Statement by Health Minister

 

TITLE Coronavirus (COVID-2019)
DATE 24 March 2020
BY Vaughan Gething AM, Minister for Health and Social Services

We have heard the First Minister outline the range of extraordinary measures that four governments across the UK have taken over recent days. Measures that have been necessary to respond to the seriousness of this situation.  This is a public health emergency.

My overriding priority remains:

  • to reduce both the direct and indirect harm from the virus;
  • to protect communities and safeguard vulnerable people;
  • to provide care to patients;
  • to look after the welfare and well-being of our health and social care workforce; and
  • to ensure our health and social care system is as prepared, equipped and resilient as it can be in the weeks ahead.

Ultimately every step that I take is for the clear purpose of saving as many lives as possible.

Over the last week we have seen a continued increase in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Wales. Sadly, we have had further deaths. I am truly sorry that families have lost loved ones and want to extend my sincere condolences to all who have been affected.

I understand that people are worried. I am too. I understand that people are looking to protect themselves and their families. I am too. Some people are choosing to stock up on essential items or isolating themselves in more remote areas.

I ask people in these uncertain times to remain calm, to be thoughtful. To think of your families and think of others too. All of the actions that I am taking with colleagues in the Welsh Government are designed to protect you and your families.

I recognise the temptation to buy extra food or products to care for your loved ones. But there is enough food for everyone if we shop as normal and do not stockpile. Whilst I understand the anxiety that leads to stockpiling it hurts the vulnerable with the most limited means. It hurts people who cannot get to the shops early. As we know these are often people in our emergency services, in the social care workforce and our NHS family. The very people that we are relying on now more than ever.

Similarly, we plan our health services around where you live. It is hugely important for you and your NHS that you go home and stay at home.

The weeks ahead will be challenging and the demands on our health and care system will continue to grow. That is why I took early action to make sure that our health and social care services are as prepared as they can be for what lies ahead.

Our response to this crisis has been to build on our long term plan for health and social care, strengthening the structures in place and bringing forward at pace further measures to strengthen our resilience. For example:

  • 111 and NHS Direct Wales online have been key to the provision of advice;
  • digital solutions are being rapidly rolled out, such as the ability to provide video consultations in primary care and as an alternative to outpatient appointments;
  • The strengthening of Regional Partnership Boards has positioned them to provide integrated health and social care responses to local communities; and
  • The establishment of Health Education and Improvement Wales is helping to address the considerable workforce needs.

I have also taken more difficult decisions so that we are ready to care for larger numbers of very unwell people, to make sure we can save more lives.

By temporarily scaling down non-urgent elective activity ten days ago, health boards have had time to prepare in a more planned and measured way. Across hospital sites, urgent action has been taken to increase critical care capacity and to redeploy and train staff in readiness for the increased demand we expect to see.

As of yesterday, occupancy of critical care units was about 45%. About 15% of the patients either have suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19. We have plans in place to immediately double the number of critical care beds in Wales to just over 300. Extensive work is being undertaken to maximise the number of ventilated beds which can be provided in Wales, including the purchase of over 600 additional ventilators. We continue to urgently explore further options.

I decided last week to bring forward the opening of parts of the new Grange University Hospital in Cwmbran. This will provide an additional 350 hospital beds by the end of April.

Urgent discussions are also underway with the private hospital sector in Wales to secure additional capacity.

I have agreed to a temporary relaxation of contract and monitoring arrangements for primary care practitioners to ensure the safety of patients and staff. Community pharmacy continue to be on the frontline. They will be even more important in helping to support vulnerable groups who have been advised to self-isolate.

I know that there has quite understandably been concern about the availability of personal protection equipment – PPE. I have taken steps to enhance the arrangements in Wales for protecting our front line health and care staff who are caring for suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients.

I have authorised:

  • A significant push of personal protection equipment to the 7 Health Boards, Welsh Ambulance Service and Velindre.
  • Whilst anyone who suspects that they may have coronavirus should stay at home and should not visit a primary care setting. As a safety measure, PPE has been supplied to all GP clinics, out of hours services and pharmacies.
  • Social care has an essential role in our response to COVID-19. I have authorised PPE to also be released for use by social care providers.

I turn now to our workforce. We all recognise that each and every person working to deliver our frontline services will be under immense pressure. I do not think there are sufficient words to express my gratitude to the health and social care staff who continue to work tirelessly to care for people in our communities.

We know that things will get worse before they get better. That is why  we are taking further unprecedented action to support our current workforce. People who have left or retired from health and social care in the last three years are being asked to re-register with their relevant professional bodies or in social care to contact their Local Authority.

We are also exploring ways to harness the skills of students who are keen to contribute. Final-year medical students, student nurses and student social workers are being offered the opportunity to take on temporary, fully-paid roles to further boost the frontline.

Those who join will be given a full induction and training.

It is vitally important that we all do everything within in power to stop the spread of coronavirus: Wash your hands regularly; reduce social contact; adhere to the advice on social distancing; and stay at home if you are particularly vulnerable.

We are writing out to vulnerable people whose existing health conditions make them more susceptible to becoming very unwell with coronavirus. We are asking these people to take even more stringent measures to shield themselves from this virus. We are working with GPs, Local Authorities and the voluntary sector to ensure that these people can access all the services they need to support them during the difficult weeks ahead.

The situation we face is unprecedented. The weeks ahead will be more challenging than any we have known in the 20 years of this Welsh Government. Please look after yourselves and look after each other.

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