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Conservatives take aim at own Achilles Heel

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by Jon Coles

ANDREW RT DAVIES, the new and combative Conservative Shadow Health Minister, stepped into new territory for him and the Conservatives in Wales this week.
In recent weeks, the Conservative group in the Senedd has stepped up its attacks on the Welsh Government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting instances where Wales has failed to follow the Westminster Government’s lead on policy decisions.

TURNING A BLIND EYE

With Westminster’s current response to the COVID crisis at sixes-and-sevens, the Shadow Health Minister put in his boot to criticise the Welsh Government for following Westminster’s lead on a contentious policy decision.
In March, the Westminster Government – followed by the UK’s devolved administrations – began discharging hospital patients into care homes. Discharged patients were not tested for coronavirus.
The Herald reported on the scandal at the time. We highlighted instances where care providers, in both Wales and England, were pressurised by health boards and trusts to take untested patients into closed residential settings.
The outcome of that disastrous policy decision was easily predictable. Its likely consequences were well-known – at least by the Westminster Government – at the time it made that decision.
Introducing a virus known to be lethal to vulnerable and elderly patients caused a wave of deaths in care homes across the UK. The virus spread among an isolated and largely defenceless population.
The foreseeable result was a calamity.
Deaths in social care settings spiralled. They remain high even after the first spike of the virus in the general population and its decreasing incidence across the UK.
Wading into the scandal this week, Andrew RT Davies criticised Welsh Government without a moment’s apparent reflection on the wider context of his words.
In a press release, Mr Davies commented: “There can be no excuse for such an ill-thought decision which, of course, will have had a profound impact on some of our most vulnerable in care homes. I cannot comprehend where the government’s thought process was in pushing care homes to accept hospital patients who had not received a COVID-19 test.
“The bullish act by the Welsh Labour-led Government in applying pressure is truly scandalous and as a result, the people of Wales deserve an apology.
“The most pressing question now is to address how many patients were infected after being admitted and then discharged from the hospital. To address people’s serious concerns, this must be a priority for the Welsh Labour-led Government.”
On receipt of the press release, we replied and asked whether Mr Davies wished to extend his tart observations about the discharge of untested hospital patients to include the Westminster Government.
After recent press releases in which the Conservatives have not hesitated to compare Wales unfavourably with England, we believed Mr Davies might reflect and provide a balanced response: possibly to praise the Welsh Government for following Westminster’s lead; possibly to take the chance to even-handedly criticise the Westminster Government’s policy which the Welsh Government followed.
We did not receive a reply.

POLITICISING A PANDEMIC

Over recent weeks, the Conservatives have ramped up partisan rhetoric over the Welsh Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns, managed to navigate a path between scoring political points and attacking the Welsh Government for its multiple early failings in Wales’ response to the virus.
Those failings include setting a testing target, failing to secure the testing kits necessary to meet the target, saying a testing target didn’t exist, announcing a revised testing target, and then abandoning testing targets altogether.
On each of those, Mrs Burns made telling points and held Wales’ Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, to account – often leaving him wriggling on a hook made of his own contradictions and evasions.
Similarly, when Wales entered the strictest phases of lockdown, Paul Davies was able to highlight the enormously disproportionate impact of them on Wales’ rural economy without indulging the fantasy that somehow things were any rosier over the border.
As the Westminster Government began to ease lockdown restrictions in England, and under pressure from both the Westminster Government and Conservatives on either side of Wales’ border with England, the tone of Conservative briefings changed sharply.
Repeated releases from the Conservatives demanded that the Welsh Government lift the lockdown in Wales in step with England. The Welsh Government was accused of ‘dither and delay’, the phrase ‘catch-up Cymru’ began to appear. Fighting talk appeared in the names of shadow ministers who previously expressed themselves cautiously, occasionally critically, and usually constructively.
With one eye on the next round of elections to the Senedd, the Conservatives moved away from consensus and criticism to outright attack.
Having watched the reopening of schools in England unravel into chaos, Conservative attacks on the reopening of Wales’ schools lost step with reality. Now, the Welsh Government was criticised for taking steps that England failed to take to keep schools open there. The desperate floundering of Westminster’s Conservative Education Minister, Gavin Williamson, stood in stark contrast to the determined and unflustered approach of his Welsh counterpart, Kirsty Williams.
Darren Millar, the Senedd Member charged with speaking for the Conservatives on COVID in Wales, began to speak of Wales’ failings – and particularly those of the Welsh Government – for not reopening pubs, restaurants and holiday accommodation. With Wales’ hospitality and tourism industries on their knees, it appeared that approach would serve the Conservatives well.
As the easing of lockdown in parts of England has unravelled, however, Mr Millar has gone noticeably quiet as Wales continues to lift restrictions now re-imposed in significant areas of England’s north-west.
The Prime Minister’s warnings of the risks of a second wave of the virus should focus Conservatives in Wales’ attention on what preparations the Welsh Government is making to head-off that eventuality or at least ease its impact if or when it arrives. Instead, Andrew RT Davies is fighting four-month-old battles seeking headlines.

