THE WELSH GOVERNMENT will be accelerating elements of its programme to relax Covid-19 restrictions as cases of new infections continue to fall across Wales, the First Minister today announced.
People will be able to form an extended household, visit the gym or take part in organised outdoor activities a week earlier than planned, as the public health situation – and vaccination rates – continue to improve.
The First Minister last week set out a detailed timetable for moving Wales firmly into alert level three. But some of these measures will now be introduced sooner than planned as cases have fallen markedly from 37 cases per 100,000 people to fewer than 21 per 100,000 this week.
The pressure on hospitals also continues to ease. Confirmed cases in hospital beds continue to reduce, and now stands at 89. This is 26% lower than last Thursday and is the lowest position since 22 September 2020.
The planned opening date for organised outdoor activities and outdoor wedding receptions will be moved forward to Monday 26 April from 3 May.
And, from Monday 3 May, a week earlier than previously signalled, gyms, leisure centres and fitness facilities will be able to reopen for individual or one-to-one training. Extended households will also be allowed again, enabling two households to meet and have contact indoors.
First Minister, Mark Drakeford said:
“The public health situation in Wales continues to improve thanks to everything you are doing to help us control this awful virus. Cases of the virus are falling and our incredible vaccination programme continues to go from strength to strength.
“Last week, we set out our programme to further re-open the economy and relax the restrictions we have lived with for so long, as part of our careful, step-by-step approach to keeping everyone safe. This week, because of the improvements we continue to see, we can bring forward some of our plans.
“This is only possible because of the efforts everyone is making to protect themselves and their loved ones.”
From Monday 12 April, the following relaxations will go ahead:
- The full return of children to schools for face-to-face education, all post-16 learners will return to further education and training centres, and university campus’ will be able to open for blended face-to-face/online learning for all students;
- All remaining shops will reopen, completing the phased reopening of non-essential retail;
- All remaining close contact services will open, including mobile services;
- Travel restrictions on traveling into and out of Wales will be lifted. However, restrictions on travel to countries outside the Common Travel Area without a reasonable excuse, remain in place. The Common Travel Area means the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland;
- Wedding ‘show-arounds’ by appointment are allowed;
- Restrictions on political canvassing are removed, subject to canvassers doing so safely.
- Further easements to restrictions in the coming weeks will be subject to the public health situation remaining favourable. These will be confirmed at the next three-weekly review of the coronavirus regulations on 22 April.
On Monday 26 April:
- Outdoor attractions, including funfairs and theme parks, would be allowed to reopen;
- Outdoor hospitality can resume, including at cafes, pubs and restaurants. Indoor hospitality will remain closed except for takeaways;
- Organised outdoor activities for up to 30 people can again take place (previously Monday 3 May);
- Weddings receptions can take place outdoors for up to 30 people (previously Monday 3 May).
On Monday 3 May (previously Monday 10 May):
- Gyms, leisure centres and fitness facilities can reopen. This will include individual or one-to-one training but not exercise classes;
Extended household will again allow two households to meet and have contact indoors.
- As set out in the revised Coronavirus Control Plan, a small number of outdoor pilot events of between 200 and 1,000 people are also being planned.
Criticism of Labour’s water pollution policy grow
JANET FINCH-SAUNDERS MS – the Shadow Environment and Rural Affairs Minister – has backed a call from rural economy agency Country Land and Business Association (CLA) Cymru for a targeted response to water pollution in Wales.
Last week, a motion to annul the regulations narrowly failed to pass after Labour used its bloc vote.
Labour has twice voted against rescinding the Welsh Government’s NVZ policy and used a procedural ruse to ram the legislation through without scrutiny.
Among those aiding and abetting Labour was the outgoing MS for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Dafydd Elis Thomas. He was joined by Caroline Jones, formerly of UKIP, who is odds-on to lose her regional seat at May’s election. Education Minister Kirsty Williams, the Senedd’s sole Liberal Democrat MS, did not vote at all, not even to abstain.
Despite notionally representing a rural area of Wales, Eluned Morgan and Joyce Watson backed the controversial rules, which could drive Pembrokeshire’s small local dairy farmers out of business.
