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Politics

New push for Wales-only Covid Inquiry

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PRESSURE is mounting on the Welsh Government to call its own public inquiry into the way it handled the Covid pandemic.

Calls for an independent public inquiry have increased since the Senedd went into recess.

However, those calls got added impetus on Tuesday (Aug 24), when the Scottish Government announced it would hold its own Scotland-only inquiry.

The Scottish inquiry is due to start by the end of this year.

By contrast, the Welsh Government says there is no need for a separate Welsh inquiry,

Welsh Government ministers say Wales will be covered sufficiently in a UK-wide inquiry commissioned by the Westminster government.

However, that inquiry will not even begin until March next year.

The Westminster-led inquiry is widely regarded as an attempt to kick any potentially critical findings into the long grass and beyond the next General Election.

Opposition parties have been firm in their calls for a Wales-only report.

Plaid Cymru Health and Care spokesperson Rhun ap Iorwerth MS said: “For over a year Plaid Cymru has asked for a Wales-only public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.

“The Labour Government in Cardiff has instead opted to have a Welsh chapter in a UK-wide inquiry.

Following the Scottish Government decision, Rhun ap Iorweth said: “The Welsh Government has no excuse not to do the same.”

He continued: “The Welsh Government has got to take responsibility for its actions – good and bad, and there should be no avoidance of detailed scrutiny.

In a letter sent to the First Minister, Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies wrote: “Now that the Scottish First Minister has announced that there will be such an inquiry in Scotland, the Welsh Government is the only government in Great Britain that will not subject itself to such scrutiny.

“In my view, this is unacceptable.

“Nobody can doubt that you and your cabinet have worked extremely hard since the beginning of Covid-19, but there are questions that need answering and lessons that need to be learnt, particularly if Wales is to be fully prepared for a future pandemic.

“I believe it is imperative that families who have lost loved ones have the answers they deserve, and it is also important that your government is recognised for its successes as well as its failures.”

And from those families comes a fresh plea.

The Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru Group said: ‘We send our congratulations to our counterparts at Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Scotland and Aamer Anwar for helping secure a Scotland-specific inquiry this year.

“Wales has suffered a huge loss of life from Covid-19 and as the families left behind, we feel that we deserve the same level of scrutiny.

“The decision in Scotland only reinforces the need for Mark Drakeford to hold a Wales-specific inquiry.”

Mario Kreft MBE, the Chair of Care Forum Wales, proposed a different tack.

He drew attention to the different ways in which the UK’s nations integrate health and social care.

“A public inquiry will clearly flag up certain issues where things have gone wrong, but it won’t necessarily reflect the collaboration and support the care sector has had from the Welsh Government.

“The only way to do that would be to have a separate review to report into an overall UK-wide inquiry, along with similar reviews in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

“An inquiry of this nature should not be about creating a blame culture – it should be about learning lessons about how to do better if we are struck by another pandemic.”

Head of Asthma UK, and British Lung Foundation Wales said: “During the Pandemic, Welsh Ministers took decisions relating to the Welsh NHS and Care Sector. The nuance of such decisions would be lost in a UK wide inquiry into the pandemic response.

“If the Welsh Government is able to forge its own path in terms of the rules we follow, it is vital that the decisions that same government have made are scrutinised in a Wales specific COVID-19 inquiry.

“The past 18 months have seen a greater awareness of devolved responsibility than ever before. 

Such accountability must be embraced rather than handed off to a government that does not take decisions in this field for the people of Wales.”

On August 2, The Herald asked the Welsh Government for a specific comment on why the Welsh Government does not support a Wales-only Covid enquiry.

Although other requests for comments and responses sent the same day were answered, that one was not.

Politics

Online abuse motion goes before Council

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“I’M UNDOUBTEDLY the most abused councillor in Britain.”

That’s the claim made by Pembroke Dock Central County Councillor Paul Dowson in an interview with The Herald about a notice of motion due for debate by the Full Council next Thursday (Oct 14).

