stood that sector and those businesses in very good stead.

The Northwood Hygiene Products Factory

6. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's discussions regarding the 94 jobs that are under threat at the Northwood Hygiene Products factory in Penygroes in the Arfon constituency? OQ55424

May I thank Siân Gwenllian for that question? Formal consultation on closure proposals for the Northwood factory ended on 4 July. Despite efforts by the local workers and management, Gwynedd Council and the Welsh Government, the company has decided to go ahead with closure plans. Efforts now turn to supporting staff and seeking alternative investment for the site.

I thank your Government for being so willing to provide assistance and to support the alternative proposal by the workforce in Penygroes, but unfortunately, as you have said, the company has rejected that opportunity for commercial reasons and they are making the 94 staff redundant, which is a huge blow. But we must continue to seek to find alternative use for the site. So, thank you for giving the assurance that your Government officials will continue to work with Gwynedd Council and others to look at the options available, including attracting a new buyer for the site. Ninety-four jobs in Dyffryn Nantlle would equate to thousands of jobs in more highly populated areas of Wales and deserve the same effort and the same attention from your Government as we seek a way forward.

12:00

Thank you, Siân Gwenllian. I acknowledge the point that she makes about the impact of the loss of 94 jobs in a place such as Nantlle Vale, and the closure of the plant is a very big blow for the workforce and the community. And as Siân Gwenllian acknowledged, Welsh Government officials and the officers of Gwynedd Council have been working hard to try and defend those jobs, putting money on the table to try and support those workers that have been loyal to the company over a long period of time. But as Siân Gwenllian says, we must think together about how we can attract alternative investment into the site. Welsh Government is leading a regional remedial partnership, and we will be looking at the future of north Wales post COVID—the whole of north Wales—but also in the context that Siân Gwenllian's constituents will be facing after the decision to close the factory.

The Block Grant

7. Will the First Minister provide an update on the latest block grant drawn down from the UK Government? OQ55435

I thank the Member for that question. Alongside many Whitehall departments, the Welsh Government has drawn down repayable cash from the UK contingencies fund. In our case, £857 million has been used to front-load our actions to support businesses and public services in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Thank you, First Minister. Apologies for the rather dry phrasing of the question, but you got my drift. First Minister, as you say, the UK Government has just signed off the draw-down of the £857 million and the Welsh Government budget has been significantly uplifted since the start of the pandemic, and rightly so. As the focus now turns to leaving lockdown and getting the economy moving again, will you look at providing support for the housing market and particularly first-time buyers? It's likely in the statement today that the Chancellor will be announcing a possible stamp duty holiday—certainly stamp duty relief for buyers. Is that something you will be considering here? My colleague Laura Anne Jones in her question earlier spoke about possible distortions along the border with regard to COVID-19 processes. There would be no greater distortion than that to the housing market if there's greater relief provided for stamp duty in England than there is for land transaction tax here in Wales, so will you pledge to look at this?

Well, Llywydd, it's just important say that the £857 million is repayable cash; it's not money that we can use to invest in Wales. And while I want to recognise the help we had through the Secretary of State and through the Treasury in securing that, let's put it in context: the Department of Health and Social Care in Whitehall has drawn down £25 billion of repayable cash from the contingencies fund, so we are rather at the small-change end of that market.

Llywydd, we will wait to see what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to say today. Our stamp duty, our land transaction tax regime in Wales, already absolves far, far more people from paying that tax in Wales than would be the case across our border, so if the Member would want to regard that as a distortion, then it is a distortion very much in favour of his constituents in living this side of the border. But what we've learnt, Llywydd, over many years, is never to rely on the headlines that the Treasury trail in advance of any statement. We will wait to hear what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to say. We will look at ways in which Wales will lose money as well as ways in which we may gain, and then the Cabinet here will come to a set of conclusions based in the round on the impact of any changes that may be announced today on the budget and on policies here in Wales.

Health Inequalities

8. What action is the Welsh Government planning to take to tackle the underlying health inequalities that have made some citizens more vulnerable to COVID-19 than others? OQ55434

Llywydd, can I thank the Member for that very important question? The Welsh Government continues to do everything we can to address the unacceptable inequalities in health outcomes between Wales's most and least deprived communities, and as we have seen in the COVID context for the black, Asian, minority ethnic community in particular. Reducing inequality is a central ambition of 'Prosperity for All' and lies at the heart of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

Thank you, First Minister. At the root of this problem is poor diet. We know that the food manufacturers spend billions of pounds encouraging people to eat processed food high in fat, sugar and salt, and that this obviously is not nourishing and it leads to obesity, which then leads to diabetes, heart disease and, indeed, cancer, and now COVID-19. So, I wonder what measures the Government is considering to transform the food system that is blighting our lives, not just to improve breastfeeding and weaning, but also compliance with healthy food regulations in schools and tackle the multimillion pound advertising by the food industry, which encourages people to eat the wrong things? When did you last see an advert for vegetables?

12:05

Well, Llywydd, let me agree with Jenny Rathbone that poor diet is the product of poverty, and it is families who cannot afford to buy a diet that is balanced and has the variety in it that others of us are able to take for granted that leads to obesity in those families. We are engaging a whole series of different measures to try and address that. Not all the levers are in our own hands. The UK Government carried out a consultation on advertising earlier last year, and in our contribution to that consultation, we urged the UK Government to be more mandatory in its approach, not simply to advise companies on best practice, but to require advertising not to be aimed, for example, at children or around schools. We are considering the report issued by the House of Lords Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment released on 6 July, called 'Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food', and that does indeed highlight a series of issues that the Member herself has just drawn to our attention. There are a number of recommendations in that report that we will want to draw on in the work that we will do here in Wales as part of our own consultation over the autumn period on the Wales food environment, which is planned by my colleague Vaughan Gething.

2. Business Statement and Announcement

The business statement and announcement is next, and I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement—Rebecca Evans.

Diolch, Llywydd. There are no changes to today's agenda. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

Darren Millar. Darren's unusually quiet. [Laughter.] Darren? Darren Millar, can you—?

Pardon me. Diolch, Llywydd. Can I call for two statements today, please, Trefnydd? Can I have a statement from the Minister responsible for the armed forces on the future of the armed forces liaison officers that we have in Wales? The Minister will be aware of the good work that these officers have done since they were appointed in terms of trying to ensure that the armed forces covenant is implemented at all levels across Wales, but the funding for these posts comes to an end in March of next year, and I'm very keen to make sure that they are retained for the future. So, I would be grateful if you could arrange for a statement on that matter as soon as possible.

In addition, can I call for a statement as soon as possible on land transaction tax? It's widely anticipated that there's going to be a holiday for stamp duty payments in Wales—in England rather, up to the value of £500,000. We need to get the property market moving again here in Wales as soon as possible. It's a good indicator of economic health. And I would be grateful to know whether the Welsh Government plans to also introduce a holiday for land transaction tax in order to support the property market here, if such a measure is announced in England. Thank you.

I thank Darren Millar for raising both of those issues, and, yes, I do recognise the good work of the armed forces liaison officers. As Darren says, the funding is there for them until the end of this Assembly term, or certainly until the end of this financial year, and that particular service, alongside all others, will be part of the discussions that we have leading up to our setting of the budget for the next financial year. And, of course, we have the opportunity to debate this in some depth in the debate that the Finance Committee has brought forward for next week's Plenary session. 

On the matter of land transaction tax, I'm very keen to hear what the Chancellor has to say in his summer economic update just shortly this afternoon. Obviously, there are things that I'm very keen to hear him talk about, in terms of support for the economy, for young people and so forth. I will release a statement by the end of the day setting out my overall response to his statement. Then, in terms of any detailed decisions that I am then to take on the wide range of issues, I will do so in due course, but, clearly, I would want to make early statements on all things of importance.

12:10

I'd like to request two statements from the Trefnydd today. I'd be grateful if time could be found for a statement from the health Minister on the question of political accountability and answerability. I'd like to hear his views on his own role in determining which vital services are available in which parts of Wales, particularly in relation to the recent news that the 24-hour consultant-led accident and emergency service at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital is to be retained. Did he play a part in that decision? What role does he now have in the recruitment of consultants, which is a key issue for the plan to work? What is the status of the south Wales programme, which was a key driver in the decision to, previously, close the A&E department? And also, what was his role in the decision to pay a six-figure sum to the former chief executive of Cwm Taf health board after she resigned in the aftermath of the maternity services scandal? I'm sure Members will agree that these issues of accountability deserve our scrutiny, and that the people who've been affected by these decisions deserve political accountability too.

I'd also like to raise the matter of flooding. In England—

You're out of time, Leanne Wood. I'm going to ask the Trefnydd to respond.

Those are detailed questions, which I know the Member will want to raise directly with the health Minister. Of course, the health Minister does have oral questions this afternoon, which might be an opportunity to begin to discuss some of those questions.

Would the Minister make a statement on the decision of Ineos to locate the manufacturing of the new model in France, rather than its initial announcement of Bridgend, given that this announcement is a devastating blow both to Bridgend and Wales? I understand that Ineos has entered talks with Mercedes-Benz for the acquisition of a site in Moselle in France. As the Ineos project was secured with a significant financial package from both the Welsh Government and the UK Government's Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, could the Minister outline the possible options now open to the Welsh Government, either to reinstate the earlier situation or to recover the funds invested thus far?

We were shocked and very disappointed by the way in which the news was relayed to officials following all of the hard work and the relationship, I think, that has been built up over a number of years. Welsh Government and our contractors have worked tirelessly to ensure that the site was ready, in line with Ineos's tight timescales, despite both the flood and COVID-19. There'll be an opportunity to pursue these issues in more depth in the topical question, which has been accepted by the Llywydd, from Carwyn Jones. He will be asking that this afternoon to the Minister for economy.

Minister, you will have seen press reports today that free NHS parking introduced in England at the start of the coronavirus emergency by the UK Government is going to be withdrawn. Can the Minister confirm today, in order to avoid the need for a statement, that the Welsh Government has no intention of changing its long-standing commitment to providing free parking for staff, patients and visitors in Welsh NHS locations?

