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Audit Committee Chair quits

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john evansA SMALL item of news on the County Council’s website is all the local authority has placed on the record about the departure of John Evans MBE, the lay chair of the Council’s Audit Committee. 

The announcement invited people to put themselves forward to be a lay member of the Council’s Audit Committee with a closing date for applications of 8th July and directing applicants to write to the Council’s CEO in application. The announcement made no mention of Mr Evans’ resignation, neither did it thank him for his service nor his contribution to the Council’s scrutiny mechanism. John Evans MBE had been in post since September 2012. A senior Council official told The Herald that Mr Evans had not endeared himself to Council officers allegedly “used to getting their own way” by trying to bring some of the rigour and discipline of his successful business background to bear on the Council’s audit machinery. John Evans, who lives in Saundersfoot, received his MBE in 2004 for services to the electronics industry. Described by Bloomberg Business as “a pivotal figure in consumer electronics manufacturing, with over 30 years top-level experience”, Mr Evans is known to have strong views about the rewards the Council pays to its top officers. In February 2011 the Tenby Observer carried a letter from Mr Evans in which he detailed ways in which the Council could cut costs by freezing Councillors’ allowances, cutting the pay of top earners and abolishing the post of Chief Executive Officer, suggesting a more appropriate level of salary for the post would be around £70,000. Bryn Parry Jones received over £200,000 in remuneration and unlawful “pay supplements” from the local authority in the year to April 2012. Mr Evans is understood to have handed his letter of resignation to controversial CEO Bryn Parry Jones after a key meeting of the Audit Committee was postponed. Cllr Mike Stoddart told the Herald: “Although the grants schemes in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock have now been referred to the police, at Mr Evans’ insistence the audit committee was pressing on with its probe into the administration of those grants which are outside the criminal investigation. “The committee was due to consider a report on this subject by the Council’s internal auditors at a meeting on 29 May, but that was cancelled without explanation. “I hear on the grapevine that the reason for the cancellation was to give the Director of Development Dr Steven Jones, the opportunity to answer any criticisms of his department and explain what steps were being taken to correct any flaws in the current procedures. “That meeting had been rescheduled for later this month but, following Mr Evans’ departure, it will not now take place because there is a statutory requirement that the audit committee must have at least one lay member. “So, during the time it takes for the council to advertise the post and appoint a replacement, the committee is in limbo – possibly until September.” Mr Evans’ resignation is a blow to those who are seeking to hold the Council to account for the shambolic organization of grants schemes in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock. December’s County Council meeting in which the IPPG leadership attempted to prevent scrutiny of the Council’s conduct of the grant schemes by smearing those seeking to get at the truth, was followed in January by the Audit Committee under Mr Evans launching a wideranging investigation into the schemes. At that meeting, John Evans MBE confirmed that not only would Audit Committee members have access to the previously secret documents, but that all Councillors would have the opportunity to scrutinise the material. A step which went beyond the very limited request for access made by Cllr Stoddart in December. Shortly after that investigation was launched, Cllrs Mike Stoddart and Jacob Williams provided evidence gathered from the documents to the then Director of Finance Mark Lewis. The material handed over suggested that a contractor had received preferential treatment in relation to one development in the Town Heritage Initiative. After delay until after a Council meeting due to discuss the unlawful pay supplements made to its CEO, the Council referred the alleged irregularities to the Police and they continue to be under investigation. Concerns raised at the time that some of the files made available to Council members to inspect had been “filleted”, were sharpened when it emerged that the Council’s European Manager, Gwyn Evans (no relation), who has overall responsibility for the Commercial Property Grants Scheme, had carefully re-written the record of grants panel meetings to suggest greater caution and scrutiny of proposed developments than was actually the case. Gwyn Evans has been the subject of the Council’s internal disciplinary procedure as a result and is at risk of further action from the Information Commissioner in relation to his law-breaking. We asked the Council for a copy of John Evans’ MBE’s letter of resignation, but were told that it is not the Council’s to publish. A request made before last week’s edition made direct to CEO Bryn Parry Jones was met with the news that he is on holiday until the end of the month and unable to respond. Speculation is mounting as to the letter’s content and the opinions the usually direct Mr Evans expressed within it. The Council seems determined to draw a veil over the reasons behind the departure of the genuinely distinguished chair of a key Council committee and speculation is mounting as to what he said in his letter of resignation. Certainly, the low-key way the Council is going about replacing John Evans MBE suggests that it is now seeking a rather more biddable person who will not rock the boat and ask too many awkward questions.

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Health

New Covid-19 variant classed ‘of concern’ and named Omicron

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THE UK GOVERNMENT has temporarily halted flights from six southern African countries: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and Lesotho

The European Centre for Disease Control (CDC) says that it has classified the new Omnicron coronavirus variant as being “of concern”.

