|1. Questions to the First Minister|
|2. Business Statement and Announcement|
|4. Statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales: Coronavirus (COVID-19)|
|3. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Coronavirus (COVID-19) update|
|5. Statement by the Minister for Housing and Local Government: Coronavirus (COVID-19)|
|6. Statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales: The Bus Services (Wales) Bill|
|7. Statement by the Minister for Housing and Local Government: The Homelessness Action Group's Report|
|8. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: A framework to improve quality and performance in urgent and emergency care|
|9. The Adoption Agencies (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2020|
|10. LCM on the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill|
|11. Debate: Stage 4 of the Health and Social Care (Quality and Engagement) (Wales) Bill|
|12. Voting Time|
|13. Debate: Stage 3 of the Wild Animals and Circuses (Wales) Bill|
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
And the first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Vikki Howells.
1. Will the First Minister provide an update on NHS recruitment in Wales? OAQ55242
Llywydd, NHS organisations continue to recruit staff from within the UK and from overseas, with record levels of investment in health professional education and training. As a result, there are now more doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals working in the NHS in Wales than at any previous time.
Thank you, First Minister, for your answer. There are currently over 1,000 vacant A&E consultant posts across England and Wales. Now, this is a concern for all of us, of course, but particularly in my local health board area of Cwm Taf Morgannwg, where the ability to recruit consultants to the Royal Glamorgan Hospital—or inability, I should say—has left that A&E department under threat of reduced opening hours or even closure. That's of considerable concern to my constituents in normal times, but especially now during the coronavirus outbreak.
What reassurance can you provide that the Welsh Government is doing all that it can to recruit A&E consultants in this very difficult and competitive jobs market?
Well, Llywydd, the Member is absolutely right to say that the recruitment of A&E consultants is competitive right across the United Kingdom, and there are vacancies in every one of the four home nations. Nonetheless, the number of A&E consultants working in the Welsh NHS has more than doubled over the last decade, and that suggests that despite the very real challenges, there has been some success in the recruitment efforts of individual health boards, and in the efforts that are being made to grow our own pipeline of doctors coming through the system who will be the consultants of the future.
My colleague, Vaughan Gething, has decided that the 'Train. Work. Live' campaign, which has been very successful in recruitment to the Welsh NHS, will have a particular focus on the recruitment of emergency medicine staff over the year ahead, and that will reinforce the efforts that health boards themselves are making to recruit to vacancies.
I'd like to just take a tiny liberty with this question, if I may, First Minister, and start off by extending my heartfelt thanks, and I'm sure the thanks of all of us, to our NHS and social care staff, who know that they're about to face the battle of their lives on our behalf, and they are doing so. And I am very grateful for all that they have done and will do.
And, again, a slight liberty with the word 'recruitment' because, of course, I'd like to talk about the staff and the help that we need now facing the coronavirus. And I just wondered if you could tell us whether—. We've made much about perhaps recruiting or re-recruiting back into the workforce people who've just left us, just retired, and I wondered if you might be able to give us any update on whether you've had thoughts about approaching final-year medical students, final-year nursing students, and obviously their representative bodies, because these people will be very au fait with current policy and they'll certainly be very, very adept at doing ventilators, respiratory work and all the rest of it, and seeing if, perhaps, with their goodwill, and obviously, the right conditions, we might be able to recruit them into helping to supplement our current workforce.
I thank Angela Burns for both the points she's made. She's absolutely right that staff in our health and social care sectors know that they face an enormous challenge over the weeks ahead. One of the reasons why we announced on Friday of last week that we were going to remove some of the obligations on general practitioners to carry out routine screening and monitoring appointments, to reduce the number of routine appointments in out-patients, as well as freeing up capacity to see other patients with more urgent needs—. Those actions were also designed to free up the time of clinicians who will need retraining in the workplace to be able to deal with the urgent problems they will now face.
As far as final-year students in medicine and in nursing are concerned, we are engaged with our UK colleagues on that agenda. It's one of those things where I think, if at all possible, we should move together on it, because there will be royal college considerations, there will be licensing considerations. And we need to make sure that those relatively technical but quite important if you're a practicing clinician to know that you're protected in the decisions you make—that we resolve those problems on a UK basis, to make the very most of, as Angela Burns has said, people who are just completing their training, and very well equipped, in the right circumstances, to step in and assist.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s strategic vision for economic development in the Heads of the Valleys? OAQ55276
I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. The Welsh Government's strategy for economic development in the Heads of the Valleys focuses on investment in places, people and in infrastructure. In that way, we support new jobs in industries of the future, in which improved productivity feeds prosperity in that part of Wales.
I recognise, First Minister, that the work of the Welsh Government is currently focused on the coronavirus, and the impact that's having on people across the whole of the country. And I think many people are grateful to you for your leadership in addressing these matters. But in terms of the wider economic issues, I had an excellent meeting last week with the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, where we discussed the opportunities that are there across the whole of the Heads of the Valleys, and where we're able to target investment in ensuring that we have the economic infrastructure to sustain employment and industrial activity into the future. Clearly, all our minds are on other matters at the moment, but could you, First Minister, outline your vision for how we can ensure that, when we're getting the country back on its feet again, after this crisis, we will continue to invest in areas such as the Heads of the Valleys, and that that investment will continue post the crisis that we're currently facing?
Llywydd, can I thank Alun Davies for that? Of course, he is right that we are focused relentlessly on the challenge that is immediately in front of us. But there will be a future for Wales, and for the United Kingdom, the other side of coronavirus, and we have to continue to do what we can to make sure that the opportunities that we need for the future are still being thought about, still being promoted, where we are able to do that. I thank the Member for Blaenau Gwent for coming to that meeting last week, and for contributing to the pool of ideas that we will need, to make sure that the economy of the Heads of the Valleys area in Wales is as equipped as it can be to meet the opportunities that the future will bring.
That's why, in the strategy that we are pursuing, we continue to attract cutting-edge technology companies to that part of Wales, but also, Llywydd, to focus on existing local businesses, helping them to apply new technologies and processes, to improve productivity, to develop higher value products, and to diversify their consumer base. And there is a very specific piece of work that the Welsh Government wants to continue to do with our partners in that part of Wales, to increase productivity in those indigenous businesses. And that's why we are working with Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council, Coleg Gwent, and Cardiff University, to translate into the workplace the ideas we know are there, and which can make those firms more productive, and therefore better able to take advantage of future economic opportunities. And even in the difficult days ahead, I know that there are very dedicated people in that part of Wales who will want to continue their efforts in that direction.
Under the current circumstances, it's right and proper that the Government's efforts are focused solely on the coronavirus, and the support that can be given, both in the health field, but in the economy as well. Meeting businesses in my own region yesterday, along with the constituency Member for the Vale of Glamorgan, information obviously is the gold dust that those businesses are crying out for. And I welcome the support that the Minister has put on the table around business rates today, but the caveat around that support was that more information will be coming, how it will be delivered into businesses. Can you give us a timeline when that support might be made available to businesses, and the mechanism it will be delivered in? Because, as I said, this isn't a criticism; this is a plea from the meeting that we held yesterday that the gold dust that businesses require at the moment to make informed choices about the employment status of employees and the direction of their businesses, is how that support and when that support will be available.
Well, I thank Andrew R.T. Davies for that and I heard, indeed, from my colleague, Jane Hutt, of the meeting that she and he attended in Cowbridge yesterday. What yesterday's announcement makes clear, Llywydd, is that every penny that has comes to Wales through the UK Government for business support will be spent for those purposes here in Wales.
We took a major decision in relation to business rate relief, and that has taken the bulk of the money that has come to Wales. We remain in discussion with the Treasury about the use of the Barnett formula, as the way to distribute that resource across the United Kingdom, because we have more than the ordinary share of small businesses in particular in Wales, and we are putting the argument to the Treasury that the way that funding is distributed should reflect the realities of need on the ground, rather than a formula, which everybody has agreed, is long past its effective use.
What we have left out of the sum of money that came in the budget, when we've made the decisions on business rate relief, is just over £100 million. We hope that that sum will go up as a result of our discussions with the Treasury, but we are in discussions this week with businesses, and my colleague, Ken Skates, particularly, meeting the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, the Chambers of Commerce, Road Haulage Association and so on in order to get a strong sense from them about the most effective way in which that £100 million can be deployed.
If there is no further money, we will make decisions about the deployment of the £100 million as fast as we can. We thought that it was right to make sure that the voice of businesses is directly put to us, so that if there are better ideas than the ones we already have in the mix, we learn them from them, make the decisions thereafter and get the money from us into the hands of people who need it.
Questions now from party leaders. On behalf of the leader of Plaid Cymru, Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Diolch yn fawr iawn. Can I place on record Plaid Cymru's gratitude to front-line workers in the health and care sector and elsewhere for their work at this challenging time? Can I also thank those who are working within their communities, setting up community groups and helping some of the most vulnerable people loving among us? They should be supported in that work.
So, thank you very much.
Thank you, all.
First Minister, Plaid Cymru supports the strengthened guidelines that were announced yesterday. We'd called for firmer measures; we'll work with you at these unprecedented times. But it is, of course, important that we continue to scrutinise the Welsh Government's approach.
In that spirit, can you give clear guidance, firstly, on testing policy? Will you commit to follow the World Health's Organization's guidance on the importance of testing more in order to break the chains of infection, which it refers to as 'the backbone of the response'? And can you give concrete assurances to increase testing capacity with real urgency to ensure that key workers, in particular health and care workers, but also others offering vital public services, are able to avoid having to take time off work unnecessarily?
Well, I thank Rhun ap Iorwerth for that, and thank you to him and to Adam Price for their participation in discussions on this yesterday. As far as testing policy is concerned, the advice that I have to follow is the advice provided to me by the Chief Medical Officer for Wales and those representatives from Wales who sit on the scientific advisory group. There are many different views, I understand that. There are many serious scientists who have nuanced views on testing policy. I cannot pick and choose between different views that are there in the mix on this matter. I have to rely on those people who are employed to provide the Welsh Government with the most expert advice they are able to provide, and who have a fine-grained understanding of the circumstances here in Wales. Their advice yesterday, it was the advice of other chief medical officers as well, is that this is not the point in the progress of the disease where using considerable resources for mass testing is the most effective way of putting safeguards in place. Other people may disagree, I understand that, but what I am saying is is that I don't have a choice but to follow the advice of those people who we employ to advise us. If I move away from that, then the rock on which the advice that I provide to people in Wales and to the health service has been kicked away from under us, and I will not do that. Their advice is under development—the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization was talking about this matter again today—and if that advice changes in view of further evidence and further debate inside the expert community then, of course, we will follow that changing advice. But, as of yesterday, the advice was clear and I will follow that advice in Wales.
As far as key workers as concerned, I know that the Member will be aware that we are making an announcement today about testing key clinical workers in order to facilitate their return as rapidly as possible to the workplace. We will identify those groups of clinical workers who we are able to do that with immediately, and then there will be an increase in capacity so that we can bring more key workers within that testing regime.
Diolch. I recognise certainly the role played by SAGE, but I would appeal for the recognition of particular Welsh demographic factors when it comes to measuring the need here in Wales.
So, perhaps one of big unanswered questions now. It looks increasingly likely that school closures is now a matter of 'when' not 'if'; for teachers and parents the question of 'when' obviously is very, very important. It would have been good to have a statement from the Minister for Education today, but in the absence of that and ahead of ministerial questions on education tomorrow, can I ask you to clarify a number of issues? Is it the working assumption now that schools will close sometime before the Easter break, or afterwards? Can you give statutory guidance in order to assist those who may be in a position to voluntarily keep their children away from school now, or who may feel compelled to do so, that these will not be recorded as absences? How will Welsh Government support pupils who receive free school meals? And crucially, when schools close, what provision will be made in school settings or elsewhere to enable key workers to continue to work?
Well, Llywydd, largely because of those final two considerations, the position of the four UK Governments is that schools should remain open. I'm not going to anticipate when that advice might change because I don't think that is helpful to anybody. That advice remains under review at every meeting. The current position is clear: schools are remaining open in Wales, partly to make sure that key workers who otherwise would have to be diverted into caring for their own children are available to be in clinical settings; partly because a sudden decision to close schools would leave those many pupils who depend upon a free school breakfast and a free school meal vulnerable if schools were to remain closed over an extended period of time.
What I can provide the Member and other Members with an assurance of is this: we are using the time that we have now, while schools remain open in the way they are, to plan for the future. So, if we reach a point in the progress of this disease where closing schools becomes the right thing to do, we will have arrangements in place that will meet the needs of those children who rely on a meal in school for their general welfare, and that we will have attended to the needs of key workers. There are a number of other very important considerations in relation to schools and those are actively under consideration here in Wales and elsewhere. For now, schools remain open. That is the clear advice to parents. Unless your child has an underlying, medical condition that means they should be at home, schools are open and available to them.
Finally, as well as being a health risk, this is also developing into an extremely worrying time financially for individuals and businesses. One small business in my constituency has already reported revenue losses of £120,000—a small business—as a direct result of the virus. Another sees costs and losses mounting for his business to the extent that he can't see how he can afford to buy food for himself for much longer. Scotland has a COVID-19 helpline dedicated to business. Can we as a matter of urgency have one in Wales? We should be following the lead of President Macron, I think, who has promised that no business will go under because of COVID-19. I know you will be in agreement with me that UK Government should provide similar assurances, but if it delays, will you seek to act by, for example, asking for long-term borrowing powers, access to Treasury reserves? Businesses, the self-employed, workers in the gig economy, those on zero-hours contracts—there are many people feeling vulnerable or worse, and they now need more than ever to see firm and bold steps being taken by Welsh Government.
I thank Rhun ap Iorwerth for those further questions. There is a dedicated helpline for businesses here in Wales; it is the Business Wales telephone helpline. We're using that helpline because it's already well known in the sector. There's no need to find something separate, new and different: use the Business Wales helpline. It is set up to respond to people in these circumstances.
On the wider points, of course, I agree with the points that Rhun ap Iorwerth has made. The impact of coronavirus on our economy is absolutely enormous. The efforts that are needed to combat it to make sure that the economy remains solvent, that businesses that are viable today will still be viable after the crisis is over, and that individuals whose incomes are affected are provided with incomes now to see them through the crisis—all of those are very important points. All of them are covered in the letter that I sent earlier today to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in advance of what we are promised will be his statement later in the afternoon. This is classically the moment at which the levers that lie in the hands of the UK Government—fiscal levers as well as monetary levers—are used, and are used in a way that is commensurate with the scale of the challenge that we face. Nobody wants a business that is viable today and will be viable afterwards to go out of business during the crisis. Nobody wants a livelihood and a family that is thriving today not to be able to go on thriving the other side of coronavirus, and it is to the UK Government that we have to look to take the actions that will secure those futures.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, it's vitally important that we all put party politics to one side and work together in the public interest as the threat of coronavirus increases, and so can I thank you for the ongoing briefings and communication on this matter, and can I make it absolutely clear that my colleagues and I will do all that we can to work with the Government to tackle the spread of coronavirus in Wales? Can I also take this opportunity to thank front-line NHS staff for everything that they are doing and will do in the coming weeks and months to tackle this virus, and to keep us all safe? I'd also like to add my sincere condolences to the family and friends of the patient who died from COVID-19 in north Wales as well.
Now, like many Members across this Chamber, I've received calls and correspondence from worried constituents, organisations and businesses about how they minimise the impact that the virus may have on their families and livelihoods, and some people are justifiably worried and genuinely frightened. I'm sure you're also aware of some of the unfortunate scenes in shops and supermarkets across the country, where shelves were bare and customers were unable to pick essential items. First Minister, it's critical that Governments at all levels do what they can to better reassure the public, but can you also tell us what steps the Welsh Government is taking to ensure that those people who are now self-isolating are able to get the essential items that they need on a regular basis?
I thank Paul Davies for that. Can I too, Llywydd, extend my sympathy to the family and friends of the first person to die from coronavirus here in Wales? Can I thank him and Angela Burns as well for attending the meeting we had yesterday, but also for the opportunities I've had over the last couple of weeks to discuss the unfolding crisis with the leader of the opposition? I'm grateful for his thoughts and advice during those telephone calls. I completely agree with what he said. This is a crisis that we will get through by working together across parties and across administrations, and my aim is to do exactly that whenever we are able to do so.
Can I agree with him? Panic buying is not a solution to coronavirus. We have to urge our fellow citizens to think about the consequences of their actions. Any crisis brings out good and bad things in people, doesn't it? And there's been an enormous upswelling of generosity around coronavirus as well, with people volunteering to look after others, asking what they can do, wanting to find ways in which they can help to look after other people who are more vulnerable than themselves. So, we see all of that, and yet sometimes people act in that, sort of, group way: they see other people doing things, they think they must copy what they see other people doing, and we end up with a problem that need never have happened in the first place.
Now, we are, to an extent, well-prepared for some of this because of the preparation that went on last year in the Brexit context. Had we left the European Union without a deal, then there would inevitably have been impacts on the supply of goods and services and we have reactivated the machinery that we had in those contexts to make sure that we're always well in-touch with the retail industry and the logistics industry, and my colleague Julie James issued a statement on this last week. The clear message from the sector is that provided people behave rationally, there is no shortage of food to go around.
There was then the second question that Paul Davies raised about how we make sure that help can be given to those people who will need to get food and other things because of the constraints on their own behaviour. I want to let him and other Members know that we are working closely with our local authority colleagues and our colleagues in the third sector here in Wales to make sure that we put a bit of a system around the offers of help that we know are there in Wales, so that people know where to go in order to access the help that can be made available to them. We will be meeting tomorrow with representatives of those sectors and with community councils as well. There are a series of organisations that have a part to play in making sure that help can be mobilised at that individual level. We'll be bringing people around the table, making sure that we're able to provide consistent and reliable advice to people in Wales as to how they can get that help with social circumstances while they're attending to the medical impact of the coronavirus.
First Minister, as the number of cases of coronavirus continues to increase, so too does the demand for hospital treatment, and I know the Welsh Government has agreed a framework of actions so that the health service can start accelerating its decision making. That framework will hopefully allow for services and beds to be reallocated and for staff to be redeployed and retrained in particular priority areas.
At this stage, though, First Minister, can you specifically confirm the number of intensive care unit beds and high dependency beds Wales actually has in operation? Can you also tell us what immediate discussions are taking place to consider alternative options to increase bed capacity should Wales become overwhelmed with serious cases? How will the Welsh Government use any additional funding filtered down from the UK Government to help increase the number of beds available for people affected by the coronavirus?
Well, I thank Paul Davies. I want to give him the number of critical care beds that we have here in Wales, but I want to make sure I give it to him accurately. In my mind, the figure is 136, but I'll confirm that with him if I've not remembered that correctly. The health service already has, Llywydd, surge capacity, as it's called, for intensive care, to double that number of beds. That's part of the routine planning of the health service, but we know that even if you double the number we have, it will not meet the likely level of requirement. So, of course discussions are going on with our intensive care colleagues about alternative ways in which different sorts of decisions can be made to treat people who need that level of intervention. In other parts of the hospital, part of the reason for cancelling routine operations is that some of the equipment that you would need is often located in theatres and can be put to use in that way. But in the way that I think Paul Davies was suggesting, it's a cascade, really. In order to create more capacity at the most intense end, you have to free capacity up all through the system.
I'm very grateful to our colleagues in local government in Wales, who are doing some very important work to be able to free up capacity in the care home sector, so the people who are in hospital beds in Wales today, ready to leave—there's no medical reason for them to be there—there will be places for those people to go, so we create capacity in that way too. So, right through the system, we need to find ways of moving people down the hierarchy of intervention in order to create capacity at the place where it may be most needed for those with the most intense conditions.
First Minister, I've previously raised the impact that coronavirus could have on Wales's social care sector with you. As the threat of the virus increases, it's more important than ever that those providing care to people living in care homes have access to the latest guidance and advice available. You quite rightly said that Wales's social care sector is dominated by small owners of one or two residential care homes and that getting messages out to people is a bigger challenge when you have larger numbers of people involved and people who may not necessarily be as attuned to dealing with demands as large companies, who are well set up and equipped to do this.
There is also the issue of those who need home carers, and the risks of virus transmission to carers and their service users. Therefore, perhaps you can tell us a bit more about the dialogue that the Government is having with the social care sector and how effective you think the Government is at getting its messages out. Could you also provide some more information about the next stage of contingency planning that the Welsh Government has done to better safeguard those living in social care settings from coronavirus, and whether there is capacity within the system for local authorities to effectively manage an outbreak of the virus at this point in time? What additional resources and assistance is the Welsh Government providing the sector so that those living in social care settings can be confident that they are as protected as possible?