I'm very happy to provide that reassurance that we have no plans whatsoever to change our approach to free parking for staff, visitors and patients at hospitals here in Wales, which was, of course, a policy that we introduced back in 2008. We're very keen to see that policy continue.

Leader of the house, could I seek two statements, please? Yesterday, the health Minister wrote off the deficits of the health boards. I am amazed, unless it has come in the last hour, that we, as Members, haven't had a statement on this—it was announced in the press conference yesterday. That surely cannot be right. I make no judgment call on the write-down, but £0.5 billion-worth of debt was written off yesterday. It is our role to probe that and test it, and also wonder whether the Government is going to write deficits off in local authorities—[Inaudible.]—or other public bodies. But, in the absence of any form of statement other than the press statement yesterday, we are unable to do that. So, could I implore you to seek that statement? I shouldn't have to implore you, but could I ask you to make that statement available to Members so we can understand exactly the implications for it?

And secondly, could I also, via your role as finance Minister, seek a statement from your good self as to the use of the furlough scheme by public bodies in Wales? Obviously, public bodies have had cost pressures. The furlough scheme has protected many jobs across all sectors, but many of the public bodies would have already received money in the budget settlements for this year to cover those jobs, instead of having two draw-downs of public money and using the furlough scheme as well. I'm led to believe some local authorities have put as many as 500 workers on the furlough scheme whilst receiving that money in their settlement from you as finance Minister, part of the Welsh Government. So, could I have a statement to elaborate on your understanding of the use of the furlough scheme in the public sector?

12:15

I thank Andrew R.T. Davies for raising both of those issues. Again, as I mentioned previously, the health Minister does have questions today, so there'll be opportunities to discuss your particular question regarding the write-off of the deficits of the health boards. But, again, I'll have the opportunity to speak to the health Minister myself and relay that request for the statement on that particular matter.FootnoteLink

And then, on the furlough scheme, there is guidance from the UK Government in terms of in what circumstances furlough should be used by public sector bodies. It should only be used in relatively few circumstances in Wales, and I think that has been genuinely the case. So, for example, local authorities who haven't been able to redeploy staff into other roles have been able to use it, but it has been used on a relatively small number of occasions. But I'm happy to write to you with some further detail on that.

May I ask for a statement from the Deputy Minister for children and social services on child play schemes for children over the summer months? Whilst welcoming the fact that there will be provision for vulnerable children, it's very disappointing that there won't be spaces available for the children of key workers. The work of these children's parents is still central to the efforts to put the health service back on its feet, and it's unfortunate, to say the least, that these children aren't included in the cohort of children that will have that summertime provision. So, I would like a statement to the end that this cohort will be included. We're not talking about huge sums of money here. 

I know that there was a statement issued earlier on this week that set out some of the parameters for the childcare and play provision that will be provided over the summer, but I will make sure that today I do have the opportunity to speak to the Deputy Minister and ensure that she is aware of that request for a statement specifically regarding the children of key workers over the summer.

Business Minister, by September, our children will have had no more than three days in school in six months. Not only is their education suffering but their mental and physical health too. Vulnerable children are falling behind in key skills, and, if our children don't go back fully in September, then potentially parents might lose some of their jobs too, because they won't be able to go back to work. Schools now just have days before the end of the summer term to plan for the autumn term. We've been in the dark too long here in Wales. So, therefore, can the education Minister please bring forward a clear statement as soon as possible setting out what schooling will look like in September?

I take this opportunity to welcome Laura Anne to the Senedd—or, back to the Senedd, I should say—and look forward to your contributions in the business statement. 

I know that the Minister has been working really hard with the education sector, local authorities, trade unions and so forth to plot out the way forward in terms of returning to schools. Of course, Wales is the only part of the UK that has ensured that every child will have the opportunity to return to the classroom for at least some time before the summer holidays, which I think is important in terms of reconnecting and re-establishing those relationships. The Minister has questions next this afternoon, and I know that she is keen to keep colleagues as informed as possible about plans for September.

I'd like a statement from the Minister for children. I had a meeting recently, the other day, on Zoom with a number of mothers, with a grandmother and one father, and all the children were in care. The common issue is that the reports that are put before courts to enable children to be taken into care are inaccurate, time after time after time. I've seen the inaccuracies; they're not picked up in the system, children are taken into care, which explains, to my mind, the big difference between the amount of children in care in Wales and those in England. So, my question and the purpose of the statement is: what can be done in terms of policy by the Minister to ensure that these reports, which have a huge effect on people's lives—? I was talking to mothers absolutely destroyed the other day online. What can be done to ensure that inaccuracies are corrected before the children are taken into care?

12:20

Well, the matter that Neil McEvoy raises is clearly very serious in terms of ensuring that accurate information is presented in these extremely important cases. So, can I invite him to write to the Minister with some more detail about his experiences and the discussions that he had in his call with mothers and with grandparents in order to better understand the issues that he describes?

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. I'm very grateful that you've been able to call me. Business Minister, can I call for a debate in Government time on the Cumberlege review, which is published today under the title 'First Do No Harm'? I just remind Members that it's about the use of various medical treatments and implants, such as mesh implants. And, although commissioned by the UK Government, it did have the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government as stakeholders and there was a patient event held in Cardiff. It has revealed many things that require, I think, full debate, especially the whole issue of the equal access that women have to health services that are fit for purpose, and one of the report's main conclusions is that we need a patient safety commissioner. These are hugely important issues. I'm sure that I'm not the only Member who has already received correspondence from constituents asking for this report's recommendations to be thoroughly examined by Welsh Government and by us here in the Senedd. So, could we have a debate, please, in Government time, as soon as possible?

This is indeed a really serious report, with some important conclusions. I know that the health Minister has welcomed the review team's report, which, as David Melding says, is primarily relating to England, but it will certainly have implications for clinical practice here in Wales. I know that the Minister intends to carefully assess the recommendations and the conclusions in relation to current practice here in Wales, and then he will consider whether they should be adopted by the NHS in Wales before he will issue his response. But he is very familiar with the report and he welcomes the work behind it.

3. Questions to the Minister for Education

The next item is questions to the Minister for Education, and the first question is from Joyce Watson.

School Activities

1. What assessment has the Minister made of last week's increase in school activities? OQ55427

Thank you, Joyce. The immediate feedback received from key stakeholders, parents and learners is overwhelmingly positive. The opportunity for school staff to catch up with their learners has been very much welcomed. Good practice and evidence from this current period of operations is helping inform schools' operations for the future.

I'm really proud that I'm able to stand here today and say that children in Wales have had an opportunity to go to school before people had the same opportunity to go to a pub. I think it actually does say something about the priorities here in Wales. I, like you, share my appreciation of all those people who've come together in the joint efforts to make that happen, and I want to thank all those, here today, on behalf of all those parents.

As you say, this is an opportunity to check in and catch up, and these few weeks before the summer break are important for identifying logistical challenges. One of those logistical challenges in my region will be transport to school. So, can we look forward to a statement in the near future about what has been learned, what's worked well and perhaps where we need to be next?

12:25

Thank you, Joyce, especially for the recognition of the hard work that has gone into making these opportunities available for children in Wales. It has been a huge collective effort on behalf of all those involved. One of the reasons why we did want to provide these opportunities, above and beyond education, is precisely for the reasons that you have described—so we can get to grips with some of the really wicked logistical issues around a safe return to schools for pupils and members of staff—and, clearly, transport is one of those. I must say that the vast majority of local authorities across Wales during this period have been able to ensure that those children who need transport have been able to access transport, but there have been logistical issues, undoubtedly. Only last night I met with a significant number of council leaders and trade unions to discuss issues around education. Transport, of course, was raised, and we will be working with both directors of education and transport leads in all 22 local authorities to address these issues prior to the new academic year.

Education Minister, I recognise these are difficult decisions for the Government, but the Government must balance the harms and benefits of any policy. And although I see you're trying to keep our children safe, and respect that, obviously, it is, ironically, having an adverse effect on our children and they are suffering, which I've seen first hand, having a 10-year-old son of primary age myself.

As I said earlier in the Chamber, it's not just our children's education that is suffering, it's their mental, physical health and development. I ask you to look at how low the risk is with COVID-19 now and balance that with the harmful effect that not going back to school full time is having on our children. And although we welcome the opportunity in these three weeks for our children to go back for three days, unless all children go back to school in September, I'll be interested in hearing how you expect parents to look after their children, educate their children, and hold down jobs if this part-time learning carries on.

Even though there is very little time now for our schools to prepare to reopen, the Scottish Government has made it fully clear that they want to reopen in August fully. In Wales, teachers, pupils and parents, as I said before, have been in the dark too long. We need to know. Please can you tell us, Minister, when we can expect all children to return to school full time?

I will be making a statement on the next stages of education for the children in Wales before the end of the week.

Oh, I should say—sorry, it's very rude of me—welcome back, Laura.

The Children of Key Workers

2. Will the Minister make a statement on the provision of education to the children of key workers? OQ55407

Thank you, Russell. On 3 June, I announced that all pupils in Wales, including the children of critical workers, would have the opportunity to check in, catch up and prepare for the summer and September from 29 June.

Thank you, Minister, for that answer. That answer is clear in itself, but a constituent has relayed to me a concern that children of key workers who are attending the childcare hubs have also been restricted from attending the catch-up and check-in days, and this particular parent is concerned that children will not have the access to their usual teachers and peers, and that will impact also on their preparation for the following academic year. Can you, Minister, confirm whether schools should be ensuring that all children, including those of key workers, are able to catch up and check in with their teachers, and that should be the case before the summer holidays?

Thank you very much for that, Russell. The requirement to try and limit the number of contacts that individual children have is one of the very wicked logistical issues that the current operations of schools have identified. This is particularly acute in the county of Powys, because a vast number of people living in Powys actually qualify as a critical worker, and the demand for critical worker care has increased hugely in recent weeks in the county of Powys. I'm very grateful, under the leadership of Lynette Lovell, the director of education of Powys, that Powys have been able to put on five additional childcare hubs during this period and are working very hard to ensure that those children who are attending those hubs are not disadvantaged in terms of their education and their ability to check in and to catch up.

