Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd06/05/2020
The Senedd met by video-conference at 13:33 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome, all, to this Plenary meeting. Before we begin, I want to set out a few things. A Plenary meeting held by video conference in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting; these are noted on your agenda.
I would also wish to remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and of the time limits on questions that will be applied to this meeting, as communicated to Members.
This is the first meeting of Senedd Cymru, the Welsh Parliament. The role of the Senedd is far more significant than its name, but it's appropriate that the name reflects the range of powers and responsibilities that this Senedd exercises on behalf of the people of Wales.
We are meeting for the first time as Members of the Senedd in the Welsh Parliament, our name now reflecting our role as our nation's democratic Parliament. Whilst our name may have formally changed today, our priority remains the same as it has done over the past weeks—responding to the coronavirus crisis. Now more than ever, our citizens expect a strong national Parliament working in the interests of the people of Wales.
And we'll now crack on with that work and I will call on the First Minister to propose the business statement—Mark Drakeford.
Diolch, Llywydd. There are no changes to today's agenda. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, and that can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
I thank the First Minister.
The next item of business is the topical question, and I call on Rhun ap Iorwerth to ask the topical question of the health Minister—Rhun ap Iorwerth.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the steps the Welsh Government is taking to increase capacity to deliver a coronavirus test, trace and isolate strategy for Wales, following reports that Public Health Wales' latest advice is that 30,000 tests a day could be required? 415
Thank you for the question. Members will be aware that Public Health Wales has developed a high-level document to inform discussions with partners on the next phase of our national response to COVID-19. Discussions are ongoing this week to finalise the operational elements of a public protection response plan for Wales.
Diolch, Weinidog. We were told in March that there'd be 9,000 tests a day by last week, rather than around the 1,000 or so we're currently hitting. I'll park for a minute the apparent commandeering of 5,000 Welsh tests a day by UK Government. But global evidence on testing hasn't weakened since then, it's strengthened, and it's countries that have set elimination strategies with robust test, trace and isolation policies—countries like New Zealand—that have managed to keep their death rates down.
Public Health Wales seem to agree. The document I've read—and, incidentally, I know the Minister refers to it as a draft document, a document we perhaps shouldn't take too seriously, but I have it here: public health protection, a response plan prepared by Public Health Wales, 29 April 2020, final version. It says that testing for COVID-19 is a critical part of the response to the pandemic in Wales. The question is: how should that be delivered? Now, the document is detailed, it's complex, it makes projections for the testing capacity needed. It says on page 65 that, as well as particular groups that will need testing—key workers, patients in hospital, and so on—testing symptomatic members of the general population will be essential to suppress transmission. And it states, and I quote, that if all symptomatic members of the population are to be tested, this would generate a demand of approximately 30,000 tests a day.
Now, what sparked this question was the Minister's almost immediate dismissal of that, suggesting a figure closer to the original 9,000 may be needed. But, of course, despite setting those targets back in March, Welsh Government now doesn't believe in targets. Or does it? Welsh Government's chief scientific officer, Rob Orford, answering my questions in the health committee last week said:
'we're not publishing the number of tests that we're aiming for, but the internal numbers are significant'.
So, Ministers do know how many tests we should be aiming for, but aren't telling us. And for us parliamentarians, on behalf of the people of Wales, to be able to scrutinise Ministers, to push for the best possible outcome, which is what we all want, we need to know what Government itself is aiming for. So, please can I ask the Minister to tell us what the plan is, what the targets are, and how we're planning to get there, so we as parliamentarians can measure if you're on track?
Thank you for the statement and the series of questions within it. I think it's important to go back to what this leaked draft document is, and it's not a final plan for Wales, it's the basis of a discussion between partners. Because Public Health Wales, as the draft has been leaked, have had to engage in a wider conversation with partners in the health service—so, health boards and other trusts—as well of course as local authorities and others. So, those partners, together with the Government, are working through the document with Public Health Wales. Feedback is coming in from that, and we will then get to a point over the next week or so where there will be a confirmed national plan. I set out the high-level elements of that yesterday, and the main points of principle will remain consistent, but the operational plan will set out and fill in more of the detail on numbers—so, the model of contact tracing we think we're going to adopt, the point at which that tracing will take place, what that means in terms of the capacity we need, where we'll get that capacity for contact tracing from. And local authorities have been really helpful in those discussions, in developing something to get more operational and looking at the resources they've already got.
And then, of course, the point about testing—now, the capacity for that is not something that is certain at this point in time. We'll have more certainty when I have a finalised plan, and, when we do so, I'll obviously make a statement, and I'll be ready to answer questions, not just from the press, but from Members of this Parliament as well. So, we'll expect to see further progress on testing, because, as I have said on a number of occasions, we know we need a larger testing infrastructure to move to the test, track, trace programme. But it's the point and purpose of that testing. And the reason why I mention 9,000 tests is that, when Scotland announced their plan, they indicated that, for Scotland—and Wales has a population of just under 60 per cent of the population of Scotland—they thought they'd need 15,500 tests. If the early draft figures in the document that's been leaked were the ones we're aiming for in Wales, that would mean that Scotland would need nearly treble the number of tests they've announced, and England would need testing capacity of over 600,000. So, the approximation that I gave was that, if we were doing the same thing on the same basis as Scotland, that would end up being a figure of 9,000.