I thank Paul Davies. Those are all very important questions. He will know that, earlier this week, CIW—Care Inspectorate Wales—announced that it was pausing routine inspections in the social care field in order to make sure that front-line staff are able to concentrate on the job immediately at hand, and we are able to use the inspectorate, which has contacts right across the sector, to help us with the cascading of messages, as we are able to use Care Forum Wales. We're very grateful to the forum for the work that it is doing to make sure that key messages are made available, not just to big providers, but to the much wider number of small providers of residential care services.
The leader of the opposition makes a very important point about domiciliary care, and I can't answer questions this afternoon, Llywydd, and simply provide assurances that everything will be fine everywhere, because that is just not the reality of coronavirus. We already know that some other measures—the correct measures that have been agreed across the United Kingdom in terms of self-isolation—haven't had an impact on the workforce in domiciliary care, with fewer people turning up to do these important jobs. But we are in very direct conversation with the sector and with local authorities, and know that the sector is working hard to prioritise the calls it has to make with the available workforce that it has, and that is part of our ongoing conversation with local authorities, as is the help that we will be able to provide them.
I haven't mentioned this afternoon, as yet, Llywydd, the anticipated emergency Bill that we expect to see published on Thursday of this week. It will provide powers to Welsh Ministers that will lift some of the current regulatory requirements from the sector and allow them to respond to the crisis in a way that has greater flexibility than would otherwise be the case. We will look to make use of those powers here in Wales, in close consultation with the sector itself.
Diolch, Llywydd. We would also like to place on record our thanks to all staff in the NHS and beyond who are striving to work through this time, and I'd like to thank you, First Minister, for the briefings you are providing. You can be assured of our ongoing support. Also, we send our condolences to the family and friends of the person who has passed due to this virus.
First Minister, the impact COVID-19 is having on society we are now beginning to see. My colleague Mark Reckless is in self-isolation due to developing symptoms consistent with the disease. So, in the meantime, if you put up with me asking leader's questions, I would be grateful.
First Minister, we have a small window of opportunity to control the path of this disease that is wreaking havoc around the globe. The best course we can take is to follow the advice of medical experts, and I for one am comforted that the four nations of the UK are working together on our strategy, following the advice of epidemiologists. The advice to stay at home for 14 days if anyone in your household has symptoms is aimed at curbing the spread of this disease, which modelling predicts could be as much as 80 per cent of our population. While I accept that we simply don't have the resources to test everyone, and that widespread testing would divert vital resource away from assisting those at greatest risk, we do have to ensure we maintain testing for essential key workers. First Minister, we can't afford to have hundreds, possibly thousands, of key staff in self-isolation. Will you therefore commit to ensure that priority testing is carried out on family members and staff working in our hospitals, our care homes and our schools? Our prisons also, the police, fire and ambulance services. These people are vital to the functioning of our society, and we can't afford to lose them unless they have a confirmed exposure to SARS-CoV-2.
I thank Caroline Jones for those questions, and thank her too for attending the meeting we held yesterday. Llywydd, I want, I'm sure on behalf of other Members, to pass our best wishes to our colleagues in all parties who find themselves caught up by the advice provided yesterday, and who aren't able to be with us in the Chamber this afternoon. As far as testing is concerned, as I said earlier, there will be advice today that will extend testing to key workers in clinical roles. As capacity develops, the plan will be to see whether there are further groups who can be added to that testing regime, but the reason for beginning with people in key clinical roles is the point that Caroline Jones made—that we need those people to be in work doing the vital things that only they can do, and if testing accelerates their return to the workplace in that way, then that's why that regime will be put in place.
Thank you, First Minister. I'd like to stay with the idea of the issue of testing, if I may. The World Health Organization has said test, test, test, and I accept the rationale for not testing every case at this stage. But do you have a strategy for ramping up testing facilities in the coming months? This is a totally new virus of which we know very little, and the more data we can collect and collate, the more equipped we are to deal with it. Unfortunately, this virus is not going away anytime soon. We are still dealing with SARS nearly 20 years after it first emerged. A vaccine for COVID-19 would be another 18 months to two years away, so in the absence of a vaccine, we need to better understand the life-cycle of this virus, and for that we need accurate data on the numbers actually infected, the numbers infected who were asymptomatic, and sadly the mortality of the disease. Our future plans depend upon accurate testing. First Minister, is your Government planning on conducting wide-scale serologic testing once we're over the peak of this outbreak, and once the test being developed by Public Health England is available? Thank you.
Again, I thank Caroline Jones. She made a very important point, Llywydd, about the fact that our understanding of this disease is developing all the time, learning from experience in the world as well as experience domestically. And that's why I'm repeating—and I say it again this afternoon, Llywydd—that the approach we are taking as Governments across the United Kingdom is to try to make the right decision at the right time, because the timing of interventions is really important here, and strategies will alter at different times in the progress of the disease. Our strategy is the one that Caroline Jones set out at the start of her supplementary questions, which is to be guided by the advice of our chief medical officers and of the scientific group that deals with emergencies of this sort. Their current advice is the advice we are following today in Wales. If, as further information develops, as we learn more, their advice is that a different decision at a different point is necessary, of course we will follow that advice. I can't anticipate it, I don't know what that advice will be at different points, but I want people in Wales to know that what we will be doing will be to follow the best advice available to us, and then to implement it here.
Question 3 [OAQ55250] has been withdrawn. Question 4, Carwyn Jones.
4. First Minister, what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of the coronavirus in Wales? OAQ55255
I thank the Member for that question. As the global coronavirus pandemic unfolds, our priority is to keep people safe while minimising the social and economic impact of the disease, based on the scientific evidence. The health Minister has made regular written and oral statements on coronavirus, and will make a further statement to the Chamber this afternoon.
I thank the First Minister for that answer. The statement this morning from the Welsh Government was very welcome as far as business was concerned. If I were a business, First Minister, where would I go looking? Who would I speak to, in order to access the package of support that was announced this morning?
I thank Carwyn Jones for that, because it allows me to make that very important point that we have a single point of entry for that advice here in Wales, and that is to use the Business Wales service. That's the number to use, that's the place to go. Behind that number, of course, lies a whole plethora of different advice and different measures that can be taken to help businesses here in Wales.
In addition to all the meetings that my colleague Ken Skates is holding with representative bodies this week, I know that he has been working with the Development Bank of Wales to make sure that they respond flexibly to people who rely on loans and credit from them. We know that businesses in Wales will have access to the services of the British Business Bank and the new possibilities that have been outlined there by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
We are looking, Llywydd, very much to the UK Government and the statement that we are expecting later today for further support to businesses to allow them to survive through the difficult weeks and months ahead, so that they, and those people who rely on them for an income, emerge the other side of coronavirus and are able to pick up their lives again, and get on with making a success of them.
First Minister, one of the industries that is likely to be hit significantly as a result of falling visitor numbers is our tourism industry. It plays a huge role in the economy, particularly in north, mid and west Wales. And, of course, it's absolutely vital that we do what we can to protect those businesses that might be adversely affected, and indeed the many jobs in those businesses, on which so many families' livelihoods depend.
Some of the businesses in the tourism industry may be slightly larger than some of the exemptions that have already been announced in the business rates regime. For example, there are unique businesses like piers, whereby the business rate support that has thus far been announced, will not be eligible for them, even though there are many smaller businesses that, perhaps, are located on those piers. I wonder whether you will be able to accommodate what are sometimes unusual arrangements within the tourism industry, given the importance of it to the Welsh economy, in order that additional support can perhaps be made available to businesses with those sorts of unusual arrangements.
I thank the Member for those important points. He's quite right: the tourism industry is of particular significance in Wales, as part of our economy and as a sector that employs so many people. In my letter to the Chancellor earlier today, I urged him to take an approach to supporting businesses across the United Kingdom that recognised the concentration of particular sectors in particular places. As far as the point he makes about businesses that don't fit, necessarily, the normal profile of the sector, we provided local authorities with additional funds last year that they can use for discretionary rate relief purposes, because sometimes it's the local authority closest to those unusual businesses that is able to make those decisions. We will bear that in mind and the points that he has made this afternoon when we come to make decisions about the deployment of the £100 million that we are yet to determine from the sums that came to Wales from the budget last week.
As regards coronavirus, health demographics are very different here in Wales, compared to, well, even England, in terms of a far higher percentage of elderly population here in Wales, in terms of the far higher percentage of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other chronic diseases here in Wales compared to England, and in terms of far fewer intensive care unit beds per head of population here, even compared to England. It also suffers adversely in comparison with other European countries, and in terms of far fewer intensive care doctors per head of population here, far fewer than England and far fewer than Italy, which is enduring an absolute armageddon at the moment of 400 deaths per day, and far fewer ventilators and a lack of protective clothing and masks in general practice as elsewhere. So, the reality is that we are on a war footing now. Wales faces huge challenge, with fewer resources than even England. We need dedicated isolation wards now. I can think of only one ward in Wales at the moment that we can use as COVID isolation. I see exhausted medical and nursing staff now who will be asked to make horrendous decisions very shortly as regards who gets ventilated and who does not get ventilated because we haven't got the ventilators.
So, we are three weeks behind Italy. Can I ask how the First Minister is leading the charge here to specifically equip our NHS and our front-line staff to meet this greatest peacetime challenge facing Wales?
Well, I agree with Dr Lloyd about the human toll that coronavirus will take and the pressures already faced by people working in the sector, but I think it's very important that we say to them, and to people who will be anxious about what the coming weeks will bring, that the efforts that are being made across the United Kingdom are designed to affect the progress of the disease, so that the demand on the health service is smoothed as much as we can to make the demand on our health services, both the physical equipment but also the human resources of the health service—to be able to make that as manageable as it can be. We have huge pluses here in Wales, as well as challenges, in the dedication and the determination of our staff, of the willingness of our population to take those collective actions that will make the greatest difference. So, in the difficult days that are ahead, we have to find ways of making the most of the assets that we have, to take the right decisions that individually as well as collectively we can all take, because in that way, together, we will make the biggest difference and make the impact of this disease as capable of being managed as possible.
5. How is the Welsh Government giving support for people with neuro-diverse conditions in Wales? OAQ55245
I thank the Member for that question. Support for people with neurodiverse conditions continues to develop through, for example, the integrated autism service. A demand and capacity review of neurodevelopmental services is under way. A statutory code of practice on the delivery of autism services will be published for consultation in April.
Thank you. Given the circumstances, I'll postpone the question I was going to ask and instead put a question to you I've received from the independent diversity adviser who is the force co-ordinator for the National Police Autism Association in north Wales and who works with the North Wales Integrated Autism Service developing and delivering training, and who's also an independent autism rights campaigner, and he said that, as part of his advisory work with Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, he suggested what he regards as a simple idea to help with the coronavirus COVID-19, which would be producing a printable A4 sheet for people to put in their window or their gate to let others know they're in isolation to allow others, such as delivery people, to know they need to be extra vigilant, and also to let other callers know they should find another way of contacting the person. I wonder how you would respond to that question, which it was suggested to him he refer to an Assembly Member for raising here.
Well, I'm grateful to Mark Isherwood and the person who has contacted him. I think all ideas are welcome, and need to be considered on their merits. I'm sure we would want to take advice on that particular idea, for example from police services, as to whether they would regard it as advisable to have a sign in your window that says, 'Old, vulnerable and alone'.
I know that isn't the intention of the notice at all, but you can see how it could be read by others with less benign intentions than the person who made the suggestion. So, I'm very grateful for the suggestion. I think it's great that people use their experience and their expertise to put ideas to us. We would need to test them with others to make sure that there weren't unintended downsides to the ideas that might make them less advisable than they first appeared.
Questions [OAQ55243], 7 [OAQ55274], 8 [OAQ55251] and 9 [OAQ55266] withdrawn. Finally, question 10—Jack Sargeant.
10. How is the First Minister ensuring that Welsh Government-funded services promote kinder communities? OAQ55275
Can I thank Jack Sargeant for that? Llywydd, amongst the measures the Welsh Government is taking has been the publication of our first loneliness and social isolation strategy, 'Connected Communities'. This is supported by £1.4 million over three years, beginning in the next financial year. It highlights the importance of kindness in reducing the feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. As you know, this is a subject that we've discussed before, but kindness is not a vague concept, it's actually key to the way health services are delivered. It's about ensuring that individual circumstances are taken into account when they interact with the state, and I too would like to put on record my thanks to all those public service workers who are helping us through this tough time.
First Minister, we must ensure people providing services have the freedom to recognise and support appropriately. This is particularly the case when interacting with residents who have suffered adverse childhood experiences; we know that they could have real difficulty interacting with authority. So, First Minister, these are extraordinary times: people have lost their homes due to the flooding and now we face the incredible uncertainty of coronavirus. How can we ensure that they don't experience conflict when members of the public interact with public services, and they don't feel left behind and that public service leaders ensure that empathy is key to service delivery?
Can I thank Jack Sargeant for that and thank him for the regular ways in which he takes the opportunity to make these points to the Senedd? And he's surely right, Llywydd, that, if ever kindness were needed, it's going to be needed by us all over the testing weeks ahead. And that will be challenging, because people who provide our public services are just as much under pressure as people who use them and, in our different ways, we are all providers of services on the one hand and users of services ourselves on others.
And I think the simple message—and it's one I heard Jack use himself before—is that we need to think always of ourselves in both capacities. If we are using a service, we need to think of how we would wish someone who is using our services to behave, and, if we're providing a service, we need to think about how the person using our service would themselves wish that service to be provided. If we do it that way with the empathy that Jack mentioned at the end of his question, then there is an opportunity there for us all to try to ground the actions we each take in that sense of wanting to respond to the unique qualities of the human being in front of us, and to put kindness at the centre of that interaction.
The next item, therefore, is the business statement and announcement. I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement—Rebecca Evans.
Diolch, Llywydd. There are multiple changes to this week's business. The Minister for Health and Social Services, the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, and the Minister for Housing and Local Government will all make statements on the coronavirus COVID-19. As a result, the planned statements on the Bus Services (Wales) Bill, the homelessness action group's report and a framework to improve quality and performance in urgent and emergency care have been withdrawn. Stage 3 proceedings for the Wild Animals and Circuses (Wales) Bill have been postponed. Finally, the Business Committee has decided that tomorrow's agenda will consist only of oral Assembly and topical questions. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
Leader of the house, I notice there are several new statements appearing on the order paper this afternoon, and I fully appreciate there's a pressure on time. I've raised the issue in spokespersons' questions with the rural affairs Minister, and I appreciate there's something slated for next week statement-wise, but I'd appreciate some form of written statement this week if possible, given the time constraints that many farmers face when it comes to TB testing, for example. You only need to look around this Chamber at how many absences there are today, and if vets aren't available, and other helpers involved with those types of testings, then obviously that puts animal health herd status into jeopardy. These are force majeure events that we are dealing with at the moment. And also the provision of feedstocks as well and also the application for the single farm payment window, which is open now and concludes the middle of May, and farm inspections. This isn't a criticism I am making—it's an observation that I think would be greatly received if there could be clarification about what exactly will be expected of farmers and animal keepers here in Wales, given the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in and the unpredictable nature. As things stand at the moment, the law doesn't allow for any tolerance—a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to bovine TB testing, for example—and some clarity, certainly this week, would be gratefully received. If we could have that in written statement form from the Minister, I think that would be greatly appreciated.
I thank Andrew R.T. Davies for raising this issue, and he will see that the Minister does have a coronavirus update on the agenda for next week's Plenary. Obviously, she'll be giving some thought as to how to respond to that particular issue, and I know that she'll be in discussion with her officials and taking the views of the farming unions and others in this.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Now, it is a very concerning time for everyone, of course, including parents, teachers, pupils and workers in our schools. I am trying to put myself in their shoes here. We know that schools will need to close for the majority of pupils in due course, and that’s inevitable to prevent the spread of the virus. Now, anyone who says differently, I'm sorry, they are burying their heads in the sand on this. There are a number of questions arising from that but, unfortunately, there is no statement from the education Minister this afternoon, which is surprising. We have a health statement, an economy statement and a local government statement, but nothing with regard to education and schools. Now, we do have to have clarity about what the plan is for schools, what is the timeline for closing the majority of schools, but also what provision will be made for children of key workers. We know that those children will still need to have provisions so that people can go to their jobs in the health service and in other settings.
We need clarity about special schools. What will be the arrangements for free-school-meals children, how will they be fed? And we also need to encourage those parents who can do so to keep their children at home voluntarily. I'm sure we can encourage them to do that, but they should do so without being penalised. What will happen with exams? There is a whole host of questions arising, and in the meantime there are questions starting to be asked now about hygiene arrangements in secondary schools—many questions. Hopefully, at some point, we can have a constructive discussion on these issues.
Yes, there will be the opportunity for that on several counts. Tomorrow, of course, the Minister does have oral questions in the Chamber, and I know on the order paper there are several questions relating to coronavirus. I know that she's also in discussion with committee in terms of potentially having a bespoke session on the coronavirus and education with that committee, and I understand it's been agreed now for Thursday. And, of course, you'll see on the order paper that the education Minister will be making a further statement to the Assembly next Tuesday.
Members will have seen a letter today from the First Minister to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and we know that the Chancellor is making a statement this evening on financial support for businesses and the economy during this period. But would it be possible for us to have a statement or a debate on these matters? I think many of us have been concerned for many years that the financial structures holding together the United Kingdom are broken and that they're not delivering equality and fairness to all parts of the UK equally. We've seen what I think is some really impressive leadership in different parts of the world, certainly from Macron last night in France, putting together a very comprehensive package, which I hope the UK Government will have taken notice of.
But we're also aware and particularly what this crisis has crystallised for us and has brought into sharp focus is that Barnett is no longer fit for purpose, and that if the UK Government continues to use Barnett in order to distribute funding across the United Kingdom then we will suffer disproportionately as a consequence of that. We've also seen the Treasury making differential announcements for England, and then a considerable time before those announcements on funding are made for Wales. There is a need for the United Kingdom to work together as never before, and I am deeply concerned that the financial structures of the United Kingdom in some ways inhibit this working together rather than promote it.
So, would it be possible for us to have a statement or a debate, following the news from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to enable us to understand what that means for Wales, the response of the Welsh Government, but also, I think, more crucially, how do we address the broken financial structures that are no longer serving the whole of the United Kingdom equally?
Yes, I will explore the best way to update colleagues following the Chancellor's statement in terms of what any announcements might mean for Wales. The point about the Barnett formula no longer being fit for purpose, I think, is well made, especially when we consider the additional funding provided through the recent coronavirus package in the budget, which just doesn't take into account our different economy here in Wales. So, we have a larger proportion of small businesses here in Wales, for example, and we are reliant on particular sectors very heavily. So, these will all be things that we need to pursue, and that we are pursuing with the Treasury.
We're also, in a wider context, looking at the statement of funding policy and how that will be applied in future, with a view to making some improvements to that, and to ensure that we are funded in a fairer way. That's ongoing work, but, as I say, as soon as we have further information, I will seek to update colleagues.
Trefnydd, as we've heard from many contributions today in this Chamber, these are worrying, dark times, with currently little light to be seen at the end of the tunnel; we don't know where the end of that tunnel will be. As is always the case in Wales, when a crisis looms large, our communities rise to the challenge, and numerous individuals come forward to support those most in need, as evidenced by the plethora of groups that have popped up on social media, particularly on Facebook. I've just joined the Raglan COVID-19 assistance group, the aim being to develop a pool of volunteers operating within safety guidelines to support those who feel most vulnerable in our communities. I'm sure the Welsh Government is more aware of these groups than I am.
So, I wonder if we could have a statement, be that oral or written, or a communication from the Government as to how these groups, which are still in their infancy, are going to be supported over the weeks and months ahead because, as is the case often with our NHS and volunteers helping out there, these groups are often responsible for taking a lot of the burden off statutory services, and I'm sure that this will be no different.
There will be a meeting tomorrow, as the First Minister indicated earlier, which brings together the third sector and others who will be absolutely vital in terms of our response to the coronavirus. I'll ensure that colleagues are updated following that meeting in terms of actions arising from it.
I eagerly await the statement from the Minister with responsibility for business and the economy later, and I will be asking some questions about that. I also look forward to the statement from the Chancellor. Now I, as I'm sure have many other Members, have had scores of messages—if not hundreds—from people who are concerned about the economic impact of coronavirus. This was ramped up after the Prime Minister's announcement last night, because people were told not to go to pubs and clubs and restaurants, but pubs and clubs and restaurants have not been told to close, which obviously has implications from an insurance perspective. The latest self-isolation advice I think is good—a bit late, but good—but without support so many of those small businesses are going to go to the wall, as a result of that latest advice.
So, how is support going to be provided to those small businesses? How is support going to be provided to those people who will be forced to take time off from work, but have no other source of income? Businesses are going to need help with paying staff, with covering overheads, while they have no customers. The announcement on business rates doesn't cover a lot of businesses in the Rhondda, because they're not paying anyway, even though, for those who are affected, it's welcome.