CONSERVATIVES NOT ALONE

One of the features of the crisis has been how Plaid Cymru has used it to propel its own message for an independent Wales – or at least a Welsh legislature with far stronger powers than the current arrangements.
‘Westminster doesn’t work for Wales’ is how Plaid has pitched its message. Its fire is concentrated on the shambolic approach of the Westminster Government’s response to the crisis. The Prime Minister’s endless capacity to make up policy on the hoof when caught out or tell outright lies when questioned about details has given Plaid Cymru ample opportunity to illuminate the gap between Westminster’s rhetoric and reality.
The Westminster Government’s hectoring approach to the UK’s devolved administrations, which includes gazumping the Welsh Government on a deal for testing kits with pharmaceutical giant Roche, and its constant inconstancy and inconsistency has also allowed Plaid to deploy
its choir of voices demanding more autonomy – preferably independence – for Wales.
When attacking the Welsh Government, however, Plaid has taken a different approach to the Welsh Conservatives. It has clamoured to keep restrictions in place – for example on schools – and for existing restrictions to be strengthened and reinforced – for example on face coverings, a policy on which it is eerily close to the Conservatives’.
However, Plaid – and the Conservatives – have fallen well short of saying what they would have done differently in the same situation and what they would do now to improve things during the continuing COVID age.

ONE EYE ON THE ELECTION

By the time next May comes around, both of Wales’ principal opposition parties need to set out defined messages that are both less negative and more grounded in current reality if either is to shift Labour from power in Cardiff Bay.
For the Conservatives, the challenge is finding a voice for Wales which is not an echo of Westminster. The events of recent weeks demonstrate that efforts to reform the Conservatives in Wales to forge a distinct identity from the UK party are likely to be seed falling on stony ground. Darren Millar is Boris Johnson’s representative on Earth and Simon Hart his rock. A more constructive approach from the Conservatives is, therefore, highly unlikely.
For Plaid Cymru, the challenge is moving beyond dreams of jam tomorrow in favour of policies for today. Plaid need to focus less on what Westminster isn’t doing for Wales but what Plaid CAN deliver for the whole of Wales and not just its existing voters. Plaid’s problem is systemic. It lacks resources and, while it well-organised in pockets of Wales outside ‘Y Fro’, it has not found the key to unlock monoglot Anglophone voters in sufficient numbers across Wales.
As for Labour in Wales, all it can promise is more of the same. It’s been in power for over twenty years and it isn’t likely to change a formula that’s kept it in power for so long. And, when it comes to the economy, Labour can point out that the big levers are held by the Exchequer in London.
The Conservatives and Labour have the advantage of a large electoral base across most of Wales. If they can energise those voters to turn up and vote next May in anything like the numbers they did in the General Election, Plaid will have to watch out for a massive squeeze on their far smaller electoral base

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The Welsh Government launches Basic Income pilot scheme

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FROM 1 July 2022, more than 500 people leaving care in Wales will be offered £1600 each month (before tax) for two years to support them as they make the transition to adult life.

Launched by First Minister Mark Drakeford, it is hoped the pilot will set care leavers on a path to live healthy, happy and fulfilling lives.

The radical approach has trust, autonomy and respect at its centre. It will provide independence and security to people who have faced immense challenges during their childhood, giving them greater control and empowering them to make decisions about their future.