In a revealing interview, Cllr Dowson said he regretted becoming embroiled in a series of social media spats and acknowledged mistakes in how he dealt with them.

Paul Dowson was not, however, wholly contrite.

He told us that, while he thought social media’ pile-ons’ had gone too far, he felt justified in standing up for what he thought was right.

Since his unexpected election in 2017, Cllr Dowson has courted publicity. He was vocal about issues affecting his ward and his hometown of Pembroke Dock. He rubbed up plenty of people the wrong way, especially council officers and his fellow members, with his use of social media to communicate about the issues he felt – and still feels – affect Pembroke Dock.

He is notably disparaging about councillors he thinks do little apart from striking poses about issues remote from everyday life as it’s lived in Pembroke Dock.

I pointed out that a friend of mine had described him as ’a typical Dock boy’ of his age and background.

He enthusiastically agreed.

SOCIAL AND ANTISOCIAL MEDIA

He told The Herald that the turning point in his relationship with social media and controversy came following his outspoken condemnation of a Council statement that supported the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

“I’m not a racist,” he told The Herald.

“People who know me know I’m not a racist. I stand against racism, and I have no problem with saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Of course, they do.

“I said what I said about lighting up County Hall because I opposed the violent protests [following the murder of George Floyd in the USA]. The political agenda behind how those protests developed is something I couldn’t agree with – it was jumped on by people with a violent agenda I just couldn’t support. The cause is fine, but violent protests are not.

“So, I said what I said. ‘All lives matter.’ I didn’t know it was a term used offensively in America. Why would I? I’m not from America.

“And so the pile on started, with people being invited to complain about me being a racist to the Ombudsman by another County Councillor [Joshua Beynon].”

And what about his involvement at Penally, we asked.

Things got confrontational there.

“When the protests got violent, I knew the protestors against the unjust use of the camp without public consultation had lost. The night it kicked off, I made a point of speaking to the Police afterwards and thanking them for doing their job.”

He told us: “I sent Josh a message around Christmas last year saying everything had gone too far and we should both back off. I didn’t get an answer.”

THE OMBUDSMAN

We asked about the complaints made to the Ombudsman about his words regarding Black Lives Matter.

“Yes, people did complain. Some of those complaints lied about what I’d said, so they were dismissed. Some came from fake accounts, so they were dismissed. There’s one last one to go to the Council’s Standards Committee. I will insist that is heard in public, so people can hear everything and make their own judgements.”

We asked him whether he’d ever used an account under a phoney name to argue with others on social media, as he mentioned fake accounts.

“Yes, I have. I’d rather not have done it, but I think it’s justified when people are abusing you, bullying you, and stopping you from responding and carrying on targeting you, your business, and your family. And I’m always pretty obvious about it.

“In the heat of the moment, I’ve said things online that I’ve regretted. I don’t pretend to be a saint, but I don’t like being told what to think and do. When people push me, I push back.”

We asked Paul Dowson about comments made by those who apparently support some of his social media posts and respond aggressively to those who disagree with them.

His response was immediate: “Some people who’ve commented on social media have gone way too far in what they’ve said on some of my posts. When it’s been drawn to my attention by those who’ve been targeted, I delete the comments. I can’t do that 24/7 and I can’t stop people saying what they feel.”

A SIMPLE PROPOSAL

Although some will attack it because of its source, Cllr Dowson’s Notice of Motion should be uncontroversial.

Strip away the exposition from the text, and it’s a straightforward proposition.

Potentially good councillors are not coming forward for election thanks to social media trolling.

The Council needs to be more proactive with how it supports members.

The Council should be more modern in its approach to tackling the abuse of elected members.

 The Council – and councils – should do more to halt the tide of abuse directed at elected members and candidates.

To illustrate his point, Paul Dowson told us former Monitoring Officer Claire Jones had advised him not to use social media.

