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Lockdown at midnight as new strain of coronavirus grips Wales

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ALL of Wales will be placed under lockdown from midnight with festive plans cancelled for all but Christmas Day.

First Minister Mark Drakeford made the announcement after urgent talks with ministers over a new strain of coronavirus, The Herald can confirm.

From December 23 to to December 28 rules had been due to be relaxed to allow people to celebrate the holidays with loved-ones.

But now this is limited to just Christmas Day.

Announcing the strict measures Mr Drakeford said: “While we all want to avoid further disruption to businesses and plans for Christmas, our overriding duty is to protect lives here in Wales, we know that 2021 will be a different and a better year. Our economy will recover. Christmas will come again.”

The changes mean that a Wales-wide lockdown, which was due to come into effect from 28 December, has been brought forward and will begin at midnight tonight.

All of Wales will be placed into the highest level of lockdown – Level 4 – with all but essential shops closed, and people being told to “stay home” to save lives.

Gyms, beauty salons, bars and pubs, and non-essential shops will have to close at the end of trading today, with people only being able to travel for “essential reasons”.

Commenting on the new restrictions announced tonight, Paul Davies MS, Leader of the Opposition in the Welsh Parliament, has said:

“Having been briefed by the First Minister today, I can fully appreciate the need for more severe restrictions in Wales, especially where infection rates are high, and the new strain of the virus is circulating.

“I know that many people will be disappointed as they were looking forward to seeing their loved ones this Christmas, but in the face of the emerging evidence it is clear that Christmas bubble arrangements must change.

“By working together and keeping to the rules we can ensure as many people as possible will be around to celebrate Christmas together in the years to come.”

<strong>First Minister statement – 19 December</strong>

Today, I met the First Ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland, and Michael Gove, from the UK Government, to discuss the very latest information on a new strain of coronavirus.

We now know that this new strain is significantly more infectious and spreads more quickly than the original one.

Many of you will have heard the Prime Minister this afternoon setting out the pattern of transmission in London and the South East of England, which has been linked to this new variant of coronavirus.

This is remarkably consistent with the rapid acceleration of transmission in Wales and the high rates of cases we have seen in recent weeks.

The latest evidence suggests this new strain is present throughout Wales.

Throughout the public health emergency, we have had to respond quickly to the rapid changes, which have been so typical of coronavirus.

Today has been one of those days when new information has required an immediate response.

This afternoon, the Cabinet met to discuss this worrying new development in the pandemic and to hear the latest advice from our senior medical and scientific advisers, including the impact on our NHS.

The situation is incredibly serious. I cannot overstate this.

We have therefore reached the difficult decision to bring forward the alert level four restrictions for Wales, in line with the action being taken in London and the South East of England.

These new restrictions will come into effect from midnight tonight instead of during the Christmas period.

This will mean non-essential retail, close contact services, gyms and leisure centres and hospitality will close at the end of trading today.

Stay-at-home restrictions will also come into effect from midnight.

Unfortunately, we must also look again at the arrangements for Christmas – we cannot expose people to the risk of this new, more virulent strain of coronavirus.

We will therefore change the current rules, which allow two households to come together to form a Christmas bubble over a five-day period, so that they will apply on Christmas Day only.

Throughout the alert level four period, a single person household will be able to join with one other household.

While we all want to avoid further disruption to businesses and plans for Christmas, our overriding duty is to protect lives here in Wales.

We know that 2021 will be a different and a better year.

Our economy will recover.

Christmas will come again.

But lives which are lost, are lost for ever.

This new strain of the virus is another dreadful surprise in this long-running pandemic.

We now have a pandemic within a pandemic, a crisis within a crisis.

It is another challenge we must overcome. But one we will overcome together.

We will continue to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and, together, we will keep Wales safe.

Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi gyd.

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National 20mph limit comes into force in Wales next year

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WALES will be the first UK nation to impose a 20mph default speed limit following a vote held in the Senedd yesterday (July 12). The Welsh Government voted to limit residential roads and busy pedestrian streets to 20mph. 

According to the Welsh Government, this will lessen the likelihood and severity of accidents involving vulnerable road users. It will also encourage more people to cycle and walk. 

39 members of the Senedd voted in favour, while 15 members voted against. 

The new national default speed limit will come into effect from September 2023. The Welsh Government say the changes affect residential roads and busy pedestrian streets. 

According to the Welsh Government, the modifications have an impact on major pedestrian routes and residential roadways. The Welsh Government is still deciding which highways will have 20mph speed restrictions and which ones should stay at 30mph.

