“No gowns stockpiled” before pandemic; UK could run a £273billion budget deficit this year

(Title Image: via Senedd TV)

Here’s a round-up of the latest virtual Senedd session.

First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West): More than 3,000 people in Wales have recovered from coronavirus

Key Points:

  • He noted last week’s 75th anniversary of VE Day commemorations, having spoken to Second World War veterans over Zoom. It was “absolutely right” to find time to remember the sacrifices made even if it was done under unusual circumstances.
  • 10% of all hospital patients and about 20% of critical care patients in Wales are receiving treatment for coronavirus – which is well down on the peak. More than 3,000 people have recovered and left hospital.
  • A campaign has been launched to remind domestic abuse victims that they can seek support despite the lockdown.
  • While Wales has passed the peak of the infection it was decided it was far too early to lift lockdown restrictions. The message remains: “Stay at Home” (unlike England). That said, joint UK working hasn’t been abandoned; a joint biosecurity centre is being set up to monitor infection rates across the UK as a whole.

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies MS (Con, Preseli Pembs.), welcomed the fact the Welsh Government was beginning to publish the scientific evidence underpinning their decisions, but the time was coming for a clear exit strategy. The First Minister telling MSs that he hopes the Welsh Government’s exit plan will be published tomorrow (15th May 2020), though some parts of it have already been revealed.

There was an argument over confused messaging on what people can or can’t do, though the First Minister accused “mischief-makers” of putting words in his mouth. He confirmed that angling/fishing is allowed as long as it’s done locally and people practice social distancing.

Adam Price MS (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) referred back to a written question on the number of medical gowns in stockpile prior to the pandemic. The Health Minister told Channel 4 News that there was a stockpile, but new information has emerged that no gowns were stockpiled before February 2020. Last June, the UK Government were advised to stockpile gowns as part of general pandemic preparations; did anyone in the Welsh Government see that advice?

The First Minister couldn’t provide a detailed answer there and then, but told MSs that NHS Wales hasn’t faced a shortage of gowns during the pandemic (though that answer doesn’t dismiss the possibility of disruption to supplies due to delivery issues etc.) and the Welsh Government has been able to secure a supply of 500,000 gowns from abroad.

Health & Social Services Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth): The NHS remains “open for business” for non-virus related treatment

Key points:

  • There are still people with non-Covid-19 related conditions who require treatment and they can be assured they’ll continue to receive treatment as normal and it’s safe to come in for diagnostics etc.
  • The lockdown can be particularly challenging for people with mental health problems; health boards report they’ve been able to meet mental health needs and are also required to submit weekly reports on their capacity to treat mental illnesses.
  • Virus testing capacity stands at around 5,000-a-day and is expected to increase to 10,000-a-day, though the new track and trace strategy could require up to 20,000-a-day (at present only around 1,000-tests-a-day in Wales are actually being done on the ground).

Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns MS (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.) welcomed the new track and trace strategy, but following last week’s revelations wanted assurances the new testing figures were a proper target. The Health Minister told her he wants 10,000-tests-a-day by the end of May, hinting that a UK level testing capacity may be needed.

Rhun ap Iorwerth MS (Plaid, Ynys Môn) focused on the speed of testing given that it took a very long time to get to the 5,000-test capacity we have now. How will things work when we need 20,000 tests a day as suggested in the track and trace paper? Surely that would require a much quicker turnaround for results?

The Minister said the biggest step forward in that regard is the development of home testing and the opening of mobile testing centres which will improve reach into rural areas. He also believes a reliable antibody test will improve things further.

Finance Minister & Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower): UK could run a £273billion budget deficit in 2020-21

Key points:

  • The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates the UK could run a £273billion budget deficit this year, which is five times higher than was estimated at the latest UK budget. The causes are obvious – lower tax receipts, lower economic activity, proportionally higher public spending.
  • The impact on the Welsh budget is expected to be smaller because of the way Wales is funded; an additional £2.1billion in Barnett formula consequentials for Wales is expected. A supplementary budget will be published on 27th May 2020.
  • Unemployment is expected to rise sharply and, as usual, it’s expected to hit those at the bottom of the economic pyramid and younger people hardest.
  • Measures taken to support the Welsh economy will be undermined if the UK Government’s furlough scheme is withdrawn too early. She called on the UK Chancellor to keep the devolved nations properly informed.

“The outlook for public finances is stark. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK’s fiscal deficit could be £273 billion this year. That is five times higher than expected just two months ago at the time of the UK budget and significantly higher than at the peak of borrowing during the financial crisis….However, the fiscal framework protects our budget from UK-wide economic shocks. As a result, the net impact of reduced economic activity and tax receipts on our budget this year should be small, but we will, of course, be monitoring this situation carefully.”
– Finance Minister & Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans

Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay MS (Con, Monmouth) – citing warnings from Debenhams about store closures in Wales because they were left out of the Welsh Government’s business rate relief scheme – called for the cap of £500,000 rateable value to be lifted.

The Minister explained that the idea behind the scheme is to support small and medium “backbone” businesses. That said, she accepts Debenhams is an important anchor store and discussions are ongoing.

Plaid Cymru has called for the £500 payment to carers (recently announced by the government) to be extended to cover all care home workers – not just those who are directly responsible for one-to-one care – as well as the estimated 370,000 unpaid carers in Wales.

Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham): “Welsh meal ideas” campaign launched

Key points:

  • Hybu Cig Cymru has launched a campaign with top chefs to come up with meal ideas using Welsh-sourced produce to boost farmers and the food industry. Also, a directory of Welsh food producers providing home delivery has been set up (link).
  • The Minister has written to households affected by the February 2020 floods to outline what support is available to them and to tell them that the deadline to claim financial support from the government has been extended.

The Minister confirmed plans to introduce “Lucy’s Law” were still on the table, though the law-making timetable has been affected.

“In relation to Lucy’s law, I’m meeting with the chief veterinary officer and other officials tomorrow to discuss that; as I said in committee last week, it is still a priority for me and for the Welsh Government. Clearly, the legislative programme has had an impact as well, so these are all things that we need to work through.”
– Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths

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