When we get a final plan, with final figures, I will of course be publishing that, making that available to all members of the public, and I fully expect to answer questions before this Parliament on that as well.
Isn't it a fact, Minister, that your Government simply hasn't got a grip of testing here in Wales? We've got woefully inadequate numbers of people being tested at the moment; we know that Public Health Wales has capacity to deliver around 2,000 tests a day, and yet the reports that we receive from Public Health Wales seem to indicate that less than half of that is actually being taken up.
We know, for example, from the Royal College of Nursing, that even those who are eligible for tests have no idea, a good proportion of them, how, actually, to get themselves booked in. So, we've got real problems on the testing front. And, of course, we have an unequal access to testing in different parts of the country. We know, for example, that new testing facilities, in terms of the drive-through facilities, came on stream in north Wales well after those in the south; we know that laboratory capacity also, of course, needs to be ramped up. We were supposed to have a new laboratory in north Wales, so that test results didn't have to be sent to the south, operational by the end of the month, and, of course, that deadline, which you set yourself, went by without that laboratory having been established.
So, do you accept that you're failing on testing, that you need to ramp this capacity up, regardless of the situation that you describe—which seems to be pretty complacent, I have to say—in terms of the need to get this trajectory up on testing?
And can you also—? One other part of the report that was leaked referred to the number of people who might need to be engaged in the test, track and trace process and the surveillance process. There was a number in there of 1,800 people being required in Wales in order to facilitate the sort of working that was described in the document. Now, in Scotland, they have suggested that they're going to need around 2,000 people, and, in England, they've suggested around 18,000 people. Now, both of those, proportionately for the population, seem to be far fewer than the number of people that Public Health Wales seem to suggest that we might need in terms of personnel. So, can you explain what the rationale is for that much more significant number proportionately, why they've arrived at that particular figure, and what efforts you're making at the moment, as a Government, to make sure that those people are recruited?
Again, I need to start by reminding the Member, as he knows, that the report that he's referring to is a leaked draft report and not the final plan, so I don't intend to run around looking at assumptions that underpin that, because, when there is a final plan that the Government introduces, I'll then be talking about how we've arrived at those figures, having had that conversation across the health, social care and wider range of partners who are going to be needed to understand and to implement the public protection response plan.
I don't accept the charge that we don't have a grip on testing. We know we've got to do better. The review that I instituted has led to a number of improvements already. In the direct conversation I have with stakeholders, for example, Care Forum Wales, local government and people running the local resilience fora, they state that the referrals are now being made at a much better rate and a faster rate. Our challenge is to make sure that we still have a consistent application of both the process, so it's properly efficient, and that will need to develop further as, of course, we know we're going to see a larger number people come through as we start to phase out of lockdown, but it's also about making sure that it's easier for employers to refer their members of staff into the testing process as well. So, that's a direct point that we're taking up within our system and with employers, but, as I say, that's a conversation we have on a regular basis and the additional oversight that we're providing for that.
On your broader point about unequal access, well, as you're moving to any new system, where you start first will be a pilot, and start off earlier than other parts of the country. I think it really is important that we don't collapse into a narrative about regional grievance, that some regions of Wales are being deliberately de-prioritised as against others, and that simply isn't true. The lab in Rhyl, which of course, as you'll be aware, is in the Deputy Presiding Officer's constituency, that's opening today. That will provide not just closer geographic access, but it will provide some additional capacity as well, and that should make a positive difference for people across north Wales, but more resilience across our national picture as well.
When it comes to the physical contact tracers and the numbers of those, this again goes back to the point that this is a draft that's being discussed, and it's being discussed to get to the right number to understand how many people we need and the balance between the use of technology and physical contact tracing as well, with people on phones and otherwise. All of these things about the number of staff needed will have to take account of the form of lockdown measures we're going to ease as we exit lockdown, and the number of extra people that are moving and circulating in a different way to the way we are now, and, of course, people's continued willingness to follow the social distancing guidance we've introduced, because that has been the major reason why we've slowed down the spread of coronavirus and we don't have even more deaths to report here in Wales today.
Minister, in terms of expanding the number of tests, what are you doing to enable GPs to arrange a COVID test for a patient who has possible coronavirus symptoms in the community? And back to this final report, why do you now suggest following Scotland, rather than following your own advice in this report?
Well, this should be the point about the current focus on testing, and that's about critical workers and people who are symptomatic. That should still work within the healthcare system, so if GPs have patients they're concerned about and there's a clinical reason to do so, that should still be possible. We're also then talking about the broader roll-out of testing as part of the test, track, trace model.
The leaked draft document is exactly that. This doesn't represent the final advice to Ministers on the exact model we should implement here in Wales and the numbers that underpin that, whether of the number of tests that we need, or indeed the contact traces. So, that is still part of the conversation we're having with partners, so that Ministers do then have a final form of advice about what that will look at in each of its aspects. I think the idea that Ministers are rejecting the advice that they're receiving on this issue is not to give a fair or accurate representation of what's being done. That draft report is being worked through, as you would expect it to be, with partners in the health service, local government and others. And as I say, I fully expect to come back to this Parliament to provide a further statement and answer questions when we do have that final plan that we will, of course, be publishing.