In Ireland, there's been an emergency payment of €203 a week for all employees and self-employed people who've lost employment or business as a result of COVID-19. Now, this has been welcomed right throughout that country, and it needs to be considered here as a matter of urgency. The banks had a bailout in 2008. Businesses, the self-employed, and those on zero-hours contracts need a bailout now, of a similar size and scale. I'm talking here billions and not millions. Now, I recognise that this is a matter beyond Welsh budgets, but would the Government support a basic income along these lines? And, if you would, can we have a statement outlining what discussions you can have with Westminster to support the rolling out of such a proposal? I'd also like to know what, in the interim in terms of guarantees, can be offered to businesses to guard against them going under. I'm sure much more of this will become clear after the Chancellor's statement.
Like many communities, in the Rhondda, we've set up a community network. The idea is that we have at least one person in each street to keep an eye out on everyone who may have to stay at home, and 400 people have registered so far. Now, our volunteers will need practical best practice advice in order to keep safe and to prevent them from passing any virus on to the people they're meant to be looking after. They'll also need preferential access to basic items in the shops. In the battle of survival of the fittest, older and ill people are not winning, so we'll need also to protect people from the unscrupulous. And we will need to provide volunteers with a list of useful numbers of key professionals, in case the situation at homes deteriorates for them and professional help is needed.
So, what can the Government do to help community networks and volunteers with these questions that I've raised with you this afternoon? Will you recognise that not all areas are covered by community councils? We don't have any community councils in the Rhondda. Can we have a specific statement about community action, volunteering, and keeping everyone safe? And for anyone wanting to get involved in the Rhondda community network, please go to 'Coronavirus—Rhondda Community Network' on Facebook, and they can find out how to register as a community volunteer for their street there. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you to Leanne Wood for raising those really important issues, and of course recognising the role that volunteers will have in terms of the response to coronavirus. So, of course, the First Minister referred to a meeting that will take place tomorrow, bringing together the third sector and others who are able to mobilise that kind of response that you described. And I know that there will be the opportunity then to update colleagues on the actions that are forthcoming as a result of that meeting. And, again, that point about protecting people from unscrupulous people is so important. We started off by talking about how important it is to recognise the value of volunteers and the wonderful work that they do; but on the other hand there will be people who seek to exploit vulnerable people in this circumstance. So, we need to guard against that and work together in those areas as well.
My colleague Ken Skates has a statement shortly this afternoon, which will be an opportunity to explore some of those particular questions that you raised with regard to the economy and our economic response, but also in terms of our ask then of the UK Government in terms of what we would like to see the UK Government deliver. We very much look forward to the statement that the Chancellor will be making later on this afternoon. I will, of course, provide colleagues with an update on our approach following that.
The Llywydd took the Chair.
Before I call the statement that's on the agenda by the Minister for Health and Social Services, there are reasons to delay that statement at this point. I would ask, if there is no objection, that we realign the agenda to take the statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales on coronavirus first, if there is no objection. I'll make sure that business managers are aware of the reasons behind the change to the agenda item. But, believe it or not, it is not a technological reason, otherwise I would have said that. If I could blame technology at this point, I would have.
So, everybody ready to move on to the statement by the Minister for economy and transport on coronavirus update. Ken Skates will make that statement.
Diolch, Llywydd. There is no doubt whatsoever that we are facing unprecedented pressures on our economy as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. There will be many companies in Wales, small and large, dealing with the fallout of this virus. From contract cancellations to increasing staff sickness rates, from major supply chain disruptions to significant cash flow challenges, this crisis will have a significant impact on the way our economy works over the coming days, weeks and months.
A significant proportion of the working population may now be off work at any one time during the outbreak, and with Wales particularly dependent on small and medium-sized businesses, the impact on our economy will be significant. As a Welsh Government, we are doing everything we can to support businesses to deal with the impact of coronavirus.
My advice to all businesses is to use the help and advice that is available. Any business affected should contact the Business Wales telephone helpline on 03000 60 3000. They can help with practical advice, from staffing to financial planning as well as supply chain support. Now, the Development Bank of Wales is also available to help. It has equity and loan funding available immediately to help businesses through the cash flow and other challenges they may face in the weeks and months to come.
On Monday, I announced that the Development Bank of Wales will give a three month capital repayment holiday to the businesses it supports. The bank currently supports around 1,000 businesses and this will help them—some of our smallest SMEs, ranging from small food retailers to the creative industries—to get the vital help that they need. Today, I spoke with the development bank chair to discuss potential further measures we may need to take in the coming weeks. And on Thursday, I will be having further discussions with high street banks and the British Business Bank. I will also be convening an emergency council for economic development on Thursday this week, to provide a forum for the sharing of business intelligence and to discuss practical solutions to the challenges that we face.
I have been having a series of conversations with business organisations and social partners, and through our three regional offices we are collating business intelligence to inform our mitigation and next steps. I met with my senior leadership team in the economy and transport department yesterday and confirmed that the regional response taskforce teams established during our Brexit preparations will now be operational to support the redundancy and skills needs as they emerge. Our ReAact and Careers Wales advice is being made available, and I am actively exploring ways in which these tools can be enhanced in the coming weeks.
Our discussions with business groups and the intelligence we have received has helped to shape the £200 million package of support announced by the Minister for Finance. As part of that package, retail, leisure and hospitality businesses with a rateable value of £51,000 or less will receive a 100 per cent business rate relief, and pubs with a rateable value of between £51,000 and £100,000 will receive a £5,000 reduction on their bill. A further £100 million will be available for a new grant scheme for small businesses. Whatever further consequential funding the Welsh Government receives from the UK Government as a result of support for businesses, we will ring fence for support to businesses here in Wales through an enhancement of our package of support.
Now, the Welsh economy could be particularly affected because of the prevalence of manufacturing and the prominence of the automotive, aviation and tourism sectors. As well as this, workers will be affected in many respects, ranging from employee illness and isolation to looking after children who may not be able to attend school. Areas of the economy where home-working is not possible will face a significant challenge.
We welcome the action taken by the Bank of England. However, the scope for monetary policy levers to help is limited, not least because interest rates were already at a very low level. The scale of this challenge is now so large and so urgent that only a massive fiscal policy intervention by the UK Government can help businesses and individuals bear the burden of what is to come. Furthermore, a response co-ordinated with other major economies is now urgent and likely to be far more effective in reducing uncertainty and maintaining consumer and business confidence than countries taking individual actions.
Avoiding a major recession and long-term structural damage to our economy should be the UK Government’s major economic priority. That requires a genuine, four-nation approach to supporting the economy, and the lack of information from the UK Government is currently hampering this effort. As devolved Governments, we will play our part in helping to utilise that significant fiscal stimulus in the most effective way. Collectively, we need to find a way to hibernate viable businesses affected by this crisis; protect vital support chains and supply chains and give individuals impacted by this outbreak the financial support they need to get through it. That was very much the ask I made of the UK Government during my discussion with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy this morning and in the letter that the First Minister sent to the UK Government earlier today.
The UK Government needs to work with the Bank of England to ensure that the banking system has the required amount of funding in place, and the level of flexibility needed to ensure the survival of viable businesses experiencing cash-flow problems. I'll be stressing in my meeting with banks here in Wales the need to ensure that liquidity is available.
On statutory sick pay, the UK Government is bringing forward legislation to allow small and medium-sized businesses and employers to reclaim statutory sick pay paid for sickness absence due to COVID-19. This will be available to businesses in Wales and we will work with partners to ensure that employers over the coming months set up the right repayment mechanisms as soon as possible. Now, I strongly urge the UK Government to use this system to support the most economically exposed and vulnerable individuals.
The UK Government announced a temporary coronavirus business interruption loan scheme to be delivered by the British Business Bank. This will be available to businesses in Wales via the British Business Bank. A Time To Pay scheme has also been announced whereby all businesses and self-employed people in financial distress and with outstanding tax liabilities may be eligible to receive support with their tax affairs through HMRC's Time To Pay service. This is also available to businesses in Wales.
Our transport providers are also facing incredibly difficult challenges. I have been holding urgent conversations with senior figures across the industry as fewer fares are putting significant pressure on the finances of our major rail, bus and airport services. I have spoken a number of times to the chief executive of Transport for Wales. Now, across the UK, including in Wales, rail passenger numbers have fallen by up to 18 per cent on certain lines already. Elsewhere, Network Rail has launched a survey of its suppliers over fears of material shortages due to the coronavirus. Despite the economic impact, all our operators are continuing to follow the most up-to-date guidance from the public health authorities and industry bodies. Contingency plans are in place and TfW are examining future mitigations such as staffing and stocking, as well as issuing additional sanitizer and personnel protective equipment, and reviewing cleaning regimes.
Now, regular advice is issued to passengers, including the 'catch it, bin it, kill it' campaign, by displaying posters at key stations and sending out messages through Twitter and other social media channels. A cross-industry action team has been stood up with daily communications to ensure that they are ready to respond if the situation changes, including planning for a range of different scenarios.
The same can be said for the bus industry, with additional cleaning of buses and regular reminders to staff about hygiene good practice and additional cleaning materials, such as personal hand sanitizer, has been issued for front-line employees, depots and work areas. Officials have met with the bus industry group, and I spoke with senior figures from the industry yesterday.
In terms of Cardiff Airport, I spoke to the chief executive officer and her team over the weekend, and my officials continue to be in close contact through this week. The demise of Flybe left a 5.6 per cent gap in its revenue, and this crisis will severely test the sustainability of all airports across the world as the number of flights decline sharply. In recent times, however, Cardiff Airport has diversified its business base and carries less debt into this crisis than many of its UK neighbours.
However, as in other sectors, we should be under no illusion about the scale of the challenge ahead. Tui has said that it will suspend the majority of its operations, and there may be other operators taking the same action in the coming weeks. My thoughts are, obviously, with those affected employees and passengers who have had their travel plans disrupted. I'll remain in regular contact with Cardiff Airport and the Department for Transport on aviation and other visitor-related issues.
I hope that this statement assures Assembly Members that we are doing all we can to protect the Welsh economy and limit the impact on individuals and businesses across the length and breadth of Wales. When the worst of this crisis is over, we must soon look to the future—to the fairer, more compassionate and more equal economy that we need to build. As a Welsh Government, we will play our full part in that work.
Can I, first of all, thank the Minister for his statement today, and can I say that, from my perspective and from these benches, we want to be supportive of the Government and its approach? Clearly, there's a balance, I think, between scrutiny of Government, but also being in support of Government as well as we can be at this particular time. It's getting that right balance. I hope I strike the right balance today in my questions to you.
Minister, we're aware, of course, of the additional funding from the UK Government in terms of the £250 million to help businesses and a further £225 million in the budget last week, and I do very much welcome the Trefnydd's commitment—the finance Minister's commitment—and your commitment as well that any funding that does come as a consequential will be ring-fenced for business. That is extremely welcome, and I think businesses will be grateful for that commitment.
You talked about the one stop—I think the First Minister referred to this in his answers to questions today, as well, about the one-stop place for business support. Can I just ask: is that actually a complete one-stop shop? If a Welsh business rings Business Wales, will they also get advice on perhaps areas that are not devolved to the Welsh Government? Will they be appropriately signposted? Is it an absolute one-stop shop? I think it should be, and I hope that you can answer positively in that area.
The other issue, of course, is capacity in terms of Business Wales, because, especially when further announcements come forward, perhaps by UK Government tonight, there will be a capacity issue, I have no doubt, for Business Wales. So, perhaps you could talk about how you may be transferring officials from other departments to help on that Business Wales line and to ensure that people get a timely response. If there is a one-stop shop, perhaps you could just expand, as well, on exactly what is covered on the Business Wales line, as well.
With regard to the development bank, I'm pleased that you've had meetings, and, today, I think you mentioned you've spoken to the chair. Can I ask, perhaps, for a little bit more detail on the capacity for extra loan support from the development bank itself? I appreciate that other announcements are coming later today and I know that these next weeks might change that position, but as it stands at the moment, what capacity is there for extra loans. And perhaps you could also provide further information for businesses that currently have loans with Business Wales in terms of having a break from paying those loans for a period of time, but also support for non-customers of the development bank, which could potentially be customers of the development bank, going forward.
In terms of business rate relief, I welcome absolutely the measures that the Minister has outlined earlier today, the finance Minister. I am concerned that there are some businesses, of course, that don't pay business rates, and how they can be supported, particularly small businesses. Very often, they're businesses that are sole traders that can't access sick pay as well—how they could, perhaps, be supported. But there are some businesses as well with a rateable value of over £50,000. I was speaking to one business over the weekend with a rateable value of just over £50,000, as it happens, which has lost approximately £80,000-worth of business over the coming months, and it can't see a way through. It's having a system that tapers relief for those kinds of businesses as well. It seems that, because they're just over the threshold, they might be significantly disadvantaged, so perhaps some more information in that regard.
Bear with me, Presiding Officer, I was called a bit earlier than I expected.
Thank you. Going forward, it's perhaps how the structure of Business Wales might change and develop as requirements need, as well. I think there's a particular need for helping manufacturers and the tourism industry—two very important industries for us in Wales—so, advice you can get in that regard. Also, there's the issue of the timing of announcements as well. Although I want to be as constructive as possible, I appreciate that when it comes to business rates, the UK Government for England and the Scottish Government in Scotland came forward much earlier with plans for business rate relief. I appreciate that you've got to get the balance between speaking to businesses and making the announcements, but if the announcements are delayed by just a few days, then clearly, I'm sure that Assembly Members' inboxes are filled with concerned businesses wondering how that relief will taper across to Wales. It's how you're balancing the two; I appreciate that you've got a juggling act between the two, but getting that information out as soon as possible.
With regard to public transport, Minister, if you could, perhaps, give us a little bit more about the running of public services and Transport for Wales in terms of how the issues there might differ—I appreciate that there's probably not going to be an issue with overcrowding on trains, but there is going to be an issue of some services perhaps having to be delayed and rescheduled. Also, there is some issue about school transport that needs to be considered as well, because I'm aware that, often, perhaps in rural parts of Wales particularly, minibuses run at capacity, with children in a very confined space, and I had one constituent inform me that he's a 71-year-old driver of a minibus, and this is quite common in rural Wales—for drivers to be older, or of the older age. So there clearly needs to be some thought and consideration put into that as well. Thank you, Minister.
Can I thank Russell George for not just his questions, but his enormously constructive contribution this afternoon? Russell George is absolutely right that we have to work collaboratively together in order to overcome the challenges that we face. Reflecting on something that Dr Dai Lloyd said a little earlier, I do believe that this is the greatest threat of our times. We are effectively on a war footing, and we have to use our collective firepower against coronavirus. That means working together with the UK Government, with local government, with the business community and with society in order to deal with this challenge in the short term, and to ensure that recovery takes place rapidly.
Llywydd, Russell George raised a number of important points. First and foremost, I'd like to touch on the role that Business Wales will have in the coming weeks and months. It is the one-stop shop for all business advice and support, and will signpost businesses towards other non-Welsh-Government-supported organisations, including, for example, the British Business Bank.
I'm pleased to say that as a result of the extensive work that was conducted within Government to plan for a 'no deal' Brexit, we have been able to model various scenarios in terms of being able to deploy people to front-line services, and Russell George is absolutely right about the need to reflect in Business Wales the demand that will be coming in the weeks ahead, and the capacity, therefore, will have to be increased.
We've also got good experience of working in various taskforces in intervening across the length and breadth of Wales, and that again stands us in good stead, in terms of being able to get into businesses speedily and offer a full raft of support and advice to get them through this difficult time. We've also been looking internally at how we can, on a temporary basis, reallocate human resource in a way that supports businesses, within my department.
Now, in terms of the role that the development bank has in overcoming this challenge, I'll be meeting with the development bank again on Thursday, and I'll also have—in the same room, or on a telephone conference call—the high-street banks. It's absolutely essential that the development bank's interventions and offers tie in very neatly with what high-street banks are offering as well. And there will be, I hope, as a consequence of an announcement by the Chancellor later this afternoon, additional capital within the development bank available in the coming weeks.
In terms of business rates, I totally accept the point that the Member made. The announcement that Rebecca Evans made yesterday evening concerning the business rate support that we are offering applies to tens of thousands of businesses in Wales. However, this can only be the beginning, and we do desperately need that enormous offer of funding from UK Government that Members, including Alun Davies, have spoken of already this afternoon. That £300 billion that President Macron announced yesterday evening demonstrates why the £12 billion announced last week by UK Government is wholly insufficient, and I am hopeful that, this afternoon, the Chancellor will announce an enormous package of support.
If we do secure further resource, then we will be able to deploy it in a way that benefits businesses of all types and sizes, and I've asked officials to model various measures, including, as an example, a temporary moratorium on all business rates for three months, but it will require a significant financial resource, and that's why I'm hopeful that the Chancellor will be forthcoming this afternoon with the necessary support.
I also agree with Russell George in regard to certain sectors being particularly badly hit. In terms of the Welsh Government's role in supporting businesses, our belief is there will be two phases to this challenge: first of all, the survival phase, and then the recovery phase. In terms of the survival phase, there will be waves in which certain sectors will be in intense need of support. Right now, we are seeing that from the social economy and the social care sector and the self-employed, and that's why I'm keen to model the £100 million of support that was announced by Rebecca Evans for those specific parts of the Welsh economy. And by 'social economy', I mean tourism, hoteliers, restaurants, events, cafes and pubs, as well as, of course, certain parts of the retail sector and some other key areas of the Welsh economy. My determination is that we can utilise both Business Wales and local authorities in order to dispense vitally important money in those businesses that require it.
In terms of train services, Russell George is absolutely right that if we see a significant number of people absent from work because of sickness or self-isolation, then we will need to make very difficult decisions in regard to rail services, and equally, this would apply to bus services as well. Transport for Wales have a strategy group. They are modelling various scenarios, and on a daily basis they are meeting to determine what action may be necessary. But I will endeavour to keep Members up to date on any decisions taken by Transport for Wales. They employ thousands of people, Transport for Wales Rail Services, across the length and breadth of the country, and we are in no doubt that a significant number will self-isolate or become ill with coronavirus. Of course, there are some critical roles that are taken by those employed individuals, specifically the train drivers and the guards, and if there is a significant reduction in the availability of those particular professionals, then it will undoubtedly impact on rail services. But I will be updating Members very regularly on the impact that coronavirus has on our transport network.
Finally, I spoke with the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK yesterday with regard to the bus network, and the point that Russell George made about the workforce, the age profile of the workforce, is something that is causing us concern. We are working with the sector to identify the possibility of cover being supported in the event of many drivers becoming ill or self-isolating, and that is particularly the case, I think it's fair to say, in rural Wales, where we have a large number of small and medium-sized enterprises operating, and so our attention is being focused specifically on those rural areas right now that are already facing other forms of isolation.
I'm very grateful to the Minister for his statement today and for his answers to Russell George. We are, as he said, facing an absolutely unprecedented situation, and I was very pleased to hear him and the First Minister concur with the views on these benches and, I think, across the Chamber that this situation needs a massive response across the whole of the UK. We quite literally, most of us, have never faced anything like this. People talk about the second world war, but none of us can really remember what that was like, and I really think we will need some of that scale of ambition and response. The Minister is quite right to say that that has to be led by the UK Government.
I want to focus my questions, Llywydd, on those matters that are within the Welsh Government's responsibility, but potentially some of those questions will refer to discussions that he and his colleagues are having with UK Ministers. I first of all want to say that, obviously, we welcome the announcement on business rate relief, but as others have already said, there are many businesses that that will not help because they're not currently paying business rates. Can he tell us a little bit more about the proposals for the grant scheme? He may not be able to give us detail, but I think the business community would be very grateful to hear by when he will be able to give us detail, because this is a matter where businesses are going out of business as we speak, particularly those working on very narrow margins. So it's absolutely crucial that, if he can't tell us anymore in much more detail today—and I appreciate what he said about consulting with the business sector, because of course that's appropriate—if we could have an idea of what the timeline might be.
I'd like to suggest to the Minister that there may be more that can be done to make businesses aware of the fact that the usual helpline is the place to go. I think he'd probably agree with me that we're not always as successful as we'd like to be in communicating with particularly really small businesses. There may be things, of course, that we can all do as Members in our own constituencies and regions to help particularly businesses that contact us to be aware of the helpline. But I think there is more work to be done there for people to understand that that's not just a business as usual line, it's also a line that can be used in situations of crisis.