Lynette is just one of those people that we need to say thank you to, Presiding Officer, as Joyce Watson did. As a former headteacher herself, and now a director, she has actually been manning some of those childcare hubs over the holidays and the bank holidays. It is that kind of commitment that we have seen the length and breadth of Wales that has ensured that our children of critical workers have been well looked after, allowing their parents to get on with their important work, and I commend the work of Powys County Council in that regard.

12:30

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. Like others, I'd like to put on record my gratitude to you and others who have made this session possible today.

Minister, people in Blaenau Gwent tell me that they have great confidence in your leadership in education, and they compare that with the shambles we've seen across the border. People tell me that they're very anxious now that they're able to continue to see this sort of leadership.

In terms of where we are the moment, my concern is to ensure that we do have the educational facilities and provision in place for all children, and that includes children with additional learning needs. I've been very concerned that we don't have in all places the coverage that we require to ensure that some of our most vulnerable children, and children who do require additional support in learning, have that, both within the hub models that we've seen recently, but also as we move back to the blended learning that you have described in recent statements. I understand that you're making a statement today and later in the week about the sort of framework and structures we will have in September, and I'd like to ask you, Minister, to ensure that children with additional learning needs are at the centre of your thoughts.

Thank you, Alun, for that. This period of disruption to children's education as a result of the pandemic has been a particular challenge for those children with additional learning needs. Many of our local authorities have actually been able to keep their special schools open throughout this entire period to support those families, especially if those children have very advanced and very specific needs, but I am aware, in other local authority areas, that service has not been universally available.

As we move towards next steps in education in Wales, we will be paying particular attention to the support needs of children with additional learning needs. I hope to be able also to make a statement shortly on what we can do to address the impact that this period of disruption has had, and clearly, children with an additional learning need will be a priority part of the cohort that we will be looking to support as we move forward.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Suzy Davies.

Thank you, Llywydd, and thank you, Minister.

Can I just add my voice to those who have congratulated schools and the teachers, the staff, as well as parents and families, and indeed some council officials as well, who contributed to being able to open schools in these last couple of weeks, and particularly those who are determined to go for that fourth week?

I'd like to begin today, though, with the questions that have been raised by the Children's Commissioner for Wales regarding a child's right to education, generally, and perhaps you can tell us whether your policies and regulations have been subject to child rights impact assessments. But I particularly wanted to focus on her urging you to be clear about your plans for September. I've heard what you've said to others in the Chamber today, but Welsh schools and councils have seen that the other three nations of the UK have already published their guidance for next term. Yesterday, in the Children, Young People and Education Committee, you told us that you were waiting for the latest science on transmission of COVID-19 before you published your guidance, although I do believe that a draft was being considered by stakeholders before that. Did you request the report on that science or was it due anyway, and did you anticipate it making a material difference to the guidance you'd already prepared and circulated in draft? If yes, why was the middle tier still looking over a draft on Monday, and if no, why not publish that guidance earlier, duly caveated for some minor changes, so that schools and councils could get on with at least some preparation, knowing that their time to act is now so short?

Firstly, my understanding is that despite the fact that there has been an announcement in Scotland of all children returning to school with no social distancing in August, no guidance has actually been produced by the Scottish Government to support that decision. That reflects the very complex issues that myself and Ministers across the United Kingdom are grappling with, especially as the science and the understanding of how the disease behaves continue to evolve.

We had some notice that new scientific papers were being made available to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies at the end of this week. We requested that those papers be sent to Welsh Government as early as possible, so that they could be figured into our planning. I did not want to make a statement and then to have that overtaken by events should then further science become available. I think it's really important that we build confidence amongst staff and, crucially, parents that we are acting on the very latest scientific advice.

Throughout this process we have said that our aim would be to maximise face-to-face contact for our children and to minimise disruption, and I know that schools have prepared operational guidance for a range of scenarios, and those plans will have to be kept under review regardless of what statement I am able to make by the end of this week, because how the disease behaves in our community is key to unlocking educational opportunities for children. I can assure the Member that decisions taken within the department are subject to an integrated rights assessment.

12:35

Okay, that's an interesting comment, that last one, because certainly my understanding is that various regulations that have come through a different committee haven't necessarily had those rights assessments.

I wonder if you can help us on a similar issue, which is to do with blended learning, because there's some confusion about whether September will be a blended learning environment or not. My understanding is that you have brought some clarity to this by saying that face-to-face teaching, when children return in September, is what you're aiming for, and I'm hoping that that will reassure some worried parents. You're looking at it perhaps more as an additional tool, with it maybe in some individual cases meeting a child's needs better than school attendance alone.

Your officials told us yesterday that teachers are unfamiliar with this way of teaching, but have benefited very recently from advice based on information gathered by the consortia, which is some encouragement here I think, but my understanding is that that data gathering on what schools were doing since March was only really begun at the tail end of May, when consortia were prompted to do that work with their reports then being sent to you by 19 June, over two weeks ago. This has been quite a long period of time now, so I think you should be in a position to tell us today what those reports have told you not just about the quantity, but the quality of the offer being made by individual schools, the feedback from schools to pupils in terms of their learning as well as their well-being, and the speed at which schools have been able to identify and then address gaps in what they were doing as best they possibly could in their current circumstances.

Thank you for that, Suzy. I believe that blended learning will continue to play a part in Welsh education in a number of ways, but clearly, as you have quite rightly stated, my aim is to maximise face-to-face contact with children in their schools with their teachers, but we must capture the positives of the crisis that we have found ourselves in, and for some staff, and indeed for some children, the blended learning approach or distance learning approach actually has been beneficial to them. It builds, of course, on the important work that we have in the e-school project, something that the Presiding Officer will be very familiar with. That blended learning approach helps us overcome some of the logistical disadvantages children, especially in rural areas, may face because they find themselves in small classes. So, we need to capture the good that has come out of this crisis and which will help us inform policy as we go forward, and for some children, especially for those children perhaps who find school difficult or challenging, actually supporting their learning in a variety of ways is really important as we go forward.

I am very keen to understand what has been happening in individual schools. I have been very blunt about this: there has been a mixed performance. Some schools have been able to grasp this challenge better than others, and indeed some families have been able to interact with their schools better than others. As we discussed in the committee yesterday, we have tried to take very positive steps, successful steps, with regard to digital disadvantage, and good practice on behalf of teaching has been supported by guidance around continuity of learning from the Government, and that good practice that has been gleaned by both Estyn and the regional consortia is now being used to inform best practice across schools. We have also been able to provide, via the regional consortia, training for staff to get to grips with and to be able to use our digital learning platform Hwb to its greatest degree. Because of the situation that Anglesey found itself in, for instance, I was able to meet recently with the headteacher representatives of Ynys Môn, and they said that they had benefited hugely from the webinars and professional training that Welsh Government and the GwE consortium had made available to their staff to be able to support blended learning and distance learning to best effect.

12:40

Thank you for that answer. I think there'll probably be some supply teachers in Ynys Môn who would like to speak to you as well. I think there's no doubt, is there, that teachers and school staff, and parents and pupils, have really risen to this challenge over the last few months, but everybody's now pretty much at the limits of their patience, as we've already heard. What I would say is that I don't think that teachers, schools and school staff in particular should have been alone in this. The consortia's role to support school improvement hasn't gone away during this period, and however off-curriculum we've been and however different the experience of having parents play this much greater role in providing education has been, there's no reason to abandon completely all attention to standards. I've been just a little bit concerned about the lateness to the game of consortia and local authority officers who have a role in school improvement here. Can you tell me exactly what they've been doing proactively during this period, not just in the last couple of weeks, to support schools to be the best they can during the turbulence of this period?

Well, I've just given you an example in the GwE constituency, where they have been providing online professional learning opportunities to staff across the north Wales area so that they can use Hwb, our digital learning platform, to best effect. In my own local area, if we turn to the role of a local authority, Powys County Council took the Welsh Government's continuity of learning plan, adapted that for the context of Powys, and have been supporting schools in the delivery of that plan. Other regional consortia, again, have been proactive in supporting schools, gathering information and providing professional learning opportunities. And should I also say that I am aware of consortia staff, with the appropriate clearance and experience, who have actually been working in our childcare hubs, too. So they have been playing their part in supporting education at this time. 

Thank you, Llywydd, and I thank the education Minister for being willing to meet virtually on a weekly basis during this time of crisis. It's been most beneficial that we've been able to have those meetings and to have that discussion.

Forgive me, but I am going to return to the issue of schools in September, because this is something that is very much alive in the minds of headteachers, parents and children and young people, too, in terms of what exactly will be happening in September. If it's safe, of course, I'm sure we're all agreed that the best thing for our children and young people is that the schools should reopen fully. I think if we have learned anything during this period, we have learned that the relationship between pupil and child in the classroom is so, so very valuable, and that all the efforts to create online education cannot replace that crucial relationship, although it does have a central role, of course.

In committee yesterday, you said that there will be an announcement this week as to what arrangements you expect to be in place in September, but you also said that you'd held back from making any announcement because the science is evolving. And yes, it is evolving, of course, but it is evolving in Scotland and Northern Ireland too, and they have been able to make announcements. Contrary to what you said in response to Suzy Davies, Scotland has published guidance. On 21 May, they stated that their schools would reopen on 11 August, and then they published guidance on 28 May. And Northern Ireland, on 18 June, stated that their schools would reopen gradually from 24 August onwards, and guidance was published on 19 June. Now, I accept that we don't want to follow other countries' leads and that we can make our own decisions here, but what's different in terms of the evolving science here and the nature of the spread of the virus here as compared with those other nations?

Well, first of all, Siân, can I say I'm grateful to you and Suzy Davies for the opportunity, as you said, usually on a weekly basis, to be able to touch base and for your continuing to hold my feet to the fire?

