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Omicron, education, homelessness and economy dominate inaugural meeting of the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister

The inaugural meeting of the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister was held on Thursday (Dec 16). The committee looked at COVID-19 and winter pressures on public services, as well as scrutinising the First Minister on Welsh Government policy.

Chair of the committee David Rees MS began by asking the First Minister what assessments he had made of the original recovery plan and the plans that were put into place at the start of the autumn, given that we are seeing the additional pressures of a new variant coming into the country and what that means for our services.

The First Minister said that the original recovery plan had been overtaken by the programme for government that was created following the election, and the latest version of the programme for government was published in the last 10 days.

He said: “As to the current plans for this winter, I think it is two weeks, is it, since we first all learnt the word ‘omicron’. The winter plan that was published for the health service on 21 October was drawn up in the context of the ongoing delta variant, and of course, we are, all of us, having to very quickly adapt our plans in the light of the new variant. That means changes for all public services, because of the likely impact of that variant. And in the health service in particular, it means, for the moment, that there is an enormous effort going on to offer every eligible adult a booster vaccine before the end of this calendar year, at the same time as the health service is dealing with every other pressure that comes with the winter, on the one hand, and the recovery from coronavirus on the other.”

Russell George MS asked the First Minister if he thought that national and regional plans, in terms of the winter plans were sufficiently ‘joined up’. He asked when they would be published and when they would be seen.

The First Minister pointed out that the winter plan was published on October 21st and that Welsh Government provided just under £10 million to regional partnership boards.

He said that the regional partnership boards had until 25 November to submit their plans and that those plans have been submitted and they are live documents.

“Everything we’re learning about the omicron variant is that its impact is likely to come upon us very quickly and very steeply in the month of January. So, frankly, there is not going to be a great deal of time for people to be spending on writing plans and publishing them. They are going to have to, in real time, be dealing with the impact of the variant. And that impact, I think, will be twofold at least. It will drive more people into public services. In the health service, more people are going to fall ill as a result of the variant, so there will be more demand, and at the same time, the supply of services is going to be affected because the people we rely on will themselves be likely to be ill,” he said.

The First Minister gave a stark warning that some estimates suggest that, during the coming wave,

half of the population of the United Kingdom will fall ill with coronavirus

He said: “That is the most enormous number and it will be compressed into a much shorter number of weeks than was the case with either alpha or delta. The work that is going on, and it’s going on across the United Kingdom, is to try to model that to get some idea of what the demand will be and what we might be able to do to suppress it. But also to give us a sense of the impact that there will be on the available workforce and how we will cope with circumstances in which people we rely on—and it won’t be just in the health service; it will be true of refuse collection services, for example—. If there is a third of the workforce unable to be in work, how will we organise those services over that very intense, if relatively short, number of weeks?”

Asked by Russell George MS about recruitment of more doctors and nurses to deal with the strain on the NHS the First Minister called on Judith Paget the Director General of the Health Service in Wales to answer.

She said: “In relation to nurse training places, through the ongoing year-on-year investment made by Welsh Government, those nurse training places have increased by 69 per cent since 2016, so a substantial increase in nurse training, and similar increases in midwifery and also in physiotherapy and clinical radiology. So, the NHS guides where that investment or that increase is needed, based on their own plans to change and develop their services.

“In relation to vacancies, clearly there are vacancies in nursing. We’ve heard the calls from the Royal College of Nursing and, from my own experience, working in the role I had in my health board previously, clearly there are vacancies. And health boards have worked really hard both to recruit to those vacancies, but, clearly, overseas recruitment and other options are still there, and I think we are planning a more co-ordinated approach to working on overseas recruitment across the NHS for those vacancies.”

Jenny Rathbone MS asked the First Minister what the barriers were to more intensively using pharmacists particularly for the vaccination programme. She said: “The pharmacy is on the high street and it can be a much easier place to get to. What are the technical barriers to using pharmacists, given that we’re using Pfizer?”

The First Minister said that the single biggest practical barrier is the fact that people have to wait for 15 minutes after they have been vaccinated.

He said: “Many, many of our high-street pharmacists have quite a small consulting space, and just the number of chairs they have for people to be there clog up very quickly when everybody has to have somewhere where they can sit and be observed. There are two solutions to that. One is that we are going to issue revised guidance on waiting times. There will still be quite large numbers of people where a 15-minute waiting time will be required, but we are able to reduce the waiting time to five minutes from 15 minutes for others in the population. For example, for people who’ve already had two doses of Pfizer and are now having their third dose and have had no previous reaction to it, the advice is it is clinically safe to observe those people just for five minutes. That will free up more time, even in small pharmacies, to be able to do more of this.”

Jack Sergeant MS asked about issues in education. He asked the First Minister if he could explain a little bit further where the Welsh Government’s thoughts are around what education looks like for young people in the early part of the new year?

The First Minister said that the education Minister, Jeremy Miles, had sent a letter to headteachers urging schools to plan on two different bases. He said: “Jeremy’s letter says, essentially, ‘Plan on the basis that you will need a maximum level of measures in school to have children back in school.’ He said in the same letter that the Welsh Government, or that he, as the Minister, would issue a Coronavirus Act 2020 notice to allow schools to operate staggered start and finish times from the start of the new term as well. That was a measure we did have in place earlier in the pandemic. It was not thought necessary when we returned in the autumn; it’s being reinstated by the Minister now.”

The letter also says to headteachers that they should use those two days to plan for what would be necessary if schools had to move to remote learning. The First Minister said that he thought that was very sensible. He said: “Schools will have two days at the start of term where they have the very best information about their local circumstances, the number of teachers that they will have available, the extent to which coronavirus is circulating amongst their school population, and then they will be able to plan for whichever of those futures they think they will face in the days and weeks ahead.”

Jenny Rathbone MS expressed concerns for ‘vulnerable’ pupils and asked that however difficult and challenging it is for schools in terms of the numbers of staff available that it’ll still be possible to have vulnerable children coming into school in person,  whether they haven’t got the technology to have online lessons, or they have learning difficulties, or all manner of other reasons.

The First Minister said that it was part of the plan but that it was ‘very complex’.

If schools in significant numbers have to move temporarily to remote learning, those vulnerable children, and children of key workers as well, there will be on-site provision for them, so that those young people are looked after and their parents are released to do all those other vital things we need them to do

David Rees MS asked about the position for homeless people and rough sleepers and what Welsh Government’s thinking was on how local authorities could continue to be supported by Welsh government to meet the challenges.

The First Minister said that it was the most fantastic effort by our local authorities and third sector partners in finding emergency accommodation. He said: “Since March 2020, when the crisis began, over 15,300 people have been brought into emergency accommodation. That is the most enormous effort, a practical effort of finding accommodation, but we know that many of the people who have been housed in that way have needs that go beyond just a simple place to live.

“We published the ending homelessness action plan on 30 November. We’re investing a record amount of money: housing support grant up by £40 million this year, an increase of nearly a third; £250 million in the social housing grant. So, all of that is about building more affordable social housing because, in the end, that is the key, isn’t it?” 

The full recording of the meeting can be viewed here: https://record.assembly.wales/Committee/12693

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