The £20 million pilot, which will run for three years, will be evaluated to carefully examine its effect on the lives of those involved

Social Justice Minister Jane Hutt said the scheme is a direct investment in the lives and futures of some of Wales’ most vulnerable young people.

Those taking part in the pilot will also receive individual advice and support to help them manage their finances and develop their financial and budgeting skills.

Local authorities will play a key role in supporting them throughout the pilot. Voices from Care Cymru will also work with the young people to give them advice on wellbeing, education, employment and help them plan their future after the pilot.

To launch the scheme, First Minister Mark Drakeford, Social Justice Minister Jane Hutt and Deputy Minister for Social Services Julie Morgan met with people taking part in the pilot, and young people who themselves have been in care, to talk about the impact this support will have on peoples’ lives.

They discussed how they hope the financial stability will give people the opportunity to make positive life choices as they leave care and provide a more solid foundation from which to build their adult lives.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “We want all our young people to have the best possible chance in life and fulfil their full potential. The state is the guardian of people leaving care and so has a real obligation to support them as they start their adult life.

“Our focus will be on opening up their world to all its possibilities and create an independence from services as their lives develop.

“Many of those involved in this pilot don’t have the support lots of people – myself included – have been lucky enough to enjoy as we started out on our path to adulthood.

“Our radical initiative will not only improve the lives of those taking part in the pilot, but will reap rewards for the rest of Welsh society. If we succeed in what we are attempting today this will be just the first step in what could be a journey that benefits generations to come.”

Minister for Social Justice Jane Hutt said: “We’re in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis like no other and we therefore need new ways of supporting people who are most in need.

“Our Basic Income pilot is an incredibly exciting project giving financial stability to a generation of young people. Too many people leaving care face huge barriers to achieving their hopes and ambitions; such as problems with getting a safe and stable home, to securing a job and building a fulfilling career. This scheme will help people live a life free of such barriers and limitations.

“We will carefully evaluate the lessons learnt from the pilot. Listening to everyone who takes part will be crucial in determining the success of this globally ambitious project. We will examine whether Basic Income is an efficient way to support society’s most vulnerable and not only benefit the individual, but wider society too.”

Tiff Evans of Voices from Care Cymru, speaking on behalf of young people who have experienced care, said: “This is a brilliant opportunity for care leavers in Wales. It is good to see that care leavers in Wales are being thought of and Welsh Government are providing this opportunity for them as young people to become responsible, control some parts of their lives and have a chance to thrive and be financially independent.

“We thank Welsh Government for investing in them and their future and we look forward to other changes and developments for care experienced young people in Wales in order for them to reach life aspirations.”

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Boris Johnson, his wife and chancellor Rishi Sunak to be fined for breaking lockdown rules

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THE PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie, and chancellor Rishi Sunak, have been notified that they will be issued with fines for breaking lockdown rules.

The fixed penalty notices are the result of a Metropolitan Police investigation into parties in Downing Street and Whitehall in 2020 and 2021.

Mr Johnson will become the first sitting prime minister to receive a punishment for breaking the law.

Labour immediately called for both the PM and chancellor to resign while Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey called for parliament to be recalled for a vote of confidence in Mr Johnson.

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon also demanded that they should quit.

Those calls have been echoed this week by Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds has called on the Welsh Conservative Leader Andrew RT Davies and Welsh Secretary Simon Hart to “show a backbone” and call for Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to resign following the news that both men are to be fined over lockdown parties.

Commenting Jane Dodds MS told The Herald: “Boris Johnson & Rishi Sunak have broken the law & repeatedly lied, they must resign from their positions at once.

“While people in Wales were playing by the rules at great personal expense, those in charge thought they were above the law.

“This also will come as a painful blow to all those covid bereaved families in Wales.  The behavior of Johnson and Sunak

“The Welsh public deserves much better. For the sake of the country, both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak must resign immediately.

“If the Conservative Party is to have any legitimacy in Wales Andrew RT Davies and Simon Hart need to show some backbone and be calling for resignations immediately. No Welsh Conservative MP should be backing the Chancellor or Prime Minister staying in post.”

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Removing Plan B rules ‘a headline to distract from Boris failings’ says Drakeford

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FIRST MINISTER Mark Drakeford has said the decision to end “Plan B” restrictions in England next week is not part of a “careful, long-term plan” but it’s a “headline to distract people’s attention from the Prime Minister’s failings.”

