Lockdown expected to continue; plans for prisoner voting dropped

(Title Image: via Senedd TV)

Yesterday saw the second “Virtual Senedd” held, with more members involved this time. From the start, several members sent their best wishes to the UK Prime Minister – who remains in intensive care at the time of writing this – as well as Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) who, if you didn’t know, suffered a heart attack last week and is currently recovering following surgery.

First Minister: Lockdown set to be extended; PPE “should be distributed across the UK”

Key Points:

  • The “lockdown” restrictions were due to end next week, but the First Minister said “these restrictions will not end then. We will not throw away the gains we have made and the lives we can save by abandoning our efforts just as they begin to bear fruit.” Discussions with the other UK governments and scientific advisers are ongoing.
  • The police believe they have the powers they need to enforce the lockdown as things stand.
  • Drive-in testing centres are starting to open and virus testing for more frontline staff (social care workers, police officers, prison staff) is set to increase.
  • Businesses in Wales have been asked to switch production to personal protective equipment (PPE), with a “tremendous response”. However, he said there “were sufficient supplies (of PPE) at this point”.
  • “On PPE, there is a UK procurement, the product of that gets divided out to Wales, to Northern Ireland, to Scotland and England, and it’s then for us to onwardly transmit that to people who need it” – there are reports today that some suppliers are holding back stocks solely for the use of England (it’s unclear if this is because of the arrangement or despite it).
  • He hopes the 2-metre rule in workplaces will be “self-policed” and send a message to employers that they must protect the health and wellbeing of their employees.

The main concern from opposition AMs remained supplies of PPE and access to testing.

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.) said people have been denied emergency dental treatment due to a lack of PPE, while Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. W. & Dinefwr) said the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) had repeatedly asked the Welsh Government for a distribution schedule for supplies.

The First Minister said the Chief Medical Officer held regular meetings with the RCN and was sure they would be happy to discuss whether the distribution schedule would be useful information.

Concerning supplies of ventilators, he added that the lockdown actions have “suppressed the curve to a point where we can have a much greater degree of confidence that the additional supplies we have of ventilators will match the current pattern of illness much more closely than would have been the case a month ago”.

The Brexit Party’s Caroline Jones warned against the spread of conspiracy theories around 5G and the First Minister reiterated that people should use trusted information direct from official sources.

Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) asked whether tuition fees can be reduced as the current £9,000-a-year doesn’t presently represent value for money with courses moving online and students being sent home. The First Minister said the Education Minister was listening to all sides of the story to work out “how we can make sure that students themselves don’t feel that they are being short-changed at the moment”.

Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham): Free food box scheme being rolled out; farmers won’t be able to access economic resilience fund unless they have a diversified business

Key points:

  • £15million has been made available to supply free weekly food boxes to the 80,000+ people who’ve been told to self-isolate for 12-weeks. The scheme is being managed and delivered by councils.
  • The Minister thanked food retail staff for their hard work; there are no concerns over resupplying food stores.
  • The deadline for farmers to complete their single application form has been extended to June 15th 2020, while an additional £5.5million has been made available through the Basic Payment Scheme and Glastir.
  • The Minister confirmed that farmers can’t access the economic resilience fund unless they have a diversified business (i.e. camping, tourism). A package for farmers exclusively focused on agricultural activity is being looked at.
  • Testing for bovine TB will only happen where it’s safe to do so and cattle movement restrictions will be applied for overdue TB tests. Where a pre-movement test is required, animals may only be traded if they have all been tested by a vet and shown to be negative.
  • A hardship grant scheme for fisheries is being developed as trade and exporting has stopped completely.
  • Draft regulations on agricultural pollution in waterways (Nitrate Vulnerable Zones/NVZ) are due to be published soon.

Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central) condemned UK supermarkets for sourcing Polish beef when supermarkets (except in Wales) had been supported by taxpayers, yet simultaneously undermining domestic suppliers.

The Minister confirmed following discussions with supermarkets that it was a one-off caused by a run on beef mince by customers (presumably to use with all the pasta that’s been hoarded).

Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) was sharply critical of the decision to go ahead with agricultural pollution regulations:

“You’ll be aware that this is one of the most contentious issues that you have been grappling with for 12 months and more, and it’s a cause of great concern and anxiety to the sector. So why did you choose now to make such an announcement, with large parts of the sector on their knees, as we’ve heard? I fear it will be seen as being antagonistic, hard-hearted and cruel. I still don’t understand the rationale as to why now.”
– Llyr Gruffydd AM

The Minister denied this was antagonist at all and committed to publishing the regulations before the Easter recess; the regulations are only a draft and it’s right that everyone can look at them.

Plans for prisoner voting dropped; opposition AMs baffled Local Government Bill debate went ahead

One other thing up for discussion yesterday was the Stage 1 debate on the Local Government & Elections Bill. It’s safe to say the opposition was dumbfounded that the debate was going ahead (including a vote) in such circumstances.

The Bill was prioritised by the Welsh Government because arrangements need to be in place before 2022, making it time-sensitive – though that argument didn’t hold water with some AMs.

Although Stage 1 debates only discuss the general principles of a new law, opposition AMs felt the virtual Senedd wouldn’t provide the right conditions for full scrutiny.

Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) criticised the fact half of the allocated time was turned over to debating the Bill, not the government’s response to the pandemic – “if we can’t legislate properly….we shouldn’t be legislating at all, and to do so would be irresponsible.”

That said, there was quite a bit of support for the Bill’s provisions, particularly reducing the voting age in local elections to 16 – though David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) argued for a return to a four-year electoral cycle rather than a five-year cycle.

The most significant change was that the Welsh Government has decided to drop plans to introduce amendments at a later date granting prisoners serving sentences of less than four years the vote (in time for the next local government elections in 2022) due to time/resource constraints (for obvious reasons). Delyth Jewell condemnded the Conservatives for spreading “fake news” by implying the policy was already in the Bill when it wasn’t.

Neil McEvoy AM (WNP, South Wales Central) was ejected for live streaming on Facebook during the session, which breached the agreed rules.

In the end, the vote was carried out via block voting on behalf of party groups or Independent member, with the Bill being cleared for the next stage by 30 votes to 25.

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