The Minister mentioned in his response to Russell George some of the absolute crisis that some hospitality businesses and theatres, cinemas and so on may find themselves in, because we are, of course, in a situation where people are being advised not to use those businesses, but, on the other hand, there is no compulsory closure of those businesses. So those businesses that might be able to access insurance if they were formally shut down are unable to do so at the moment. My understanding is that that might be a matter for the UK Government, but I wonder if I could ask the Minister, with his colleagues and with the Counsel General particularly, to look at the Welsh Government's powers under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1994, which does give the Welsh Government powers to ban events and gatherings, and to see whether it's possible, as we wait—and of course, we may get more announcements later today—for the UK Government to act, if it is possible to put such an order onto businesses so that they may be able to claim, those of them that do have business interruption insurance, for example. I ask the Minister as well what assessment he has made or can make of how many of those affected businesses do have such insurance. Of course, many of the smaller ones will not, or they won't be covered for this particular situation. I would put it to the Minister that some of those businesses are going to need grant support in the short term to get them through. Again, I was very pleased to hear the First Minister say that no business that was a viable business 10 days ago should not be there at the end of this crisis and I think there's a need for more joined-up thinking to make sure that that happens.
On another matter, it's been put to me that some businesses who do find themselves forced to close could potentially use this time to redevelop, particularly their premises. I'll ask the Minister whether he can look at whether some of the Government's current grant giving schemes—I'm thinking particularly that this has been raised with me by tourism businesses, but there may be others—whether that process could be accelerated, so that if you have got a bed-and-breakfast that has to be closed because there's nobody there and they know, medium term, they need to do developments, whether we can get some access and resources in there, so that while they are closed without the option, they can take advantage of that.
To turn briefly to public transport, the Minister refers to advice given to users of public transport. I wonder if he can think again, with the Minister for health, about whether there is more we need to say to users of public transport to help keep themselves safe. For many people, as the Minister knows, there is no option. He said himself: some of us are lucky and may be able to work from home, but there are people who can't do that, and whether also he can keep us updated about any issues with regard to measures that may be able to be made to reduce overcrowding.
Additionally with regard to public transport, he will be aware that there are many smaller bus companies in particular that will have lost a lot of business. They'll have lost their tourism based business: that's already. It's been raised with me that it may be an issue for those companies if we do go down the route of closing schools, because that is their only sustainable long-term—. Providing school transport is their sustainable long-term way of keeping their businesses viable. I wonder if he could have further discussions with appropriate Ministers to see whether we can support local government to carry on paying for those contracts, even if they're not being used. It would be very understandable, I'm sure he'd agree, for people making decisions at a local level to say, 'Well, if the children are not going to school, we're not going to pay for the buses.' But the reality is, certainly in Carmarthenshire, and I know across mid and west Wales, that if those services are not paid for, those bus companies won't still be here by the time we come out of the crisis, so we do have to think about how we can keep those sustainable.
He mentions in his statement statutory sick pay, and of course that will be helpful to those people who are out of work because they are unwell, or because they're self-isolating, but I'm sure that he'll agree with me that there are an awful lot of people who may find themselves either temporarily out of work or actually redundant because of this. And I wonder if he can have further discussions with the UK Government about how they could, for example, improve the speed at which people go through applications for universal credit, and we would argue on these benches, maybe time in the short term to be more ambitious and to look at a basic income for everybody. But within the Welsh Government's own powers, of course, we do have the emergency assistance payments, and I wonder if he can have appropriate discussions with the appropriate Ministers about that scheme, and look at whether we can put more money into that, so that families who are in crisis because they are self-isolating, for example, and may have no income, could look to receive some support from that fund, so that would need, of course, a change in the eligibility criteria.
Finally, I'm very glad to hear the Minister say that he's having discussions with the commercial banks. I think many of us would believe that they owe us: they got their bailout when the crisis was their fault. I have been told, for example, today by a constituent, that HSBC is already refusing to increase overdraft facilities for some rural businesses, because their borrowing may already be quite high because they're at the end of the winter season and they're just at the time when they may be able to make money. I'd like to ask him to raise that matter specifically because those small rural businesses, again, their margins are very slight, they know they'll have a hard time in the winter, their banks should know they'll have a hard time in the winter, and that shouldn't stop them being supported to continue to lend, and it's completely unacceptable if that is what these big banks doing, and I know HSBC is doing it in one case.
And I'd like to end my contribution, Llywydd, by again thanking the Minister for his statement, and asking him—as I'm sure he will—to keep us all updated. He will, of course, expect rigorous scrutiny from these benches, but we will also offer him our support in dealing with what, as we all agree, is a completely unprecedented situation.
Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for the questions that she's raised this afternoon and for another constructive contribution to this discussion and this debate? Helen Mary Jones made comparisons with the war effort, and I think she's absolutely right: this requires a concerted effort across society, and just as we rebuilt the country in the aftermath of the second world war, we will have an opportunity in the recovery phase to ensure that we develop a new fairer economy, one that is more purposeful. It may well be that as part of the recovery, we will need a very significant new deal—a huge stimulus package led by the UK Government to ensure that recovery can take place at the fastest possible pace.
In terms of the timeline for getting the £100 million out to businesses, I can assure all Members that we are endeavouring to do this as fast as we possibly can do. The meeting on Thursday will be crucially important with the council for economic development. I wish to gain approval from the council, our social partners, for the purpose of the £100 million and the criteria that will be set in order to ensure that the right businesses are getting support.
I think it's worth saying, Llywydd, that businesses will be faced with a very difficult choice. Do they hibernate if they are to survive? Will they hibernate through this current crisis, or will they go on trying to raise an income through the crisis? Will they survive by staying in operation? Now, the UK Government has a role to play in both scenarios. First of all, the First Minister has asked for the UK Government to underwrite wages to ensure that businesses can maintain the employment of individuals, even if they are not in the workplace, and that's absolutely right. The First Minister has also raised the question of a role for a universal income. Again, it could be vitally important in ensuring that those who are most exposed to coronavirus in terms of their economic and welfare exposure are not those who are hardest hit.
In addition, the UK Government can play a major role in terms of tax relief and tax holidays, and this is as an ask that we have made of them today. Welsh Government is able to utilise levers with regard to business rate relief, and we can also look at supporting businesses in terms of cash flow and fixed costs other than those that are applied to wage bills, if the UK Government is willing and ready to step in as I've already outlined. And we are looking at using that £100 million for that express purpose.
I recognise that right now there are certain sectors, as I said to Russell George, that are suffering incredible pain. Those sectors include hospitality, they include the whole of the tourism sector, parts of the retail sector as well. There are also demands from social care to ensure that social care providers are able to pay for the wage costs of employees who need to be covered, and therefore potentially agency staff costs. And also, of course, self-employed people are facing very, very difficult decisions right now in terms of how they go about getting through coronavirus. But the Member is absolutely right that we need to ensure that any viable business today has a viable prospect of surviving and thriving at the end of the coronavirus crisis.
I thought it was a powerful statement that President Macron made last night when he said that no business, large or small, no matter how big you are, will be forced to close as a consequence of coronavirus. And this is a message that I repeated to UK Government. UK Government need to take action to ensure that that is the same situation in the UK. The commercial banks, as the Member said, will play an enormously important role, and as many Members have already said today, in 2008 the public bailed out the banks, and now in 2020 it's absolutely right that the banks play their part in bailing out many businesses that are viable, that have a strong future, but which are facing an incredible challenge right now.
We will be meeting with the commercial banks on Thursday. There are various questions that I'll be raising with them, including to what extent they can make discretionary decisions. Often, decisions are made in HQ. Those decisions don't necessarily reflect the different type of economy that we have here in Wales, particularly in rural areas. So, I wish to ascertain the degree to which the banks are able to make discretionary decisions. There are various other questions that I'll be raising with the banks. I will write to Members after that meeting with further information, so that all Members are able, in turn, to inform their constituency businesses in their areas. I think it's also worth saying, Llywydd, that as we go through the recovery period, there will be a significant demand for working capital, and this is something that I'll be raising with the development bank and high-street banks on Thursday.
My advice to the travelling public using public transport is that they should not use public transport unless it's absolutely vital if they consider that they may have symptoms. If they do have symptoms, they should only—only—use public transport if it is absolutely essential to get the medical support that's required. It's vitally important that all passengers follow the guidance that has been shared by Public Health Wales and that they are able to practice as best possible social distancing when using transport or when at stations.
The bus sector has already provided me, I'm pleased to say, with figures concerning the cost of maintaining services during this difficult period. We'll be considering that level of support that has been asked for, recognising, of course, that the bus network across Wales is vitally important and must be maintained for the future.
Can I thank you, Minister, for the statements that you've made about Welsh Government's support for business? The details of these announcements, I'm sure, have been very comforting to the businesses in my constituency that have contacted me with their concerns, so I thank you also for the additional information you've set out today.
However, you probably won't be surprised to hear that the greatest number of businesses that have contacted me around their concerns are individual, self-employed businesses, and that's really where I want to focus my question, as I know other areas have been covered in some detail. So, if I could just give you an example: I had a constituent who's a professional musician and a music teacher. He's been in touch with me to say that, in the last 24 hours, he's lost the majority of his upcoming business due to the current Government advice, and in truth, we can only see that advice imposing further restrictions in the weeks ahead. And I guess there'll be similar circumstances that will arise for a number of self-employed individuals, and I'm thinking of people like mobile hairdressers, for instance—those types of businesses, where, as we know, business rates are not an issue for them and probably bank loans are not an issue for them. So, any announcements around those areas of assistance wouldn't be of particular help in those circumstances. Given that, as you've quite rightly already pointed out, the UK Government hasn't made any Macron-type announcement of €300 billion of support to guarantee that no businesses go under, what kind of assurance can you give to people in the position of my constituent as to what support they can expect to receive over the months ahead, given that their sources of income have basically been cut off virtually overnight?
Well, the Member makes some very powerful points about the need to support those individuals who are self-employed. As I said in response to Helen Mary Jones, we're looking specifically at the £100 million that was announced and how it can be used to support self-employed individuals at the moment. I also outlined to Helen Mary Jones how we're looking specifically at fixed costs and cash flow issues. I can assure the Member that those measures that were announced by the UK Government do apply to Wales: the statutory sick pay measures; the business interruption loan scheme; the Time to Pay scheme. They all apply to Welsh businesses, and if the UK Government do announce that hugely significant fiscal package of support this afternoon, then we will be ensuring that support for self-employed people is prioritised.
We're now close to 45 minutes into this statement and we've had one contribution from each party group. So, if Assembly Members can be reasonably succinct in your questioning and in the answers given by the Minister—a number of issues have been covered already. So, if we can be succinct, then I'll try and call as many Members as possible. You're first, Angela Burns.
Thank you. I absolutely promise you I've got one area that I particularly want to talk to you about, which is business interruption insurance. I've been contacted by a significant number of businesses who are finding it very difficult to get insurers to do two things: (1) to understand that COVID-19 is a notifiable disease. Now, you and I know that under the Health Protection (Notification) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, it was made a notifiable disease on the fifth, and all the other home nations followed around by about the 5 or 6 March, and yet it's very difficult (1) for the businesses to find anywhere on any website—yours, the UK Government's, anybody's—that it is a notifiable disease, and (2) to get the insurance companies to recognise it's a notifiable disease. That's my first insurance question, and I know you're meeting the banks, and I wondered if you might be meeting the insurers.
My second insurance question, which, again, is very similar, is about the business interruption insurance. Again, businesses are saying to me that, for example, if somebody turns up at their hotel and they are diagnosed with COVID-19, then they will get paid, but if they cancel that hotel room, there's no business interruption insurance. Again, the insurers are playing real hardball. Minister, I wonder what you, in conjunction with the other home nations, might be able to do with insurance companies, so that business interruption insurance can apply to this kind of area.
Can I thank Angela Burns for the question concerning business interruption insurance? It's actually helpful that the Member suggests that we do with this on a four-nation basis, because it is exactly the point that I was going to be raising, amongst many other points, with my counterpart in the Scottish Government when I speak with her this afternoon. It's also something that we've been raising with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We're already speaking with the sector and the representative body for the sector, pressing them to act responsibly, and we will ensure that they see, in plain black and white, the announcement of it being a notifiable disease, to ensure that there is no reason for them to avoid payouts.
I won't dwell on the level of support, which has already been pursued by my colleague Helen Mary Jones, other than to say that we must secure that unprecedented level of support and make sure that it has impact on the ground as soon as possible.
I'd just like to outline some of the elements that have been brought to my attention to focus our minds on what we're dealing with: a small company with £120,000 revenue loss; a coast tour operator—£30,000 losses already; the tourist attraction—devastating news for them, with the loss of business. At the same time, the owner is recovering from cancer, two of the children are sitting their GCSEs this summer, other family members have serious illnesses. A drinks manufacturer that has its orders being dried up. Pubs devastated at having customers told to stay away, but not being told, as we've just heard there, that they have to close. Bus operators fearful they'll go out of business, and the long-term effects of that, with needing to carry children to school once this is all over and so on.
I appeal, more than anything now, apart from the level of support, for stronger, clearer communication from Government to businesses. That's the one thing that people are really asking for. I'm glad we've had the assurance that the Business Wales helpline is the de facto business COVID-19 helpline now. I would advise you to have a look at that website and see if that can be strengthened. I'm not sure the message is there that that is the place to go, though I am now advising my constituents to ring that number, 03000 603000. I'm also asking them to feed back to me what kind of level of service that they have, because it's going to be under severe pressure. And as one question, I'd ask you: what additional resources have been given to Business Wales in order to meet that demand that is bound to be there now that we know that's the place to go?
Can I thank Rhun ap Iorwerth for his questions? He's absolutely right, there are businesses within Wales that have shown remarkable resilience in dealing with not just this challenge, but also, very recently, flooding in many parts of Wales and, of course, the uncertainty caused by Brexit.
In terms of Business Wales, Business Wales were offering advice as the main point of contact with regard to Brexit. Many businesses are therefore familiar with the services that it offers. I'm writing to businesses directly today through Business Wales, and I can assure Members that whatever resources are required within Business Wales to address the demand that is to come will be made available. As I said in answer to Russell George, we were able to plan, as part of our Brexit preparedness, for additional front-line human resource to be deployed, and that will happen in terms of meeting the coronavirus demand as well.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister's statement yesterday has caused some considerable concern for many businesses, particularly those in the hospitality sector who are at a loss to know how they can continue to function in many cases. What we need, I believe, is a Marshall plan for small businesses. In the same way as—as other people have pointed out this afternoon—we bailed out the banks collectively as a society a decade ago, we now need to ensure that small businesses who are the lifeblood of our economy and our communities get the support of Government at all levels now to ensure that they survive the next period. I think people across the country welcome the statement that you made on rate relief. I think that is something that will be welcomed. But we need to go much, much further than that.
I'd be grateful, Minister, if you could raise some of these issues with the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the UK Government to ensure that businesses have the income support they require to carry them through this period, but also those people who are self-employed. I spoke this morning to taxi drivers in Ebbw Vale and in Tredegar who are concerned about the vitality and viability of their businesses, how they can sustain their families and their businesses over the coming weeks and months. I spoke to somebody who's running a bar and a cafe in Tredegar, who is concerned about the people who are going to be losing work, conceivably, over the coming weeks. How will they survive? Some of the lowest income families in the country will be affected by the economic consequences of this. This is something on which Governments at all levels need to work together to address. I hope that you will be able to lead the establishment of a UK business taskforce to ensure that all the Governments of the United Kingdom work together—where you have powers, that those powers are used.
We spoke earlier about the financial structures within the United Kingdom. The UK Government needs to make urgent changes to the way in which funding is made available to the Governments of the UK to address these matters, and that needs to be done very, very quickly. I hope also—you mentioned the Business Wales hotline—that that information is made available to Members as well to enable us to respond to our constituents, and that we ensure that there are enough resources available to Business Wales to provide that service to people who are sometimes at the end of their tether. The next few months will determine how the vitality of our communities and our economy will be able to bounce back from this crisis. And I hope that we will be able to echo what Macron said to the people of France last night: that not a job will be lost, and not a business lost because of this crisis.
Can I thank Alun Davies for his contribution and for his questions? And he's absolutely right in that a four-nation approach will be needed, not just in terms of ensuring as many businesses as possible can survive, but also to plan for the period afterwards, to plan for the recovery of the economy. And I'm already giving thought to how we can form, as the Member put it, a form of taskforce, to ensure that we collectively invest in the right form of businesses across the country to drive inclusive, fair, purposeful growth in the future.
I'll write to all Members with information concerning the Business Wales services. There are dedicated pages on that website concerning COVID-19, but, clearly, given the escalated scale of the problem that we face, it is quite clear that Business Wales's role in the coming months will be almost wholly consumed with coronavirus cases. And therefore it too will have to ensure that, internally, it is structured in a way to divert as much human resource as possible to this specific challenge.
I think the Member makes an important point as well about certain sectors where homeworking just isn't possible, including, as he said, hospitality. And, for those businesses, the only viable option may be hibernation, and this is why it's vitally important that the UK Government agrees to the First Minister's calls for assistance in terms of underwriting wages to ensure that individuals are not made redundant and that companies don't go insolvent, and to ensure that the UK Government steps in in terms of holidays and relief for taxes.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. As someone in this Chamber whose own business has been through similar situations that businesses find themselves in, back on 20 March 1996, when the beef crisis struck and markets effectively shut down completely overnight, I can fully understand the true impact of what we are about to see unfold before many people. And it will be many years before this is balanced, shall we say—I wouldn't say 'rectified' because I think the economic damage, even in the last five days, has been so great that it'll be difficult to make up that ground. But there will be a future coming out of this, and we have to be prepared for that future, to shape it and create it.
I'd just like to seek two points from the Minister, if I may. I am surprised that the Minister hasn't touched on the £100 billion that the Chancellor put on the table last Wednesday in his budget in lending support through the banks and underwriting 80 per cent of the collateral should the loan go bad. I think that is an omission from the statement this afternoon. As I said, I'm very surprised that it is missing from the statement, because it is critical that people do have access to credit. And, at the time of that announcement, as far as I'm aware, that was the biggest fiscal stimulus in Europe—at the time that it was announced on Wednesday; there will be further stimulus announced this afternoon from the Chancellor. But it is vital to understand how the Minister will be engaging with banks. I heard what he says about a meeting on Thursday, but many of those decisions are taken outside Wales, and it cannot be right that businesses in Wales might be jeopardised in their applications unless that voice is heard loud and clear and decisions are taken on the specifics of the way the Welsh economy is structured, which has a very small business focus to it, rather than some of the larger entities that you find elsewhere. And I would be very pleased to understand what your key asks are going to be in that meeting that will be held on Thursday.
The second point I would like to make to the Minister is that supply of information. It is critically important. As the constituency Member for the Vale of Glamorgan and I found out yesterday, businesses at the moment feel that they're working in a void of information. Some of that information has been made available over the last 24 hours. But, as of yesterday morning, most of the businesses that we were speaking to—and the constituency Member for the Vale of Glamorgan will back this up—understood what was on offer from the UK Government, but did not understand what was available from the Welsh Government. I hear what you say about Business Wales being the main point of contact, but can you give me an assurance that they are resourced well enough? Because every single business in Wales is affected by what is unfolding before our eyes. And I don't mean this as a criticism, because the size of this is so great, but I struggle to believe that that one point is going to be resourced enough to be a one-stop shop to provide all the information that we require from the UK Government's point of view, as well as the Welsh Government's point of view. And I don't mean that as a criticism—I mean that as the scale of what we are facing in the coming days and weeks ahead of us.
Can I thank the Member for his questions? And of course I'd be more than willing to receive any advice that reflects on his own personal experience of overcoming the beef crisis, and in particular in terms of how he and the sector that he is part of ensured that there was a viable future at some of the darkest times that the sector faced back in the 1990s. In terms of the £100 billion that the Member refers to, that's not what businesses are necessarily calling for at the moment—they want grants, they need grant funding, in order to overcome problems with cashflows, with wage bills, and so forth. And, in terms of my meeting with the banks on Thursday, I'll be raising questions concerning forbearance, I'll be raising questions concerning—as I said to Helen Mary Jones—the ability of the banks to operate in a discretionary way here in Wales. And we'll also be discussing how we ensure that UK Government measures, Welsh Government measures, and the actions of the banks individually, tie together in the most effective way. I do take the point that the Member has made, and that other Members have made, in regard to capacity within Business Wales. But, as I've said, we will do all we can to ensure that as much of that demand that is going to come down towards Business Wales is met within that organisation.
Minister, my constituency of Pontypridd—and of course much of Rhondda Cynon Taf—was devastated by the floods. Treforest retail park alone—an estimated £150 million of damage. The first thing I want is an assurance that the funding that's available to recover from the flood damage isn't going to be affected in any way, because many of those businesses are now also affected by the coronavirus pandemic as well, and that has created almost a double whammy—a double hit to those particular businesses. Just as they were beginning to recover, get back on their feet, they've been hit as well, so will need very specific help. In terms of transport, there is of course a very major transport company. We've talked about small businesses and medium businesses, but I have a transport company—as you well know—within my constituency that employs around 800 people. Transport is massively affected. It ties in with the tourism trade, it ties in with holidays, and I think what is going to be required is not really a reactive response from business, but really a proactive response from Welsh Government to go out to those businesses to engage with them on what is it specifically they need to see them through the next couple of months, because there are going to be layoffs, there are going to be redundancies, across the country. I see the estimated figure is that one fifth of the entire workforce of the UK is likely to be off work at some time as a result of coronavirus.