RIGHT OBJECTIVE WRONG METHOD
Fraser McAuley, CLA Policy Advisor, said: “The Government’s laudable objectives can be better met by an approach which focuses attention where it’s most needed. Where a problem doesn’t exist, we should not be imposing unnecessary costs on a hard-pressed sector in a future of uncertainty.
“The crude closed-periods for nutrient-spreading will do everything to encourage more intense spreading in the open-periods. This limits farmers’ capacity to choose the right ground-conditions to add nutrient. In some instances, this could make matters worse!”
Mr McAuley continued: “We really don’t believe the Welsh Government has allocated sufficient resource to do the job. We will be pressing-hard for more capital support through the Farm Business and Sustainable Production Grants. Penalising hard-stretched farmers will lead to more departures from the business by small operators. The livelihood of many small family farms is at-stake.
“We’ve got a great opportunity to get this right in the White Paper on Agriculture. Here, we can create a solution that fits into the big picture: creating a prosperous farming sector based on sustainable land management principles. This is the real goal.”
WG HASN’T LISTENED TO THE SCIENCE
Janet Finch-Saunder said: “CLA Cymru is bang on the money here over Labour’s unfair stance on nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZ).
“As Welsh Conservatives have repeatedly said, a blanket NVZ policy discriminates against farmers who are abiding by the regulations. A targeted approach focused on where it’s most needed means resources can be better and more efficiently applied.
“Unlike Labour, which is peddling a myth that the voluntary approach has failed, I would look to back the Blue Flag Farming approach. We should pursue the Water Standard and work to deliver on the 45 recommendations by the Wales Land Management Forum Sub-Group on agricultural pollution., They have been entirely ignored by the Welsh Government.
“The pandemic hasn’t helped, but farmers in Wales have had a tough time under Labour. Imposing unnecessary costs on this vital sector of the Welsh economy helps no-one and won’t solve the problem.”
Preseli Pembrokeshire MS Paul Davies said: “These excessive and disproportionate proposals will have a massive impact on the viability of many farms across Wales. Even then, Natural Resources Wales has warned that the proposed new rules will have the perverse outcome of making water quality worse.
“The regulations will threaten the sustainability of many farms in Pembrokeshire and have a serious impact on farmers’ mental health. And they will do this while there is still no clear evidence that this action will actually deliver the improvements in water quality that they have set out to achieve.”
Carmarthen East & Dinefwr’s MP, Jonathan Edwards, went further and accused the Welsh Government of stoking a ‘culture war’ between farmers and the environmental lobby for electoral advantage.
Mr Edwards said: “There is nothing new surrounding issues of slurry management. I am, therefore, baffled as to why the Labour Government are so intent on bringing forward this poorly thought out measure a month before an election.
“Creating an all-Wales NVZ seems completely ham-fisted. A more subtle policy would have concentrated on problematic geographical areas instead of a blanket all-Wales policy.
“The Labour Government have also failed to consider the emergence of innovative slurry management technology.
“Coleg Sir Gar Gelli Aur campus has been working on a dewatering and purification system for slurry resulting in zero waste. The Labour Government should be using its environmental budget to help the industry make the transition to the use of new technology.”
Jonathan Edwards concluded: “Unfortunately, the Labour Government have decided to engage in the politics of culture war. Its creating division between farmers and the environmental lobby instead of working collaboratively on areas of mutual interest.
“Instead of using farmers as a political football, the Labour Government should be working with our agricultural sector. Its members are already having to contend with the huge challenges created by the Tory British Government’s Brexit policy.”
Plaid Cymru’s candidate for Preseli Pembrokeshire, Cris Tomos, said: “It is concerning that the Labour Welsh Government continues to ignore farmers and the farming unions.
“These regulations could be detrimental to the farming community, especially to the Welsh family farm.
“The Labour Welsh Government should be making every effort to work with farmers.”
Cris Tomos added: “It is also concerning that, on the one hand, Labour has pledged to fulfil its ‘One Million Welsh Speakers’ promise, and on the other, it continues to betray the industry with one of the highest rates of Welsh speakers.”
A TIGHT TIMETABLE
If Labour intends to plough on with its legislation, it really has to get its skates on.
The Senedd term ends soon. After that point, Labour will not be able to lay its new regulations.
