Welsh Government defends decision not to offer testing as standard in care homes; recycled school IT equipment for digitally-excluded students

Here’s another round-up from the virtual Senedd.

First Minister: One-in-five offers of help with healthcare materials turns out to be of a poor standard or fraudulent

Key Points:

  • Additional PPE procured by the Welsh Government was recently flown-in from Cambodia; supplies will be shared with the rest of the UK as mutual aid if it’s needed. Wales is said to be close to self-sufficiency in scrubs, making 5,000 a week.
  • Not every offer of help turns out to be a genuine option; one in five offers tested at the Surgical Materials Testing Laboratory falls short of the required standards or are outright fraudulent.
  • Businesses will start receiving Welsh Government economic resilience grants “by the end of this week”.
  • Discussions have started on how to bring Wales out of the lockdown subject to the right public health measures and monitoring being in place beforehand.
  • Wales was given specific powers to make lockdown regulations for Wales in the Coronavirus Act and other laws. We haven’t diverged from any regulations at a UK level nor had different regulations from England “for the sake of it”. An extension to the lockdown regulations was subsequently approved by 51-6 through the Emergency Senedd’s bloc voting system

Bringing up the recent under-reporting of coronavirus deaths at two health boards, Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.), described it as a national embarrassment. The public need to have confidence that the latest information is accurate and up-to-date and he also criticised the fact it took a month to become public.

The First Minister explained the reasons behind the issue which essentially boiled down to health boards thinking their fatality figures were counted as part of the all-Wales figure when they weren’t. Several measures have been put in place to deal with it and Betsi Cadwaladr health board is now using the same electronic reporting system as the rest of Wales.

Several AMs were seriously worried about the decision not to offer virus testing as standard to all social care residents and staff, instead restricting it to those showing symptoms. The First Minister tried to explain the reasoning behind that too:

“The reason we don’t offer tests to everybody in care homes, symptomatic and asymptomatic, is because the clinical evidence tells us that there is no value in doing so….We offer the testing where the advice to us is that it’s clinically right to do that. Testing people who have no symptoms today – for that to be a reliable message to them – you’d have to test them again tomorrow because you can go from having no symptoms to having the symptoms in 24 hours.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)

Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) said Wales was on track to have one of the worst death rates in Europe and asked why that was the case?

First Minister accepted that he wasn’t qualified to answer that question, but it could’ve been far worse – concerns that the virus would overwhelm the NHS have eased somewhat – and it didn’t take anything away from the efforts of people on the ground.

Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth): If you need emergency (non-virus) treatment, don’t be afraid to seek it out

Key points:

  • There’s been a 29% fall in ambulance journeys to hospital compared to April 2019 and a 50% fall in A&E visits. There’s a real risk of harm if people with medical emergencies don’t seek treatment because of virus concerns; anyone who needs emergency treatment should contact 999 or go to A&E as they otherwise would do.
  • PPE remains his “number one priority”; as mentioned, the Welsh Government has sourced PPE from abroad, including masks and fluid-resistant gowns from China and Cambodia.
  • Testing is available for critical workers and their families and 2,000 tests a day can be carried out. The Welsh Government are encouraging take-up of tests.
  • Care home residents who are discharged from hospitals will be virus tested whether they have symptoms or not.
  • PPE guidelines apply for dentists, who can still provide emergency treatment during the lockdown.

There were two main areas of concerns.

Firstly, the situation in care homes. Shadow Social Services Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) said the care sector was facing a fall in bed occupancy which was bringing the viability of care homes into question.

Both herself and Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) mentioned the high death rate in care homes too, with the latter questioning the aforementioned decision not to offer virus testing as standard in care settings, asking whether the Minister was “ashamed that you said this morning that providing tests to residents and staff of care homes would not be the best use of resources?”

The Minister repeated what the First Minister said in that testing doesn’t necessarily offer assurances because the virus could appear in a short space of time. He then accused Delyth Jewell of deliberately misquoting him.

The Minister also denied a claim from Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) that ventilators destined for Wales (totalling 415) were redirected to English field hospitals. The minister said there were “no missing ventilators” and, fortunately, Wales hasn’t needed the additional ventilator capacity.

Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor): Recycled school IT equipment to help digitally-excluded students through the closure period

Key points:

  • Logins to the Hwb online learning platform have increased to 150,000 a day. Thanks to deals with Microsoft and Adobe, every learning in state schools has access to Microsoft Office and 500,000 students and learners can use Abode Spark.
  • An announcement was made today (30th April) on digitally-excluded students, with existing IT equipment in schools set to be recycled and sent out for those students to learn from home.
  • Schools will reopen in phases, but there’s no set timescale for that to happen.
  • Work is continuing across the UK on higher education visa requirements, university admissions and professional body requirements.

Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) sought clarity on the position of vocational learners. The Minister said those taking part in apprenticeships with an essential skills qualification will be awarded a grade. Resources for further education students will also be made available on Hwb.

Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) probed further on the issue of digital exclusion, to which the Minister said:

“I’ll be making a statement tomorrow on how we will use Welsh Government investment to provide additional hardware to students who do not have it at the moment, and MiFi (mobile broadband) connections to allow them to have the data connections that they will need to be able to utilise other platforms going forward, and that will be to all children – not to a selected group of children, which appears to be the case across the border….”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams

Minister for Local Government & Housing, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West): Rough-sleeper numbers fall to single figures in every council area; condemnation for grass fire arsonists

Key Points:

  • A £536million advance has been given to local councils and work is ongoing on determining the ongoing costs to local government of the pandemic.
  • The Minister was proud that local government has maintained kerbside waste and recycling services with minimal changes.
  • 500 homeless people have been helped into accommodation and rough-sleeper numbers have fallen to single digits in every local authority area. The pandemic has offered the opportunity to work with people who were unreachable before it.
  • Absence rates in fire and rescue services are as low as 4%, but recent grass fires are very disappointing and put some communities in genuine fear.

Following questions from David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), the Minister clarified that the “single figures” for rough-sleepers was nil in many local authorities and “low single figure” levels in the cities.

Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) said the fact 25% of all confirmed cases of Covid-19 in prisons were in Welsh prisons was “hugely worrying”, to which the Minister said there were specific arrangements in place for prisoners to be treated, which includes postponing the release of early release prisoners if they show symptoms, as well as arrangements for prisoners near the end of their sentence to self-isolate.

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