Thank you, Minister.
The next item is the statement from the First Minister on coronavirus, and I call on the First Minister to make that statement. Mark Drakeford
Thank you very much, Llywydd. Once again, I will update Members of the Senedd on the key developments since my statement of last week. I will focus on health and care services and on how we are responding to the impact of coronavirus on Wales's most vulnerable people. Of course, social distancing rules remain in place, and we must all adhere to them. There are a number of encouraging things to report, but we must remain vigilant as we plan for the next steps.
Llywydd, once again I will update Members on the key developments since my statement of a week ago. As in previous weeks, I will deal with issues not covered in the statements that follow from the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, the Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language, and the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition.
Llywydd, as we head towards the end of the second period of lockdown, I would like to provide Members with the latest figures on the progression of the disease in Wales. Thanks to the enormous efforts of people throughout our nation, the number of coronavirus cases is decreasing and the rate at which the virus is circulating has come down. It remains, however, close to the level that could put us back in danger. The crisis is certainly not over, even as some signs improve.
In that context, the number of new confirmed cases of coronavirus reported every day by Public Health Wales is now consistently fewer than 200. The number of people in hospital with coronavirus has fallen again to just over 900 on 5 May. There are now fewer than 70 people in critical care with coronavirus, down from more than 100 in the middle of last month.
Taken together, this body of evidence shows that everything we are doing together as a community is helping us move past the peak of the virus. But, this week, we note that the number of deaths in Wales has now exceeded 1,000. This sombre milestone—each one of those a human life, and a family grieving—underlines the need for great caution as we approach the end of the second review period this week.
Llywydd, I turn now to some practical matters. Thanks to the unstinting efforts of many colleagues, the positive position on PPE that I reported last week has been further maintained. Deliveries from Cambodia and China into Cardiff Airport have put our stocks in a more stable position. We continue to work with partners to ensure that supplies are distributed fairly and reliably across Wales, to meet the needs of hospital and care staff, as well as GPs, optometrists, urgent dental centres and pharmacies and others.
Llywydd, as you've just heard, our testing capacity continues to increase. It's now at 2,100 tests a day, up from 1,800 last week. The north Wales and Carmarthen drive-through testing centres opened last week. The new Swansea bay facility will open this week. We are testing health and social care workers, police, the fire service and prison staff, and will expand to other key workers as capacity increases. Yesterday we received a significant delivery of testing equipment from overseas. Today it is being installed and validated. That process is being completed as rapidly as possible, and will lead to a further step up in capacity next week.
Llywydd, I reported last week to Members that we were working with the care home sector on a wider testing remit in those care homes where there is an outbreak of coronavirus. The health Minister announced the changes to give effect to that wider remit in a written statement on 2 May. In essence, the changes do more to prevent the introduction of coronavirus in care homes where none is in circulation, and more to respond to new outbreaks. As part of that effort, from the beginning of this week eight new mobile testing units will be deployed as part of the plan to test all residents and staff in a care home where an outbreak has occurred.
Llywydd, last week I mentioned the work already under way on an enhanced public health infrastructure to underpin recovery in Wales. That will include three core elements: contact tracing, sampling and testing, and surveillance. That has now been the subject of a topical question answered by the health Minister.
Llywydd, the publication last week of the ONS report ’Coronavirus and the social impacts on disabled people in Great Britain’ demonstrated the stark inequality dimension of the current crisis. It is clear that the virus is having the greatest impact on those with the fewest resources. It will deepen the inequalities already entrenched by a decade of austerity, and this impact may be more intense in Wales due to the age profile of our population and the higher level of deprivation in some of our communities.
As we made clear in the framework for recovery document, published on 24 April, addressing inequality will be a key factor in our plans for coming out of lockdown. In the meantime, we have already taken a series of actions to mitigate where we can the impacts of the crisis on the poorest and most vulnerable citizens in Wales.
As Members will know, research has established that minority ethnic groups are experiencing greater harm from the virus than the majority of the population and that there is a differential impact within BAME communities. Through our stakeholder groups, we are working to understand these impacts and how they are affecting our communities in Wales. A BAME COVID-19 advisory group has been established to examine the evidence and to identify measures that could be taken further to protect the most vulnerable, and I will attend a meeting of that group immediately after concluding my statement this afternoon.
Llywydd, we have continued to prioritise the welfare of families who need help the most. The Minister for Education has announced funding of up to £40 million to enable local authorities to continue free school meal provision until schools reopen, or to the end of August. Wales is the first country in the United Kingdom to provide this continued assurance of support during the school holidays, just as we are funding free childcare for pre-school children of critical workers, and we are the only country in the UK providing free childcare for vulnerable people. And the digital exclusion grant of £3 million, announced since the Senedd last met, will enable all children to access the IT they may need for remote learning during the crisis.
We have recognised the exceptional service provided by care workers through a flat-rate £500 payment to those in the social care workforce providing personal social care. As with the £60,000 death in service payment, this will have the greatest relative benefit for those with the least to begin with. Llywydd, women bear the brunt of low pay in our society. More than 80 per cent of workers in social care are women, and our decision to make a payment of £500 will have an equality impact in gender as well as in income.