Can I also then also ask if perhaps you could say a little bit more about the letter from the First Minister, which I think has gone to the Government, about the issue of an universal income? Because I see all the steps and measures that have been taken about sick pay and so on, but, quite frankly, someone going from a fully-employed job on to sick pay of £94.25 per week—it is not going to enable them to live, it's going to push them into poverty, and exactly the same issue in terms of universal credit.
Now, perhaps it's a disgrace that those benefit levels are so low compared with our European partners, and maybe now is the time to really push the opportunity to give every single worker or person who loses their job or is laid off as a result of coronavirus a guaranteed minimum income. Of course, this isn't a matter that Welsh Government can do, but we should be pushing it, because this seems to me the simplest and most obvious way to ensure that what happened during austerity, when it was working people and the most vulnerable who suffered during austerity for 10 years—and we know that in disasters it always seems to be the working people and the vulnerable who lose out—that that doesn't happen again as a result of coronavirus.
Of course, we protect our businesses, because we want to keep jobs. We want those jobs to be there in the post pandemic environment. But, equally so, we've got to make sure that ordinary working people do not suffer the consequences of this disaster and that—if we are a united society, a United Kingdom, a united Wales and a part of a global structure, then we've got to ensure that working people are not pushed into poverty as a result of what happens, and that their incomes and their social well-being is as important as every other aspect of this virus we're trying to deal with.
Can I thank Mick Antoniw for the hugely significant points that he makes regarding the potential of a guaranteed minimum income right now and in the weeks and the months to come? It would also enable a more rapid recovery to take place, because you would be providing money to those individuals who would be most likely to use it, supporting our high streets, supporting the foundational economy, ensuring that growth is achieved sooner, rather than would otherwise happen if we do not have a form of guaranteed minimum income.
I'll ensure that the letter from the First Minister is published, if it has not already been, so that Members can cast their eyes over the detail of what the First Minister has said. And one of the calls that we've made, as I've said to numerous Members now, is for the UK Government to underwrite the wages of employers who are affected by this virus.
The Member makes the important point about how a number of businesses in his constituency and across Wales have suffered a series of significant setbacks in recent times and, in particular, the challenge that businesses in his constituency faced in regard to flooding has already been reflected on in the Chamber in my answer to Rhun ap Iorwerth. The funding provided for that purpose is provided for that sole purpose—to assist businesses affected by the flooding that took place as a consequence of storm Ciara and storm Dennis, and that money should and will be used for that sole purpose. Any additional support in terms of coronavirus will, as I say, be additional.
And in terms of the transport company—. I know that the Member has actually raised with me already a specific case in his constituency, and I've asked officials to proactively take a look at how we might be able to assist that company. But, again, as I've said to a number of Members, it may well be that some companies choose the best course of action as being hibernation, rather than to struggle on. And it's my view that we should not have redundancies during this difficult period and, if the UK Government follow the leadership of President Macron, redundancies can be avoided. That said, it is going to be an incredibly anxious period for the entire country.
We are out of time allocated by the Government for this statement, but I will take three more speakers—one from each political party. Mark Isherwood. Quick questions, please.
Diolch, Llywydd. How are you engaging with business umbrella organisations across Wales? You'll be aware, for example, that North Wales Tourism are inundated with calls from members requesting help and guidance. Therefore, how are you maximising the opportunity to use other access points to both gather intelligence but also share information?
You've announced the relief in rateable value of 100 per cent for properties up to £51,000—rate relief. Yesterday, I visited a hotel and wedding venue in Flintshire with a rateable value of £79,000, and they said all their customers are cancelling, all their staff are being sent home. They employ 40 people, but they won't survive without help. So, what can I say to that hotel, where the rateable value falls above that £51,000 figure, and they're already hitting the buffers of crisis?
I've been contacted by another wedding venue in Denbighshire. Apparently, Denbighshire council's registrars have said that they're no longer willing to conduct weddings in either hotels or registry offices. They're questioning who made the decision, why weren't they told, and why are they going straight to customers who are now in a panic. So, I'm wondering if you've given any thought to, or could give some attention to, the announcements by registrars, at least in Denbighshire and possibly more widely, given the importance of wedding venues to many businesses across Wales?
Reference has been made to—
That was your third question now, when I'd asked for a quick question. So, I'm sure three questions are ample for the Minister to carry on with. Minister.
Can I thank Mark Isherwood for his three questions? If he does have any more questions, please don't hesitate to write to me. Indeed, if you have any suggestions, any ideas, any observations, any intelligence, please provide me with it.
In terms of our engagement with the umbrella organisations, I've spoken quite extensively with a number of organisations, including the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, the chambers of commerce and so forth. We'll be meeting again later this week. I spoke with officials in my colleague Dafydd Elis-Thomas's department yesterday concerning the engagement that they have with the tourism sector. I was assured that there is close contact established with the tourism sector.
I have now received a number of letters and other forms of correspondence from businesses within the hospitality sector, within other key sectors of the economy that Dafydd Elis-Thomas is responsible for, and we are reflecting on those calls that are made within the correspondence in terms of how we utilise the £100 million and any additional financial resource that we'll be able to make available as a consequence of what I hope to be a very significant announcement later today by the UK Government.
Llywydd, I'll have to reflect on the point that was made in regard to the decision made by registrars, if I may, and return to the Member with some more detail on that. This is something that I think is specific to certain areas of Wales at the moment, but I'll need to check and I'll write back to the Member as soon as I possibly can.
I welcome the business rate announcement, but it won't help the majority of small businesses and self-employed people in the Rhondda as they're not eligible to pay business rates. I've been overwhelmed with messages from concerned people whose income has come to an abrupt end in the last few days, and many people don't have savings because they've sunk everything into their businesses. People seeking advice on what to do now have been told by authorities to go onto jobseeker's allowance. Of course, that's not going to cover overheads, mortgages and other bills. We can't forget the impact on these small businesses, and must do what we can to help them survive, and that includes help with mortgage and rent payments so that people don't lose their homes and premises as a result of this.
Just this morning, I've been approached by a business that was just getting back on its feet after a slump in sales last year. At the beginning of the year, I requested swift action from the Welsh Government to assist this significant employer in the Rhondda, and I'm pleased to say that you answered that call well, Minister, and a plan and a business model were developed that, combined with an upturn in sales, put that company on a firm footing for the future. Those plans are now likely to completely unsustainable. One thing that could be of help to this particular firm and many others in the same boat would be a full roll-out of the ProAct and ReAct schemes that came out of the economy department under Plaid Cymru's Ieuan Wyn Jones in 2008. Companies and trade unions came together after the banking crash and together put forward proposals where workers were able to keep their jobs until the financial storm passed over. You mentioned ReAct in your statement, Minister, but these summits in 2008 did much, much more than that.
I also mentioned universal basic income earlier, and I still want you to make a commitment to that. Could the Welsh Government put together urgently a package of measures that would assist the economy and keep people in work and out of poverty? This is an urgent need that needs addressing now.
And I'd finally like to ask when these grants will be available to small businesses. We've got people in the Rhondda still waiting for the Welsh Government assistance that was announced for the floods nearly a month ago. People can't afford to wait before they access this support. Businesses are crumbling now. They need this support straight away.
I thank Leanne Wood for her questions. I do recognise absolutely the urgency that's required in terms of responding to business needs. That's why the First Minister and I have been so clear in calling on the UK Government to make available a significant package of support for the economy, far greater than was announced last week, and in line with the sort of package that President Macron announced last night. I think the best way to help individuals through this crisis where they are in work, where they are self-employed, is to ensure that there is a universal guaranteed income that is supplied by the UK Government, and of course the huge cost that comes with rolling out such a guaranteed income could be met by the fact that we are part of the United Kingdom. It is a very, very significant act, and can only be delivered by the UK Government.
In terms of helping businesses, the best way to help businesses right now is to assist in terms of cash flow, their fixed costs, and their tax liabilities. Again, that is our ask of UK Government. I can assure the Member that ReAct is operating right now. It will be utilised, I am in no doubt, in the weeks and months to come. And we're looking at how we can intensify the services that are already on offer to businesses and how we may be able to remould and reshape some of those interventions that the Member has outlined, which were developed for the 2008 financial crisis.
I represent the city centre of our capital city, and clearly there are huge numbers of shops, restaurants, bars and entertainment venues that are likely to be affected by this. The city centre is beginning to feel like a ghost town, so I'm very grateful for the rates relief that you have announced, as well as the time to pay that you have negotiated with the inland revenue. But clearly, there are other measures that we're going to need to get us through this if we're not going to have something akin to the blitz happening to our normally vibrant city centres.
I wondered if I could just ask you about the plight of supply teachers, adding to what Dawn Bowden and Alun Davies have said, because if you're an employed teacher and you need to self-isolate you will still be paid, if you're a supply teacher needing to self-isolate you will not be paid. Equally, where schools need to close in the future, supply teachers would be without an income. So, I just would like to reiterate the points made by Mick Antoniw and others, that we really do need some clarity that sick pay is going to be statutory for everybody, regardless of their employment status, and either statutory sick pay for all or a minimum income guarantee needs to be put in place as a matter of urgency to ensure that people are self-isolating rather than taking risks.
Can I thank Jenny Rathbone for her question? She points to one particular area of the Welsh workforce that is suffering extreme anxiety at the moment as a result of the prospect of losing work. We estimate that something in the region of 8 per cent of individuals in Wales would not qualify for statutory sick pay. That's a very significant proportion, and therefore it needs to be given the full attention of UK Government as it is being given the full attention of Welsh Government.
Item 3 is the next item. The statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on the latest information on coronavirus, COVID-19, is that statement. The Minister for health is self-isolating because of an illness in his family, and he's continuing with his ministerial responsibilities and is accountable to this Senedd. If the technology does fail, then the First Minister will complete this item. If Members will need the sound to be amplified during the item, please use your headsets. I call on the Minister for health to make his statement—Vaughan Gething.
Will you say something? He can't hear us. Okay. I'd like to put on record my thanks to the Minister for attempting to deliver his statement and to answer the questions of Members by Skype. I wish you well in your self-isolation, Minister, and in carrying on your work as the Minister for health—but not for the next 45 minutes, it seems. Therefore, I call on the First Minister to deliver the statement on coronavirus.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. The Health minister would have begun his statement this afternoon by reminding all Members of how much has changed over the week since he last reported to the Senedd. In that time, the World Health Organization has declared coronavirus as a pandemic. The response in Wales and the other UK nations has moved from containment to delay. Sadly, we have also had our first deaths from coronavirus here in Wales. I know that on behalf of the whole Senedd I express our sorrow and sympathy for the families who have lost loved ones. Sad as it is to say it, we have to expect that there will be more such events in the weeks ahead.
So, the aims of Governments across the United Kingdom in the delay phase of the plan to tackle coronavirus are to slow the spread of the virus and to lower the peak impact, and thus to push it away from the current end of the winter season. Both of these aims will help the NHS to cope with the challenges it will face in caring for larger numbers of very unwell people. Doing this gives us all the best chance of our NHS not being overwhelmed. That in turn means that we can save more lives in the months ahead.
Llywydd, it is inevitable that many more people will now 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 of our fellow citizens who will need that additional help. The best advice that we have as a Government is that, at this point in the process of the disease, trying to identify, monitor and contain every case, however mild, is not the best use of the resources we have.
Members here will know that at the COBRA on Monday of this week the Welsh Government agreed with the other three 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 strengthened. Anyone who develops a high temperature or a new continuous cough should stay at home for seven days. They should not go to their GP or to a pharmacy or to a hospital, nor should they routinely contact the NHS on 111. People should only seek help if they cannot deal with their symptoms at home, if their condition worsens significantly or if they do not recover within seven days.
As Members here will know, following Monday's COBRA meeting, the advice for people now is that if you are living with somebody in a household where someone develops a high temperature or a new continuous cough, then the whole household should stay at home for 14 days. Now, further advice on self-isolation at home is available from Public Health Wales. People are also advised to use the COVID-19 online symptom checker on the NHS Direct Wales website if you have concerns about your symptoms.
Llywydd, we've also asked people across the wider population to reduce social contact. That includes working from home if you can and not going by choice into crowded areas such as 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. That's because these groups are identified as having a higher risk of becoming seriously unwell and therefore needing to limit their social interaction to reduce the risk of transmission. For those under 70 with underlying health conditions, the starting point is that, if your health condition entitles you to a free NHS flu jab, then you are covered by that advice. In the next week, the NHS will directly contact a range of vulnerable people with specific advice about risks to them. That is likely to involve even more significant measures for those whose immune systems are most significantly compromised.
The position adopted in the other parts of the United Kingdom in relation to large gatherings is now to be followed across the whole of the United Kingdom. Our emergency services will not staff or plan for large public events. They, too, like the rest of the NHS family, will focus their time on dealing with the response to coronavirus as it further develops.
Llywydd, as Members know from earlier this afternoon, there have been questions about our current approach to testing. At this point in the progress of the disease, our focus has shifted away from community testing, because that is the best advice we have. Testing will now focus on people who are admitted to hospital, in line with national guidance and based on symptoms and severity. There is strong evidence from around the world that they can and will recover. This is about ensuring that our testing capacity is focused where there is greatest need. In addition to those in hospital, testing will now be made available to people working in key NHS clinical roles to ensure that they are not taken out of the workplace longer than is necessary. The number of these roles covered will extend as our testing capacity develops. Public Health Wales will continue its surveillance work to understand the overall picture in Wales.
Llywydd, on Friday of last week, our colleague, Vaughan Gething announced far-reaching temporary measures to release NHS capacity to deal with the outbreak. Health and social service providers will suspend non-urgent out-patient 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 announced last Friday will allow our health and social care system to keep people out of hospital who do not need to be there, and it is even more important than ever before that people who do have the highest need for hospital care can be treated without delay. Friday's decisions 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 other essential treatments, such as cancer services.
Today, the health Minister has approved the next set of national actions to support health and social care preparedness. These include: guidance provided on the testing of symptomatic healthcare workers in isolation; further urgency in the rolling out of video consultations in primary care; announcing forthcoming guidance on the delivery of dental services to avoid preventable exposure to patients and staff; and further work rapidly to increase critical care beds, staffing and equipment.
Llywydd, right across the Welsh Government, ministerial colleagues continue to work closely with public services across Wales to ensure that they are prepared. Last week, meetings took place with local authority leaders and they have continued into this week. Our local authorities will have all the help and support that we can provide in keeping vital public services running. They too have a hugely important leadership role and that is especially so in the way that they will work with third sector partners to co-ordinate support for the large number of people who will now be self-isolating.
This is a dynamic and rapidly evolving situation, and the Welsh Government will continue to take further measures as necessary and as the evidence dictates. The health Minister intends to publish information on which decisions have been made—the evidence—ahead of the health committee on 18 March, and I know that he still hopes to be able to answer Members' questions alongside the chief medical officer in front of that committee.
In the meantime, we need to go on reminding ourselves and all our fellow citizens of those simple measures that we can all take and that, collectively, will make a difference; those simple steps to help manage and limit the impact of the virus. Maintaining regular hand-washing and self-isolation where necessary will make a real and positive difference, as will helping family, friends and neighbours when they have to self-isolate.
Llywydd, we are asking people to make extraordinary choices to match the extraordinary times we face. We ask people to do this, to help their friends and families; we ask people to do this to help friends and families that they may never otherwise meet. The health Minister, I and ministerial colleagues will, of course, Llywydd, continue to keep Members and the people of Wales fully and regularly informed, as the progress of the disease continues.
First Minister, I'd like to thank you for your statement today, and I'd like to join with you in sending my deepest condolences to the two families that have lost people in the recent moments. And I will also think that every time I get up, I'm going to be saying a massive thank you to the health services—we can't say it enough to the front-line staff and to the social care staff, but also to the unsung heroes in the background—the researchers who are trying to find the cure for this dreadful COVID-19, and to all of those who support all of these people in this effort.
Now, I obviously listened to you very carefully during First Minister's questions. I wanted to first of all say that I absolutely support all of the actions that you've taken here, from suggesting that 70-year-olds must stay at home for self-isolation; what we need to do to keep ourselves safe; and how we look after people who've got compromised immune systems and are recovering from very difficult diseases. We are with you on that, and I think that's excellent.
But, I do want to just ask you a couple of other questions to do with the whole issue of how we proceed with tackling COVID-19. I can't not ask you again about the testing regime. I heard very clearly, and actually it chimed with me very strongly, your comment about, 'Our scientific evidence, our CSAs and our CMOs giving us the evidence that is the rock on which we must base all of our decisions, and if we shift that rock around, then we are in a very, very difficult state'. So, I'm not asking you to do that, but what I am asking you to do is perhaps tell us how you are currently evaluating, constantly, the current decision not to test greater numbers of the population. I think it's because I'm very interested in examples of places such as South Korea that have managed to drop from almost 1,000 cases a day to fewer than 100 cases a day. Their absolute ethos is that testing centrally led to early detection, it minimised spread and it quickly treated those with the virus. So, I appreciate that all of the home Governments are united that this is the way we go forward, but I would just like to know how you're looking at that and how you're evaluating that performance.
I'm also very interested in the testing issue, because I wondered whether you have any information at all about the viability of home testing kits. The reason, again, I ask that is because if we're testing our healthcare professionals, we have to retest them, retest them and retest them, because they might be well on Monday, but if they're living with someone who's got COVID-19, they might not be well on Wednesday or Friday.
Secondly, we have a very elderly population. We have a lot of people who need extra support at home. We have a lot of isolated people who will find it very difficult to get out if buses run less and if transport happens less, and if we could actually use all of these great voluntary groups that are putting themselves together—people like us—to go out and help, it would be so useful if we could be tested, because then we could, actually—even if we don't do the practical stuff of changing a dressing in someone's home, actually what we can do is see an older person and talk to them for half an hour to lift that isolation and loneliness that, after 14 weeks, could well take hold. So, if you could give us anything on that where we can look at how we might be able to help, it would be really good if we could be confident that those who are going into people's homes—helping the elderly, helping those who are pregnant and helping those with other conditions—are really safe.
I wanted to touch on access to medicines in a number of different ways, one is access to medicines from abroad. I understand that there are a few areas where medicines are being held back or production is being altered, and I wondered whether you could just give us any overview on what the home nations are doing to ensure that we can get access to medicines. But, I also wanted to talk very briefly, First Minister, about what you might put in place to ensure that general practitioners' surgeries, which would normally give somebody two weeks' worth of medication at a time, actually review their prescribing policy so that people can actually get a sufficient amount of medicine to help them if they've been self-isolated, or to stop people having to go out to keep getting these repeat prescriptions. I'm hearing quite a lot of people say, 'I can't get more than two weeks at any one time of any particular drug'.
I wondered whether you might be able to give us an outline of what support you'll be able to give additionally to the area of mental health. What plans do you have to ensure that mental health crisis care is still able to provide additional support, especially to those who need it, obviously, now? Because that actual support—and necessary support—might, in fact, be more, given the fear and concerns that people face.
This is a complete left-fielder, but I feel this actually quite strongly. People are scared. People aren't sure what's happening. We know that we talk about it and we publish it, and I wondered if you or one of your Ministers would consider talking to ITV, BBC and S4C about doing a short statement on the six o'clock news every night that just updates people with what is happening. Because I think that when you read the e-mails that come in, when you see the social media, the fake news and the general sense of panic, I just wonder if a steadying hand in the Welsh media and across the social media platforms would actually be of benefit. You don't always have to say something new; it's repeating the same old messages and telling people it's okay, they don't need to go and buy tonnes of food, they will not starve to death, they will get the medicines they need, they will get the support from all the Governments, they will be okay. I think people need to hear it daily, daily and daily.
I've left the last bit of my commentary, Presiding Officer, to pharmacies. They are under quite a lot of pressure. We have got pharmacists that still have not got any of the protective equipment that they've been promised. The protective equipment isn't great quality and there are concerns from GPs about it already, let alone the pharmacists. Pharmacists are really under pressure because what's happening is that people are phoning their GPs, GPs are saying, 'Don't come to us, we're closing our doors, we'll talk to you over the phone, we'll tell you what you want.' Well, guess where they're going? To the pharmacist. Pharmacists are feeling under immense pressure and the point they make, as they slowly fall by the wayside with this illness and have to go into self-isolation, have to close for a couple of days for a deep clean, is: what happens then? We've already got a pharmacist in Narberth who has had to close and one in Haverfordwest that's had to close. This is putting immense pressure on pharmacists. They believe that they are the ones who are having to, and do willingly—not 'having to'—give out medications for things such as diabetes, heart medication and so forth. They believe that the health boards are not supporting them. They believe that they don't really get the ramifications; they're so busy concentrating on front line in hospitals and GP surgeries that nobody is thinking about the guys who actually come along behind and sweep up a huge number of people—they're the first call if they have a problem. So, I wondered if you can perhaps address this issue because they do say that they've had no support, no advice from the actual health boards themselves.