It has not even published them yet. And that leaves farmers in limbo.
Farmers will not know the detail of the divisive and costly new rules until days before they are due to come into force.
How the Welsh Government can ask a regulator to enforce those rules without a lengthy lead-in is something the Welsh Government has not set out. It has also provided no extra funding to its environment watchdog, NRW, to deal with the rules’ impact and enforcement.
Having promised a Clean Air Act for Wales in its 2016 manifesto, it is nowhere near bringing any such legislation forward. It appears it’s more in the presentation and consultation than in the statute book.
Labour Senedd members and ministers who have been remarkably silent on agriculture for the last five years now express a deep and abiding interest in the topic.
As Jonathan Edwards notes above: you’d think there was an election coming.
In contrast to its green branding, Labour withdrew business rates support from small hydropower businesses. It claimed the cost of rates relief to them could not be afforded due to the Covid pandemic. It saved under £1m.
Regardless of when the Welsh Government publishes its regulations, it faces a potential legal challenge from NFU-Cymru. NFU-Cymru says the Welsh Government failed to follow its own rules on the rules’ impact before forcing them through the Senedd.
Labour ministers pressed on without knowing what would happen in practice or, worse, simply turned a blind eye to the consequences. They also ignored the Impact Assessment of the Welsh Government’s own regulator.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths, broke repeated promises made to the Senedd and farming unions about the regulations’ introduction during the pandemic.
Unfunded, unenforceable rules of unknown impact are unlikely to achieve their aim: that’s not a compelling legislative legacy.
Suppose Labour cannot form a majority government propped up by votes from individuals like Dafydd Elis Thomas. In that case, it will need to haggle over its future plans or face legislative deadlock. Anyone would think there was an election coming.
Senedd approves Wales’ National Curriculum
MEMBERS of the Senedd voted to pass the National Curriculum Bill’s final text, meaning the Curriculum for Wales will now be introduced in 2022.
Throughout the debate on its final stage, which took place on Tuesday (March 9), opposition members praised Wales’ Education Minister, Kirsty Williams. Members from all sides saluted her patience and diligence in guiding a significant piece of legislation onto the statute book.
Even members who disagreed with the Bill’s content and opposed its passage highlighted the Minister’s personal contribution and commitment to creating Wales’ first national Curriculum.
A NATIONAL MISSION
The Bill was the subject of intensive scrutiny and broad consultation.
Speaking in the Senedd, Mrs Williams said the Bill’s passage was ’a national mission’.
“It would have been simpler to cook up plans in Cathays Park in a back office and issue a ‘take it or leave it’ offer,” the Education Minister said.
She continued: “But our combined efforts with teachers, academics, parents, and many organisations here and abroad is worth so much more because of that ‘national mission’ spirit.”
Kirsty Williams paid a personal tribute to Labour MS Lynn Neagle, Chair of the Children’s and Young Persons’ Committee.
Under Lynn Neagle’s leadership, the Committee rigorously scrutinised the Bill and made a series of recommendations in its text.
Of the Labour backbencher, Kirsty Williams said: “I conclude by thanking Lynne Neagle for her tough, astute, tenacious, sometimes bloody-mindedness in her approach to this legislation. I mean that as a compliment, Lynne.
“As I said earlier, the results of the committee’s work have made this a better Bill.”
She had similarly warm words for her Conservative opposite number, Suzy Davies.
Mrs Williams acknowledged: “She has worked incredibly hard on this Bill, and I know that she’s been fully committed to the scrutiny process. As I said in opening my comments today, I think we have a better Bill due to the CYPE committee’s efforts. I have gone to great lengths to try and respond positively to the cross-party report that the Committee published to try and meet those aspirations.”
Like Mrs Williams, Suzy Davies steps down as an MS in May. She was unable to attend the debate.
Despite the Minister’s warm words, the new Curriculum’s journey to the statute book has not been without controversy.
Activists railed against the Curriculum’s Religion Values and Ethics element and its focus on Welsh language teaching’s importance to all of Wales’ pupils. The inclusion of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in the Curriculum provoked vituperative responses from a small group of parents. They opposed children receiving what they’ve claimed will be inappropriately explicit sexual education.