At the same time, Llywydd, I should welcome the decision of the Ministry of Justice to locate the first new women offenders residential centre in Wales, a long-overdue development and much assisted by the advocacy of my colleagues, Alun Davies and now Jane Hutt.
Llywydd, in providing financial support from within a limited block budget, we work to target funding where it is most needed. By providing a ceiling of £0.5 million on the rateable value eligibility for our business rate relief scheme, we have freed up more than £100 million to support smaller businesses across Wales. And here we have kept to important schemes that benefit low-paid and vulnerable people. The discretionary assistance fund was particularly important during the flooding emergency earlier this year, and it continues to offer vital protection to people in financial crisis. We have allocated an additional £11 million to this fund this year. In normal times, Llywydd, the discretionary assistance fund makes around 5,600 payments each month, totalling £330,000; since the impact of the crisis, 12,000 payments are being made monthly, totalling now £0.75 million. We continue to support households experiencing hardship through the council tax reduction scheme, and continue to encourage people to contact their local authority to see if they are eligible for help through it.
Finally, Llywydd, last week marked five years since the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 became Welsh law, and that was set out in an important statement by the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip yesterday. As we respond to the current crisis and plan for a post-COVID Wales, the Welsh Government will hold fast to the principles of that Act to build a more prosperous, greener and more equal Wales. The actions I have outlined today are rooted in our commitment to social, economic and environmental justice, and it is this that will continue to shape our actions in the future. Diolch yn fawr.
Leader of the opposition, Paul Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, I'm pleased to see that the Welsh Government has changed its policy on testing in care homes, and that, moving forward, all staff and residents in care homes where there's been a case of COVID-19 will now be tested.
Now, last week, you told us that there was no clinical value in extending the tests further and yet, clearly, that clinical value has now been found. You know that I've raised this issue with the chief medical officer, but the people of Wales deserve to know what new clinical evidence the Welsh Government has actually received. However, this policy still doesn't go far enough, and the Older People's Commissioner for Wales, Heléna Herklots, is right to say that the Welsh Government should be testing all care home residents and staff as a matter of urgency.
Therefore, will you now publish the clinical evidence that you initially received advising you not to test care home residents and staff, and will you also publish the new information that you've received since then that has led to you changing this policy? And will you go one step further and commit to testing all care home residents and staff, so that the sector isn't seen as collateral damage by commentators like Care Forum Wales?
Llywydd, I thank Paul Davies for that. He will know that, in answering questions from him last week, I said then that the Welsh Government was reviewing the evidence about testing in care homes and looking to see whether our testing regime could be further extended. I said that to the Member on Wednesday, and on Friday, the health Minister set out the practical steps that we would take. The Member asks about the evidence that we have drawn on in making that change. Well, I can tell him that we drew on studies from Singapore and from Spain, from a Public Health England pilot study into six London care homes, on a report for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in New York, on nursing home sector COVID experience there. We've drawn on evidence from Washington and we've drawn on the UK Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine's systematic report on evidence on how best to contain the spread of coronavirus in the care home sector.
That report identified five different ways in which the spread of coronavirus could be contained, and testing is only one of them. The systematic review puts emphasis on hand hygiene, on environmental decontamination, on staff rotas in care homes and the way in which staff can be rota-ed in order to reduce the risk of coronavirus being imported into care homes, on restrictions on visitors to care homes and then, fifthly and finally, on measures in relation to testing.
I said to the Member last week that I had not seen any clinical evidence that led me to believe that testing of non-symptomatic residents and staff in care homes where there is no coronavirus in circulation had a clinical value. That was confirmed in the evidence that came to Ministers last week, and that is why we will not, at this point, be doing that in Wales. If the clinical evidence changes, then we will follow the evidence.
The Member started by asking for evidence and then asked me to do something for which there is no evidence, and we will not be doing that. Our position was set out in Vaughan Gething's statement on Friday of last week and, essentially, it is about doing more to prevent coronavirus getting into care homes where there is none today, and then doing more in those care homes where there is symptomatic spread, in order to make the management of the virus in those homes more effective.
Well, First Minister, I think it is important that we do see the evidence, because this policy has indeed changed. It's important that the Welsh Government is open and transparent on these matters because the public have a right to know what evidence has been used when a policy changes.
Now, moving on, First Minister, I'm pleased to see that the Isle of Wight is now preparing to trial a phone app that will track COVID-19 infections. First Minister, this may be an area that the Welsh Government can work on with the UK Government so that Wales can also be at the forefront of these technological developments. Whilst, of course, there are data issues on how it could be shared in Wales, this type of contact tracing could be of huge benefit to us here in Wales. Can you therefore confirm that Wales is willing to be part of this process, and that your officials are working with their counterparts in England to see how we could use this technology here in Wales? And will you commit to publishing the latest guidance that the Welsh Government receives on this issue, so that we can track and trace the Welsh Government's progress in this area?
Llywydd, can I just start by saying that all the evidence that I cited in my first answer to Paul Davies, other than the Public Health England pilot study into the six London care homes, is all public domain evidence? It's available for any member of the public who wishes to see it, including Assembly Members, and I'll confirm whether the Public Health England study is also in the public domain.