I'm not aware of the scientific papers that have been perused by my colleagues in Northern Ireland, Scotland or England that led them to make those statements. Throughout this period, we have been guided by the science. It's really important that we do that to build confidence amongst staff and parents. It's that science that has led us in Wales to be able to do something completely different to what's happened in Northern Ireland or Scotland, recognising that their term dates are different and therefore it's been more challenging for them, and different from what they've done in England. Alongside the science, we've also been able to reflect on the practice over the now week-and-a-half of operations of schools to help us inform decision making going forward. 

As I said, I'm not sure what other individual Ministers have read before they've made the announcement that they have, but I was absolutely determined that we would make a decision based on the very latest scientific advice and on the experience of this period of education where we have more children in our schools. Clearly, as you say, I will make a statement later this week. That statement will have to be kept under review and we will have to have regular check-in points, because, as we have seen here in Wales, the disease can pop up and interrupt plans that have been carefully laid and prepared for, as in the case, for instance, in Ynys Môn. But the statement will be made later this week. 

12:45

Headteachers will be pleased to hear that there is information on its way, but it's very late in the day; the schools only have a week left to prepare. Looking forward to September, what will your plans be in order to ensure that the attainment gap doesn't widen as a result of this crisis? Will the funding announced by the UK Government Prime Minister be spent on a mitigation programme? Plaid Cymru published a plan some weeks ago that would include employing more teachers and attracting recently retired teachers back into schools. So, what will your aim be for children and young people who haven't been supported during the pandemic, namely those who are most disadvantaged and therefore face the greatest challenge? What exactly are your plans for that cohort of children? 

You're correct to say that the Westminster Government have announced a £1 billion catch-up programme. I need to make sure that Members are aware that not all of that is new money, and we have been advised as a Welsh Government that, in this financial year, we could expect a consequential up to and no more, at best, than £30 million. The rest of the money that was announced is for the new financial year and is not available to the Welsh Government at this time. So, I just want to be clear about the parameters in which we are working. 

As I think I said earlier, I hope to be in a position—again, by the end of this week—to outline a distinctly Welsh approach to mitigating the impact that the disease has had on our children's education. There are specific parts of the cohort that we know that this period of disruption has been particularly challenging for. We talked about children with additional learning need earlier. Obviously, those children from a disadvantaged economic background, we're always worried about the attainment gap for those particular children. So, we're looking to make it a school-based programme, which is very different from the approach taken in England where there is an emphasis on employing private tutors. I think any particular programme to support children's learning needs to be on the basis of those professionals that work with them day in, day out, know them best and can deal with the circumstances that those children find themselves in. 

What's crucial about the time that children are spending in school at the moment is that that work is already beginning to be done to identify what the impact of this period of disruption has been on children, and for teachers to begin to plan for what they need to do next to move children along. For some children, it will be content that will be the main priority; for other children, it will be addressing their emotional health and well-being. This has been a deeply troubling time for all of us. Some of us will have lost friends or relatives, and will have known people who've been really, really unwell, and if that's true of us, then, of course, it will be true of our children. And making sure that our children are in a position to learn and to re-engage with their education is really, really important. That's why it's important that we took the step to give every child—not specific year groups, but every child—the chance to go back to school before September. 

Thank you. Thirty million isn't going to go particularly far, despite some major announcements made by the Tories in England recently. Now, the digital divide is another issue that has emerged during the pandemic—the digital disadvantage that certain students and pupils have faced in terms of devices and connectivity. One survey that I’ve seen recently from the Llandrillo Menai Group demonstrates that 30 per cent of students felt that they were disadvantaged—that they weren’t able to have adequate access to distance learning in order to complete their studies, as the equipment or the broadband, or both, wasn’t available to them. Now, 30 per cent of young people means a high number of young people if you were to apply that across Wales. And I wonder whether a similar survey among higher education students would show the same types of theme, or does this highlight the cinderella status of further education in Wales? So, I would like to know what your plans are to bridge that digital divide in the FE sector particularly.

12:50

Well, you're right—it is one of the barriers to learning during this period that has been for those children who are digitally excluded, who don't either have a device, a suitable device, or, indeed, connectivity at home. That's why we've spent £3 million on trying to address that situation. I'm very grateful to colleagues in local government who have worked in partnership with us to give out over 10,000 pieces of equipment, and over 10,000 MiFi devices. Again, this is a record I think we can be proud of in Wales, compared to the ability to get kit out of the door in other nations, where they have struggled to do so. We have leant kit that's already in schools rather than going to the market to buy new, because we knew everybody else was going to the market to buy new, and that would lead to significant delays in getting the children what they needed. We will now replace that kit that has been leant to children—given to children—with new kit for their schools.

We are currently discussing plans with the FE sector to see whether a similar situation and a similar level of support can be put in place for FE. But, again, I would commend the work of ColegauCymru's members, who have done exceptional work in making sure that those students in FE in danger of being digitally excluded have been able to receive support. And whilst, quite understandably, we talk a lot about schools going back, FE colleges are also back working, and they have a particular emphasis on connecting with our most vulnerable students—those are exactly the students that you've talked about, Siân, for whom perhaps distance learning has been a particular challenge—and that is going, I understand, very well.

Welsh-medium Education Provision

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's plans to expand Welsh-medium education provision in the Merthyr Tydfil area? OQ55422

Thank you, Delyth, for the question.

Capital investment of £1.83 million has been earmarked to expand Welsh-medium education provision in Merthyr Tydfil. We are meeting the full costs of these projects to make best use of the funding available. The authority has also received £661,000 from the reducing infant class size grant, also to support Welsh-medium education.

Thank you for that response, Minister. Rhieni Dros Addysg Gymraeg have been in touch with me on their campaign to tackle the lack of Welsh-medium provision in the area. At the moment, there are only two primary schools and no secondary school at all, which is utterly unfair on the children in the area. RhAG want to see a Welsh-medium secondary school established, as well as an additional primary school. Since they started their campaign less than a year ago, they have made large steps forward. Discussions with the council on opening a new primary school have been positive. The Welsh-medium education forum has met virtually during the lockdown, and plans are in place to produce material to promote Welsh-medium education among parents, as well as to organise events. So, Minister, will you join with me in congratulating RhAG on their excellent work to date, as well as Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council for showing enthusiasm in assisting the campaign? Can you give me an assurance that you, as Minister for Education, will provide all possible support in order to enable RhAG, and the council, to open Welsh-medium schools in Merthyr?

Thank you, Delyth. As I said in my answer to your first question, the Welsh Government is funding fully the projects that the Member will be familiar with. The grant of £1.83 million will support the reconfiguration of Ysgol Rhyd-y-grug to accommodate two additional classrooms and to increase nursery and pre-nursery provision. And the grant will also fund a new Welsh-medium primary school with a capacity for 210 pupils, also providing an early years and early childcare location through the medium of Welsh. Also, the reducing infant class sizes grant has been allocated to Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Santes Tudful to provide a stand-alone extension to two additional classrooms, including new lobby and toilet facilities also, and the old demountable accommodation will be removed to create an external play area to support the foundation phase.

So, clearly, the capital grants that Welsh Government are able to give Merthyr Tydfil are really going to make a difference, and I'm grateful to all of those campaigning within Merthyr and the council for engaging so positively with our capital programme to make these projects available, and I'm sure, as we have seen from other areas in Wales, once they are available, parents will make a very positive choice to choose Welsh-medium education for their children.

12:55

Minister, we must ensure that our ambitious Welsh language targets in Merthyr Tydfil and across Wales are accomplished, and it's important that the benefit of Welsh-medium education is given to all children in all communities. May I, therefore, ask whether the Minister will give Bridgend council further support, as important land developments have fallen through and impacted their plans? It's possible that they might need a bit more support to attain the ambitious targets in Bridgend, while working also with groups such as Bridgend RhAG.

Thank you, Huw, for that. Can I assure Members that we have developed a dashboard to give an overview of the situation across all local authorities following COVID-19, and the dashboard highlights that local authorities are on track to meet their Welsh in education strategic plan targets. Clearly, if there are concerns about the ability of an individual local authority to meet their targets contained within their WESP, then our officials will want to have a conversation with them to understand what the barriers are to achieving the goals that have been set out in those plans.

The Resumption of Full-time Education

4. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's plans for the resumption of full-time education in September? OQ55397

Since 29 June, our learners have been taking the opportunity to check in, catch up and prepare for the autumn term. Working with stakeholders, we are developing robust plans for children’s return to school in September, and, as I have said on numerous occasions this afternoon, Presiding Officer, I intend to make a statement later on this week outlining my plans.

Thank you, Minister, for that answer, and I appreciate you've answered other questions on this particular area, but I think it shows the sign of correspondence we're all getting from worried parents, teachers and also children who want to understand what the position will be in September. I know you are engaged in that process, Minister, but given the confusion around the previous announcements of the partial opening of schools, the chief medical officer's comments, for example, and the unions' comments, can you convince us that this will be a joined-up announcement that you will be making later in the week to give complete clarity so that people can have confidence that there will be full-time education in September? Because, with the ending of the furlough scheme and the economic pressures that families are facing, it might well boil down to the fact that people will have to think of food over fractions if they don't have full-time education in September. And I hope that you will give us confidence today that that is the direction of travel that you are undertaking for the September opening of schools. 

Well, Presiding Officer, I understand that children, parents and professionals want to know more about what we can expect in September. We are undertaking those discussions, as the Member alluded to. Sometimes these discussions are complicated by the way in which our education system is structured in Wales, which means there are many, many stakeholders that need to be engaged before we can make an announcement, but I'm absolutely clear, and I have been throughout this process, that I am determined to maximise the opportunities for our children's education and to minimise the impact that this disease has had on it. We need to balance the risks—the risks to children and the staff that work with them—from COVID-19. But, luckily, because of the hard work and the efforts of the Welsh public, in beginning to drive that community transmission rate down, we now also need to figure in the non-COVID risks to our children from a prolonged period away from education. And because of the hard work of the Welsh public, we're in a position to be able to do that.