Senior Policy Researcher for NSPCC Cymru/Wales, Dr Sarah Witcombe-Hayes says: “The strength of support for mandatory relationships and sexuality education to be included in the new Curriculum for Wales by leading child protection experts and charities highlights what a game-changer this is.
“The changes are long overdue, but in passing this Bill Senedd members are helping to protect children and young people from abuse – making sure every child and young person in Wales can access high quality RSE that is relevant, sensitive and appropriate to their own capacities and needs.
“It will help all learners understand their rights to safe, healthy and fulfilling relationships throughout their lives, and schools must now be supported and fully resourced to deliver inclusive and high quality RSE from September 2022.”
Regarding Welsh Language teaching and RSE, those with genuine concerns had those worries preyed upon to grandstanding political effect by fringe political movements, such as Ukip and Abolish the Assembly (sic.)
Speaking for the latter group, Gareth Bennett said: “The downgrading of English teaching in the interest of immersion in Welsh is a sinister development. It will surely disadvantage Welsh schoolchildren who are not from a background of speaking Welsh at home.”
Dr Felix Aubel, a noted controversialist, said: “UKIP would divert millions of pounds by abolishing the legal requirement to forcibly impose the Welsh language on people.”
Like Abolish, UKIP will campaign on a platform of abolishing Welsh parliamentary democracy.
Those organisations’ concerns on Welsh language education ignore the fact Welsh is the national language of Wales. Every credible educational study underlines how children benefit from bilingual education.
HISTORY TEACHING CONCERNS PLAID
On Tuesday, further and concerted criticism of the new Curriculum came from Plaid Cymru.
Perturbed by the absence of Welsh history’s teaching, Plaid’s Sian Gwenllian announced the party would vote against the Bill in its final stage.
Plaid’s Shadow Education Minister said that, although her party supported the Bill’s direction of travel: “Plaid Cymru argued for the inclusion of two other mandatory elements that could also contribute towards creating that social, far-reaching transformation that we want to see, namely the history of Wales in all of its diversity, including black and people of colour history, and environmental education, including climate change.
“There is no assurance [these subjects] will be given due attention, and for me, that is a fundamental flaw within the Bill. Guidance simply isn’t enough. It’s easy to scrap guidance or change it, unlike issues that have a statutory basis and are included on the face of the Bill.
“We will, therefore, vote against the legislation today.”
In response, Kirsty Williams said: “For the absolute avoidance of any doubt, Welsh histories and the story of Wales will be a compulsory part of this Curriculum. It is included in the statutory guidance that has already been issued and will have a statutory underpinning.
“There will be no way a school cannot teach the history of Wales. Indeed, every single area of learning and experience must have a golden thread of a celebration of Welsh identity in all its diversity in every area.”
The Minister observed acidly: “I accept it’s election time, and there are petitions and e-mails to be sent, but it’s regrettable, as I said, on this historic day, with the opportunity for the first time in our nation’s history to have our own curriculum, that The Party of Wales will choose to vote against.”
TIME TO PREPARE
The Bill passed by 32 votes to 18 with one abstention. Four Conservative Senedd Members voted with the Government, including Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies.
Following Royal Assent, which is anticipated in April, the Bill will become the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021.
Last year, the Minister published an updated action plan setting out the next steps in Wales’ reform journey, ahead of the new Curriculum’s introduction.
Alongside the updated ‘Our National Mission’ action plan, the Welsh Government also published a document setting out shared expectations of what curriculum realisation means for practitioners and schools from 2022. Curriculum for Wales.
The journey to 2022 has been created to help schools prepare for designing and implementing their Curriculum. In January, the Welsh Government published the Curriculum Implementation Plan, which will steer its work with partners to deliver the Curriculum for Wales.
Lockdown still in place but its now “Stay local” not “Stay at home”
THE MESSAGE is changing from “Stay at home” to “Stay local” but the lock down, although relaxed is still in place, as part of what is being called “a careful, cautious and phased approach to relaxing coronavirus restrictions.”
First Minister Mark Drakeford made the announcement at today’s press conference. (Friday, March 12)
From Saturday 13 March, four people from two households will be able to meet outdoors to socialise, including in gardens. In addition, outdoor sports facilities, including basketball courts, tennis courts and golf courses, can reopen, and indoor care home visits will restart, for single designated visitors.