On the Isle of Wight piloting of the app, the Welsh Government has membership of the oversight group, which is developing that app, as does the Government of Scotland. There are data issues, as Paul Davies says, that need to be resolved, and the purpose of the Isle of Wight experiment is to see whether the app lives up to the promise that is there for it. And he will know, we've had a number of instances during the coronavirus crisis where something that looked very promising didn't turn out to be capable of delivering that promise, which is why the Isle of Wight pilot is so important. But I hope it will be a success, and I hope that it will be possible to resolve those data privacy issues, because I want to be able to recommend the app to people in Wales, because the more people who use the app, the more effective the app becomes.
So, the position I want to be in is one that I can confidently say to people in Wales that this is something that they can do, that they can do safely, that they can do with any anxieties they have about the use of their personal data having been met by the work that is going on during this pilot period. But we have to wait to see the results of the pilot and the resolution of the data issues. I'm very keen, as I said to UK Government Ministers yesterday, that we should be able to publish—as the question Paul Davies put to me—a statement that members of the public can see, explaining to them how their data that they will contribute through the app, is to be governed, the purpose that it will be used for and guarantees that it won't be used for purposes to which they have not given their consent. Because, in that way, we'll gather the public confidence that we will need if the app is to be used in the way that would deliver the benefits that would be there for all of us.
Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price.
Yesterday, First Minister, you published figures that show that there were 1,239 deaths registered in care homes in April in Wales compared to 417 for the same month last year—an increase of 200 per cent. Now, you just said, in terms of care homes where there hasn't been a confirmed or suspected outbreak, that clinical advice wasn't in favour of testing residents in that case. But you are doing that now, aren't you, for care homes that have 50 residents or above? And isn't the reason why you're not applying that policy to smaller care homes because you don't have the availability of testing, which means that you don't have the capacity for testing every home?
Llywydd, can I thank Adam Price for drawing attention to the figures that were published yesterday? They'll be part, now, of a regular series in which we put into the public domain, in one place, drawing together the very sobering facts of the impact of coronavirus on care homes here in Wales. Members will be able to see that every week.
And can I thank Adam Price as well for pointing to that variation on my answers to Paul Davies? Because there was evidence—Members will be able to find it amongst the citations I offered earlier—that, in larger care and nursing homes, there is a clinical point to testing even non-symptomatic settings, and that's because the larger homes are more susceptible—are more susceptible—to the spread of coronavirus, for a number of different reasons. They're often focused more in the nursing home end of the care home sector, and, as Adam Price will know, having seen the figures, there is a greater concentration of deaths in care where nursing is part of care than in the rest of the sector, as you might expect given that coronavirus attacks people with underlying health conditions.
And another reason why larger care homes have been treated differently is because they have a larger number of people going in and out of them. And the more traffic there is between the outside world and a care home, the greater the risk becomes that coronavirus will be imported into the care home—whether that is by workers coming back and forth, whether it is in the rare occasions where family members may visit somebody who is terminally ill; the more visits there are to a care home, the higher the risk becomes, and the bigger the care home, the more visitors and staff members going in and out there will be. And those are amongst the reasons why the advice was that testing of asymptomatic people in the larger care homes did have a clinical purpose that we have included that as part of our testing regime.
First Minister, if there is, potentially, scientific evidence that suggests that testing in a care home with 50 residents, without an outbreak, has clinical value, how is it possible that testing in a care home with 49 doesn't? Isn't that an entirely arbitrary threshold?
Well, it is arbitrary in that it's not fine tuned to say that you could put it immediately between 49 and 51. Whenever you have a border, there is a degree of arbitrariness about it. But the advice that we had was that, in broad terms, a care home with 50 or more people in it was more vulnerable to the introduction of coronavirus, even when there is none circulating in the care home today. That was the number that was advised to us as the best place to draw the line. In its specifics, it has a component of arbitrariness about it, as any number does, but it is not plucked out of the air, it is derived from the science that lies behind it, the nature of the care home sector, and the advice that then goes to Ministers.
The leader of the Brexit Party, Mark Reckless.
First Minister, you announced in your framework for recovery document on Friday, 24 April that, before lifting lockdown restrictions, your Government would assess whether measures had a high positive equality impact, if they provided any opportunities for widening participation and a more inclusive society, and whether they were consistent with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and an equal and greener Wales. You referenced that approach again in your statement today, and your being most concerned about social and environmental justice. You've also said that any easing of restrictions had to be grounded in distinctively Welsh values.
But last week, you said that you wanted restrictions to be lifted on a common, four nations basis. I wonder then whether you consulted the UK Government about your equality tests before publishing them? If restrictions are lifted on a common basis, how can this be grounded in distinctively Welsh values? Have you persuaded the UK Government to adopt these, along with your equality tests and the requirements of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015?
Finally, can you confirm if equality means that, were I to send my children to Welsh-speaking schools, they could go back early, but if I send them to an English-speaking school, you would make them stay at home?
Llywydd, I didn't seek permission from the UK Government before publishing this document of the Welsh Government—of course, I didn't. But I said, when I published the framework, that I regarded it as a contribution to a discussion that I thought needed to go on across the whole of the United Kingdom. And the Scottish Government published a similar document, as a contribution outlining their thinking to the way in which together we can craft a path out of the lockdown we are all facing today.