13:00

Minister, I'm hearing from distressed parents who have distressed children who want and need to know that they will be going back to school full time in September. Parents living on the Welsh-English border are even considering sending their children to English schools in September. What do you say to those parents? Thank you. 

Mandy, I am a parent that lives in a constituency on the Welsh-English border. Yesterday, my year 9 daughter was able to return to school for the second time. If I lived across that border, in Herefordshire, she would not set foot in a classroom until September. Let's be absolutely clear what the education system and the teachers and the headteachers and the support staff and our local authorities have been able to achieve in Wales: children living in your constituency that would not go to a classroom until September have been able to check in and catch up and begin to prepare. And I will continue to work with those hard-working educational professionals within our nation to maximise the opportunity for our children in September. Let's be very clear about the differences across the border. And I'm glad I'm this side. 

Minister, thank you for your answers to these questions. We now understand clearly that you are going to be making a statement on this issue. But, rightly so, parents are really anxious about this, there's no doubt about it, and they need clarity as soon as possible. Childcare needs to be arranged and there are many other aspects as well. So, following the statement later this week, will you confirm and commit today that any further announcements or information to parents will be given to them as a matter of urgency? Because constituents right across Alyn and Deeside and right across Wales need to know this as soon as possible, just to get their plans in place. 

Of course, Jack. I have endeavoured, throughout this entire period, to be as clear as I can be with educational professionals in Wales and with the parents of Wales. Sometimes that has not been easy, because of, sometimes, the lack of understanding, from especially aspects of the press, about discussions and announcements that have been made regarding other jurisdictions and the impact it has on Wales. We have used a variety of platforms and every opportunity to communicate with parents and, I can assure you, we will continue to do that. 

The decisions I make are one important aspect, clearly, but unless we have the confidence of parents, so that they know that they can send their children into a safe and secure environment, they will not make that choice. I'm really pleased that, because we've been able to offer an opportunity to all children this side of summer, parents can see how safe and secure that their teachers and headteachers have been able to make their schools and, therefore, I hope that that will build confidence for whatever we're able to do in September. 

Class Sizes

5. Will the Minister make a statement on class sizes in schools in Wales? OQ55411

Reducing class sizes, targeted at those who will benefit the most, is a key action in 'Our national mission'. I have made available an additional £36 million over this Assembly term to reduce infant class sizes.

Thanks, Minister. Crises bring opportunities and the most unfortunate circumstances can bring really positive change. The blended learning approach really is not going to work come the autumn, children are falling behind, not everybody is online and there is the issue of parents working. As a former teacher, I'm really aware of the enormous benefits of smaller class sizes: there's a different relationship in the classroom, there's more of a community, there's more time for children, one-on-one tuition becomes eminently possible. There's a reason why private schools offer small class sizes; we know that.

So, you're in a position now—you could usher in change with an aim to radically cut class sizes. A big-bang approach in this emergency, if you like: bringing in teachers who've left the profession, bringing people back in with the sole aim to enable a radical cut in class sizes to enable social distancing in schools and get schools back to work full time with pupils in school full time. Why not?  

13:05

Well, as I made clear, I think, in my first answer, Presiding Officer, reducing class sizes has been a priority for me and this Government. We have invested in that, and that investment has led to an additional 110 extra teachers working in our schools, and an additional 45 teaching assistants. And in some places, it's not the staff that have been the constraint, it's the actual building, and therefore we have created an additional 52 classrooms. Clearly, as I said in answer to other questions, we will be looking to do what we can to support children at the next stage of their education, to overcome some of the deficits that will undoubtedly—undoubtedly—have occurred because of this disruption, and additional staff, I'm sure, will be an important part of that.

Personal Protective Equipment

6. Will the Minister make a statement on the use of personal protective equipment in schools? OQ55430

It is essential that those who need personal protective equipment have access to it. Our guidance on increasing operations in schools sets out the use of PPE by practitioners and support staff within the education sector.

With regard to face masks, I note the answer that the First Minister gave earlier was that face covering is not of itself a magic bullet, and I suspect there are a number of concerns the Government has behind that. But I've been contacted by a Caerphilly resident who is concerned to not send her child back to school until she sees face masks more widely available, and particularly in a school setting. What reassurance can you give her today, and when will we have further information about PPE and face masks in school settings from September?

There are only very, very specific circumstances where the Welsh Government advises that staff working in our schools should use a face mask. With regard to face coverings—because there is a significant difference between the two—we do not advise that face coverings are necessary within a school setting.

Educational Support

7. Will the Minister make a statement on educational support for children who have not returned to school? OQ55418

I think, Janet, as learners return to the physical school environment, practitioners will be providing a combination of approaches, especially for those children for whom, perhaps, a return to school is not recommended at this time. 

Diolch. In April, an extra £3 million was announced to support digitally excluded learners, yet I am aware of many parents who have waited all these months for a laptop. I've even had issues around the provision of a dongle. So, can you confirm whether all digitally excluded learners in Wales have now been provided with the technology they need, and how will you address the shortfall? Last month a survey report found survey report found that only 1.9 per cent of students received four lessons per day that only 1.9 per cent of students received four lessons per day. What steps have you taken to improve this? Then, on Monday, you did announce that £1 million has been allocated to support those children to re-engage with education over the summer holiday, especially those who have not been in school. But I do ask: how realistic is it to expect this of children over the summer break, especially when many have simply been unable to access online learning during the actual summer term? Thank you.

Janet, as I said in answer to Siân Gwenllian, schools have distributed over 10,000 individual devices, and over—. Actually, Welsh Government has provided over 10,000 software licences that allows the equipment to be converted into what a child needs. Actually, the number goes above that, because individual schools had already proactively sent out a number of devices.

If you are in touch with parents who say that they have not been able to get a laptop or a Mi-Fi device, then I respectfully suggest to you, Janet, that they either need to speak to their headteacher, or to their local authority who have been charged with co-ordinating this scheme. It is simply impossible, from Cardiff Bay, or indeed a poorly connected home in Brecon, to oversee the individual distribution of these laptops. So, Janet, you really need to ask your local authority why there are children in your area that have not got the support that they need.

The Delivery of Education

8. What action is the Welsh Government taking to transform the delivery of education in school playgrounds and other outdoor settings in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ55420

13:10

We have published operational and learning guidance for schools and settings that sets out the physical, mental and educational benefits of outdoor learning and emphasises that they should maximise the time learners spend outdoors. The benefits of outdoor learning are particularly relevant in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Thank you, Minister, for that. I'm glad that you recognise that this is a really important tool in the armoury for getting all children back to school where possible and really maximising those opportunities. So, I'm disappointed to report that in at least one of my primary schools children have only been offered four hours maximum over this three-week period, simply because they've been put in a bubble of five children. This in a school that has got very generous outdoor education. It doesn't appear that use of the school playgrounds has been properly factored into the planning of what they can offer their children, particularly where a child doesn't have any outdoor play space at home.

I just want to draw all our attention to the importance of the work that's being done in Denmark. Its seven-point plan on reopening schools in the middle of April just emphasised the importance of making outdoor education not just a nice-to-have but a regular part of lesson plans. I hear the naysayers who say, 'Well, our weather doesn't permit that', but no, absolutely not. This is all about having the right equipment. It doesn't matter whether it's rain, wind or snow: as long as children have the right equipment, and the teachers, it's perfectly possible to continue outdoor education at all times of the year.

In your decision framework for schools for the next stage of reopening, you mentioned Denmark, but only in the context of their use of other buildings to increase capacity, and that surprised me in light of the really successful work that Denmark has done on returning children to school. So, what plans does the Welsh Government have to transform the teaching of education in the outdoors as the safest way of beating transmission of the disease? And will you consider, in order to maximise the opportunities you talked about earlier, using the school holidays to offer crash courses to teachers in forest school training? Because it clearly is that some people are needing it.

Well, Jenny, I think access to outdoor learning, whether we find ourselves in a pandemic or not in a pandemic, has real benefits for children: for their mental health, for their physical health, for their ability to understand their environment and how important that is. I've been overwhelmed to see via social media the very innovative approaches that many schools have taken during this period to get children outdoors.

The guidance from Welsh Government clearly states that we are asking schools to offer a minimum of three sessions. Many have been able to offer more, but I do recognise that some schools feel that they've had particular constraints, although that often has more to do with the fact that they're balancing the childcare needs of vulnerable and critical worker children. But you're quite right. I'm not sure who said it, but somebody once said that there was no such thing as bad weather, there were just bad clothing choices, and clearly, in the foundation phase, you will find young children out every day in all weathers learning in that very active environment.

Teachers who are interested and schools that are interested in outdoor learning can access support via Hwb as well as through the Wales Council for Outdoor Learning, which is there to support schools. And we've had some very positive conversations, myself and the Minister for the environment, with Natural Resources Wales about what they too can bring to this agenda, especially in the light of our new curriculum.

I thank the Minister.

We'll now take our break and we will recommence at 2 o'clock.

Plenary was suspended at 13:14.

The Senedd reconvened at 14:02, with the Llywydd in the Chair.

14:00
4. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services

We will recommence the session, and the next item on our agenda is questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and the first question is from Michelle Brown.

The NHS

1. When will the Welsh NHS be operating as it was before the Covid-19 pandemic? OQ55426

It is impossible to say when NHS Wales could operate as it did before the COVID-19 pandemic. None of us can say with certainty when the pandemic will end. We will, though, as I have stated previously, adapt NHS practice to take account of innovation and improvement during the pandemic.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Hundreds of doctors in Wales say that important wider patient care has been neglected during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of yesterday, the number of people who have died in Wales from COVID-19 was 1,531. Each one of those is a very sad story of loss for the family concerned, but the drop in the number of people starting vital cancer treatment is far higher. For example, in April alone, it was more than 5,000, and referrals to a single cancer pathway have halved since lockdown. Dr David Bailey, chair of the British Medical Association's Welsh council has said, and I quote,

'many ill patients are not getting the care they need now—they are risking their conditions getting worse and some may even die as a result.'