The 22 councils in Wales will collaborate with Go Safe to determine implementation timelines, according to the Welsh Government, but enforcement will continue throughout the transition period.

Climate change minister, Julie James, stated: “The future of our towns and cities depends on our ability to move around sustainably and on solutions that have a positive impact on public health environment and communities.

“That is why we will use the principle that walking, cycling and active travel must remain the best options for short urban journeys and a 20mph default speed limit will help achieve this. The introduction of a national 20mph limit would be an important and far reaching policy. If passed Wales would be the first country in the UK to introduce the change. We’re asking you all to be part of this change and make our communities understand the wider benefits of 20mph.

“This change is a generational one and when the time to embed, it will need to be accompanied by an important communication and marketing campaign and behaviour change initiatives. Achieving behavioural change is challenging but Wales has previously shown that we can do it successfully with policies such as organ donation, the banning of smoking in public places, and limiting the use of plastic bags. It does, however, require a collaborative effort between agencies, local authorities and by communities. We need to bring speeds down.”

She continued, saying there is evidence that 20 mph speed limits encourage more people to bike or walk, and she hoped this would lead to people naturally choosing those modes of transportation.

According to Ms. James, 80 people die on Welsh roads on average each year, and current data shows that 30mph is the speed at which 53 percent of accidents occur.

The immediate cost is about £33 million, but according to the Welsh Government, increased road safety brought on by slower average speeds could generate a positive financial return of about £25 million over the course of 30 years due to the money saved on fewer emergency services and hospital visits.

Additionally, the policy might result in significant wider economic gains from increased road safety (£1.4 billion), environmental and health gains from increased active travel (£5 million), and additional unquantified benefits from more vibrant and connected local economies.

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Large number of NHS staff in Wales currently off work as Covid cases rise

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HEALTH MINISTER Eluned Morgan has said Wales is in the “midst of a new wave” Covid infections” and that around 1 in 20 people had the virus last week.

According to ONS data, it’s estimated that 149,700 people tested positive for COVID-19 for the seven days to 30 June.

Ms Morgan said a large number of NHS staff in Wales are currently off work because they have Covid-19.

Updating Senedd Members on the current situation in Wales, the health minister said: “Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen a steady rise in the number of coronavirus infections in Wales.”

“We are in the midst of a new wave of infections, caused by the BA.4 and BA.5 subtypes of the omicron variant.”

“These are fast-moving, highly infectious forms of the virus, which are causing a surge in infections across the UK and in many other countries around the world.” She said.

Public Health Wales reports the current dominant variant in Wales is the BA.5 variant of omicron.

The latest results of the ONS’ Coronavirus Infection Survey estimate 4.93% of the population in Wales had Covid-19 in the week ending 30 June – equivalent to approximately one person in 20.

This has increased from an estimated 1.33% of the population (one in 75) from the week ending 2 June.

Across the UK, the estimated prevalence of coronavirus ranges from 3.95% in England to 5.94% in Scotland for the week ending 30 June.

Ms Morgan said: “As we have seen in previous waves, the increase in cases in the community, has led to an increase in the number of people being admitted to and treated in hospital for Covid-19.”

“The latest available information shows there are now more than 960 Covid-19-related patients in Welsh hospitals and there has also been an increase in number of people with Covid-19 being treated in critical care.”

She said: “The NHS has been working incredibly hard to provide planned care for people across Wales and to reduce waiting times, which had built up over the course of the pandemic. This task becomes more difficult when pandemic pressures increase.”

“Some hospitals have taken the difficult decision to restrict visiting to prevent coronavirus from spreading among patients and staff; others are asking all visitors to wear face coverings.”

“We are not making face coverings mandatory in health and care settings , but I would encourage everyone to wear one if they are visiting a healthcare setting and I would also ask people to consider wearing a face covering in crowded indoor public places, while cases of coronavirus are currently high.”

“We have extended the availability of free lateral flow tests for people who have symptoms of coronavirus until the end of July.” Ms Morgan said.

She added: “There are a number of other simple steps everyone can take to keep themselves and Wales safe.”

These include:

  • Get vaccinated
  • Maintain good hand hygiene
  • Stay at home and limit your contact with others if you are ill
  • Wear a face covering in indoor crowded or enclosed places
  • Meet others outdoors wherever possible
  • When indoors, increase ventilation and let fresh air in.
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Following Boris Johnson’s resignation, who could replace him as Prime Minister?