Wales will complete the move to alert level zero on 28 January First Minister Mark Drakeford has confirmed unless the public health situation changes for the worse.

He said the phased plan to gradually relax the alert level two measures and move back to alert level zero will continue.

The Welsh Conservatives have called for the immediate removal of the vaccine passport scheme, restrictions on businesses such as the rule of six in pubs,  ditch all social distancing and the removal of mandatory face masks in schools.

Critics have questioned the Welsh Government policy to ease restrictions at a slower pace than England.

Boris Johnson announced earlier this week that England’s Plan B measures are to end from next Thursday, with mandatory face coverings in public places and Covid passports both dropped.

But that announcement came as the Prime Minister faced mounting pressure to resign amid allegations of parties held at Number 10 during lockdown.

Mark Drakeford said the move in England to ditch those restrictions was not part of a carefully thought-out plan, speaking to BBC Radio Wales he said:

“I don’t think anybody watching objectively at what has happened in England could imagine that their decisions have been made by careful attention to public health advice and with some sort of long-term plan in place.”

“Their announcements this week are entirely due to the astonishing mess that they find themselves in and an effort to find some other headline to distract people’s attention from the Prime Minister’s failings.”

Mr Drakeford said: “Here in Wales we’re in a very different position, we’ve got a government that is capable of making decisions in line with the advice, to do things in the way we’ve done throughout the pandemic, step by step following the science, making sure that we are keeping people in Wales safe.”

Speaking to Sky News this morning, Mark Drakeford said it was “very hard to see how the Prime Minister survives.”

“Even if he were to survive, he will just limp on because he’s never going to escape the damage that this week has done to his reputation.”

“From my point of view, the thing that worries me the most is the fact that the UK Government is frozen by the impact of what has happened to them.” He said.

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN WALES?

Welsh Government have said the latest public health data “suggests Wales has passed the peak of the omicron wave and coronavirus cases are falling back to levels similar to those seen earlier in the autumn” adding “There have also been reductions in the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital”.

From Friday 21st January, Wales will move to alert level zero for all outdoor activities.

This means:

  • Crowds will be able to return to outdoor sporting events.
  • There will be no limits on the number of people who can take part in outdoor activities and events.
  • Outdoor hospitality will be able to operate without the additional measures required introduced in December, such as the rule of six and 2m social distancing
  • The Covid Pass will continue to be required for entry to larger outdoor events attended by more than 4,000 people, if unseated, or 10,000 people when seated.
  • The Covid Pass is required in all cinemas, theatres and concert halls which are currently open.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “The latest figures show we have passed the omicron peak and we can continue to lift the alert level two protections as part of our careful and phased plan.

“We will lift the limits on the number of people who can gather for outdoor events. We remain cautiously confident the public health situation is heading in the right direction and next week we will be able to complete the move to alert level zero unless the situation changes for the worse.

“We are in this position thanks to the efforts of everyone in Wales and our fantastic vaccination programme. It is important that everyone continues to follow the rules and the guidance to help keep themselves and their loved ones safe, including taking up the offer of a booster vaccine if they haven’t already done so.”

On Friday 28th January, Wales will complete the move to alert level zero.

This means:

  • Nightclubs will re-open.
  • Businesses, employers, and other organisations must continue to undertake a specific coronavirus risk assessment and take reasonable measures to minimise the spread of coronavirus.
  • The general requirement of 2m social distancing in all premises open to the public and workplaces will be removed.
  • The rule of six will no longer apply to gatherings in regulated premises, such as hospitality, cinemas, and theatres.
  • Licensed premises will no longer need to only provide table service and collect contact details.
  • Working from home will remain part of advice from the Welsh Government but it will no longer be a legal requirement.
  • The Covid Pass will continue to be required to enter larger indoor events, nightclubs, cinemas, theatres, and concert halls.

The self-isolation rules for everyone who tests positive for Covid and the face-covering rules, which apply in most public indoor places will remain in force after 28th January. The next three-weekly review of the coronavirus regulations will be carried out by 10th February, when the Welsh Government will review all the measures at alert level zero.

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