COVID-19 update : Health and Care

The First Minister has just made a statement on behalf of the Health Minister regarding the health and social care response to coronavirus. For clarity in this statement where it says “I” it refers to the Health Minister, even though the First Minister made the statement to the Chamber.

TITLE Coronavirus (COVID-2019) update
DATE 17 March 2020
BY Vaughan Gething, Minister for Health and Social Services

A great deal has changed over the last week. The World Health Organisation declared coronavirus as a pandemic.  The response in Wales and the other UK countries has moved from containing to delaying coronavirus. Sadly, we have also had our first deaths from coronavirus. I am truly sorry that families have lost loved ones. Sadly, we expect more in the weeks ahead.

Our aims in the delay phase of our plan to tackles coronavirus are:

  • To slow the spread of the virus; and,
  • To lower the peak impact and push it away from the winter season

Both of these aims will help our NHS to cope with the challenge it will face in caring for larger numbers of very unwell people. Doing this gives us the best chance of our NHS not being overwhelmed. That means that we can save more lives in the months ahead.

It is inevitable that many more people will contract the virus.  The great majority of people will feel unwell for a short period before making a full recovery at home. They will not need medical intervention; instead, we need to target our resources on the small percentage that will. Trying to identify, monitor and contain every case, however mild, is not the best use of our finite resources.

Members will know that at COBR on Monday this week the Welsh Government agreed with the other 3 national Governments across the UK to advise the public to take further extraordinary measures.

Our advice to people who think they may have coronavirus has changed.  Anyone who develops a high temperature or a new continuous cough should stay at home for seven days.  They shouldn’t go to their GP, or to a pharmacy or hospital.  Nor should they contact the NHS on 111.  People should only seek help if they can’t cope with their symptoms at home, if their condition worsens significantly, or if they don’t recover within seven days. Following Monday’s COBR meeting we are now advising people who live with them in the same household to stay at home for 14 days.

Further advice on self-isolation at home is available from Public Health Wales. People should also use the COVID-19 online symptom checker on the NHS Direct Wales website if they are worried about their symptoms.

We have also asked people across the wider population to reduce social contact. That includes working from home if you can and not going into crowded areas likes pubs or restaurants.

All people aged 70 and over, people under 70 with underlying health conditions and pregnant women should now actively practice social distancing measures.  These groups have been identified as those with a greater risk of becoming more seriously unwell and therefore need to limit their social interaction to reduce the risk of transmission. All of these groups may have to stay at home for 3 to 4 months.

For those under 70 with underlying health conditions, the

starting point is that if your health condition entities you to a free NHS flu jab then you should stay at home.

Over the next week our NHS will directly contact a range of vulnerable people with specific advice about the risks to them.

England has now followed the position adopted in the other 3 UK countries including Wales on large gatherings. Our emergency services will not staff or plan for larger public events. They too like the rest of the NHS family will focus their time on planning for the response to coronavirus as it develops further.

Our focus has shifted away from community testing.  Testing will now focus on people who are admitted to hospital, in line with national guidance, and based on symptoms and severity.  That doesn’t mean we don’t care about people who are less seriously affected.  There is strong evidence from around the world that they can and will recover without medical intervention.

This is about ensuring that our testing capacity is focused where there is greatest need. In addition to those in hospital, testing will be made available to people working in key NHS roles to ensure that they are not taken out of the workplace longer than necessary. The number of roles covered by this will extend as our testing capacity develops.  Public Health Wales will continue its surveillance work to understand the overall picture in Wales.

Last Friday I announced far reaching temporary measures to release NHS capacity to deal with the outbreak.  Health and social services providers will suspend non-urgent outpatient appointments and surgical admissions, and the monitoring and regulatory regime will be relaxed across the health and care system.  We know that the outbreak will significantly increase the demands made on hospitals, care homes and primary care practitioners – and in particular on the staff in these organisations.

The changes that I have made will allow our health and social care system to keep people out of hospital who don’t need to be there. It is even more important than ever that people who do have the highest need for hospital care be treated without delay.  My decision will allow health boards and others:

  •  To make the best use of capacity in priority areas;
  •  To redeploy and retrain staff for different roles to respond to the impact of coronavirus; and
  • To maintain services for essential treatments, such as cancer.

Today I have approved the next set of national actions to support local health and social care preparedness.  These include:

  • Guidance provided on the testing of symptomatic health care workers in isolation.
  • Last week I announced the use of video consultations in primary care. This will now be rolled out urgently across a range of settings.
  • There will be forthcoming guidance on the delivery of dental services to avoid preventable exposure to patients and staff.
  • Work is ongoing to rapidly increase critical care beds, staffing and equipment.

My ministerial colleagues and I continue to work closely with public services across Wales to ensure they are prepared too.  Last Thursday I discussed our collective response with local authority leaders.  They will have all the help and support that we can provide to keep vital public services running. They also have a hugely important leadership role. That is especially so in the way that they will work with 3rd sector partners to coordinate support for the much larger numbers of people who will be self isolating.

This is a dynamic and rapidly-evolving situation.  The Welsh Government my will continue to take further measures as necessary, and as the evidence dictates. Further information will be made available ahead of the Health Committee on the 18 March.

We can all still take simple steps to help manage and limit the impact to if coronavirus.  Maintaining regular hand washing and self-isolating where necessary will make a real and positive difference, as will helping family, friends and neighbours who have to self-isolate.

We are asking people to make extraordinary choices for the extraordinary times that we face. We ask people to do this to help their friends and family. We ask people to do this to help friends and family that they may never meet.

I will, of course, continue to keep members and the people of Wales fully informed.


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