And finally, and this is a marginally cheeky one, but of course you had a nice little warehouse stocked full of stuff ready for Brexit, and I wondered if you could actually tell us if you've still got stuff in there, what kind of stuff and would that stuff be able to be deployed in this current crisis. Thank you very much, First Minister.
Thank you, Llywydd. Thank you to Angela Burns, Llywydd, this afternoon, and I'll do my best to answer questions where I have the information to hand. I know Members will understand that there will be some of the more detailed questions where, not expecting to have been answering questions on this statement, I'll need to provide Members with a more informed reply.
As Angela Burns has said, while we have been sitting here this afternoon a second death of a patient in Wales has been announced and, of course, our thoughts are with all of those connected with that person. Can I also echo what Angela said in thanking not simply the front-line staff whose responsibilities we have emphasised here this afternoon, but all those who sit behind them and who mean that they can do the jobs that we need them to do?
As far as the testing regime is concerned, I can give the Member a complete assurance that the emerging evidence from around the world continues to be reviewed all the time at the scientific advisory committee. Indeed, I know that the Welsh representative was going to that committee today with some very specific questions to raise in relation to testing, and advice on testing. So, the advice that we get from our chief medical officers and our chief scientific officers is tested every day—tested internally by themselves, tested against the emerging international evidence—and, as I said in answering questions earlier, if the advice changes, then we will follow that emerging advice because that advice will be following the evidence as best it can.
In relation to extending the availability of testing to a wider range of people than front-line clinical staff, that will be something we will think about, of course. It will need to be matched against two things: the capacity we have for testing, which we want to grow, and the extent to which diverting people to do that work takes priority over other things that they could do, but it remains an open issue that we review all the time.
Thank you for the point made about repeat prescriptions, which I'll make sure we'll take up through the normal machinery. As far as mental health is concerned, Members here will know that we have a series of helplines that we have mobilised at different times for different purposes. We've turned them on particularly at times of stress in rural communities in Wales, and we intend to use the call centre and the very expert staff that we have based in it in Wrexham to make sure that when people need an immediate access because they have a mental health issue, that they need help in signposting people to get the help they need, that that helpline will be geared up to respond in the current coronavirus context.
As to appearing on the news, I think I said earlier this afternoon that the Welsh Government will be providing a daily briefing for the press in Wales. We're probably going to do it at 9:30 every morning to make sure that people have assurance and information on a daily basis. It will, as ever, be for news outlets to then decide how to use that information, but we are, in the way that Angela Burns suggested, very keen to make sure that there is the most regular possible flow of information to the Welsh public.
I want to recognise very much what she said about the importance of community pharmacies. We've always been very lucky in Wales with our network of over 700 community pharmacies. They, too, will be feeling the strain and they will be a very important part of our ability to provide a resilient service to people across Wales. I know that efforts are being made to make sure they have the equipment that they need and I'll take up the point that the Member made about the need for health boards to regard them as part of their front-line response in the coronavirus context.
Finally, to the Brexit warehouse, that does mean that we have a stock of medical supplies that we can still draw on, and that's part of the answer to the point that Angela Burns made about availability of medicines. Because we were preparing against the eventuality of a 'no deal' exit, there are some stockpiles still to draw on. The last information I saw was not alarming in relation to the availability of medicines in the immediate future. There may be a point later in the year when the fact that Chinese manufacturers, for example, will not have been working in the way they normally have, where there will be issues that we need to face, but they're not here and now issues as far as coronavirus is concerned.
I want to ask about three areas: two relating to health, but if you will forgive me, one is to do with education, because there is no opportunity to discuss education here this afternoon, and also because a development has reached us in the last half an hour. We’ve become aware that there is a school that has closed its doors already to pupils.
Ysgol Brynhyfryd in Ruthin has found that 23 members of staff are in the vulnerable category, with five additional staff members having partners who are in that specific category as well. So, that’s 28 of their staff members, and I think there are only 60 members of staff in Brynhyfryd school. A letter has gone out to parents saying that the school is closing its doors from tomorrow onwards for all pupils. So, the situation is changing as we discuss issues in the Chamber here today. And the letter goes on to say that the learning and teaching will carry on online and that is very good news, of course, for those pupils who need to continue their studies. Evidently, they’ve started to put those plans in place. But this raises major questions, doesn’t it, about schools deciding, because of the situation, that they are closing anyway.
So, what exactly are the guidelines of the Government for schools that are going to be finding themselves in the situation where there is a large percentage of staff—nearly half of the staff, in this case—finding themselves in the vulnerable category? And what is the Government saying to those schools when they find themselves in that situation? And what are the guidelines for safe staffing levels? Children, tomorrow, who would be having free school meals at school, what’s going to happen to them now?
I know you said earlier that you’re discussing the possibilities about what to do, and I’m sure that in Ruthin they will have their preparations, but the problem is a live problem now, isn’t it, and you understand now why we were asking these questions during the business statement and why we need to have information and clarity about the situation.
What are the guidelines for parents who are working in the NHS and their children now being at home? What are those workers supposed to do? Should they continue going to work or are they going to have to improvise some arrangements now so that children can be looked after, because we need them in the workplace? So, a great many questions. I intended to ask them tomorrow of the education Minister, but I’m asking them of you now, because you're First Minister, if we could have clarity on that.
Turning to the other questions, Rhun ap Iorwerth was going to make a contribution here and he was going to ask you about the ventilators. It’s extremely important—that's the message that I’m getting from Ysbyty Gwynedd, in my area. We need plenty of ventilators in our hospitals, and, of course, we need the staff also who understand how these ventilators work. What are your arrangements? What practical steps are you working on in order to ensure that there are enough ventilators that are going to be available for the wards that need them? We’re aware that one business in Wales is starting to manufacture ventilators, or at least they have found a way to do that quickly, and I’d be happy enough to pass those details on to you. That kind of thing is to be welcomed, of course.
And the final question is about testing. I do return to this, the issue of testing. It’s vital. I do know that there is perhaps a feeling that front-line staff in hospitals shouldn’t be out in these testing centres, and that they should be in the hospitals making preparations. I do understand that, and that it’s a staff shortage that driving this, the end of the day, which is another question. But without having this information about how many people are affected by this virus, how are we going to know how the growth is developing, or emerging?
I understand that in Gwynedd, for example, Bryn y Neuadd Hospital was open for these tests at the start of this period—well, last week, to tell you the truth. But the information now is that that isn’t being used any more—Ysbyty Alltwen the same.
Is there anyone in my area being tested at present? The maps show Gwynedd as an area where there is no coronavirus at present. I don’t know whether that’s changed in the last couple of hours, but it shows that there are no people affected. But, surely—surely—there are people who are being affected, and what that means is that people from the urban areas are looking at the map and thinking, ‘Well, Gwynedd is clean; there’s nothing in Gwynedd. We’ll go over there.’ And there are anecdotes that that is happening. But, of course, to return to the testing issue, if we don’t know the level of this problem, we don’t know whether this is contributing to the problem or is this something we need to be thinking about. It is a problem that will happen in other parts of the UK as well, not just in Wales, and we need to look at that.
And just a final point, in terms of the testing, you have said that you are going to make some kind of pyramid of priorities, and I’m looking forward to seeing that. Healthcare workers, you’ve said, but their families as well. Of course, if there is a child showing the symptoms and you work in the health sector, you need to know whether you should continue to go to your workplace. So, I understand why you’re restricting the numbers that you’re going to test, but I am asking for a better explanation about how you’re going to be measuring the growth that is going to happen, unfortunately. Thank you.
Thank you, Siân Gwenllian, for those questions. It’s news to me about Ysgol Brynhyfryd, as I stand here now. What strikes me is that schools are in the same place such as the GPs and the pharmacies that we’ve talked about this afternoon. If the number of staff members in that context becomes excessive and that there is insufficient staff numbers to run the pharmacy or the GP surgery, well, they will have to close the door for a period of time to be able to reopen when the staff return.
In the short term, the guidelines are the same ones as the schools use in other emergencies such as snowfall. They are carrying on with what they do usually and, of course, there will be more guidelines issued as the time goes on. But in the short term, I am certain that people in the school, and in the local education authority, will be able to put measures in place to cope with what has occurred in the individual school. I acknowledge what Siân Gwenllian says about the more general guidelines, as things develop, and the Minister for Education will be able to respond to questions on such issues tomorrow and Thursday.
And I completely agree with what Siân Gwenllian said about ventilators. We are working across the United Kingdom, the whole of the United Kingdom, with Scotland and with people in Northern Ireland and in England, and we are making one unified effort. And it would be great to get any details about any companies that can assist and support us in this, and we are looking for others who can add to what they’re doing at present to manufacture more ventilators. We also talking about other measures—the non-invasive ventilators, and the other items that the doctors can use. And as Siân Gwenllian said, we wish to increase the number of ventilators available, but also we must train people who have been doing completely different tasks within the hospitals so that they are able to use these ventilators too.
On testing, I've already said what I was going to say about why we have taken the approach that we have taken.
Public Health Wales continues to do its surveillance work of the disease across Wales. I think that Merthyr was another part of Wales that showed as having a very low incidence at this point in the surveillance effort. There are very sophisticated ways, Llywydd—well beyond my ability to explain—in which modelers are able to tell you the prevalence of the disease in a community from the number of people who are presenting for intensive care. There will be ratios that they can deduce from the evidence that they already have. They'll say, 'This number of people are presenting in intensive care. It means the prevalence in the community at community level is of this sort.' And all of that is going on. The change in the testing regime does not mean that there is no intelligence about what is happening at community level. But as I say, there is daily discussion as to whether or not that needs to be done differently or strengthened in other ways.
And I entirely understand the points that Siân Gwenllian made at the end about the family context in which clinical workers operate, and for that to be factored into the testing regime. There will be a circular—that I hope will be available today—that will go out to the NHS through the chief medial officer's office providing detail of how that regime is to be conducted.
Thank you for delivering the statement, First Minister, and may we wish the health Minister and his family all the best during this trying time? We also thank you for the lengths you are going to to keep us and the Welsh public updated during this pandemic.
Thank you again to all people helping—from NHS staff to the many volunteers that we depend upon so heavily. Also, I'd like to reiterate again my condolences to the family of the patient who sadly lost their life to this disease.
Minister, it is vital that we stand firm and united against this disease. The measures being put in place to curb the spread of this disease may be hard to swallow but are very necessary. We have to ensure this disease, which is highly contagious, is held in check as much as is humanly possible, because every day the situation regarding coronavirus changes. As the world goes into various stages of lockdown, we have to take a sensible approach, limit our exposure to people who are at greater risk of complications from the virus, and keep up with regular hand hygiene.
My party will support your efforts to limit our exposure to COVID-19. Our combined efforts are vital to prevent the spread of this disease and keeping it to a minimum. And if we are to keep the rate down, this is necessary. The actions we take, and the actions of the public at large, will help slow the spread of this disease and eventually help save lives.
We are entering a difficult time and it is more important than ever that we come together as a community. The actions outlined by the Prime Minister, our health Minister and our First Minister may be unpopular but are vitally important.
Minister, hand hygiene is as important as ever, but I have heard reports that schools have run out of soap and can't afford to restock. How is the Welsh Government ensuring that public services have sufficient stocks of hygiene equipment and, where absolutely necessary, personal protective equipment?
Throughout this trying time, we have to be as transparent as possible with the public for the reasons behind the actions we are taking. Minister, what consideration have you given to holding regular press conferences with public health officials and the chief medical officer to provide the public information and reassurance of the actions being taken to combat COVID-19?
The need to develop therapeutic treatments is of paramount importance. Minister, can you outline the actions being taken by public health colleagues across the UK, our higher education sector and the pharmaceutical industry to develop treatments while we await the outcome of vaccine trials?
Finally, Minister, the Herculean efforts of our health and social care workforce are to applauded. Without them putting themselves at risk our situation would be far worse. As this crisis deepens, what consideration have you given also to the use of volunteers within health and social care to carry out simpler tasks to allow clinical staff the time to focus on critical care?
Thank you again for your efforts and I will continue to work with you throughout this crisis.
Llywydd, can I thank Caroline Jones for all the things she said in introducing her questions? I agree very much with the points that she made about the combined efforts that we will need to make across this Chamber and far more widely in facing the crisis that is upon us.
In relation to her specific questions on the availability of hygiene equipment in schools, I discussed this this morning with the education Minister and steps are being taken to mobilise resources from other parts of the public sector to help where that is an issue.
As far as regular press conferences are concerned, I agree that it is very important that those are fronted by a mixture of politicians who have the responsibility for making decisions but also those who provide the advice on which those decisions are taken. I want to put on record my thanks to the Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Dr Frank Atherton, who has been at his desk without a break now for a number of weeks, making sure that we get all the advice that is required.
The development of treatments for coronavirus is an international effort, Llywydd, in which the UK is playing its part, because we need all the efforts of scientists and other experts, not simply in this country but elsewhere, to make the necessary breakthroughs as rapidly as possible.
Finally, as far as other efforts are concerned, I left the Chamber a little earlier in proceedings, Llywydd, to go and meet the new head of the armed forces here in Wales. I received assurances from him about the willingness of armed forces in Wales to step into roles where their assistance may be needed over the weeks ahead. The emergency Bill, which Members here will have an opportunity to debate next week, will, I anticipate, include new powers that Welsh Ministers will be able to use to be able to accelerate the path into helping roles of people who, at this point, are not employed in those ways.
Thank you, First Minister, for your statement. Can I place on record my thanks to everyone in Wales who is trying to keep our public services going against the backdrop of this illness? Many of my questions have been answered, but I did also want to ask about the issue of ventilators. Obviously, I heard your answer to Siân Gwenllian. I'm sure I won't have been the only one that was alarmed that we seem to be issuing a call to arms to the manufacturing sector to help us with the ventilator situation. I wonder if you could be a bit more specific about what kind of numbers we're looking at and what kind of assessment you've made of how much of a shortfall we have actually got in that area.
I very much welcome what's been said about the move to testing all healthcare workers. I think that is crucial. I think it's vital that we have as soon as possible, though, clarity on the issue around children and other dependents of health workers. It would be very helpful if the circular that you referred to that is going out today could be shared with Assembly Members, because I've certainly had a number of queries from healthcare workers in my constituency.
I wanted to ask about critical care beds. We'll have all watched with dismay the situation in Italy, but as I understand it, Italy has 12.5 critical care beds per 100,000 of the population, compared to 6.6 per 100,000 in England, and I'm not actually sure what the figure is in Wales. So, I'd like to ask what assessment you've made of the shortfall and what particular plans are in place to try and really boost that capacity now, when we really need it. Angela Burns referred to mental health: I think that is crucial, not just in terms of ensuring that people who have mental health problems—diagnosed mental illnesses—have got access to support, but also, I think, proactively, in terms of recognising that this is going to be a major mental health challenge for the whole country, really. I know there are lots of young people who are feeling incredibly anxious and people from all ages who are really feeling anxiety and who would benefit from a strong public health message in terms of how we all look after our mental health in relation to this crisis. Thank you.
The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair.
I thank Lynne Neagle for those questions. Llywydd, I won't attempt to provide a number, the specific numbers that Lynne asked for in relation to ventilators. The health Minister may well have had them; they're not in my recollection. But we can ask Vaughan to establish that. I'll certainly undertake to make sure that the circular, when it's published—that Members' attention is drawn to it and a link provided so everybody can access it.
As far as critical care is concerned, I don't for a minute want to underplay the very, very real pressures critical-care capacity will come under in this country. I think comparisons with other countries are often difficult, because definitions are different and the way in which beds are counted is different, but, when you set all that aside, there is no doubt at all that the pressure that we will come under will be very real indeed. The first thing we will do will be to mobilise the plans that health boards already have, which allow them to double the current number of critical care beds. When our colleague Vaughan Gething announced £15 million additional investment in critical-care capacity last year, there was a particular emphasis on critical-care outreach capacity. Because there are often patients who remain on an ordinary ward who are at the cusp of can they be looked after there—do they need critical care and critical-care outreach? Allowing those people to continue to be looked after in the ward that they are on was very much part of last year's plan, and will be part of the health service's planning, and more is being done to plan for the demand we know that there will be.
On mental health, I entirely agree with the points that Lynne Neagle has made. It's one of the reasons why we have been keen not to move rapidly to school closures, because we know that there are thousands of young people in our schools who rely on the health services that we have quite recently developed in our whole-school approach. And if we reach a point where schools are no longer able to open in the way that they do now, then as well as thinking about how we can respond to the needs of people who need free school meals, and how we will deal with children of people who are front-line workers and need to be in work, we also need to plan for providing for the mental health needs of those young people who are currently catered for in schools and may not be catered for in that way if schools have to shut.
I've heard nobody around the Chamber argue for a precipitate move to school closure, and the issue is properly a very live one, but part of the reason for being keen for schools to continue as best they can for as long as they can is to give us all a chance to plan for the many needs that schools meet today and will have to be met in different ways if the current system doesn't continue as it now does.
Thank you. We have had speakers from all the parties now, so can I ask the remaining people that we call in this statement just to ask their questions, please? Janet Finch-Saunders.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, I'm trying to see which questions here have not already been asked; there are one or two. As you will be aware, with my remit—. And again thank you for showing leadership, and also to Vaughan Gething, and I hope he and his family come through this okay.
The issue—with my portfolio hat on now—I've had lots of contact from people still very concerned about the domiciliary care sector and what sort of support they're going to get in terms of the safeguarding equipment that they need to wear. Now, I did raise this last week, and it came up about the social care planning and response group. Homecare providers have been advised to review their list of clients and ensure that it is up to date, including levels of informal support available to individuals. So, what consideration has been given to information about individuals who are receiving care at home being shared with local partners, such as leaders of voluntary COVID-19 support groups?
You'll be aware, probably, First Minister, that social media can be quite a support tool in such a crisis, and lots and lots of people are coming forward, some with training, some without. They're really seeking a steer from me, as an Assembly Member, as to how they can join the dots together and make sure that this kind of help is actually used to its maximum benefit. So, if you could put a message out of support there—.
There are also people who are retired social care workers, who've been in touch to say, 'I'm happy to go back in and help where needed'. Again, it's an untapped resource, and it would be wise, I think, for us not to ignore it. Our older people's commissioner has said that Wales needed to be really creative to make sure every older person knows they have people who are looking out for them and who are in touch. She has met with the Welsh Government, Age Cymru and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, so could you clarify what steps you are taking to help organisations identify and provide support to older people?
I've also been approached by children's day centres, playgroups and nurseries regarding advice and guidance, because they reckon they've received nothing in terms of, again, protective equipment and advice as to what they should do. They're all living, at the moment, as we all are, hour to hour, day by day, and they just want some kind of advice.
Also, a question I have for you, First Minister: in terms of testing, will there be any plans, going forward, to introduce self-testing kits at home?
Finally, I've had the chairman of the Llandudno Hospitality Association and other hoteliers, who—these are an army of volunteers used to food hygiene standards, used to—. They maintain that they could help, where needed, as volunteers, with bed changes, preparation of food. So, in such extraordinary times, will you look at all ways to engage with the business community that is so badly affected at the moment? But, despite worrying whether their business can continue, they are willing to rally to the charge to be of some service in their communities. So, again, if you could just respond to those—. Thank you.
Thank you very much for those questions. I think Janet Finch-Saunders is right to worry about the domiciliary care sector. I worry about it a lot, because we rely on it so much, and yet people who work in that field will be equally vulnerable to getting the virus, and the points that Janet made about providers being asked to review their lists and be sure that they can prioritise visits where they absolutely have to are part of this preparation.
An important point was made about information sharing. We're all familiar with the much stricter rules there are in recent times—general data protection regulation rules—that make public authorities nervous about information sharing in case they're in breach of some regulation. So, we intend to raise this through the UK-level discussions so that we can provide some assurances to public authorities that in these circumstances passing information to help somebody else to do the right thing will not rebound on them afterwards, and that's an important point made.
Through the Welsh Local Government Association, we anticipate very shortly that each local authority will become the focal point for local people who've been care workers in the past, or recently retired or moved to some other job, who are willing to come back into that workforce. The local authority—their local authority—will become the first point of contact, so that there is some sort of system put around people's willingness to respond in that way.
