First Minister challenged in Senedd over new restrictions and pandemic response processes
The Senedd was recalled for a session on Wednesday to hear a statement from the First Minister and gave the opportunity for Members to quiz the FM on various topics around the pandemic response and recent regulations.
You can read the full written record here, with some of the Q&A exchanges extracted from the session below:
Andrew Davies, Leader of the Welsh Conservatives posed a wide range of questions to the First Minister, including:
Q: First Minister, will the measures that are announced today actually avert a national lockdown in the new year, or even a firebreak in the new year? I appreciate we have a fast-moving situation, but a lot of people feel we’re on an unstoppable journey to further restrictions come the new year.
A: The measures we have put in place are designed to flatten the curve and to protect lives and the NHS. We are quite definitely not on an unstoppable journey to lockdown. I have been told time after time that there are people out there saying that they know that the Welsh Government is about to announce a lockdown on 18 December, on 22 December, and none of that has been true. If we act together and do all the things that we are able to do in our own lives, we have a chance to make a difference. There are lots of things we still don’t know about omicron and how it will hit us, and I can’t rule things out. I’m in the same position exactly as UK Ministers in this way. We’re all learning and we can’t rule things out.
Q: Can you confirm that the scenarios that the Government look at when modelling are the best and worst case scenarios presented to you, so there’s a range of options so that you can inform your decisions, rather than just one scenario?
A: Can I say that I think the debate about the severity of omicron does miss the point, to an extent? The sheer numbers of people who will fall ill with the omicron variant means that even if it were to be less severe, that will not stop the huge increase in demand that there may be there from people falling ill. One of the deputy chief medical officers for England explained it at a COBRA meeting in this way: that if omicron was only half as severe as delta, that buys you 48 hours in terms of the impact that omicron will have on our public services. So, it’s a sort of secondary issue, rather than the top-line issue, which is the transmissibility of omicron, and I don’t think that the evidence as it’s being reported in some newspapers today is quite as straightforward as they are making out. The evidence that I have seen—. I add the normal caveat here, which I know the leader of the opposition will understand, that new evidence is emerging every day. The evidence I have seen so far is that if you’ve had coronavirus already, then omicron may have a less severe impact on you if you are reinfected, but if you’re getting coronavirus for the first time and your first dose of it is omicron, it’s likely to be just as severe as any other earlier form of the virus.
Adam Davies, Leader of Plaid Cymru Group asked for modelling data to be published as soon as possible, and asked a range of questions.
Q: Could you say a little bit more about that modelling that was done, as you said, on different scenarios in terms of severity, but also, particularly given the uncertainty around the severity of the disease, even under the low-severity scenarios, as you were intimating in your earlier response that there was still a significant rise in hospitalisations because of the very, very high number of cases and, indeed, in the modelling that I saw—a higher peak than we’ve seen previously—in terms of cases and even in hospitalisations?
A: We will publish the modelling; we publish the TAC advice we get regularly, often alongside the three-week cycle. I know that Mr Price will know that, in the rapidly evolving state of understanding, the model is constantly being updated. So, it had a certain assumption about the rate at which we would be able to roll out boosters in Wales—we’re obviously exceeding that by a significant amount, and the model will need to be recalibrated to take account of that. It makes assumptions about people’s behaviour, and I think we’ve seen, in the last couple of weeks, that, actually, people’s behaviour is more sensitive to the risks of omicron than maybe we would have thought.
Q: There’s some positive news that has emerged, I think, in the last couple of hours, out of South Africa, about a potential 80 per cent milder impact of the variant in terms of hospitalisation and, indeed, fewer that actually go to hospital developing severe disease. In terms of the UK Health Security Agency report—which I think the summary of has been leaked—have you actually seen any of that information yet, First Minister?
A: The South African data in relation to severity is of course, useful, but 70 per cent of the population of South Africa have recently been infected in a huge delta wave that’s spread through South Africa. So, I think that would be consistent with the advice that I saw earlier, that if you’ve already been infected with coronavirus and you then get omicron, it will be less severe. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that if you haven’t had a previous dose that the impact would be less severe.
Q: Could you say something in terms of smaller gyms, to give them the assurance, even though they are smaller scale, that they are able to avail themselves of flexibility within the regulations—if 2m is not possible, that they’re able to put in place other mitigating impacts?
A: For smaller gyms, the other reasonable measures that they are able to take does allow them to see whether they can open on a less than 2m social distancing basis. They would still have to have a 2m distance wherever they could, and they would have to be confident that the mitigating measures are sufficient to allow them to operate safely. But we will elevate in the advice that we will provide to the sector the fact that those mitigating measures are available to them, and I hope that that will be helpful to them in weighing up their ability to continue to provide a service. The contacts of people in a close-contact regime will be the contacts who would have been contacted by the TTP service, so that’s how, I think, we define those.
Hefin David MS asked if driving tests and lessons can continue, and was told “Driving lessons can continue in Wales, but there have to be proper mitigations, because it is inevitable that you are sitting in close proximity to somebody else.”
Mr David also asked about the ‘work from home’ law, “What would he say to someone who has written to me with concerns, that they don’t quite understand the ‘reasonable excuse’ measure? How can they understand that and take the appropriate measures for working from home?”