Officials say that the level of risk associated with the variant is “very high” and that it is extremely likely that the variant will spread across the EU.

Omicron is a word you will be hearing a lot about in the weeks and months to come, most analysts are saying.
The agency added that it feared the profile of the variant may mean that the effectiveness of vaccines could be reduced and that natural immunity may be decreased.

On Friday, Eluned Morgan MS, Minister for Health and Social Services said that the Welsh government in Cardiff was taking immediate action to move the eight south African countries onto the red list for travel as the variant may be capable of evading the protection provided by vaccines.

The Minister said: “The variant has been linked to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

These countries have moved onto the red list from 12pm today. Two additional countries, Mozambique and Malawi, will also move onto the list from 8pm (20:00) today.
“This means travellers from these destinations will not be permitted to enter Wales but must enter through a port of entry in England or Scotland and go into a managed quarantine facility for 10 days. They must also take post-arrival PCR tests on day 2 and day 8.

South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla told reporters that the flight bans were “unjustified”.

“The reaction of some of the countries, in terms of imposing travel bans, and such measures, are completely against the norms and standards as guided by the World Health Organization,” he said.

CONCERNED: WHO (PIC FILE)

Stock markets across the world also fell sharply on Friday, reflecting the fears of investors over the potential economic impact.

UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid says there is “huge international concern” over the variant.

MULTIPLE CONCERNING MUTATIONS

Professor Anne von Gottberg of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Johannesburg said that most strains of the virus have about five to 10 spike mutations, but the Omicron has around 25 to 32.
“So it really was immediately noticeable that something unusual had happened,” she said.
“There are a lot of mutations that are new and that we haven’t seen before,” she said.

She said it was as yet unclear what can be determined from the multiple mutations.
But she said it was precisely because they couldn’t fully understand its characteristics that merited further study and a cautious approach to the new strain.

Prof John Edmunds, a member of the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) which advises the government, says the new variant, B.1.1.529, is a “huge worry” and could escape current Covid vaccines.
“The molecular data is extremely worrying – it would point to that perhaps this thing might be able to evade the immune response” he said on a BBC radio programme.

Asked if the new variant could be resistant to current vaccines, Edmunds – an infectious diseases expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – confirms this is scientists’ “great fear” but it is not yet known to what extent the variant might be able to do so.

“Our fears are it would do so to a large extent” The UK is “still fighting a Delta wave” and does not want to be “fighting both at the same time” as it could create a “very, very, very difficult situation”.

A technician uses a single channel pipette dropper, Johannesburg, South Africa (Pic PA)
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Please protect yourself and others from Covid-19 this Christmas, says Council Leader

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THE LEADER of Pembrokeshire County Council has issued a detailed update regards the Covid-19 situation in Pembrokeshire.

Cllr David Simpson said that we had seen a reduction in positive cases over the last couple of weeks but, unfortunately, numbers have started to rise again.

As of today the positive rate locally was 551.6 per 100,000 people he confirmed.

CLLR DAVID SIMPSON (Pic PCC)

Cllr Simpson said: “I must repeat that Covid-19 has not gone away and the wave of positive cases sweeping across Europe is a concern.
“People continue to catch this awful virus every day. Unfortunately, people are still dying from Covid-19.
“It is human nature to want to forget about Covid as the festive season approaches, I totally understand that.
“Like everyone, I was so disappointed when the tighter restrictions had to be brought in just before Christmas last year.
“And like everyone I’m thinking about buying gifts, planning festive events and looking forward to the celebrations.
“But I would please ask that you also keep in mind the simple things we can all do to give ourselves the best protection against Covid-19 and slow down the spread.”

Cllr Simpson said that People in Pembrokeshire should continue to work from home where you can, take up vaccination including the booster when offered, keep your distance where possible, use face coverings where required, maintain hand hygiene, meet outdoors when the weather allows and let fresh air in if you are meeting indoors.

He said that Christmas parties is one particular area where I would ask people to take extra care.

Cllr Simpson said: “Please consider smaller group numbers than you might ordinarily and try to avoid mixing with too many other people.”

“Remember that Covid-19 loves busy indoor spaces.

“Please do what you can to protect yourself and others.

“I would also take this opportunity to remind everyone that the Welsh Government has now extended the use of the NHS Covid Pass for further settings.

“As well as nightclubs and similar venues, you must also now show your NHS Covid Pass to prove that you are either fully vaccinated or have tested negative at cinemas, theatres and concert halls.

“This applies if you are aged 18 or over and also relates to unseated indoor venues with more than 500 people in the audience, any outdoor or indoor unseated venues with a capacity of over 4,000 and any event, of any nature, which has more than 10,000 people in attendance. To get a NHS Pass and for more information, see: https://gov.wales/get-your-nhs-covid-pass

“At the last three-week review the First Minister did not introduce the NHS Pass for use in hospitality settings but that remains a possibility for the next review on Friday December 10th.