From Monday, all primary pupils and those in qualifications years will return. Schools will have the flexibility to bring year 10 and 12 learners back and more learners will return to colleges.
There will also be flexibility for in-school check-ins for all other pupils. All learners will return after the Easter break.
Hairdressers and barbers will re-open for appointments from Monday.
From 22 March non-essential retail will start re-opening gradually as the restrictions are lifted on what can be sold in shops which are currently open. Garden centres will also be able to open.
All shops, including all close contact services, will be able to open from 12 April – the same date as in England.
The move is being seen as a snub to small businesses. Non-essential items will be for sales in supermarkets before they are for sale in small shops. Its a U-turn for the Welsh Government who previously said they wanted to be fair to everyone in businesses.
The First Minister said at the Friday press conference: “We are taking a phased approach to unlocking each sector – starting with schools.
We will make step-by-step changes each week to gradually restore freedoms. We will monitor each change we make, so we know what impact each change has had on Wales’ public health situation.”
The First Minister also announced an additional £150m to support businesses affected by ongoing restrictions.
The First Minister has announced that an extra £150m available to help businesses which are not yet able to open to help top up the non-domestic rates grants.
He said it means hospitality, tourism, leisure and non-essential retail businesses, which must remain closed will be eligible for a third payment of between £4,000 and £5,000 to help them meet ongoing operating costs while they cannot trade.
“This is in top of the announcement earlier this week extending the business rates holiday for retail, leisure and hospitality businesses for the whole of the next financial year,” Mr Drakeford added.
“We have made well in excess of £2bn available to businesses over the course of the last year to help them through the pandemic, which is over and above the support available from the UK Government’s schemes.
“This is the most generous business support scheme available in the UK. I’m very pleased we’ve been able to safeguard more than 160,000 jobs in these most difficult of times.”
There has been “false hope” for small firms, and insufficient warning given to businesses ahead of re-opening say Plaid Plaid Cymru. Plaid’s Leader Adam Price also urged Welsh Government to put “families first” before tourism re-opens. The Welsh Government has not given businesses that are allowed to open on Monday “sufficient warning” whilst giving false hope to those not allowed to open, Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price has said.
Mr Price was responding to the announcement today from Welsh Government on lockdown easing.
The Plaid Cymru Leader added that there should be “some limited extended freedoms for families to come together” before tourism re-opens.
He added that there should be a “Wales wide consultation with the tourism sector” to establish whether it is viable for them to open to Welsh domiciled customers only over Easter and that case rates remained “stubbornly high” in many areas “attractive to tourists”.
Mr Price added that whilst “we all want the rules to be relaxed” this should be “the last lockdown, and to avoid another wave and further deaths in a few months.
Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price MS told The Herald: “We all want the rules to be relaxed but what we want even more is for this to be the last lockdown, and to avoid another wave and further deaths in a few months.
“The Welsh Government has not given those businesses allowed to open on Monday sufficient warning whilst giving false hope to those not allowed to open.
“We now need a Wales wide consultation with the tourism sector to establish whether it is viable for them to open to Welsh domiciled customers only over Easter.
“Case rates remain stubbornly high in many areas attractive to tourists and we must remember the huge pressures already facing local hospitals.
“After the sacrifices of the past year we should be putting families first and granting some limited extended freedoms for families to come together before tourism re-opens.
“With people’s wellbeing suffering during the pandemic allowing gyms to open would be welcomed by many, providing that they can do so safely.
“Clear and consistent communication from Ministers is essential to ensure adherence to the rules. If we all play our part, we look forward to greater freedoms when case rates allow
Ahead of the update on Covid-19 restrictions, Welsh Conservatives renewed calls on the First Minister to provide a roadmap out of lockdown for families, workers and businesses in Wales.
Andrew RT Davies has called for “windows of opportunity” to be provided for businesses in Wales, as well as a relaxing of restrictions on exercise if the data allows.
Speaking ahead of the First Minister’s announcement, Davies also warned Labour ministers not to reimpose the “five-mile rule” with an easing of travel restrictions expected.