He scoffed at the advice.

“That’s so out of date, it’s unreal. How does she think people communicate with each other, these days? You don’t go knocking door-to-door or wait for them to come to you, you make yourself available to people who get in touch on social media!”

On the wider issue of whether social media companies do enough to prevent abuse, harassment, and trolling, Cllr Dowson was clear.

“No. It’s ridiculous that you can open an account without any identification or verification of who you are or that you are who you claim to be.

“I’ve had fake accounts pretend to be me, and I’ve had fake accounts make bogus complaints against me. If there was a system of verifying identity that all social media companies use, that’d be a start.

“Look, they can trace an IP address and locate you, but it takes too much time. If you have verification, that’s avoided, and things can be dealt with quickly and finally by social media companies.”

If it appears bitterly ironic to his detractors that Cllr Dowson has brought forward a motion to tackle online abuse, suppose it passes when councillors vote on it.

In that case, it will go before a committee chaired by Cllr Joshua Beynon.

When we pointed that out, Paul Dowson grinned.

Before we left, we asked Councillor Dowson whether he would seek re-election.

“Damn right, I am. In Pembroke Dock: Bush.”

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News

Procedural row delays vital meeting

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A LONG procedural wrangle ate up an hour-and-a-half of time at an Extraordinary Meeting of Full Council this morning.

Councillors met to discuss confidential legal advice arising from the equally secret settlement agreement between the local authority and its former CEO, Mr Ian Westley.

Before the meeting, the Council received a letter from the Association of Local Government Chief Executives – effectively Mr Westley’s trade union – that the settlement agreement’s contents were legally privileged and that Mr Westley had not surrendered his right to have its terms kept secret.

As we reported on Friday (October 8), the Council’s Deputy Monitoring Officer ruled a payoff of £95,000 to Ian Westley was made under the wrong procedure.

The settlement should have been reviewed and voted upon by the Full Council.
Although the Deputy Monitoring Officer’s opinion is a public document, councillors were due to discuss the issues it raises behind closed doors.

Some of the material to inform members’ debate, including advice from a leading barrister, is legally privileged and refers to confidential staffing matters.

An employee’s right to depend on confidentiality is the same as discussions between clients and their solicitors. They cannot be disclosed to someone else.

It’s a classic case where the public interest is not the same as what the public might be interested in.
Apart from the settlement agreement’s terms, internal staffing -particularly potential disciplinary proceedings against named individuals – are never discussed in public.

That is entirely standard practice in any employer/employee relationship, whether the employer is in the public sector or not.

However, several councillors – most notably former Council Leader Jamie Adams – insisted that confidential material could be discussed in public.

Cllr Mike Stoddart tartly welcomed Cllr Adams’s conversion to the principle of transparency in governance.
In doing so, Cllr Adams found himself at odds with the Council’s barrister, Mr Nigel Giffin QC, and the newly appointed Interim Monitoring Officer and Acting Head of Legal, Rhian Young.

Their professional opinions were clear.

Discussing confidential material in public, especially when one party had not waived their right to confidentiality, would leave the Council open to a potentially costly legal challenge.

Cllr David Lloyd – a practising barrister – endorsed their view.

It took Cllr Jonathan Preston to bring some real-world thinking into the proceedings.

He wondered how any councillors considered contradicting very clear legal advice to put the Council Taxpayer at risk of funding more legal costs than those the authority incurred already. Staffing matters were routinely confidential, and the Council was in no different a position than anyone else.

Cllr Mike Williams said that it was surely time to decide how to proceed after going around in circles after an hour and a half.

He proposed the meeting be moved into a private session to discuss the report, noting that doing so would leave councillors free to express opinions on the issues raised by the Council’s QC without putting the Council at any risk of litigation at public expense.

Mike Willams’s proposal was carried by 35 votes to 17 with one abstention.