Research from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health shows that in the UK, more children have died from having treatment delayed during lockdown than have died from COVID-19, including nine from cancer sepsis and metabolic disease. You seem happy to boast that you're preventing more deaths from COVID-19, but when will you be publishing figures of the number of people who have died from other diseases because of the restrictions you've put on our NHS? 

Well, I think there are a couple of important points from the variety of comments. Obviously, I don't agree with every single comment the Member's made, but when it comes to cancer services, we've already made clear that urgent cancer services were always available during the pandemic, even when other parts of the NHS were closed down, following my decision on 13 March. So, we are looking to progressively restart services. We're going to restart screening services; the Member and others will be aware they're being progressively restarted through the summer.

It's part of the difficulty, though, that because of the pandemic, a range of patients made choices to defer their treatment. That was in consultation with their treating clinicians. There were alternative treatment options provided, and I am concerned, of course, not just in cancer, but in a wide range of other areas, that we haven't seen the level of activity maintained, and what we need to do is both to rethink, as we are doing progressively, how the NHS services restart, but also to build confidence within the public that they could and should access the NHS services that are available, as, indeed, cancer services are. We're starting to see a recovery in those referrals.

The second point I think, Llywydd, is the broader point made on excess deaths. I've always been interested in the excess death figures, and what it means in terms of, not just Wales but every other part of the United Kingdom, as we try to learn from the first phase of this pandemic. I'm hopeful that before the end of next week we'll have an interim report on excess deaths, with learning for us to not just take here in Wales, but to share with other parts of the UK, as I want to learn from practice in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as England.

14:05

I heard your response, Minister, to the earlier question, and I also heard your response to the First Minister—sorry, Paul Davies's question to the First Minister earlier today on this subject. Can I ask what assurances you can provide that Welsh residents will receive equal treatment from English hospitals in the resumption of NHS services, and particularly in the resumption of outreach services by English hospital consultants to Welsh hospitals to provide appointments and procedures closer to home for Powys patients?

Thank you for the question. It's an important matter about cross-border care, both for those who come into Wales, in particular in primary care, but also some hospital treatment that takes place as a regular, normal part of NHS treatment for Welsh residents in English hospitals. It's particularly the case for Powys and for Betsi Cadwaladr where elements of care are regularly commissioned, and they have had regular conversations with the trusts, because England have organised their hospital trusts into regional groups, and they're managed through silver and gold commands. And I can assure the Member, and people watching, that both Powys and Betsi Cadwaladr are active partners within that conversation as commissioning organisations who provide care for Welsh residents.

There are individual challenges as some of the missions have changed in individual hospitals. I know that in Gobowen there's been a slight change in the way that that provider delivers, just as there are some challenges around the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust that are well advertised. But I'm happy to give the Member the assurance that the Welsh system is properly engaging with our regular partners across the border in England to try to make sure that Welsh residents don't have their care compromised.

Minister, NHS staff can only engage in much-needed catch-up work if they are able to work over the summer, and support bubbles will only be of help to those NHS staff who have family members. Now, there was a very welcome announcement of extra funding for summer childcare earlier in the week, but no guidance has been issued to local authorities on providing childcare for NHS and social care key workers. I'm delighted to say that Torfaen council will be providing childcare for NHS and social care staff, but I've heard of one local authority that is thinking of charging £20 a day to key workers, which is a real kick in the teeth to NHS staff who have sacrificed so much in this pandemic. Will you discuss this with the Deputy Minister as a matter of urgency, and issue clear guidance to local authorities on what your expectation is of them over the summer, so that NHS staff can get back to doing that vital catch-up work that we know is desperately needed? Diolch.

I thank the Member for the question. Of course, we want to see health and social care workers able to continue to work during the summer, and I recognise that childcare arrangements are part of it. It would be helpful for me if the Member would provide the example she's provided today in some more detail to me. I'd be delighted to receive some correspondence between yourself to myself and the Deputy Minister, so not only can we discuss matters with our officials here, but also we can have a constructive conversation with the Welsh Local Government Association, because throughout the pandemic, they've been a very constructive partner with us, and I think they'll recognise the issues that exist in every community, because, of course, they're just as concerned as we are that the NHS can carry on doing its job, together with partners in social care.

Effect of COVID-19 on Health Services

2. What assessment has the Minister made of the effect of COVID-19 on non-COVID-19 related health services in north Wales? OQ55406

14:10

I am of course aware that COVID-19 has had a real impact on non-COVID-19 care in north Wales and across the whole country, and patients are waiting for appointments and treatment. However, as well as hospitals postponing appointments, as we discussed earlier I am aware that during the pandemic some patients have elected to defer their appointments. Progressively introducing more NHS activity will provide greater non-COVID care across Wales. 

Thank you, Minister. My grave concerns about the unintended consequences of lockdown are a matter of public record. The fact that the same subject has come up more than once today is testimony to the stories we're all, no doubt, hearing about delayed or cancelled chemotherapy appointments, surgeries delayed or cancelled and screening not taking place. You have been keen to tell the public that the NHS is open for business, when the reality appears to be the opposite, and this is our constituents' lived experience. Minister, are you sleepwalking into a bigger and more deadly health crisis later on this year? Thank you.

Well, the First Minister and I have acknowledged, not just today but on regular occasions, the concern we have for the significant backlog that is being created in NHS demand and need. We've talked at various points—in fact, at early stages during the pandemic—about the concern over some people opting not to come in for treatment. One of the earliest points that I made was the fall-off in people coming in for treatment for strokes. I don't believe that's because, within a number of weeks of going into lockdown, the incidence of stroke in Wales suddenly fell off a cliff. Actually, it's because people were opting not to come in. That's part of the difficulty of what we need to do to re-engineer our service progressively. As the First Minister has outlined, there are plans in place to have, if you like, green zones, where they're COVID-free or COVID-light, and red zones, where there are suspected or COVID-positive people being treated. But we need to engender enough confidence for people to use the service.

This is not a question of being wise after the event. We know that the excess deaths in Wales are more than 2,000 excess deaths since the start of the pandemic period. If we hadn't taken action, we can be awfully confident that we would have seen more deaths. So, our challenge is how we balance the different harms, the different challenges, that lockdown presents, easing out of lockdown and getting ourselves ready for what may take place over the autumn and the winter. But there's certainly no complacency within the Government or our national health service.

After you announced that health boards are looking at how they can restart planned NHS operations and cancer services, a constituent e-mailed, 'Try telling that to my friend, who has a tumour on his kidney and had his operation postponed, and my wife, who has swelling under her arm and below her ear, down to the top of her breast—no x-ray or scan, and her first physio was cancelled.' On 17 June, you said the Welsh NHS is continuing to provide urgent treatment and diagnostics for suspected cancer. A constituent received a health board letter today stating that, 'Due to the COVID-19 healthcare situation, there could be a significant wait for your investigations', and she fears she might have cancer. Did the Minister see the Panorama programme this week, warning of a possible 35,000 cancer deaths across the UK as an indirect consequence of the current pandemic? Does he have a figure for Wales? And what additional steps will the Welsh NHS now take to minimise this number?

Well, obviously, as the Member knows, I'm not in a position to comment on the individual concerns that he raises, and I'm sure he'll be raising those with the treating health board. It's a matter of fact, not opinion, that we're restarting NHS services and that urgent cancer care has always been available. However, there will have been times when operational matters, such as people isolating if they have a positive test, or their context will have affected individual parts of our service. What we're looking to do is to progressively treat more people and, as I say, to give people the confidence to come into the service.

When it comes to excess deaths from cancer, but other conditions too, as I have said, again, I am genuinely concerned, and have been for months, as you'll know from the Record, that the impact on treatment means we'll have different outcomes and harm caused in different ways. It's part of what has made our task, as a Government and a health service that work for the people of Wales, so incredibly difficult, but I am confident we're doing the right thing in restarting activity and more lives will be saved as a result. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now by party spokespeople. The spokesperson for the Conservative group—Janet Finch-Saunders.

14:15

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, 1,097 patients or individuals were discharged to care homes without a COVID-19 test in March and April. On Sunday, you mentioned that there is no evidence to suggest this caused any increases in COVID cases or deaths. In relation to mortality rates and causes, there was a promise to issue an interim report before recess. Will this be looking very closely at the impact of discharges on care homes? What do you say to care home owners who have provided oral evidence such as, 'The people who were discharged from hospital were not tested because they only displayed the symptoms once they got to us'? I have established that 188 homes in north Wales had patients discharged to them in the nine weeks from 16 March. Will your interim report cross reference discharge data with that of care homes that have recorded cases of COVID-19?

Ordinarily, Llywydd, questions from Janet Finch-Saunders are for the deputy, but I think it's clear today this is for me. When it comes to the interim report that I still want to have published before we go into recess, it plainly won't be going into the level of individual detail that the Member questions.

What we will do, though, is we'll want to try to understand what has happened, both in the choices that we made at the point in time when the NHS was at real risk of being overrun if we didn't prepare—. That's why I took the decision in the middle of March to pause a range of activity and for hospitals to create space and time for staff to retrain to save lives. It's also why we've taken a range of measures throughout the pandemic to support not just the residential care sector but the broader health and social care environment. I think the interim report will have a range of lessons for the Government and more broadly. As I say, there's more learning to take from that.

When it comes to the discharge without coronavirus tests, as I've said on a number of occasions, that was because that was the state of the current advice. The decision that I took, based on that advice, was that at that point in time people without symptoms should not be tested. However, it is worth all of us remembering that a range of those people discharged were being discharged to return to their own home. I think it's important that we support people to return and be cared for in their own home as we look to support the wider care home sector. That's the approach we'll continue to take—to take learning from what's happened and to apply that to the future.