Welsh Conservative Senedd leader, Andrew RT Davies MS said: “Labour should use this review to provide some hope and above all a detailed plan for families, workers and businesses across Wales.
“As a priority, this should include dates and windows of opportunity for businesses in the retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors. It’s the least those sectors deserve.
“I believe it’s important we see a greater acknowledgement from ministers over the importance of exercise to the mental and physical wellbeing of so many people in Wales, and where data allows, we should look to reopen gyms and ensure our sporting fields are once again occupied, particularly for our children.
“Given the great national effort, it’s also the right time to end the “stay at home” regulation but encourage people to “stay local”, but without reintroducing the arbitrary five-mile rule.
“The great British and Welsh vaccination story has improved the situation considerably and as Welsh Conservatives we are unapologetic about our focus on getting Wales back on track after this gruelling and painful ordeal for our country.
“That should now start with a roadmap out of lockdown. And for the sake of families, workers, and businesses across Wales, I hope Labour ministers listen.”
Responding to the Labour Government’s latest lockdown announcement, Welsh Conservative Senedd leader, Andrew RT Davies MS said: “We await the full details, but it appears Labour have missed another opportunity to provide clarity and a detailed roadmap out of lockdown for people across Wales.
“Labour’s U-turn on the opening of non-essential retail at such short notice will be a hammer blow for many businesses, and the decision to now align with England in that area shows we could’ve adopted a similar roadmap weeks ago.
“The ongoing refusal by Labour ministers to do so will only increase frustration in the sectors worst hit by the pandemic and will put more Welsh jobs at risk.
“Sadly, the scant details are reflective of a Labour government that doesn’t trust the people of Wales and which we found out this week believes that Welsh people…“if you give them an inch they’ll take a mile.”
“People in Wales fully understand the pandemic can change course and Labour ministers need to start treating us like adults, cut out the political games, and provide a clear path and roadmap forward.”
The “stay at home” rule will become “stay local” and the Labour have said people should stick to a five-mile rule. Commenting on that aspect, Davies said: “I welcome the end of the “stay at home” regulation, which is possible due to the collective hard work of people across Wales.
“People are fully capable of understanding the “stay local” message and as such the arbitrary five-mile rule is unnecessary.”
Reacting to the announcement from the First Minister for Wales that garden centres can reopen from 22 March, the Chairman of the Horticultural Trades Association, James Barnes, said: “This is the news the industry has been waiting for. We are delighted the Welsh Government recognised that garden centres provide enhanced safe retailing with light, airy and outdoor spaces.
“The many benefits of plants, gardening and nature are well documented, and this decision means that people in Wales can once again easily access everything they need to maximise those benefits as we can all start to look to a happier Spring”.
HTA Council representative for Wales, and owner of Pugh’s Garden Village in South Wales, Nicola Pugh, said: “We are delighted by the news we can reopen our doors on 22 March. We are ready and waiting and have been working hard to ensure safe shopping for all our wonderful customers and growing a selection of beautiful plants locally at our nurseries to ensure that our benches are full to welcome gardeners back to our centres.”
Travel restrictions should be eased with “caution” with the “stay local” messaged introduced for as long as is “necessary” Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price has said.
The Plaid Cymru Leader was speaking ahead of the announcement.
Mr Price said that relaxation of restrictions should be done “slowly and steadily” and stressed the need for the “clearest plan possible” out of lockdown for businesses.
Adam Price MS said: “Travel restrictions should be eased with caution and the sensible approach is to reintroduce the “stay local” message for as long as is necessary – ensuring that guidance is tailored depending on where people live. Stay Local can mean different things in different parts of Wales – particularly rural Wales.
“Any relaxation of restrictions need to be done slowly and steadily. After all, we all want this lockdown to be the very last lockdown that we face.
“But above all, we support measures that aim to keep people safe, based on evidence, but people and businesses need the clearest plan possible about the road ahead of us.
“However, loneliness and isolation remain also a real challenge for many people, and we hope that the government will put a sharp focus on when and how it will be safe to return to extended household bubbles. We also cannot ignore the mental health crisis which has been brought about because of the pandemic. It is vital that everything possible is done to enable gyms to be among the first facilities to reopen.