I'm absolutely unashamed about putting the equality impact of any of those measures at the heart of the way that we would think about it here in Wales. It's why the Senedd passed the Well-being of Future Generations Act, with a more equal Wales as one of its seven goals. In my statement I set out the sobering facts about the disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic communities of coronavirus. And the steps that we take need to be measured against the impact that they will have on different communities in Wales to make sure that the burden of dealing with the disease does not fall disproportionately on one part of Welsh society rather than another. I'm very proud of the fact that we put equality right at the front of our considerations, and I certainly advocate that in my discussions with UK Ministers as well.
The Member would do better to resist his instinctive reach for opportunity to set one part of Welsh society against another. He's referring, I know, to an answer I gave to a question about how we were planning to return children to school in Wales. And as an illustration I said that we were looking at groups where there was a particular case for putting them in the early phases of returning to school. And in that, I said that children in year 6—children going up to secondary school in September—that there would be a strong case for thinking about them as the group that you would want to bring back together early in the process because those children complete that important rite of passage alongside their classmates, whatever language they happen to be taught in and whatever language they happen to speak at home.
I mentioned children with behavioural needs, who rely on the rhythm of the school day and whose parents struggle to look after them for 24 hours every day in the confines of their home, as a group who might have an early call on returning to school.
And I mentioned those young people in Wales who we are so proud to have in Welsh-medium education, who come from homes where not a word of Welsh is normally spoken and who will now have been out of the Welsh-speaking milieu for many weeks. And I identified them, again, as a group that you might want to think of as having a particular case for earlier introduction to school, alongside all those others. Trying to pit one part of our school population against another and to create some sense of grievance, again—it does no credit to the Member and it certainly isn't the way we think about things in Wales.
I'm grateful to you, First Minister, for that. I asked you two weeks ago how committed you were to the four-Government approach, and you said that you remained absolutely committed to that. And, in principle, that's something that I agree with—I would always prefer to see the four Governments of the United Kingdom working together, sharing information and sharing experience and working to ensure that we do have a common approach.
But in the last few days, we've seen the UK Government failing in a profoundly disturbing way. We see now that the UK death toll is the highest in Europe—second only to Trump's America. And I think there is a need for us to question whether linking ourselves too closely to a UK Government that is clearly failing is something that we have to do in the future. And so I would very gently seek, First Minister, to question that again, and to ask you whether you are continuing to look at Governments that are succeeding in dealing with this virus in different parts of the world and not simply looking eastwards to a Government that is not succeeding. I think that's an important question to look at.
The second question I have—
No, no. You've asked your first question and you've exceeded your time for the session. First Minister to respond.
Well, can I thank Alun Davies for that? And, actually, I don't think my position is different to the one that he set out, because I too believe that the principle of trying to work on a four-nation basis across the United Kingdom is an important one, but that would not mean that I would be willing to adopt in Wales policies known to be failing elsewhere. So, it is not a slavish adherence to that principle; it is the lens I want to use—I want a four-nation approach. I have been working hard this week with other Governments in the United Kingdom to try to bring that about. But it's—. We've always said that if we need to do things differently in Wales, because that is the right thing to do, that is what we will do, and that's a really important principle as well.
And we do, Llywydd, continue to learn lessons from around the globe. Every week, I receive reports of developments, either directly because of conversations the chief medical officer has in Sweden, in Germany and South Korea, for example, or in literature searches that we are carrying out inside the Welsh Government to track what is going on in parts of the world where the lockdown has been lifted already, to see what is working, to see what does not appear to be working, and then to feed that information into our thinking so that we identify the measures that we think have the greatest chance of success, wherever that evidence comes from around the world.
First Minister, I was surprised that there was no reference in your statement today to the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE Day, which, of course, will be marked on Friday. Lots of people around Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom and, indeed, the whole of Europe will be celebrating the defeat of the evils of Nazism and fascism across Europe on Friday. And, of course, we'll have the opportunity as well to remember those who lost their lives in the conflict that was the second world war, and indeed those heroes who are still amongst us who helped to achieve that tremendous victory—all of the key workers, if you like, alongside those who are on the front lines fighting in battles.
There are some people in Wales, including some individuals who are Members of the Senedd, who said that they will not be celebrating this Friday, because they don't feel that a celebration of these things is appropriate. I will certainly be celebrating, First Minister. Can I ask, will you be too? And what plans are there to mark this important milestone in our history once this particular pandemic is under control?
Well, Llywydd, can I thank Darren Millar for that question, for the opportunity to say something about the seventy-fifth anniversary, and to thank him for the assiduous way in which he makes sure that we are thinking about these events and how we mark them?
I spent a good part of yesterday afternoon in a series of conversations over the telephone and by video link with Welsh veterans of VE Day, and they were wonderful conversations. I think the youngest person I spoke to was 94 years old and the oldest person I spoke to was 100 years old, from Aberystwyth. All of them full of memories of their time, and full of sadness as well, because for them VE Day—it is a matter of celebration of what was achieved, but it's also a matter of profound sorrow for those people who they knew and who stood alongside and who didn't survive the war in the way that they did. And I didn't speak to a single person who didn't mention by name somebody else who had been close to them and who wasn't a survivor as they were. But they were wonderful conversations. It was fantastic to see people managing technologies that they never thought they would need to and having those conversations by Skype and by Zoom and all other things we have to do.
