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First Minister paints bleak picture of new strain of virus and the impact it may have on the people of Wales

THE First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford MS has painted a very bleak picture of the present situation in Wales in relation to Covid-19. He began his briefing today, Monday (Dec 21) stating that he had hoped to be looking forward to better times in 2021. Instead he said that he would speak about the latest challenge we are facing. He said that a new mutated strain of coronavirus had been identified and that it is much more infectious and it is moving quickly in Wales.

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Chris Jones said that all viruses can and do change. He said that there have been a number of mutations since the virus was identified just over a year ago. “The new virus is concerning,” he said.

“We are seeing it in London and the South East of England but also in Wales. The news strain appears to be much more infectious and much more easily transmitted from person to person.”

Dr. Jones said that he did not believe it would affect how the vaccine would work. He said: “On Monday of last week we were aware of ten cases in Wales. By Friday this has risen to 20 mainly around Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan. A new analysis suggested that this strain is much more common and is present all over Wales.”

Dr. Jones gave figures from the office of National Statistics and said that the new strain was present in 28% of samples from Wales in the second week of December. “Public Health Wales colleagues advise us that this new strain could be causing up to 60% of coronavirus infections in Wales. This new variant looks very likely to be a significant driver of the huge growth of cases we have seen in Wales in recent weeks,” he said.

Mr Drakeford said that the pandemic changed gear in late November and that they now have a better understanding of why that happened. He said that there were 623 cases per 100,000 in the population. “A month ago there were 1700 people in our hospitals with Coronavirus symptoms. Today there are more than 2,300 and rising. Our critical care units are operating beyond their capacity. Very sadly over this weekend alone Public Health Wales reported 100 deaths.” The First Minister paused to remember the families for whom he said, this Christmas will never be the same because of loved ones taken away from them by this cruel disease.

The First Minister went on to say; “If we continue to see the case rise go on unchecked fuelled by this new highly infectious variant the effect on our NHS will be profound. We must do everything we can to prevent that from happening.”

The First Minister attended a COBR civil contingencies committee meeting on Saturday, which was chaired by the Prime Minister. The First Ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with UK cabinet ministers, were also in attendance. It was convened to look urgently at the impact the spread of a new variant of coronavirus is having in the UK, and the subsequent decisions to increase measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

As a result he said; “we took unavoidable and immediate action to bring forward the alert level 4 restrictions because of this incredibly serious turn the pandemic has taken here in Wales. In the light of information we had in front of us it was imperative to take swift action to prevent further harm and to save lives here in Wales.”

Speaking about help available to businesses the First Minister said that Welsh Government had extended the business fund by £110 million and an extra £180 million fund for hospitality and supply chain businesses.

“If the UK Government provides support to businesses in London and the South East which have also had to close then we will pass all the additional funding we get here in Wales as a result onto our own businesses. All retailers will be able to offer click and collect services,” he said

Concluding the First Minister said: “2020 has been an extraordinary year and a difficult one for us all. It has taken another deeply unpleasant turn just as we were preparing to celebrate Christmas. Our greatest strength in Wales has been the way in which people here have responded to the virus working together in social solidarity to keep each other safe. For so many months we have followed so many rules. Now we all need to redouble those efforts in the face of this new strain of virus.”

We asked the First Minister if there were a case for balancing and applying similar governmental interventions within the NHS and in people’s lives given that the numbers of people who have died of prevalent causes other than Covid-19 is higher and likely to rise if the might of the NHS is disproportionately driven towards Covid-19 or did he see Covid-19 as a must win at all costs problem.

We asked: If so can we expect more doctors, more nurses, more people in the communities of Wales dealing with the effects of the pandemic or was he pinning all his hopes on a vaccine, which would have to deal with a mutating virus?

The First Minister replied: “Your question goes straight to the heart of the dilemma that we have been trying to resolve in the Welsh Government. I have said a few times here I don’t want to see the Welsh NHS becoming a national Covid service rather than a national health service. So the reason we have taken the actions we have and the reason we ask everybody in Wales to pay particular regard over the coming weeks to those simple, basic things we all have to do is in order that we get to the middle of next month with an NHS in Wales able to cope with people who are seriously ill with Coronavirus but also having the capacity it needs to deal with everything else that we need it to do.

“So it is absolutely not an at all costs strategy that we are following in Wales. It is a strategy designed to hang on to the gains that we made from May onwards when the health service was able to go back to resuming activity that had been paused in the first lockdown. We don’t want that to have to go into permanent reverse. The actions we have taken and the things we ask people to do will be absolutely crucial in making sure that the NHS is there for everybody.”

We asked if there were further measures the UK and Welsh Government could and would take if the situation should become bleaker than it already is and would these measures involve the utilisation of the armed forces?

The First Minister said: “I am very grateful indeed for all the help we have had from the armed forces during the whole of the Coronavirus experience. We had a huge amount of help in the very beginning both in planning and logistics but also in very practical things like ambulance driving, cleaning of ambulances so they could get back on the road again.

“Quite rightly as things improved over the summer the army began to withdraw from those activities. In recent weeks we have had to draw back again on help from the armed forces. I was involved in signing off things to ask for some further even help over this weekend. We have had all the help we could ask for and the message to us is always if more help is needed we should ask and if that help is available I am sure we will get it. We remain extremely grateful for the help we have received.”

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