Thank you, Minister. Now, it's not just me who is concerned about care homes. The older people's commissioner's report, 'Care Home Voices', has requested step-down facilities to support safe discharges from hospital, and found that the limited availability of testing was a cause of significant worry. From 15 June, all care home staff were to be offered a weekly test for a four-week period. Will you extend this? In the latest week, 49.6 per cent of test results authorised in NHS Wales laboratories were returned within a day, and 74.1 per cent within two days. Why are the percentages getting smaller, and what specific measures will you take to reverse the trend?

I'll deal with the last point first. When it comes to improving testing turnaround, it's a real concern of myself and the Government and the health service. We have an improvement programme in place identifying areas to make a practical difference to the operational delivery to speed up testing turnaround times. There's already action in place in terms of courier services and more action taking place, together with colleagues in Public Health Wales, to improve the efficiency within our labs. 

When it comes to the broader approach, we will be publishing a revised testing strategy. I'm expecting some advice for me to consider and make a decision upon, and I expect to have that testing strategy published before the end of next week. So, we'll continue to learn from evidence and from experience as we look to revise our approach for the future, with the sole focus of saving lives and helping Wales to safely come out of lockdown.

Thank you again. Now, from many people I've spoken to in the social care sector and care home staff, they feel badly let down by the First Minister. Do you agree with me that he should apologise for failing to make the £500 payment announcement without contacting HMRC or clarifying whether the bonus would affect any benefits before making the announcement, or is this down to you? Should he urgently provide a date for when the bonus will be paid, stop dithering, and use Welsh Government's powers and funding to gross up the payment so to ensure that social care workers benefit by at least this £500? I would also like to see him ensure that community hospice staff are eligible for the bonus. Do you agree with those sentiments, health Minister?

14:20

Well, as you'll recall from listening to the First Minister earlier, we continue to talk with the UK Government to try to make sure that social care workers in Wales receive the full £500. I do not think that it would be a good day for HMRC if they picked the pocket of poorly paid workers in the social care sector, and we will look to exhaust all of the avenues of discussion before making any further choice, but it is a matter within the hands of the UK Government. This payment should not be a windfall for the UK Treasury.

Thank you very much. First of all, may I welcome the First Minister's statement that he's considering stronger guidance on the use of face coverings? We are focused on making face coverings compulsory in certain indoor arenas. The evidence on the benefit of that, and on the likelihood that the virus is spreading through the air, is becoming more prevalent. So, I'm looking forward to a robust statement at an early stage on that.

In turning to the health committee's report, the report was published today and it raised some fundamental questions on the Welsh Government's response to the pandemic. And one of those questions is on the pace of protecting the care sector. Now, I've seen some figures that seem to suggest how many antibody tests have been carried out in various sectors in Wales: 13,000 health workers have been tested; 9,000 workers in educational hubs have been tested; but only 75 people working in the care sector. Now, does the Minister understand that that reinforces this perception that this sector wasn't prioritised properly at an early stage during this pandemic and it's still not being prioritised now? 

I don't think it is a factually accurate conclusion to reach that the Government and our partners did not prioritise the social care sector in terms of the amount of support we've provided, both in extra cash support on an emergency basis, and the further amount of support that we're looking to find at a hard-pushed time as well. We've also provided significant amounts of personal protective equipment free to the social care sector at a time when their normal supply lines had collapsed. So, there's been a significant amount of support, including staffing as well.

When it comes to the antibody tests, I don't think that the figures are accurate. I'll happily look at the figures again and come back, not just to the Member, but more generally, because social care workers, health workers and education workers are three of the priority groups for the antibody test. And the antibody test is actually to help us understand the prevalence of coronavirus around the country at this point. The evidence on how long term an antibody response is, or indeed, the usefulness in terms of people's transmissability to other people, or indeed to help people recover or be immune from a further incidence of coronavirus is not clear, but it does certainly help us to understand how far coronavirus has spread. We'll continue to use the tests available to us to do so, and you can expect to see more of that in the testing strategy that I have already referred to.

I want to turn to data, now, if I may. We all welcomed the figures earlier this week, when there was another day when not a single COVID-19 death was recorded in Wales; we want more days like that day, of course. The figures also show that only seven new cases of COVID-19 were recorded on the Public Health Wales dashboard—again, that's good news. But we have to be careful with these figures, I think, because the figures could be inaccurate, because I do understand that as many as 35 to 40 per cent of new positive cases may not be being announced in these ways if they are tested in laboratories that aren't part of the NHS.

Will the Minister provide an assurance that everything will be done to ensure that every positive result is recorded and demonstrated on up-to-date dashboards and also that we can see in what areas these positive cases are emerging? Also, please can we ensure that GPs are informed when their patients prove positive, because, from speaking to GPs in Anglesey, they receive no information at all?

I think there are three points that I'd make in response to those. The final one is to do with the point about GPs being informed. It should be available as part of the patient record; it should be available to general practice. And if the Member has individual instances that he's aware of within his constituency, then I'd be very pleased to see those to make sure the system is working as it should.

The Member will recall that's part of the reason we weren't able to—. Well, I chose not to participate in the UK testing programme, because, at an early stage, we weren't able to have the results of those tests fed back reliably and on a regular basis within our system. The Member will recall there are issues ongoing in Leicester about how regularly that information is provided within the English system.

That leads me on to my second point, which is that, of our positive cases, we do already provide information on the number of positive cases that come from the UK testing programme that we've opted into, in particular in drive-through centres, as well as that the Public Health Wales labs provide. So, yesterday, there were three positive results from the UK programme, and, together with the seven from Public Health Wales labs, that means 10, in total, positive cases across Wales.

And that goes into my third point, that, on all of the data we're currently seeing, we're seeing a positive downward trend in terms of the incidences of coronavirus, despite the fact there are two outbreaks in north Wales and the incident around Merthyr. So, that's on things like hospital admissions, positive cases, and, indeed, the use of critical care. We're all seeing things move in the right direction, and that's why we're able to make cautious but progressive steps to ease Wales out of lockdown. But the outbreaks are a reminder that none of us should become complacent, because coronavirus, sadly, has not gone away.

14:25

Yes, quite right. I think you confirmed what I was saying in your response there on the dashboard data. You say seven positive tests in Wales, three in non-NHS labs; the dashboard I saw only had those seven. So, that shows that all the data has to be presented in an up-to-date way, wherever the tests are processed.

I'm going to turn, finally, to another area where we need faster test results, and that's cancer diagnosis. The COVID crisis has led to a number of very worrying predictions about excess deaths from cancer that are likely to occur this year as a result of screening programmes being cancelled, people being too afraid to visit the NHS, and, of course, treatment being postponed. So, it's more vital than ever that we get fast test results where cancer is suspected. So, will you therefore adopt a cancer rescue plan that has more ambitious targets for testing and treatment than have previously been the case, because of the probability that the NHS will be identifying cancers at a later stage?

[Inaudible.]—cancer information, and I can give the Member the assurance that the decision I made to both introduce and trial the single cancer pathway is going to be the path forward when we restart new performance measures in the future, as we progressively restart more forms of NHS activity. I have already decided that we will not be reporting the old measures. I think it would be unhelpful and confusing to report the old measures under the urgent and non-urgent pathway, and we will only be reporting as the single cancer pathway, which, as the Member knows, has been supported by both clinicians and the third sector cancer charities. And that, I think, will give us a much more accurate indication of what is really happening in terms of cancer treatment and waits. So, I expect that to provide the level of clarity and transparency in how quickly we're getting through the number being referred in to our cancer services, as we deal with needing to restart services. Because, as the Member will know, endoscopy services were suspended during the pandemic; they're now restarting. But that does give us significant challenges in a range of our work, not just in cancer, but we'll continue to be open and transparent about what we're doing and what that means for people here in Wales.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, thanks to the hard work and dedication of our health and care staff, as well as the enormous sacrifices by the Welsh public, we are over the worst of the coronavirus outbreak for now. As the chief medical officer rightly points out, we could be facing a renewed threat from COVID-19 come the autumn. What plans does the Welsh Government have in place to ensure that the NHS in Wales can deliver routine services at the same time as dealing with COVID-19? Or do your plans foresee a further suspension of everyday NHS services? Thank you.

There are two points to make there: the first is that, yes, we look at international surveillance, what happens in other countries as they reach their winter. It's part of the challenges around Melbourne, but it's also part, for example, of a concern we have about South America as they're approaching their winter and, in particular, the challenges of overcrowded housing and people who are already vulnerable. That is a real factor of concern for us, and that does inform our plans here about both restarting the NHS, as I said before, the plans we already have—the need to have COVID-positive or suspected pathways and non-COVID pathways, the green and the red demarcation, which will require extra work to be done over the summer, physically in the environment in a range of our NHS treatment facilities—and we'll then need to think not just about restarting that activity, but how much and how far we can maintain that through the winter, when we know that there's normal, regular pressure on the health service. But if there is a further spike in coronavirus through the autumn or the winter, then it is of course possible that I may need to make another decision to suspend parts of our health service, because of a much greater harm that could be caused by having a spike in coronavirus and not changing the way that our health service delivers its service.

So, all of those things are possible, but my plan is to get as much as possible of normal treatment to resume in the national health service through the summer and to take all necessary steps to help people to continue taking measures to reduce the prospect of a further upswing in coronavirus here in Wales.

14:30

Thank you, Minister. Of course, the biggest threat this winter comes from dealing with a bad cold and flu season alongside a COVID outbreak. Minister, will you commit to expanding the availability of the flu vaccine and making it available earlier? Pandemic restrictions will make delivering the flu vaccine much harder than in previous years, so we need to begin roll-out preparation now. Minister, last year, many people did not receive their vaccinations until December, and there were widespread shortages. Can you guarantee that these shortages will not happen this year? Thank you.

Well, I can say we're already looking at this year's flu programme and, in particular, at procuring extra stocks of the flu vaccine. There is work going on across Wales on extending eligibility for the NHS flu programme. I want to have a much higher uptake of both staff who work with vulnerable people as well as those people who qualify for an NHS flu jab to actually take up that entitlement.