I will certainly be marking VE Day myself. I'll be at the cenotaph here in Cardiff at 11 o'clock on Friday, as part of our national marking of that moment, and it's being marked, as Members will know, in very different ways because of the time that we are in. And then we do need to look beyond the time to see what we will be able to do when we're better able to get together again, and discussions are going on so that when the moment comes that we're able to do things in ways that we are more used to, we won't have forgotten the need to make sure that marking VE Day will be something we'll be able to do in the future as well as on Friday.
Could you tell us what discussions are ongoing on having a hub for prisoners in Bangor, in my constituency? I am given to understand that there is a proposal in place to create a hub in Bangor for prisoners who come originally from all parts of north Wales and are released early because of the current crisis. Now, neither myself nor the MP for Arfon in Westminster have received any official information about those discussions. When were you intending to discuss this with us? And if there is a plan in place, as I'm given to understand there is, then what exactly is being discussed, where will the resources and expertise come from to maintain this hub, and what will be the arrangements for accommodating these vulnerable people after the crisis is done?
Well, Llywydd, I've seen nothing on that issue. I've received no advice, I've had no discussions at all, and I haven't heard about the possibility until I heard Siân Gwenllian's comments today. So, of course, I'm willing to pursue the issue to see whether there have been any discussions anywhere within the Welsh Government, and if there is anything behind what Siân has heard, then I'd be happy to write to her and to provide her with further detail, but I haven't heard anything to date.
[Inaudible.]—decision by Welsh Government in respect of the payment of £500 to care workers, can I just suggest this is a first step in what must eventually become a new deal for our public sector workers? Can I ask what progress is being made to persuade the UK Government to waive the tax in these payments, as indeed happened during the flooding crisis?
And also, First Minister, can you confirm that the Welsh Government will have regard during the process of any relaxation to the advice of the Wales TUC? I've had colleagues from England praising Wales for the steps the Welsh Government did take with regard to regulating social distancing in the workplace. So, can I have an assurance that strict safety guidelines and regulations will be implemented to make sure that workplace safety and travel to work is more than just 'good enough', as has been suggested by some UK Ministers, but that it will be paramount? I think that after commemorating Workers' Memorial Day, can I suggest that anything less is not acceptable, and ask that the Welsh Government will always put the public and workers' safety first in their decision-making process?
Llywydd, I thank Mick Antoniw for both of those questions. Our £500 is there to recognise the amazing contribution, the brave contribution, that workers providing direct personal care for people in our care sector are making during the crisis. When the crisis is over, I entirely agree with Mick Antoniw—we need to make sure that those people who have been so important in responding to the crisis are regarded as equally important afterwards and are rewarded in a way that we would want to see them rewarded.
Let me say again, because I said it at the time: the help of the Secretary of State for Wales in making sure that the payments we made from the discretionary assistance fund to people who had been the victims of flooding—that that didn't count towards benefit calculations—was very helpful, and I hope that he will be able to be equally helpful to us here. We want every pound of that £500 to go directly to the people we are seeking to reward. It should be free of tax, it should be free of national insurance, and we raised this with the UK Government before making the announcement, and I know that my colleague Rebecca Evans has written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury since, again, making the case for the UK Government to recognise the contribution that those workers are making, not just in warm words, but in the hard cash that we have found from the Welsh Government's budget and needs to go to those people and not be siphoned back to the Treasury in tax and national insurance contributions.
And on the involvement of the Wales TUC and of unions more generally, the point, Llywydd, that I make and try to make to UK Government Ministers is that unless we can convince people that it is safe to go back to work, then you can open whatever you like, people won't turn up there if they feel that they are putting themselves at risk. One of the best ways of being able to demonstrate to a workforce that all reasonable steps have been taken to making that workplace safe, is to have the trade union say alongside you that those actions have been taken. So, the trade unions have a really pivotal role and a positive role in demonstrating to workforces that going back to work is safe, because they themselves have been involved in those preparations. That's the way we're trying to do it here in Wales. I think most Welsh employers have an appetite to do it in just that way. And Alun Davies asked about learning from one another and passing lessons to one another. The way that we have put our 2m rule into regulations, the way in which we regard trade unions as central partners in making workplaces safe, I think that's something that could be learnt by other parts of the United Kingdom.
The £500 bonus for our social care workers is very welcome indeed, but will you, First Minister, extend the bonus to our selfless army of unpaid carers as the director of the Royal College of Nursing in Wales has requested, explain why our local authorities know nothing about how this money is going to be received and distributed, and also whether social care staff going forward will be provided with a wage increase, just like some non-medical staff have been provided so in Cardiff?
I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for the welcome she gave to the £500. I don't think it is right to say that local authorities knew nothing about it. The Welsh Local Government Association welcomed it in quotes that they put out on the day that we announced it. We're working with local government through the Welsh Local Government Association, which is the collective voice of local authorities in Wales, to make sure that the money can reach the people we want it to get to in the best and quickest way, and I hope that she will agree with me that the whole of that £500 should go to those individuals.