As I said in answering questions earlier, Dirprwy Lywydd, there is a meeting planned tomorrow with the WCVA, with county voluntary associations and others to try to harness all that effort that we know people are willing to make locally. I hadn't thought of hoteliers in quite the way that Janet described but she's right, of course, that they are people who have particular skills in looking after people in that context, and may be in a position to adapt those skills and help in others. So, again, thank you for making that point and I'll make sure that it's passed on.
Nurseries—I believe there is advice available to nurseries. It's a dispersed sector; not everybody may know where to look for the advice that is available to them. But, again, across the United Kingdom, nurseries is one of those sectors where action will need to be taken to make sure that good providers doing really important work—and we've had a growth in providers in Wales through the childcare offer and so on—are still there after coronavirus, when their services will be needed again, whereas in the short run they may struggle because they rely on fee-paying parents whose children may not be turning up. So, there's work going on to try and make sure that the UK Treasury understands a short-term intervention to keep those businesses alive, because they're good businesses and viable businesses and we need them to be viable when all this is over.
First Minister, I heard your answer to previous questions on testing, but I would like, if it's possible, to press you a little further on this. Many members of the public are very confused when they see yourself giving one proposition and then the World Health Organization providing a very different analysis. I've seen this afternoon that, across the border in England, a record 7,000 tests were carried out in the last 24 hours. We therefore have a very different regime emerging between not simply the Government here and other Governments in the United Kingdom, but a different regime here to what is being recommended by the World Health Organization.
So, it would be useful, I think, for us to understand why that is. Why do we have advice that is at variance with that which we assume is being received by Scottish and English Ministers? Are we speaking to the World Health Organization to understand why they're providing that advice to Governments across the whole world that are dealing with this? And can we ensure that we here have the very best advice available to us that is tested then against advice that is being provided to other Ministers in other Governments, not simply here in the United Kingdom, but right across Europe and the rest of the world?
I think there are many of us who are somewhat bewildered why we don't seem to be putting a greater emphasis on testing, and then to ensure that, where testing does take place, if we are looking at key front-line personnel, that social services and carers are actually included as well.
I thank the Member for those, Llywydd. I think I've said a couple of times this afternoon that we will be looking to expand, where we can, testing of key workers to include other groups. I entirely share Alun Davies's regret at the inevitable confusion that happens in the minds of the public where they hear different groups and different sources of expertise say different things. The World Health Organization provides advice for well over 100 countries, and the application of that advice will never be identical in any one place, because that advice has to be calibrated according to the circumstances of any one of those member countries.
I can absolutely say that the meetings that take place between the four chief medical officers and the scientific advisers are informed by the World Health Organization, that they hear directly from them, that their advice is never given in ignorance of those sources of advice. I want the Welsh Government to be clear and unambiguous in this way, because I think that this is the best thing that I can do—to try to resist the confusion that I agree is regrettable—and that is this: the Welsh Government operates on the advice that we get from the people who are employed to give it to us, who understand Wales best, who understand the science best, and are therefore best placed to advise Government. Whatever other sources of advice there are, it's for them to filter that, it's for them to distill that, it's for them to say to Government the right course of action, and then Government must act on that advice.
First Minister, thank you for your statement this afternoon. Could I endorse the comments from colleagues who have touched on the mental health aspect of this? We are literally seeing people's everyday lives, in whatever sphere of life they live, taken apart by this, and uniformity and regularity is one of the stabilising factors in most people's lives. Whilst I appreciate all the efforts that the NHS has dedicated to critical care provision at the moment and making bed provision, there will be a massive demand on the mental health provision services that are in this country. I do take comfort from you alluding to the fact of rural communities and the support that has been in place for rural communities through some of the tribulations over the last 20 years that they have gone through.
Two things I'd like to ask of you, if possible, please, First Minister. The first one is building on the point that Janet Finch-Saunders raised about people who might be able to help in the care sector. I've had various care homes over the last 48 hours come and point to the fact that their staffing numbers are diminishing by the day and, obviously, under the rules, staff have to be registered—and rightly so have to be registered—for it to be a safe environment. But there is scope, I would suggest, from the argument that's been put to me, of consideration being given to new registrations and working with the inspectorate to make sure the environment is in place so that care home providers can work in a new environment to get registrations through and deal with the circumstances they face at the moment and in the coming weeks, which are unique circumstances. I'd be grateful to understand has any progress been made on that.
The second—and I appreciate you might not be able to give me an answer at the moment, and in the scheme of what you're dealing with at the moment it almost seems an irrelevance, but given that operations have been cancelled, normal operations, everyday operations have been cancelled, it's not unreasonable for people who have approached myself and many other Assembly Members to try and understand when an element of operations that we would class as normal might be reintroduced into the NHS. As we stand here today, that seems a very distant prospect, that does. I see England have just joined the same regime as Wales announced on Friday. But it's not an unreasonable request for constituents coming to Assembly Members to try and understand when that long-awaited operation that they've been waiting for to take them out of pain and put them on the road to recovery might—might—be factored into the NHS going forward. It might be six months; it might be three months; it might even be 12 months, but some sense of when we might be able to inform constituents of that normalisation would be appreciated.
I thank Andrew R.T. Davies for all of those questions and entirely agree with what he said about mental health. It isn't simply that lives have been turned upside down, but they've been turned upside down in an entirely unforeseeable way and at a speed that nobody could have anticipated. So, people who had perfectly stable and successful lives only a couple of weeks ago are staring down the barrel of real difficulties. I think both of those things—the fact that you couldn't plan for it, and it hit you at such speed—will make the impact on people's well-being very real. There are things that we can learn and want to learn from experiences even as long ago as 20 years ago in the foot-and-mouth crisis. I've been talking to the former First Minister today about some of his experiences at that time and what we might still be able to draw from that in helping people to get their lives back on an even keel.
The emergency Bill to be published later this week will provide ways in which we can have a more flexible approach to registration and regulation so we can accelerate people back into the workplace where that is the right thing to do. In the back of your mind, even in an emergency, we have to remember that there are very vulnerable people in these settings and that safeguarding isn't something that you can just entirely take off the table. So, there will still have to be some ways in making sure that people who are coming forward to help are the sort of people who you'd be happy to see in that capacity. But the system will, I think, be much slimmed down and designed to try and get people in to do the jobs that they want to do.
I entirely understand, of course, that people will want to know when the world will begin to get back to normal, including the operation of the health service. I'm afraid I can't offer anything like a date or even a time frame this afternoon that would be helpful to people. So far, my experience is that people are incredibly understanding of the need for people with more urgent needs to come in front of them. What I can say is that as soon as we see this curve that we expect come over the top and begin to come down the other side, and we're able to offer people reliable indications of how the system might be able to get back to where it was before, then of course we will be very keen to do that.
I think most of the questions that I wanted to ask have now been answered, bar one: around testing, again, First Minister. But hopefully, this is not one that you've already dealt with. It is in relation to residential and care home settings. I've been asked to raise this in particular: whether there has been a particular decision not to routinely test in care and residential settings. Because virtually all of the people that are in there are in the high risk and vulnerable category and the scope to self-isolate if anybody contracts the virus in those settings is very, very limited. So, we would need to plan quite early for anybody within one of those settings having the virus and managing that condition. Are there any plans to look at routinely testing in those settings? And if not, why not? Because we do need to know how we're going to manage the situation should it arise.
I thank Dawn Bowden for that question. I absolutely recognise that many of us here, certainly me included, have relatives who are very close to us living in those settings. So, I entirely understand the point. Dirprwy Lywydd, I hope I've been able to answer, at least in part, most of the questions Members have raised. I don't have an answer immediately in front of me as to the testing regime in residential care homes. Vaughan may well have known it, but I will get an answer, make sure the Member has it, and then circulate it more widely, because I think it will be of interest to more than just a few of us here.
I have three more Members. I will extend this, but I am not anxious to extend it too long. So, again, I will ask you for brevity. Mark Isherwood.
You carry on, Mark.
Firstly, on behalf of some parents who are self-isolating because their children have underlying conditions, they've said, 'Although we've been told by the chief medical officer that children are relatively spared, what advice would you give to parents of children with underlying health conditions under the current circumstances?'
The second issue, on behalf of pregnant women—clearly, they've been told to stay at home. That includes my daughters, three of them, currently pregnant. What provision is being made for the moment that the birth starts happening? We've got one due in 10 days. What assurances do my daughters and the thousands of other women in the same position have that, when they go into labour, they're going to be safe when they go into hospital?
I was contacted by constituents in Flintshire, 70-plus-year-olds, 'My wife and I can't register with the pharmacy to have our repeat prescriptions delivered seamlessly from GP to pharmacy like they can in England under the electronic prescription service, because it's not available in Wales.' Something needs to be done about this quickly, as people who are over 70 are presumably going to be required to self-isolate.
In terms of prescriptions overseas, another one of my daughters has an underlying condition. She is currently on lockdown in Spain, but she is one of thousands of others. What provision is being made to ensure that those people, like her, who need repeat prescriptions can access them?
A couple more questions put to me by constituents today: 'How is the Welsh Government prioritising testing for NHS staff, not just symptomatic healthcare workers in isolation, so that they can know whether they can go to work with a clear conscience?' That was the parent of two healthcare workers who've got coughs and are at home, but don't know if they're actually able to go in and help at work. A local councillor today contacted me, 'I'm reliably informed emergency staff are not getting the right personal protection equipment to deal with the virus.' Again, I wonder if you provide a response for that local councillor? Thank you.
Look, I am reluctant to provide answers that may not be accurate and reliable. My understanding is that the advice for pupils who have underlying health conditions is quite clear: they should stay at home. Services for women in pregnancy: as I understand it, the advice to them is that they should self-isolate, but when they have appointments with the health service, they should keep them. They shouldn't not carry on with the care that they would normally expect to have during pregnancy. They should attend those appointments, they should make sure that they are as well prepared for those events as they can be, but outside that they should have as much social distancing as they can manage.
On pharmacies, I don't, I'm afraid, have answers on either of those points, but I will try and get an answer, particularly on the overseas issue. The testing issue I think will be set out in the circular that I referred to this afternoon. The information I have is that, while there are some inevitable local glitches in the distribution of personal protective equipment, the system is working, it is happening, and where there are some difficulties, they are genuinely local in character.
Very briefly, there are big changes in the size of populations in parts of Wales, particularly in my constituency, from one year to the next, and that's partly because of the number of people who stay in second homes at certain parts of the year. Given the restricted number of acute care beds in certain parts of Wales, including in Ysbyty Gwynedd, for example, and considering the restrictions on unnecessary travel at this time, what guidelines are the Government intending to give in order to avoid a situation where people rush to use their second homes? There's going to be pressure, of course, on our services anyway.
I have heard this point raised before, but a number of people living in Wales at the moment are moving to stay with their families in England as well. So, it's a two-way street. I haven't heard anything as yet from the health boards saying that that problem will have an impact on the services that they provide, but if we discover that such an issue does arise, then the system within Welsh Government will be able to respond to that.
Just two from me. Thank you for confirming that children with underlying conditions should stay at home if at all possible. I don't want to ask you about schools generally, of course, but for some special schools that's the only kind of child that they have there, so is there any specific advice on special schools where only children with learning disabilities or underlying conditions attend?
And then secondly, is there any information available at the moment that will help us reassess the re-infection possibilities of COVID-19? What happens in those circumstances where somebody has self-isolated, hasn't been tested, feels well enough to go back to work, but is then again not tested? As we don't know whether this is—. Well, there will be the two spikes that you referred to in questions earlier today. What are we doing if we're not testing the population level to ensure that re-infection isn't a genuine concern?
Thanks, Suzy Davies, for both of those points. I discussed special schools as well earlier this morning. Where there are pupils in special schools, and there will certainly be a greater concentration of students there who have underlying health conditions, those students should not be in school. But there are many other pupils who attend special schools who don't have those conditions, and it is very important that those families go on having the support that special schools provide to them. So, our general approach is that the decision must be made on the basis of the child and not the setting. We certainly do not have advice of any general nature to special schools in Wales that they should be closing down because of coronavirus.
As to re-infection, we are learning about this from across the world, as to rates of re-infection and the vulnerability of people who've had the disease once to getting it again. What will this virus be like? It's not a virus we know. Will it behave like other sorts of viruses that we build up an immunity to, or will it behave in any different sorts of ways? So, it's an important point that Suzy Davies makes and, at this point, as I understand it, we are benefiting from information and advice that we're getting from other parts of the world that are further down the path of coronavirus than we are, and then preparing for what we may experience here, there being no guarantee, I don't think, Dirprwy Lywydd, that the experience in one part of the world will be identically replicated elsewhere.
Thank you very much, First Minister.
Item 5 on the agenda this afternoon is a statement by the Minister for Housing and Local Government on COVID-19, and I call on the Minister for Housing and Local Government—Julie James.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. It was with great sadness that we are learning of the first confirmed deaths in Wales from COVID-19. I want to add my sincere condolences to the families and friends of the deceased, and to all whose lives have been so seriously and tragically impacted by this ongoing and fast-moving crisis.
As you've heard, the Welsh Government is taking far-reaching, cross-Government action to combat COVID-19 and its wider impacts. We are working closely with other administrations across the UK and partner organisations in Wales, including with all our local authorities.
The First Minister, standing in for the Minister for Health and Social Services, and the Minister for Economy and Transport have already set out earlier the actions being taken in their portfolios. In addition to that action, we have deployed new measures to relax supermarket delivery hours to help maintain the supply of food stuffs and other goods, including those goods that are currently in particularly high demand.
The Emergency Coordination Centre (Wales) is in operation to help effectively co-ordinate our response, working closely with our counterparts in the UK Government, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We have well-established arrangements—tested and exercised over many years—and these are now up and running.
The Welsh Government Cabinet is also now meeting on at least a weekly basis to discuss COVID-19 and our response to it, and the First Minister and/or the Minister for Health and Social Services—and I imagine, now, with his self-isolation, other Ministers—will continue to attend meetings of COBRA so that we have up-to-date information at all times.
Our local authorities have a key role to play in keeping critical services running, and we are working closely with them and our four local resilience forums to ensure that they have the support they require. This morning, I held a joint press conference with the leader of the WLGA, Councillor Andrew Morgan, where we set out the joint actions we are taking.
Clearly, COVID-19 will impact on public services. There will be fewer people available for an indeterminate period to deliver services that will have seldom, if ever, been in greater demand, and this clearly presents a major challenge. However, we have been working with our colleagues in local government to plan and prepare for COVID-19, and this Government will ensure that our local authorities have the resources they need to continue to deliver much-needed public services over the coming weeks and months of this crisis. In addition, we will soon be able to make use of additional, time-limited powers, to be delivered through a four-nation Bill. These powers will help make our response to COVID-19 more effective.
In the press conference with Councillor Morgan this morning—and I want to repeat it here this afternoon in the Chamber, Deputy Presiding Officer—I thanked local government for its considerable contribution, for providing the day-to-day services that the people of Wales rely on so heavily, but also for their incredible response to the recent flooding in parts of Wales. And of course, the work going on across local government dealing with the aftermath of the floods is not yet complete, and now other important work has started on COVID-19 as well.
There are, of course, some specific groups for whom this virus presents particular risks and challenges. I'm very focused on finding practical ways to support these groups and those who work with them. In particular, those who are homeless, especially at the most acute end of the homelessness spectrum—rough-sleepers—need our support more than ever. My officials are working with the sector to bring forward proposals to support the vital work that already happens in this sector and to extend the options available to help people off the streets, give them access to sanitation and support, and enable isolation where necessary. This will include ensuring that local authorities have access to the funds necessary to facilitate this. I'm also conscious of the need to support and protect those who work for this vulnerable group, and to ensure that we work effectively with our third sector partners to maintain core service provision through joint working. I will be providing further details on this later this week.
Work is also ongoing with the WLGA and the third sector to ensure that volunteers are strategically mobilised. The Welsh Government is working tirelessly alongside others to slow down the spread of COVID-19 in Wales and to protect our most vulnerable people. It is important to recognise that every one of us, every person in Wales, has a role to play in helping make this happen. Advice on what to do and not to do has been published on the Welsh Government website. This advice is kept under constant review and updated as necessary.
It is abundantly clear that the COVID-19 crisis will be with us for many weeks, if not months, and it will bring with it a range of serious and long-term impacts on individuals, on families, on the economy and beyond. We will continue to engage with local government and all parties in Wales to plan and implement measures that will keep our public services operating effectively at this critically important time. Diolch.
Thank you very much. Mark Isherwood.
Thank you very much for your statement. Following your press conference with the leader of the WLGA this morning, it was reported that he had stated that bin collections and other council services may be reduced during the crisis and you were quoted as saying that reductions were not happening immediately but were being considered for the weeks and months ahead. I wonder if you could expand a little bit on that and give us some indicative timeline, notwithstanding the fact that none of us has a crystal ball to know what's coming down the road, and how you will factor in, potentially, for example, any health risks that might apply to uncollected rubbish that might come from a household that has infected members living within it.
Like many people, I've been approached by incredible people volunteering to help. I've got one here from a lady aged 63 in Holywell. She'd like to offer her support in any way required. If the over-70s are going to be isolated, she wants to do whatever she can to help on the front line—cleaning floors in hospitals, or whatever. She offers her services, and we know, all of us, that there is an army of incredible people out there offering similar help. I know the Wales Office yesterday stated that they're getting more information on volunteering centralised by today so that they can direct aspiring volunteers to where they're needed. Are you working with the UK Government on that and, whether you are or not, how developed is the position now with local authorities and their partners in enabling local volunteers to contribute through properly verified and bona fide schemes?
In your response to the issues raised with local authorities at your summit with local government on the twelfth of the month—I won't go through all the issues, because as you know, there are a lot of them, but a couple of them—in terms of directors of public health and leaders in local authorities needing to be notified of any cases, you said you were liaising with Public Health Wales on this issue. I wonder if you're able to provide any updates on that. In terms of introducing flexible staff arrangements, you referred to established relationships through the Workforce Partnership Council and as part of the new shadow social partnership council. This will enable social partners from across Welsh Government, public bodies and trade unions to progress swift and effective dialogue on strategic workforce matters linked to COVID-19. But you also said that, in light of the current circumstances, you're activating a virtual network, building on key social partnership structures across wider public services. So, the question is: where have you got to in terms of activating that virtual network? Is it up and running, or when can we anticipate that being the case?
In terms of the Disclosure and Barring Service, to ensure that candidates, whether they're employed or volunteers, are appropriate for particularly children and vulnerable adults, you said you're currently exploring what can be done to achieve a consistent approach without compromising people's safety, to ensure that we get staff cleared and whether there'll be a temporary relaxation, or not. Again, I wonder if you could confirm whether there have been any developments in the five days since then to facilitate a solution in that area.
Just a couple more from your paper: there were concerns over the resilience within the environmental health teams to manage 24/7 expectations. Was the Welsh Government considering taking the same powers as Ministers in England to restrict individual movement, instead of relying on Part 2A Orders? You point out that Part 2A Orders are only relevant in England, but the Welsh Government is working at pace to bring forward equivalent regulations in Wales. Again, I wonder if you could tell us where you've got to with that. It might be that I've missed something and you've already announced these regulations—if not, what is the position?
You said that, on death registrations, there are concerns over increased pressure on registrars' services. Are any special measures planned to deal with the expected increase in deaths? I know, as chair of the cross-party group on funerals and bereavement, that funeral directors are working closely with Governments and other bodies on emergency planning.
You said that an urgent Wales mass fatalities planning group meeting is scheduled for what is now this week, where local resilience forums and mass fatalities group leads will discuss implications on all aspects of the death-management process, including death registration. I wonder if you could tell us whether that meeting has happened, or, if not, is it still going to happen? What, without going into too much detail, arrangements are being put in place?
My very final question: guidance on dealing with any issues or cases in ports such as Holyhead and Pembroke, raised by the local authorities. You said you're asking the UK Government and Border Force to clarify whether they'll be developing more comprehensive guidance for the maritime sector across the UK, as they have previously indicated. So, my final question is, and, again, a few days have passed, so, presumably, you have now asked them: what response have you received? Thank you.
Thank you for that series of questions. I'll do my best to answer all of them. In terms of waste collections, for example, that was given as an example by Councillor Andrew Morgan to a question from a journalist who attended the press briefing this morning, when he said that some services may be scaled back, depending on staff shortages and other issues arising in the weeks and months ahead. What he was trying to demonstrate was that, as people become more affected by the virus and more people go off work, it may be necessary to move people around inside the local authority to maintain essential services. So, it was just given as an example.
But, the example that he gave from an RCT-only point of view—I do emphasise that; it's just an example—was that they might go to monthly collections for some waste. He was very quick, though, to emphasise that they would be collecting food waste and nappy waste, for example, as usual—weekly—in order to offset the health risks.