There were particular issues with the form of the vaccine supply last year. We're in early conversations. That is work not just within Wales, but also it's a conversation that I've had amongst the four Cabinet health Ministers across the UK, because we do actually share resources in the way we procure the flu vaccine. So, we're looking at an earlier and more significant procurement to make sure we're able to help people protect themselves and their families, of course.

We do know that vulnerability to flu is a potential issue if we do see a further increase in coronavirus itself. I'm not so much concerned that there might be a difficult flu season, but an average flu season with a further increase in coronavirus could have really significant consequences and real harm across Wales, so it's one of my more significant concerns now in planning for the autumn and the winter.

Resuming Treatments

3. What guidance has the Welsh Government given health boards to resume non-Covid-19 and non-life threatening treatments? OQ55425

Thank you. I have issued NHS Wales COVID-19 operating frameworks for quarter 1 of this financial year, and more recently quarter 2. These provide guidance on the actions to be taken across the health and social care system, and build towards returning to the delivery of a wider range of services.

Thank you for that answer, Minister, and thank you for the answers to earlier questions on a similar theme, because it's important that we address the issues of looking after our people who have not got COVID-19, but who still have some very serious health concerns and issues. Last week in the health and social care committee, we actually heard that as well as the waiting lists, which are clearly expanding as we wait because of the delays in treatments, there is likely to be another bubble of waiting lists of those individuals who have not come forward yet, but who will come forward with treatments required for conditions they currently have. What's the Welsh Government going to do to help health boards through this challenge? Because, in the past, you've done waiting list initiatives. Are you going to do something similar or other actions to help health boards and maybe actually introduce additional facilities to get through the waiting lists that will definitely be created as a consequence of this?

There are a number of different steps we're taking. You'll have heard the First Minister describe this earlier. It's not a simple or straightforward matter, because the normal waiting list initiatives, the way we'd have worked, we'd have been able to get through more in, if you like, standard NHS time, as well as running additional sessions. That's less likely to be possible in the same way. It's why we've maintained contact with the independent sector and how they may be able to help in terms of dealing with both urgent and other matters too. But it's also why we're looking at the current operating framework and the need to continually reform the way we deliver services. As we're looking to have green zones, we may end up having a greater amount of elective care and throughput in some parts of the service because of the way we will have to behave to make sure that we have COVID-secure and, if you like, COVID-positive or COVID-suspected zones as well. So you can expect to see that in health board plans, but also in the statements that I expect to bring back to the Senedd as we go into the autumn, to set out some more detail of that. And of course, health board plans will go through the normal health board governance and be published as part of the health board papers. 

14:35

Minister, there was already unequal access to non-life-threatening treatments in the NHS across Wales. We know that the situation, for example, even before COVID in north Wales was that people were having to wait up to two years for their orthopaedic procedures. So can you tell us, in these actions that you're expecting health boards to take, will there be specific additional support for health boards like the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board to help it to get to grips with what is likely to be a much more significant problem in north Wales than perhaps in other parts of the country?

Well, I wouldn't want to speculate on the relative challenge between different parts of the country. What I do know is that every health board is actively looking at what it will need to do to make sure it's on top of not just the numbers on the waiting list, but the clinical prioritisation of those different people who are waiting for different procedures, and how we need to safely restart more activity within the service. That's why the decision that I made and confirmed yesterday, to take steps on the debt levels of some NHS organisations, has been a significant positive factor. To be fair, it's a matter that the official spokesperson from the Welsh Conservatives had asked me to consider over a number of weeks, to make sure that in COVID planning, health boards weren't then put into a position where they'd have to reconsider making financial savings ahead of actually doing the right thing through these extraordinary circumstances. I always said that no health board would be compromised or punished for doing the right thing, and that underpins the choice that I made yesterday to help health boards to plan constructively and positively for the future and the people that they serve.

Track and Trace

4. Will the Minister make a statement on the effectiveness of the track and trace regime in North Wales? OQ55428

The NHS Wales track and trace service has had a positive start, with well over 84 per cent of contacts being successfully made. The TTP service has been a crucial aspect of successfully, to date, managing the two outbreaks in north Wales, and I want to pay tribute to both partners and our front-line staff for the work that they are doing to help keep Wales safe. 

Thank you for your response. Of course, the success of any such initiative is very much dependent on the initial testing, and we've seen as we have this week with some cases relating to pubs in England that immediate tracking based on quick testing is the most effective way to identify those who should be self-isolating. At the same time, we're still hearing of cases where people with symptoms are actually waiting more than five days for test results. So, why are we still seeing this lag, Minister, in getting test results back? What implications would you say that has for preventing the further spread of the disease?

It's a matter of concern. It's been raised in previous questions, not just here, but outside as well, about the need to see a further improvement in the speed of test returns, because it does then mean we should have an even more effective contract tracing service and system, and the individual instances—it doesn't matter whether they're a relatively small minority in percentage terms—they all represent a risk factor for the individual and for their contacts. That's why there's a range of improvement action already under way. Rather than explaining away why it doesn't matter, it does matter, and that's why we need to see more efficiency in the lab process as well as couriering and making sure that more and more people get their results promptly. Because, actually, our contact tracing service are doing a very good job of following up those contacts when they're provided by people who've had a positive case, and we need to have people to continue to positively buy in to the contact tracing service so they don't feel they're being told to self-isolate unnecessarily, as that may affect people's willingness to continue to self-isolate in the future, and that's important for all of us, whether we know those people or not, to help keep Wales safe. 

Question 5 [OQ55415] has been withdrawn, therefore, question 6, Joyce Watson. 

Social Care Workforce Special Payment Scheme

6. Will the Minister provide an update on the social care workforce special payment scheme? OQ55429

I thank Joyce Watson for that question. We have published interim guidance on the scheme to confirm the eligibility criteria. Work is now focused on finalising a robust implementation and delivery plan to ensure that payments are made as quickly as possible. 

14:40

I thank you. I do find it astounding that the Tories are trying to turn a real, genuine, positive way of rewarding those who work in the care sector into a negative, in the same way that the Prime Minister has blamed care workers for spreading coronavirus. Do you agree with me that it's time that the Tories showed some positivity towards care workers who have given so much to their communities, and might they not be wise to adopt the words of Winston Churchill in 1940, when he said,

'Never...was so much owed by so many to so few'?

I'd like to thank Joyce Watson very much for that supplementary question, because it does give me the opportunity to thank all the care workers in Wales for their tireless work during this very difficult period and to regret the fact that they may have been upset by the words of the Prime Minister yesterday. I'm sure that Joyce Watson would agree with me that one of the ways the Prime Minister could show his appreciation for care workers is to allow them to have the £500 in full. As the First Minister said in his questions, we are still exploring with HMRC to see if we can come to an agreement, but if the Prime Minister does regret what he said yesterday, he will make sure that they get that money in full. 

Hywel Dda University Health Board

7. Will the Minister make a statement on the delivery of health services in the Hywel Dda University Health Board area? OQ55405

The recent focus of the Hywel Dda University Health Board, like the others across Wales, has been on their response to COVID-19. The health board is now planning for the continued provision of essential and key services alongside caring for patients affected by COVID-19.

Minister, a strong accident and emergency service is integral to the effective delivery of health services in hospitals across the Hywel Dda University Health Board area. Now, as you'll be aware, there is a strong campaign to retain A&E services at Withybush General Hospital. Given the recent news that Cwm Taf health board has decided to retain A&E services at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, the people of Pembrokeshire are now looking at that decision and, quite rightly, asking for the same safeguards. Therefore, can you tell us what the Welsh Government's position is on the delivery of A&E services in Pembrokeshire and, in light of the change in policy in relation to other A&E services across Wales, will you ensure that an A&E service remains at Withybush hospital, just as it now remains at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital?

Well, as the Member will know, the health board in Cwm Taf Morgannwg undertook a consultation about options, and they were able to recruit more staff to safely deliver that service. The Member will also know, over a long period of time, the challenges that have been faced in delivering healthcare across Wales and the plans for the future delivery of healthcare, and he'll also recall the question from his colleague Darren Millar, some weeks ago, which called on the Welsh Government not to interrupt service changes already in train. I expect the health board to continue to deliver safe and effective care and to continue to make sure the transformation of health and care in west Wales, as outlined in their plan, 'A Healthier Mid and West Wales', continues to the benefit of all citizens in every part of mid and west Wales. 

Free Childcare

8. Will the Minister provide an update on universal free childcare provision in light of the continued easing of Covid-19 lockdown arrangements in Wales? OQ55431

We are providing free childcare for the pre-school-age children of critical workers and vulnerable children under the coronavirus childcare assistance scheme. Our childcare offer remains suspended to new entrants. We intend to reinstate it in September, subject to the position with regard to the response to the virus.

With that in mind, I've been contacted by a resident who had questions about the 30 free hours—she's already eligible as one of the people who are already eligible—through the school holidays, which they're entitled to. Can you confirm and put it on the record that that will continue for those people already eligible? And, with regard to September, she's working from home and her partner is working from home as well. When will we have clarity as to the availability in September in order for parents to consider their options in advance of that time?

14:45

I thank Hefin David for that question. The budget for the offer was repurposed from April to fund childcare for the pre-school children of critical workers and vulnerable children under the coronavirus childcare assistance scheme. So, unfortunately, this meant that we had to close the offer to new entrants temporarily. We are working now with our key stakeholders, especially the local authorities, who are administering both the childcare coronavirus assistance scheme and the offer in their local areas to see when we can reopen the offer to new parents. We very much hope to be able to restart both the education and childcare provision under the offer in the autumn term. This is obviously subject to the data on the virus over the summer, but we are aware how important this support is for both families and childcare providers. So, we do aim to make an announcement as soon as possible. 

Maesteg Community Hospital

9. What discussions has the Minister had with Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board on the future development of the Maesteg Community Hospital following the report to the health board on emergency care at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital? OQ55400

The delivery of services at the Maesteg Community Hospital is a matter for the Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board. However, I understand the health board remains committed to maintaining the current services provided at that community hospital, and is actively engaging with a range of community representatives to extend those services further.