“Our officers will, of course, keep a close eye on announcements from the Welsh Government as we move closer to Christmas and provide further information as it becomes available.

“Continuing the Christmas theme, I would urge everyone to do their shopping locally wherever possible.

“We have some incredible businesses across our County – including the much-loved markets – and our support will be extremely important to businesses and traders after what has been a tough period.

“All Council car parks will be free on Saturdays and Sundays in December to aid popping into the local shops and picking up some gifts.

“I plan to update you all once again just before Christmas so until then please enjoy the build up to the festive season safely.”

Further information:
I would like to highlight that the My Account redevelopment survey ends 30th November, so please get involved so you can have your say. It can be accessed via:  https://haveyoursay.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/my-account-re-development-feedback
Also, our ‘Christmas in Pembrokeshire’ section goes live 1st Dec and contains key information on opening times, waste and recycling collections, Christmas Parking (Free parking days), winter driving and salting routes and Christmas Markets.
For further information visit: www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/christmas
www.sir-benfro.gov.uk/nadolig
Additionally, there are a number of engagement and consultation applications from across the county – they include:
▪ Narberth Library: (closes 30th Nov)
▪ Eco Park Pre-Application Consultation: (closes 9th Dec)
▪ Net Zero Carbon Plan: (open-ended)
▪ Have Your Say on Council Budget 2022 – 23 (closes 5th Jan). As part of this engagement on Council Budget 2022–23 Cllr Kilmister and Jon Haswell will also be hosting a
Teams Live Stream Event on Wednesday 1st December between 7–8pm.
All are available at: https://haveyoursay.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/

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Firefighters want justice for Josh after leaked shock report

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A SHOCKING draft report into the circumstances of the death of a firefighter in Pembrokeshire in 2019 is firmly pointing the finger at senior management, despite two firefighters being dismissed before the conclusion of the criminal investigation.

Multiple members of Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service (MAWWFRS), The Fire Brigade Union and The Fire Authority have contacted this newspaper expressing disgust and grave concerns that action has not been taken to rectify systemic failings which could ‘lead to another death in the future.’

The Herald has been investigating this matter for months, and our team has met with many sources alleging that MAWWFRS are trying to ‘brush their failings under the carpet’ to avoid accountability for their part in the death of Milford Haven Firefighter Josh Gardener. He died in a boat training exercise aged just 35-years-old, on September 17, 2019.

A hard-hitting report published by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) in February 2021, into the circumstances surrounding the death which was labelled ‘avoidable’ blamed “systemic, organisational and procedural failings”.

The MAIB criticised the senior management at Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, specifically highlighting Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service documentation and procedures for boat operations were out of date, unclear and presented confusing safety messages to the reader.

At the time of the report, the Fire Brigade Union issued a statement on the findings. In that statement they said: “The issues identified in this report must be addressed and individual firefighters must not be blamed for systemic, organisational, and procedural failing.”

Milford Haven County Councillor, Stephen Joseph, who also sits on the Fire Authority said: “A number of firefighters past and present have raised their concerns with me over this investigation and the failings of the Fire Authority management.

Cllr Joseph who has the fire station in his ward added: “I am becoming increasingly concerned about what I am hearing and reading.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to read the complete draft FBU report however, I have been quoted sections which are quite damning.

“I am very proud to be a serving member of the Fire Authority Panel and their Health & Safety Champion. I will be demanding that the report is brought into the public domain and that those responsible for any mistakes made are held accountable, whatever position they hold.

“Josh Gardener was a friend of mine and I am unhappy about the time it is taking for things to come into the light.

“It upsets me greatly if this coming into the press again is upsetting for Josh’s family, but I feel strongly that we owe it to Josh, his family and other serving firefighters to have the incident fully and correctly investigated and for justice to be brought.”

Josh (centre) with colleagues

A former senior Fire Brigade Union representative added his thoughts on the report, he said: “Having had experience of how it is run, I would agree with the findings – it highlights the common traits exhibited by the service.”

Our sources all tell of a fear about speaking out and highlighting safety concerns. The Herald asked him what members of the service should do to highlight them, he said: “An atmosphere that exists within the service has been cultivated out of fear and intimidation.

“The Fire Brigade Union is always a good place to start to raise concerns”

He added: “A life has been lost, the service is so divorced from the top to the bottom, to those up top this is not the loss of life of one of their own like it is for those on the front line.”

SCAPEGOATS FOR MANAGEMENT FAILIURE

The fire service has terminated the employment of two Milford Haven firefighters because of Josh’s death, yet, no senior management have been held accountable. Allegations that the firefighters have been made scapegoats for failing at the top level have been made.

