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Welsh Health Minister defends retail restrictions

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THE WELSH Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, faced stiff today (Monday, Oct 26) questioning over retail restrictions during the current ‘firebreak lockdown’.

The Minister ducked a question from ITV Wales’ Adrian Masters.

That question asked whether trust in the Welsh Government’s handling of COVID-19 had been harmed by the row over supermarket chains sectioning off areas of ‘non-essential’ goods in their stores.

Instead of answering directly, Mr Gething carefully set out what he termed ‘a balance of harms’.

Vaughan Gething explained that the Welsh Government accepted the lockdown would cause some harm to Wales, to Welsh businesses, and individuals. However, he said, those harms had to be offset against the harm to public health and longer-term more adverse economic outcomes if the Welsh Government did nothing.

The BBC’s Dan Davies tackled Vaughan Gething again on the topic. In response, Mr Gething claimed that ending the rules on non-essential retail would both penalise small retailers and lead to greater community transmission of the virus.

Asked about remarks made by Lee Waters MS, Wales’ Deputy Economy Minister, that a further lockdown was ‘likely’ in the New Year, Mr Gething could not guarantee that one would not happen.

He said: “Measures are possible for the future but that depends on how successful we are in coming together as a nation to act in a way which means coronavirus is less likely to spread in the future.”

The Minister next received direct questions about the Government’s communications and messaging following a row over what were essential and non-essential goods.

This morning, Andrew RT Davies capitalised on a mistake by Tesco, which claimed the Welsh Government classified period products as non-essential. By the time Mr Davies tweeted his outrage and released a statement to the media, Tesco confirmed it was in the wrong and deleted its tweet. As Tesco has since acknowledged, period products – which are for sale in pharmacies – are classed as essential goods.

However, by then the damage had been done to the Welsh Government’s image.

Mr Gething said meetings had taken place with major retailers last Thursday, between ministers over the weekend, and there would be a further meeting this afternoon.

“The conversation we’re having with supermarkets today [about non-essential retail],” said the Minister, “will discuss limited circumstances [in which sales can take place].”

However, Vaughan Gething continued: “Much of what we have seen over the weekend is about the ‘what-if scenarios’ unlikely to come up over the next two weeks.”

Mr Gething continued to try and get the message over about a balance of harms and tried to explain why the Welsh Government imposed the retail restrictions it chose.

He stressed the Welsh Government decided to stop supermarkets selling goods otherwise available in small retailers who were compelled to close during the current lockdown.

The Welsh Conservative Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM, asked Mark Drakeford for a specific reassurance on that point – to protect small businesses compelled to close – last Thursday (Oct 22).

Loud Conservative voices, particularly those of Simon Hart and Andrew RT Davies, have condemned the Welsh Government for doing what their own Shadow Economy Minister asked.

The impression, however – of a ban on the sale of books and baby clothes – does not look good for the Welsh Government.

And neither does the confusion among large retailers.

That criticism was the subject of further direct questioning by journalists who asked Mr Gething how, if major businesses could misinterpret the guidance, how the public could possibly interpret it.

Vaughan Gething remained adamant guidance was clear but would be further clarified with major retailers.

Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price MS said: “The important thing for the Welsh Government to acknowledge is that they have made a complete mess of the messaging. Humility is important in admitting that you have got it wrong. They should have focused very clearly and very simply on the public health message.

“The objective of closing non-essential retail for this period is to try to limit the number of contacts so they can limit the number of infections – and that’s somehow got completely lost in the messaging which has then eroded public trust over the weekend.”

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News

Withyhedge Landfill: Multi-agency statement issued to residents

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NATURAL Resources Wales (NRW) shared the most recent findings from a visit to Withyhedge Landfill site in Pembrokeshire at a Multi-agency Incident Management Team meeting on Wednesday, 10 April. The meeting included representatives from Pembrokeshire County Council (PCC), Public Health Wales (PHW) and Hywel Dda University Health Board.

All authorities acknowledge and empathise with the impact this prolonged odour issue is having on members of the communities that surround Withyhedge Landfill.

This is a complex and ever-changing situation, and partners are working extremely hard to reach a point where the odour problems are resolved.

NRW officers attended the site on Monday 8 April. It appears, from a visual assessment of the work undertaken on site, that the required capping work and gas well installation has been completed by site operators, RML, in line with the deadline of the S36 Enforcement Notice, issued by NRW on 13 February 2024.

However, this can only be fully assessed by NRW once survey and construction validation reports have been submitted. The operator is now preparing these and once received, a formal assessment will be undertaken.

The authorities will review the findings and revise their action plans where appropriate.

Odour Monitoring

Since the passing of the S36 Enforcement Notice deadline of Friday 5 April, and in response to continued high volumes of odour reports from the local community, NRW and PCC increased odour monitoring in residential areas over the weekend and into this week.

Other possible areas on site where odour may be coming from have been identified and the statement from the company issued 9 April provides further detail.

RML submitted plans to address these on 10 April, which are now being considered by NRW.