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MOST prime ministers would have resigned over any one of the scandals to engulf Boris Johnson’s government. Johnson, never one for tradition or rules, rode out nearly every crisis – but the Chris Pincher affair was the final straw.

Led by Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, over 50 members of Johnson’s government resigned in a day and a half. Johnson has now resigned as party leader, vowing to remain PM until a new leader is chosen.

Johnson was not a typical leader, and his successor will have a difficult job.

They will need to strengthen the Conservative party before the next general election (which could come sooner rather than later).

They will need to distance themselves from the more problematic aspects of Johnson’s legacy, while steadying the ship and appealing to the electorate.

Here are the likely runners and riders for this seemingly impossible task:

Ben Wallace

While not perhaps as well known as some of the candidates, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is considered a serious contender. He has been pivotal in the UK’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and was clear in the run-up to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan that action was needed to evacuate UK citizens and others in danger. He did not resign from Johnson’s cabinet, which might count against him, but he certainly looks like a strong candidate. Early polling suggests Wallace is the candidate to beat, but the campaign will test his early popularity.

Penny Mordaunt

Minister of State for Trade Policy Penny Mordaunt is not necessarily a household name, but she is very respected within the Conservative party. Mordaunt was a short-lived but well-respected defence minister and recently Royal Navy reservist. She previously served as secretary of state for international development (before the department was merged with the Foreign Office). Like Wallace, Mordaunt stuck by Johnson over the last few days, but her popularity within the party might allow her to overcome that issue, particularly if she can play up her pro-Brexit credentials.

Rishi Sunak

The former chancellor was considered the leader in waiting in the early stages of the pandemic. His early successes with the furlough scheme elevated his status and profile, but his star faded fairly quickly. Questions over his wife’s tax status and wealth generally made Sunak seem out of touch with voters. He was also, along with Johnson, fined by police over lockdown parties in Downing Street. While he remains a strong candidate, he might have wished that his opportunity to stand for leader had come sooner.

Sajid Javid

Javid has the distinction of having resigned from a Johnson cabinet twice. His first resignation, from his role as chancellor just before the pandemic, was driven by his desire to appoint his own staff. He was invited back into cabinet after Matt Hancock’s resignation. While considered by many within the party as a very capable MP, with a working-class background that would count in his favour, some worry Javid showed a lack of judgment in rejoining the Johnson cabinet.

Nadhim Zahawi

Zahawi came to public prominence when he spearheaded the vaccine rollout. His time as education secretary has been viewed positively, but his move to the Treasury less than two days before telling Johnson to resign have made some question his motives. Perception that he allowed personal ambition to override his moral compass is likely to hurt Zahawi. He will need to answer for this when asked by the party and country.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was out of the country for Johnson’s downfall. She returns as a possible contender for party leadership.

Liz Truss

Currently overseas on official business, the foreign secretary will undoubtedly be thankful not to have been caught up in the chaos of this week. But is she too absent? While considered by many a “safe pair of hands” she is not a dynamic candidate for leader, and it is doubtful whether she can become an electoral asset to the party. If the Conservatives want a safe choice instead of another “exciting” leader to follow Johnson, Truss may have a shot.

Dominic Raab

The deputy prime minister is another potential leader in waiting. He has occupied a number of cabinet roles including secretary of state for Brexit, foreign secretary and now justice minister. While he certainly has a high-ranking position, he has had a number of missteps. As Brexit minister, he finished off the negotiations his predecessor David Davis began, then resigned because he couldn’t accept the deal he helped to finalise. As foreign secretary, he was criticised for his lack of speed during the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. That, coupled with his earlier comments calling British workers the “worst idlers in the world” before he joined the cabinet, make him a long shot for Downing Street.

The rest of the pack

On the backbenches, there are expected to be at least three potential candidates – former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, prominent Brexiteer Steve Baker, and well-respected backbench MP Tom Tugendhat. For any backbencher wanting to catapult themselves into Downing Street, the ride is likely to be bumpy. A track record of success is usually needed. This is harder for a backbencher, either because they have never been in cabinet, or because they have left cabinet (usually after being asked to). These individuals have a long road ahead of them.

There will be others who may want to scope out their prospects with the party. Cabinet secretaries Priti Patel or even Jacob Rees-Mogg might test the water, but they are likely to find it cold.

The battle ahead will inevitably have its twists and turns, and it is almost impossible to predict the outcome. Many within the Conservative party, and perhaps the country, will be hoping for less exciting times than they have recently lived through.

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