It is alleged that the two firefighters’ employment was terminated based on their behaviour on the day in question, but why has no one senior been held accountable for their part in the now obvious health and safety failings – which included serious breaches such as not issuing the trainees with helmets.

The Herald asked the service if they think that the sacking of two firefighters was justified based on the findings of the report, and if individual firefighters can be held accountable for their actions, why has the same not been applied to senior members of management. They have refused to comment on that point. A MAWWFRS spokesperson said only: “As investigations by external bodies remain ongoing and a date for a full inquest by the HM Coroner for Pembrokeshire has yet to be set, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time”.

Multiple sources have told this newspaper that members of the service, The Fire Authority and The Fire Brigade Union have brought up the findings in the reports regularly and asked about justice for Josh in senior management meetings. The answer is: “the investigation is ongoing” and “stop asking questions!”.

Serving firefighters have told this newspaper that they will not stop asking questions and will continue to voice their concerns until justice for Josh has been served, and clear lessons have been learnt so no more lives are lost.

THEY KNEW CREWS WEREN’T COMPETENT

Since the MAIB report was published, the Herald has been given possession of a document which shows that concerns were raised by the crew at Milford Haven about their abilities to operate the ribs, just six weeks prior to Josh’s death.

In a form, presented to the Assistant Chief Fire Officer at the time, Iwan Cray, on August 7, 2019, it says: “Skill sets have eroded with regards to the large rib. Are we likely to be upskilled to be able to perform our duties within our risk area, at present we can’t?”

As per the service’s safety protocol, if crews are not competent to use any apparatus, or their qualifications are out of date, then it is pulled out of circulation until competency is regained. We asked the service, why wasn’t the rib taken off service until crews training were back to the standard that was required to operate them safely. No reply was given.

The foreknowledge of the lack of competency was mentioned within the draft report. It says: “Another example of an apparent dichotomy arises with a different ACO, who, six weeks before Josh died, was formally notified of the lack of competence in boat crew in Milford Haven.”

It added: “However, despite the extensive ignorance, MAWWFRS knew that crews were not competent.”

Rib: Craft taken away for examination (Pic MAIB)

INTERNAL INVESTIGATION

An internal investigation was launched by MAWWFRS following Josh’s death, however the officer in charge of the investigation was the same officer who the concerns were raised to about the shortcomings in the crew’s ability to operate the ribs. In another blow to the credibility of the internal investigation, our sources have confirmed that the same principal officer is also the Head of Health & Safety for the service.

The Herald has asked the fire service, based on the conflict of interest that the documents highlight, if they felt that the appropriate person was appointed to conduct said investigation. No comment from the fire service on this point either.

The draft report refers to this claim, it says: “He then became the corporate lead on the investigation into Josh’s death but perplexingly no mention was made of this ACO’s foreknowledge of the lack of competence of boat crews.”

HEALTH & SAFETY FAILURES

The Herald has been presented with significant amounts of material, which suggests that the service is dragging its heels in dealing with Josh Gardener’s death.

Between two reports, one by the MAIB and the draft report leaked to this newspaper we can now publish that the main failures which lead to Josh’s death are:

  • No risk assessments carried out
  • The operation of the boats did not adhere to the requirements of the local standard operating procedures
  • No-one was in overall charge of the training and familiarisation activities, so they were not properly managed, briefed or communicated between the crews of both boats
  • No ppe given so nobody was wearing helmets on the rib
  • Rescue 1 (the big rib) did not have the correct number of members on board to meet the minimum occupancy required to operate it
  • The standard operating procedures for all fire and rescue service boats in the Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service were insufficient in content and contained incorrect information
  • Hand held radio were issued without checks
  • No lookouts were in place 
  • The Fire and Rescue Services in the United Kingdom did not operate boats to a common standard or code of practice when not employed on flood rescue duties
  • Instructors qualifications were years out of date
Funeral: Hundreds lined the streets to pay their respects (Pic M Cavaney)

CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION

The criminal investigation into the death of Josh involved multiple agencies under the Work Related Death Protocol, which has been run by Dyfed-Powys Police, MAIB, The HSE and The Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

The MAIB released a report into their findings into the death of Josh in February 2020.

Dyfed-Powys Police confirmed their involvement in the criminal investigation concluded at the end of February and their findings have been reported to The Health & Safety Executive and the Maritime & Coastguard Agency.

A Police spokesperson said: “Our investigation has concluded and been passed on to the Health and Safety Executive and Maritime and Coastguard Authority.”

A HSE spokesperson said: “Following the conclusion of Dyfed-Powys Police’s investigation, primacy for the continuing criminal investigation under the Work Related Death Protocol is joint between the Health and Safety Executive and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.  The investigation is continuing.”

An MCA spokesperson said: “A joint investigation by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Health and Safety Executive is currently ongoing. It would be inappropriate to comment at this time.”

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