Air Quality Monitoring

RML has also commissioned an independent party to carry out air quality monitoring, and this work continues. PCC and NRW are providing technical advice in support of this work.

The first round of diffusion tubes monitoring results detected Hydrogen Sulphide (H2S) at one of the 10 monitoring sites. Hydrogen sulphide being a colourless gas which often smells like rotten eggs and can come from the breakdown of waste materials in landfill.

More data is required for meaningful analysis and Public Health Wales continue to advocate for further air monitoring to take place as soon as possible. This is being progressed by PCC and NRW.

Reporting odour

NRW requests that instances of odour from the landfill continue to be reported via this dedicated form: https://bit.ly/reportasmellwithyhedge.

Please report odours at the time of them being experienced, rather than historically. Reporting odours in a timely manner will help guide the work of partners more effectively, particularly in the further development of air quality monitoring.

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Health

Doctors to enter pay negotiations with the Welsh Government

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BMA CYMRU Wales has suspended forthcoming industrial action for Consultants and SAS doctors following a constructive meeting with the Welsh government to resolve its pay disputes.

As a result of sustained pressure, including three rounds of industrial action by junior doctors in Wales, the Welsh Government has made a significant proposal to form the basis of talks to end the pay disputes with all secondary care doctors including Consultants, SAS and Junior doctors.

Since the meeting last week, the committees representing doctors from all three branches of practice have voted to enter pay negotiations based on this proposal.

The planned 48-hour strike by Consultants and SAS doctors due to take place from 16 April will now be suspended.

Junior doctors have paused plans to announce more strike dates whilst they enter negotiations with the Welsh Government.

The Welsh junior doctors committee, Welsh SAS committee and Welsh consultants committee will now each engage in pay negotiations, with the aim of reaching deals which can be taken separately to their respective members.

Dr Oba Babs Osibodu and Dr Peter Fahey co-chairs of the BMA’s Welsh Junior doctors Committee said:

“This is a significant step forward. It is sad that we had to take industrial action to get here, but we are proud of members for demonstrating their resolve in pursuit of a fair deal for the profession.

“Whilst we are optimistic and hope to quickly resolve our dispute, we remain steadfast in achieving pay restoration. Until we reach a deal, nothing is off the table.

 “We will continue to work hard to reach an offer that is credible to put to members who will ultimately have the final say.”

Dr Stephen Kelly, chair of BMA Cymru Wales’ Consultants committee said:

“The Welsh Government’s recent efforts to reach an end to the pay dispute are encouraging and so we have called off our planned strike for now whilst we allow time and space for negotiations to take place.

“We’re hopeful that we can reach a deal that sufficiently addresses years of erosion to our pay to help retain senior doctors in Wales but remain ready to strike if we’re not able to do so during negotiations.”

Dr Ali Nazir, chair of BMA Cymru Wales’ SAS doctor committee said:

“As a committee, we felt that this latest development goes someway to understanding the strength of feeling of our members. We will work hard to reach a settlement that sufficiently meets the expectation of our colleagues who have faced real terms pay cuts of up to a third since 2008/9.”

In August last year, the BMA’s committees representing secondary care doctors in Wales voted to enter into separate trade disputes with the Welsh Government after being offered another below inflation pay uplift of just 5% for the 23/24 financial year. SAS doctors on some contracts were offered as little as 1.5%. This was the lowest pay offer any government in the UK offered and less than the DDRB, the pay review body for doctors and dentists, recommended last year.

As part of their disputes, SAS doctors, consultants and junior doctors carried out successful ballots for industrial action. Since then, junior doctors have taken part in 10 days of industrial action since January this year.

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Health

BMA pay disputes – Junior Doctors, Consultants and Specialist Doctors

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THE WELSH Government and BMA Wales’ three national committees representing consultants, SAS doctors and junior doctors have today agreed to formal negotiations about pay.

Planned industrial action will be suspended during the negotiations.

A mandate is being developed for the talks with all three BMA branches of practice with the aim of resolving the disputes over pay for 2023-24.

In the context of the most challenging financial position the Welsh Government has faced since devolution, a significant amount of work has been undertaken to identify funding to support the negotiations.

First Minister Vaughan Gething said: “We recognise the strength of feeling among BMA members and that industrial action is never taken lightly.

“This is a government that listens and engages to find solutions. I prioritised a meeting with the BMA directly alongside the Cabinet Secretary for Health to reinforce our commitment to that partnership approach.

“We currently face the most severe financial situation in the devolution era which makes our task far harder. Despite this backdrop, we have worked to identify a way forward that I hope will lead to the successful resolution of this dispute and ensure that doctors can return to work in NHS Wales.”

Cabinet Secretary for Health Eluned Morgan added: “Even in these very challenging circumstances, we have worked in social partnership with the BMA and NHS to maintain patent safety during industrial action.

“But the strikes have been very disruptive to the delivery of NHS services – none of us want to see doctors on strike. I am pleased the three BMA committees have agreed to pause further industrial action and begin formal talks with Welsh Government and hope we can bring an end to this dispute.”

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