That does give me, Deputy Presiding Officer, a perfect time to say to people that there is advice available on various local government websites, and I will just read it out for some of you. So, for example, from the point of view of health, Swansea Council is emphasising that personal waste, such as used tissues and disposable cleaning cloths, can be stored securely within disposable rubbish bags. The bags should be placed into another bag, tied securely and kept separate from other waste, and this should be put aside for 72 hours before being put into the normal black-bag waste in order to make sure that the virus has died.
So, I just repeat that—that was just one of the examples of good health practice in waste collection, and that's, obviously, to protect the health of the workers who work at the other end of the waste collection and waste disposal cycle. So, that's just one good example of things that might need to be emphasised, and other things that might need to change. I cannot emphasise enough that we're not saying that that's happening now. It's just an example of one of the things that would be looked at in the coming weeks and months.
In terms of volunteers, the First Minister has already mentioned that we're meeting tomorrow with WCVA partners and others—a whole series of third sector organisations and pan-sector organisations—to discuss the whole issue of third sector involvement and co-ordination of volunteers. We've also had useful meetings with the WLGA about co-ordination of volunteers for each local authority area, and we've been saying today that people who want to come back into the workforce with relevant qualifications, or, indeed, people who have equivalent qualifications, such as the hoteliers that were mentioned earlier, for example, should contact their individual local authorities, who will know where their skills are most needed.
Not everyone will be needed immediately—that's the other thing. People are very eager to come forward now, but what we want is to make sure that we have a steady supply of volunteers, going forward, through what may be many months to come. So, I would urge people to ensure that—. It's not just in the next two days—this is an ongoing thing that we will need to co-ordinate. We will need to make sure that staff don't become exhausted and that volunteers don't become exhausted, and that we're able to give people a rotation around what will need to be done. So, there's a lot of planning around how to co-ordinate that best and where best to deploy people, and how to take that forward, but, as I say, there's a meeting tomorrow, and we have had several conversations with the WLGA about co-ordinating that already.
In terms of cases notified, I think, actually, we're going past that phase now. That conversation was last Thursday, and this is such a moving scenario, at that point we were still reporting all cases. I think we are very rapidly moving out of that, but I will still undertake to make sure that local authority leaders know where there are extreme issues going on in their particular area, and we've made sure that the link is there with Public Health Wales.
In terms of the workforce, the workforce partnership council meetings are going ahead next week. They're chaired by my Deputy Minister, Hannah Blythyn. They will be mostly virtual. We will be making sure that people can dial in in the way that we did for local government leaders last Thursday, for example. Some people will be present, but most of it will be virtual, and that's to discuss how we will take that network going forward.
In terms of the regulation of volunteers and working as appropriate, the emergency Bill has a series of proposed provisions in it around faster registration and relaxation of some rules. One of the examples that I've seen used is that where somebody is not yet registered, they have not yet had the DBS checks that would be necessary, they might be able to work alongside a volunteer who has been checked to make sure that they're supervised but where an extra pair of hands would be beneficial. That kind of supervision arrangement that would not normally be acceptable might be acceptable in these very serious circumstances. So, that's, again, one example of that.
In terms of the environmental health teams and, actually, a range of other teams in a local authority, we're in ongoing discussion with the WLGA and various local authorities about how to cover off some of those issues. I'm afraid I do not know whether the meeting has taken place, Mark, so I will make sure to get that information to you as soon as I can.
Thank you for your statement, Minister. I've got a number of questions I'd like to ask to help put people's minds at rest. Now, it's been pointed out that crisis situations can bring out the best in humanity, and one of the most inspiring things that we've all seen across Wales is the amazing community support efforts that are being put into helping people who are having to self-isolate. Can I ask you if you can announce financial support for local voluntary services or for these community groups to buy equipment, practical equipment, but also equipment or support to help tackle loneliness amongst the people who are self-isolating, and also if the Welsh Government will be supporting schemes to provide vouchers for groups to go out to buy food and essential supplies for the people who are self-isolating?
The First Minister mentioned earlier that testing will be made available for front-line clinical staff. Of course, social care workers are on the front line, and over the coming weeks and months, they're going to be carrying out a really essential role. There's surely an obligation on the Welsh Government and local authorities to count social care staff as key front-line workers in this regard. So, could I ask if they will be prioritised for testing, as well as what extra resource will be made available for them? That, obviously, would count in terms of care workers who go into people's homes, but also people in the residential care sector, as well; many of them will be run by local authorities.
The UK Government announced that the NHS effectively has a blank cheque to deal with this crisis. Would you agree with me, Minister, that the social care service also needs a blank cheque to continue caring for people? In terms of local government finance, you mentioned in your statement that there will be fewer workers who will have to cope with an increased workload. So, could you outline any relaxations on local government financial controls that we could expect, since we don't want local government to have to be cancelling or not carrying out essential services in this really worrying time because of financial reasons?
And then, you mentioned in your statement a number of provisions relating to homelessness, and I've got a few questions relating to housing, if I may. The coming weeks will be difficult for everyone who needs to self-isolate, but I'm sure we can only imagine how difficult that's going to be for people who don't feel safe and secure in their own home. We've mentioned flooding a few weeks ago. Many of my constituents, other people's constituents, had their homes destroyed by dirty water. Will the Government be bringing forward emergency repair work to help make these homes habitable again, particularly as people will have to be spending a lot more time at home? Obviously, the current virus crisis is focusing minds, but people who've been affected by the floods can't be forgotten about either—I'm not suggesting for a moment that they will be.
In terms of housing more generally, could I ask if the Welsh Government will be mandating councils to give council tax and rent relief for anyone who's self-isolating and unable to get to work? As well, in order to help anyone who faces almost the double terror of this virus and also potential homelessness, will you be bringing forward legislation to suspend the use of section 21 of the Housing Act 1996, so that people cannot be facing evictions during this period because of their contracting this virus? I'd ask for any other information that you'd be making available, but I hear and welcome what you said in terms of the support being made available for people who are homeless already and also the third sector workers who help people who are homeless. If there's any further information that will come out in the coming weeks, or days, even, I'd be grateful to see it.
Now, looking to another group who could face entrenched poverty as a result of the virus, we've been talking in the Chamber already about the uncertainty about if and when schools will close. Can you tell us exactly what provision is going to be made available for children, if schools close, who would otherwise have been reliant on free school meals? It seems to me that that is something that local authorities could well be helping with, to co-ordinate, and it's something that I know a lot of parents and teachers have written to me about, expressing real concern about that.
Again, I know that the coming weeks are going to be worrying for everyone in society, but perhaps some of the people who are most at risk and we don't immediately think about are people who are victims of domestic abuse, whether they live in refuges or whether they are living with the perpetrator in a coercive and controlling relationship, and they are going to be facing self-isolation with the perpetrator and the abuse could escalate. I appreciate this isn't something that is directly related to your role, but is there anything that local authorities could be doing in terms of a helpline or some kind of extra provision, in a complementary way to what I was asking about in terms of support or reassurance for people who are experiencing loneliness? Could something more targeted be made available for victims of domestic abuse?
Finally, Minister, a number of by-elections are meant to be held in the coming weeks. I know that there's one in Swansea West, there was one that was meant to happen in Caerphilly. Could you confirm, please, that these by-elections will definitely be postponed until we're on the other side of this crisis?
Thank you for that series of important questions. Just on the by-elections, we've already contacted local authorities with impending by-elections to say that the emergency Bill will contain provisions to postpone them, and that authorities should do the right thing and postpone them in advance. So, the one in Swansea, I believe the electoral registration officer has already written out to say that they're suspending all work on the elections.
It's slightly more complicated for elections that were being held in the immediate future. So, I believe there's one on Thursday scheduled in Cardiff, so we are in conversation with Cardiff council about what the best thing to do there is, and, obviously, the Bill won't be in force by then, but, nevertheless, we're asking people to do the right thing in terms of the by-elections. That's pretty straightforward.
The whole issue around free school meals and the issue around what else children receive in schools apart from education is a really difficult issue, and one of the reasons we're urging schools to stay open, at least until the Easter holidays. What we need is the month's plan, so, two weeks of the remaining school term and two weeks of the Easter holidays, to get the plans in place to ensure that children who receive free school meals can still receive them in whatever arrangements we can put in place. We will be working closely with local authorities and, obviously, education colleagues to put those provisions in place, and that's a very large number of pupils. Some schools in my constituency have a very high number of free school meal pupils who, obviously, would be very disadvantaged.
But there are other groups of children. There are groups of children who are placed with their parents, but only because they have supervision in school. So, we will have to make sure that there are safeguarding arrangements put in place for such children. There are a number of others. There is a long, long list of things that we need to do that schools normally do that we will need to put in place. Although I accept everything that Members have said across the Chamber, Deputy Presiding Officer, about the difficulties with schools and so on—the education Minister has been having meeting after meeting with various people about it, and I know will be answering questions and meeting the committee tomorrow—clearly, there are a number of things that we need to rapidly put into place to make sure that we can cover off as many of those things as possible and that each local authority area has a number of centres that can step into that. So, we've a lot of work to do to get to there. We're still in the phase of trying to buy some time, if you like, to get those arrangements in place in a coherent and controlled fashion, with the right information out to people, rather than it being very ad hoc, which is otherwise the danger.
For domestic abuse victims, absolutely, we've already been considering actually not only for existing domestic abuse victims, and I don't mean this in any trite way, but being confined to close quarters with your nearest and dearest can be very stressful, even for people who are in perfectly reasonable relationships. So we will need to put helplines in place, talking therapy lines in place, and that kind of thing, and also the Live Fear Free helpline—that's very hard to say—will be still available, and we'll make sure it's available all the way through that. But, yes, we will have to put a number of arrangements in place.
In terms of housing and homelessness, as I said briefly in my statement, we're already looking at arrangements to ensure that people are right at the sharp end of homelessness and get the help and support that they need. I understand that the English Minister has announced an initial £3.2 million earlier today for her help for homelessness. I don't yet know whether there's anything in that for Wales, but clearly we're already looking at measures to pick that up.
There are other issues around housing. We have been urging residential landlords who have buy-to-let mortgages, where their lender is being encouraged to give them a mortgage holiday, to pass that on to their renters, clearly. So we're urging Rent Smart Wales to be doing that, and to be fair, the Residential Landlords Association have been asking their landlords to ensure that they do that. We will be writing out to social landlords about what should happen about rent in social housing—registered social landlords and councils in the next day or so—and I will be doing another update for Assembly Members, Deputy Presiding Officer, probably by written statement later this week, about some of the provisions that we're looking at there. That includes victims of the recent floods, many of whom are in temporary accommodation, and what we will be looking to do to ensure that we get those into more suitable accommodation. Obviously, if that's their own home, then that's much more ideal, but for some of them that's not going to be possible in the short term. So, we're looking at that as well.
I don't know what the NHS blank cheque means. We hope that it means that there will be enough money coming to us, and obviously we fund health and social care jointly. Obviously, we will need to include social care in that. That's just axiomatic. There are a whole series of things that the First Minister mentioned when answering questions on health and social services and in First Minister's questions just now that will be looked at over the next weeks and months, including getting people who are fit for discharge from hospital but who haven't been able to be discharged more rapidly discharged. Very hard decisions are going to have to be made about the level of choice that people have, and so on, in order to cope with the crisis, but we will be looking at all of those.
Today, Andrew Morgan and I put out an appeal during the press conference for anyone with social care experience, or anyone who feels that they could help, to come forward to their local authority to see whether they can be of assistance in the coming days and months. I repeat that appeal now: people should contact their local authority and explain that they would like to be considered. As part of the emergency legislation we are looking at provisions that affect people who've got a pension. So, at the moment, there are claw-back provisions for people who work more than certain hours and so on, so we're looking to relax those as part of the emergency legislation that's coming through to meet this crisis.
There are a whole series of other things around assisting various third sector organisations with all kinds of things—equipment and so on—but actually, just with staffing resources and stuff, which will be considered at tomorrow's meeting. I'm sure we'll be updating Assembly Members accordingly.
I think your statement, Minister, will be welcomed across the country, and certainly the commitment to working together and leading the response from local authorities is something that will be greatly appreciated by people across Wales. I'd be grateful if you could outline whether you are looking at providing additional support for local authorities in terms of the resources available to them. I think many people will be looking to the local council to provide support for their communities in the coming weeks and months. We know that local authorities themselves will be under immense pressures, both in terms of social services and in terms of issues with their workforces, who will also be suffering from this virus. But I'd be interested to understand how you intend to approach that issue.
But also support for social enterprises. I've been approached in the last day or so by the Sofrydd Institute, the Llanhilleth Institute and Kidz R Us in Tredegar, who are all social enterprises, and who are facing real issues with their ability to maintain services over the coming weeks and months. There are some really frightened people in communities across the country, and it's important, therefore, that the sort of support that we're putting in place to support businesses is also in place to support social enterprises so that the social infrastructure of our communities isn't lost as a consequence of this.
At the same time, of course, it's fantastic to see the way in which people are responding to this crisis, about support being mobilised through social media and through other means by which people are seeking to help the vulnerable in different communities. It would be a very useful role for this Government to see how it can help and support that, share best practice, provide resources, if possible, to different community groups who will be supporting and sustaining vulnerable people through this time.
Finally, many people have suggested to me that it would be very useful if a helpline was created whereby people, particularly older people who will be at home for long periods of time in the coming months, would be able to phone a single number across Wales, answered locally, for help or support. We spoke earlier about issues around mental health around this issue, but people who feel lonely, people who feel frightened, people who don't have the access to help and support that others may have—a point of contact where they will be able to contact somebody and ask for that help and support. Thank you.
Thank you very much, Alun Davies, for that. On that last one, I'm very interested, and we haven't yet done it, but I've had the suggestion made and you've made it very ably this afternoon, to start to speak to providers about what can be provided via BT and so on—other providers are available—for that conferencing facility. We will be working with local authorities to see what we can set up for voluntary groups just being able to use their own phone at home and to be available to talk to somebody locally and just to set up the social engagement groups. There are all kinds of things going on on social media, so resourcing the local authorities to be able to assist in co-ordinating that and making sure it spreads to areas where, perhaps, it hasn't started spontaneously.
What we're saying at the moment is that we will ensure that all local authorities in Wales have both the support and the resources they need to respond to the crisis. I don't know what that looks like yet, but we've assured them that, whatever that looks like, we will be able to step up to that for them and, obviously, we're lobbying the UK Government on an hour-by-hour basis for support for ourselves as well. It's clearly absolutely essential that we have people doing the right thing for the right reasons at the right time and not worrying about whether they can afford it right this second, or not. So, we've made that very plain and we'll continue to do that. I think that's really important. In tomorrow's meeting with the third sector, social enterprises, we will be discussing business support for social enterprises. I met yesterday, I think it was, with the Wales Co-operative Centre, and we will be putting in that kind of level of support, so I could not agree more: social enterprises across the country are absolutely part of the fabric of where we are.
My colleague the Deputy Minister, Hannah Blythyn, is looking at citizens advice bureaux and what we can do there and with the credit unions as well to see how we can co-ordinate some of the approaches. So, backing up the credit unions, for example, to be able to assist people who have no savings and all the rest of it through no fault of their own, because of the gig economy, will be an essential part of what we do as well.
Can I welcome your statement, particularly the promise to bring forward more details on how rough-sleepers are going to be helped? They must be the most vulnerable group in society and this adds great fear and misery, potentially, to their situation and it's right that we ensure the highest resource we can make available is made available for that group of people.
I only have one question—you have faced so many questions in this statement, because it is such an important area. Many people who are just on the edge of rough-sleeping sell The Big Issue, and their sales will likely drop considerably. I just wonder if there are any possibilities, either through direct Welsh Government aid or urging the UK Government to look at how that income stream could be supported, because we could end up with more people on the street, certainly vulnerable people, anyway, in a much more fragile situation in the next three or four months when they just don't have that income.
That's an absolutely excellent point. I haven't yet contacted The Big Issue, but I think officials have it on their list of things to do, so we will want to know how we can support them. I'm very concerned about sofa surfers, as they are called, or people who are on the edge of rough sleeping, sliding down, because, obviously, as families self-isolate at home, they're unlikely to be as accepting of people kipping on their sofa, or whatever, as normal. So, we're very alert to the idea that we might have a sudden surge of people who become quickly homeless, or more quickly than they would otherwise do so. You'll know that in normal times, very recently we've been running a big campaign to get people to recognise themselves as homeless, and we'll be continuing to do that as much as possible as well. But we are very concerned that exactly that will happen.
In terms of the rough-sleepers, I will be putting out a statement later this week, but basically what we're trying to do, obviously, is make sure that people can get in where they can get in, that we have cohort services. So, effectively, if you're infected you will have a set of services—or if you're potentially infected. If you're not infected, you'll have a different set of services. There are many different cohorts in the rough-sleeping fraternity as well—people with other issues that we will have to make sure are in cohorts and not just randomly distributed. There will be big issues about whether we can secure hotel accommodation or bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Actually, ironically, of course, because of the virus, that's more available than it would normally be, so we will be making use of that.
And there will be a cohort of people we cannot get in, for all kinds of reasons. We know that some rough-sleepers have real issues with that. So, we will be looking to establish, particularly in the four cities that have the acutest problem in Wales, areas of safety for tents and where we can put sanitation and health provision and so on in for people where we can't get them inside. Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, there will be some people in that cohort. So, we will be doing that and I will put a statement out later in the week when we're more certain of what we'll be doing, but we'll be responding to that.
I was delighted to see that the UK Ministry has just announced this initial, as it's called, £3.2 million. We'll be very anxious to see how much of that will come to us and what we can do with that additional money. So, all the things that I've said is stuff we're already doing with our own stuff, so anything we can do in addition to that we'll be looking at.
I think The Big Issue is a very interesting one; we'll certainly be taking that up. As the First Minister has said repeatedly this afternoon, we're certainly not the repository of good ideas, so anything else that you can think of that might be helpful, we'll be really glad to hear.
I won't take much of your time. I just have an idea that's been passed to me in the context of the acute need that could arise in the next weeks and months for temporary homes for health workers and other key workers. It arises from a scenario where there is a man who is older and has to self-isolate at present, and his son is a policeman who is a key worker who doesn't want to self-isolate, but he doesn't have anywhere else to live. So, possibly we would be able to have benefit from finding places for these key workers to live for a while.
Is there benefit in the Government looking at the possibility of reaching out to people who have empty homes, second homes, Airbnbs and so forth, to see whether that empty property could be used in this period in order to house key workers?
Yes, I think that's an excellent idea. It's not one that had occurred to me, so I'm really pleased to have it put forward. We will certainly look into that. That's absolutely crucial, isn't it, if you live with a family member who has that and you can be separated from them, then that's clearly an excellent idea? We do know that there are hotels across Wales with very low occupancy rates, for example, as a result of the virus, so it's certainly worth looking at, and we will do that, and we will pass that back immediately.
Thank you very much, Minister.
Item 6, a statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales on the Bus Services (Wales) Bill, has been postponed.
Item 7, which was the statement by the Minister for Housing and Local Government on the homelessness action group report, is to be issued as a written statement.
Also to be issued as a written statement is the statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: a framework to improve quality and performance in urgent emergency care.
And so we move to item 9, which is the Adoption Agencies (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2020, and I call on the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition to move the motion. Jeremy.
Motion NDM7298 Rebecca Evans
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales; in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:
1. Approves that the draft The Adoption Agencies (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 is made in accordance with the draft laid in the Table Office on 20 February 2020.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I move the motion.
The statutory instrument before you today amends the Adoption Agencies (Wales) Regulations 2005, which are the principal regulations. A number of related amendments have already been made to the principal regulations by the Adoption Agencies (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, which were laid before the Senedd on 20 February 2020. These will come into force on 1 April of this year.
The amendment made by this set of regulations sets out the requirement on adoption agencies, when assessing the suitability of a couple to adopt a child, to have proper regard to the need for stability and permanence in the relationship. Members will be aware that single people can also adopt, but this measure applies when a couple is being considered. The amendment will highlight for agencies the fact that any couple's relationship, whether people are married or not, and whether in a heterosexual or same sex relationship, may come under pressure when an adopted child joins the family. The regulatory requirement is therefore designed to safeguard the welfare of children, and ensure that prospective adopters are equipped to deal with the needs of the children they hope to adopt.
We know from research that many adopted children have experienced significant adversity early in their lives, and they'll need support from an adopted family to overcome those experiences, to cope with the challenges they will face in the future, and to thrive. A careful assessment of the strength of the couple's relationship is required to ensure that parties will support each other to give the child the extra parenting that may be required.
This provision is not a new provision, but is already in place. The amendments to the 2005 regulations include some new provisions already made by the negative procedure and the continuation of existing provisions, which have been brought forward in these regulations because they engage the Assembly's affirmative procedure. Diolch yn fawr.