The First Minister answered, “People who have become alarmed by what I regard as not very helpful reporting of all of this can rely on the fact that any penalties could only possibly fall on somebody who perversely insists on being in a workplace when it is completely clear that they could successfully work from home. Every message that we have had from the Wales TUC through the whole of the pandemic has been that the protections for workers have not always been sufficient, where people feel they are being called back into the workplace where the reasonable measures regime has not been properly put in place. These regulations give those workers an extra protection; they are able to say to the employer, ‘I cannot come to work on those terms, because, if I were to do so, I would be committing an offence, and you cannot put me in that position.’ ”
Tom Gifford MS challenged on the level of the £3m support for sports and other venues closed, “I’m afraid to say that the £3 million, at least on the surface, looks like barely a drop in the ocean compared to the revenues lost by that decision. So, for example, Swansea City and Cardiff City home matches bring in about £200,000 each in matchday income alone, so if the fund were to cover those losses, for example, you would see about one fifteenth of the entire budget gone in one day on one match, which means either these large events won’t be covered in full or there’ll be nothing left for smaller clubs and venues and other sports.”
The First Minister replied, “This is a scheme designed for major events. We took the precaution of having collected information from the clubs involved in advance of making a decision as to what they thought the loss of income would be if they had to play behind closed doors, and I can assure the Member that £3 million is not a drop in anybody’s ocean, and we are confident it is sufficient to be able to compensate those clubs for the way in which they will now be able to operate. Not indefinitely, of course. None of us know how long this will need to go on and we will keep that sum of money very regularly under review, and if the restrictions have to go beyond the point at which the £3 million will be sufficient, then the conversations between the finance Minister and the Minister responsible for that sector will recommence.”
Mabon ap Gwynfor MS asked about weddings and funerals, asking for clarity on the rules, however due to technical issues the answer was not publicly heard.
John Griffiths MS pointed out the benefits of Park Runs in Wales and asked if there was a way to keep them running.
The First Minister said they were fine to go ahead within limits, “As far as parkruns are concerned, they can continue. There will be a limit of 50 people being able to take part directly in the run—that doesn’t include people who are involved in stewarding or volunteering around it. And where it’s junior parkruns for people under 18, there will be unlimited numbers available. I think I’m aware, already, of some parkruns that, because of the numbers, run a certain number at one point in the day and another set of people later. So, there will be a need for some flexibility, and I’m sure that we’re talking to the sector. But under the rules that we’ve announced today, parkruns can continue. They have to continue within the rules, but the rules are not prohibitive.”
Laura Anne Jones MS said she was unhappy at the manner the restrictions announced overnight this week was handled, “The parliamentary process is an important one and should be adhered to. Banning things at midnight via press releases only adds further confusion and anxiety for our businesses and sporting organisations across the country.”
The First Minister took umbrage, and replied, ” I’m naive enough to continue to be surprised by the brass neck of Conservative Members of the Senedd, Llywydd. I explained and apologised for the fact that a written statement wasn’t issued earlier in the week. This Senedd has met continuously, through recess after recess, in order for Ministers to come and answer questions, and to make statements and to take part in debates with the Senedd. In Westminster, where her party’s in charge, none of that happens. We’re hardly in a position to need lectures on what is right and proper from a party that evades the sort of scrutiny that this Senedd has continuously managed to provide. ”
Peter Fox MS raised a debate and several points on funding, meaning a discussion over what UK and Welsh Government funds are in place ensued.
Mr Fox said, ” As we know, the UK Government has made available nearly £9 billion to tackle COVID-19 in Wales to date, and we know that there’s an additional £270 million coming to Wales to spend on the booster campaign and financial support for business. I also note the Wales Governance Centre reported that the Government still has about £500 million of unallocated COVID-19 funding left in the budget for this year. So, we know there’s a significant amount of money, and I really welcome the doubling of support for businesses today. On Monday, you laid out your plans for the next financial year, but when will you be laying a more comprehensive programme of support over and above what you’ve announced today, thinking ahead of what might be necessary going forward? ”
The First Minister replied, “I recognise, as I try always to do, the point he’s made—the significant sums of money that the UK Government has mobilised to deal with the pandemic. The point to remember, though, is that that is to deal with all the consequences of the pandemic, not just the business impact that we are seeing, but everything we’ve asked the health service to do, the track and trace system, the vaccination programme, the extra measures we’ve had to take in the care home sector, the £24 million that my colleague the education Minister announced over and above all the extra money we’ve put into schools and colleges to support those young people who are facing examinations next year, and the huge effort that has gone on to house homeless people during the pandemic. We are providing millions of pounds every month to local authorities in Wales to allow them to go on doing that. That’s why we have £500 million, or whatever the figure is today, left during the final quarter of this financial year, because prudent budgeting says you don’t use all the money you’ve got on day one, you have to space that money out. And thank goodness we do have it, because that’s why we’ve been able to announce the £120 million.”
“I have to say gently to the Member, because I know he’s a close steward of these things, that the £270 million from the UK Government is not extra money; it’s an ability to draw forward money that they’ve already provided to us, and if we use it now it may not be available to us in the future. That will depend upon spending decisions that are made in England, rather than spending decisions that are made in Wales. So, it’s not straightforwardly extra money at all. The fact that we have husbanded our resources so that we have money still in reserve in this last quarter is absolutely what has allowed us to go ahead and make those announcements in the last couple of days for the sports sector, for the cultural sector and now for businesses more widely. We will be making further allocations, I’m absolutely sure, to help the health service to pay for the accelerated booster programme and to help others who will have needs that they have not been able to budget for because of the omicron impact in the remaining months of this financial year. ”
You can view the full written record here of the full session. Spotted something? Got a story? Send a Facebook Message | A direct message on Twitter | Email: News@Deeside.com