Plenary Statement by The First Minister

 

TITLE Coronavirus (COVID-19)
DATE 22nd April 2020
BY Mark Drakeford AM, First Minister

Llywydd, coronavirus is both a public health crisis and an economic crisis.

The Ministers primarily responsible for these two portfolio areas will make statements this afternoon about the actions the Welsh Government is taking to respond to the virus.

There are very few areas of public life, which have not been touched by coronavirus. This afternoon, I will focus on the measures we are taking in other portfolios.

Llywydd, many aspects of Housing have been affected – from concerns about people with no home to live in, to people travelling into Wales to their second homes.

Since the Senedd last met, we have provided comprehensive advice about the support available for tenants in Wales, including information about benefits, help with rent, bill payments and debt.

We’ve provided information to landlords and agents in the private rented sector and guidance to local authorities about how they can continue to enforce standards in rented properties to keep people safe.

We continue to receive weekly reports from Chief Constables across Wales on the enforcement of regulations. Let me be clear again, travelling to a second home is not an essential journey and police in Wales are and will stop people attempting to do so.

 In social care, we have provided an extra £40m to support adult social care services to meet the increased costs the sector is facing. This funding comes directly from our budget and is part of the £1.1bn fighting fund we have created to support public services to respond to coronavirus.

I know many Members have raised concerns about people who have opted for direct payments and employ their own personal assistants – we have provided specific information for people in that position.

Social Care Wales has launched a card for all social care workers to help identify them as critical workers and so access the help available to them.

Education and child care have been hugely impacted by the virus. We have issued a large amount of guidance for critical workers and parents of vulnerable children about how they can get the help they need in the current circumstances. We are implementing the extended childcare offer for children of key workers announced by Julie Morgan on 6th April.

For many young people, this is a time of distress and anxiety. The Education Minister Kirsty Williams has announced £1.25m to provide additional mental health support for children, helping school counselling services to deal with an anticipated increase in demand.

She has also confirmed the A-level and AS-levels results day will be as originally scheduled on 13 August and on 20 August for GCSEs. This is the same as in Northern Ireland and England.

 Yesterday, Wales became the first UK Nation to confirm additional funding to guarantee free schools for children during the pandemic. £33m will be made available to help local authorities in this vital area.

 Two weeks ago Environment Minister Lesley Griffiths answered questions in the Senedd. She has continued to meet with industry representatives from Wales’ farming, fishing, forestry, environment and food and drink sectors to discuss their specific challenges.

A new grant is available to support fishing businesses cover the fixed costs associated with owning a fishing vessel and the Welsh Government has launched a bespoke online service to match employers with jobseekers looking for agricultural, land and veterinary work. It will help to fill vacancies in the coming months, addressing labour shortages caused by the virus outbreak.

 Llywydd, I’d like to end by turning to the future.

Last Thursday, the four governments of the United Kingdom agreed the current stay-at-home restrictions must continue for at least a further three weeks. Now is not the moment to throw away all the efforts we have made, especially as there are signs of them bearing fruit.

But it is really important to stress that the threat from coronavirus is not over.

Sadly, lives will still be lost in the days to come, and I know that all members will want to pause a moment to remember the 600 people and more who are no longer with us, and the grief and distress which this continues to cause to those closest to them.

Any decision to ease restrictions will only be made when the medical and scientific advice is clear that the time is right to do so. The process will be careful, cautious and gradual – there can be no sudden return to the way of life before the pandemic.

Llywydd, when I made my first statement to the Senedd under our new arrangements we still faced the realistic anxiety that coronavirus might accelerate its spread in Wales to the point where our NHS could have been overwhelmed. That this has not happened is a tribute to the enormous work which has gone on to extend the capacity of the service and the efforts which Welsh citizens have made to reduce the circulation of the virus in the community.

Today the number of patients in Welsh hospitals because of coronavirus has stabilised and the number of new admissions is falling. Over half our extended critical care capacity is still available. More than three thousand acute hospital beds are in the same position and both figures have improved over the last few days.

It is because that platform has been created that we can now use the weeks ahead to prepare; to agree a common set of objective measures to identify the point at which it is safe to begin lifting restrictions. These will tell us when the time is right to move beyond the current position.

There will be a risk that the virus will begin to circulate again. We need to set up strong public health surveillance measures so if there are local outbreaks we can identify them quickly and respond effectively.

In Wales, we have retained a national public health service with a strong local presence. We must use this as a platform for our response.

We must continue to learn from international experience. There are already countries in Europe and beyond where restrictions are being lifted. We will use the next few weeks to learn from what works – and what may not work – elsewhere.

Llywydd, finally, we will also use the next three weeks to plan for Wales’ future beyond coronavirus, drawing in expertise and experience from outside government.

We will establish a group of people, from inside Wales and beyond, to challenge our thinking, to contribute new ideas, and to help us plan for recovery. We have put our framework for doing so in place and I look forward to discussing the path to recovery with the Senedd in the weeks ahead.

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