Shortly afterwards, as Cllr Jacob Williams raised the issue of recording the proceedings, the webcast cut out.

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Health

New plan to keep Wales open and safe during “challenging” winter ahead

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The First Minister, Mark Drakeford, will today (Friday October 8) publish new plans to help keep Wales open and safe during the difficult autumn and winter months ahead.

The Welsh Government is publishing an updated Coronavirus Control Plan, which outlines the key actions, which could be put in place to control the spread of the virus.

Wales will remain at alert level zero for the next three weeks, following the latest review of the coronavirus regulations. This means all businesses are open and Wales has the lowest level of restrictions.

Speaking ahead of his press conference, First Minister Mark Drakeford said:

“We are facing a challenging winter ahead – coronavirus hasn’t gone away and flu is forecast to return this winter.

“Vaccination is the best defence we have against coronavirus – the more people who are fully vaccinated, the better our chances of controlling the spread of this awful virus.

“We will continue to focus our efforts on increasing take up of the Covid-19 vaccine across the age and priority groups and rolling out the booster vaccine too. We also encourage everyone who is eligible, to have their flu jab this year.

“There is also a range of other measures we can all take to help protect ourselves and our loved ones, such as washing our hands, reducing the number of people we meet and wearing a face covering in indoor public places.

“These measures have helped keep us safe throughout the pandemic and they will also help to protect us from other winter viruses, such as flu and other respiratory infections.”

The latest version of the Coronavirus Control Plan sets out two planning scenarios for the pandemic over the winter – in the first, called Covid Stable, Wales remains at alert level zero through the autumn and winter, with all businesses able to open.

This is thought to be the most likely scenario for the future, as we become used to living with coronavirus and we gradually move out of the pandemic to a position where the virus becomes a seasonal illness.

Under this scenario, if case rates fall, measures could be relaxed further in response, and if they rise, some existing measures could be strengthened to protect people’s health.

The second planning scenario, called Covid Urgent, is designed to deal with any sudden changes to the situation, caused by the emergence of a new, fast-spreading variant or if vaccine immunity levels fall, causing a rise in pandemic pressures, which risk overwhelming the NHS.

In such a scenario, the alert level system and restrictions would be used proportionately, but as a last-resort means, to protect people’s health, control the spread of infections and to protect the NHS.

Help keep Wales safe:

• Get your Covid-19 vaccines, including your booster when invited

• Get tested and self-isolate if you have symptoms

• Outdoors is safer than indoors

• Keep your distance when you can

• Wash your hands regularly

• Wear a face covering in indoor public places

• Keep indoor places well-ventilated

• Work from home whenever possible

• Use a Covid Pass in nightclubs and large events.

Commenting on the First Minister’s announcement Welsh Conservative Shadow Health Minister Russell George MS said:

“Like the First Minister acknowledged, vaccinations have proven to be the key that unlocked society and the economy after severely weakening the link between infection and hospitalisation. To those who have yet to be vaccinated, we urge them to do so and those eligible to get a booster jab.

“However, while we remain at Level 0, new restrictions are coming in as the coercive, ineffective, and anti-business Covid passports will limit our freedoms, fail to limit the spread of coronavirus according to the Welsh Government’s own scientists, and add additional burdens on already stretched businesses.

“There has been a poor communication campaign from the Welsh Government on their introduction, little justification of their effectiveness, a failure to address confusion and fix bugs, and no explanation on how they will police the alternative Covid test system so open to abuse.

“We have passed the peak of infections without further restrictions and passports will do little to stem the problems that has led to the worst-ever A&E waiting times, longest ever NHS treatment backlog, and second slowest ambulance response times built up under Labour mismanagement.

“So instead of further restrictions, we need Labour ministers to bring forward a proper winter pressures plan that introduces the Covid treatment hubs for which Welsh Conservatives have long called for and reverse their damaging decision to bring in Covid passports.”

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