I wish I could say to her that we could pay all workers in social care in Wales at least the living real wage, and we will be working with trade unions, local authorities and the sector to see how that might be achieved the other side of coronavirus. But, in order for us to be able to do that, we'll have to have the funds from Whitehall in order to be able to pay people the rate that I've heard her just support and we certainly would want to work towards, but we're not funded to do that at the moment and it would be great, the other side of coronavirus, if across the UK we were in a position to do that.
The UK Government is piloting a contact tracing app that asks users if they have any symptoms, and, if they do, for them and anyone they've come into contact with to self-isolate for 14 days. Now, testing, tracing and isolating are together surely the key to stopping the spread of the virus, and, for the app to be effective, 60 per cent of the population have to download it. But, as has already been said today, some people may be reticent to download it due to privacy concerns, partly because of Dominic Cummings's involvement and the UK Government's decision to opt for a centralised data system rather than a decentralised data system like other states.
Now, additionally, the Scottish First Minister has said that, in order for the app to be effective, it needs to be complemented by testing, tracing and isolating teams on the ground. So, First Minister, do you have confidence that people's data will be kept safe and it won't be misused if they do download the app, and, further, what plans does the Welsh Government have to establish testing, tracing and isolating teams on the ground in Wales?
I thank Delyth Jewell for those. I have confidence that the UK Government wants to do the right thing in relation to privacy and the app. I had a chance to discuss this with UK Ministers and with the First Minister of Scotland yesterday, so I don't doubt their intentions. I think there is still a gap between the intention and being able to offer the guarantees that I think people will need in order to feel confident that their information is being shared for the purposes that they're prepared to share it and not vulnerable to being exploited for purposes for which they haven't given their permission. That's why I said in my answer to Paul Davies that I think the UK Government should publish a statement of privacy arrangements alongside the app, so people can go and see what guarantees are there, and if they're not able to provide those guarantees, and some other aspects of the app being confirmed, then the chances of 60 per cent of people using it will be diminished. I'd like to be able to recommend it to people in Wales, but I'll need to know that those things are properly in their place before I could make that positive step, but that's where I'd like to be.
And then, of course, Delyth Jewell is right that the app is only one aspect of all of this. You have to have, in that new world, community-based testing, tracing and isolating arrangements. The Public Health Wales leaked non-final paper that we've spent a bit of time talking about today is a detailed account of how we might be able to get to that position. It is being refined in further discussions. Local authorities, I think, will have a really important part to play in helping to populate the teams that we will need, partly because they have people who are not able to do the jobs they would normally do, and also because they have that local intelligence and understanding of populations on the ground.
We will work over this week to identify the number of tests we really think we will need, the number of contact tracers we really think we will need, the split between people who will be contacted and traced online by the telephone and on foot—because you have to have some bits of all of that—and then we will publish our implementation plan demonstrating how those systems will be achieved here in Wales.
First Minister, on 17 April, you stated that lockdown could remain even in Wales—. I'll start again. First Minister, on 17 April, you stated that lockdown in Wales would remain even if it were lifted elsewhere. On 27 April, you said that Wales could come out of lockdown before the rest of the UK. On 1 May, you were quoted as saying that Wales could come out of lockdown the same time as the rest of the UK. Well, you seem to be flip-flopping all over the place and not giving any kind of confidence to the public or indeed to business. So, a very simple question is: do you actually know what you're doing? And if you do, what is the plan to come out of lockdown?
The very simple answer is 'yes'. We published our plan in the framework document that we set out. Of course, all three possibilities that the Member has outlined are still possible. My preference, as I've already said this afternoon and many times, is that we come out of lockdown on a common set of measures and a common timetable across the United Kingdom. If that's wrong for Wales, then we won't do that. If we had to stay in lockdown longer because that was right for Wales, we'd do that. If it was possible to release some measures in Wales safely because it was right for Wales ahead of others, we would do that. That's why we're the Government of Wales.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, the Welsh Government has followed and expanded upon the UK Government's policy of supporting businesses, with more funding and grants available here in Wales, particularly if you're self-employed, but do we know how much has been given to Welsh businesses from the UK Government schemes and in particular to some of our anchor companies such as Airbus and Tata, who are already highlighting their concerns over the future of their businesses? And, I know that, in particular, Tata has requested far more than the cap that's currently on CBILS. Are you aware as to what progress is being made by UK Government on supporting these anchor companies in Wales?
And, finally, First Minister, I've literally just received an e-mail from a care home manager, within the last 15 minutes, who has cases of COVID in his home, but, when contacting Public Health Wales on Monday, he was told that, because they're not new cases, he will not get tested. Can you ensure that Public Health Wales know the new guidelines so that, in homes where there is COVID, all residents can be tested and staff can be tested?
Well, on the final point, of course I can guarantee that Public Health Wales are very well aware of the new guidelines. I'm afraid I can't respond to an individual e-mail, but there will be ways in which that care home can pursue that and should do.
On the first and largest set of questions David Rees asked, I don't have, and I'm not sure whether it is even publicly available—I certainly don't have in my head—a breakdown of the help that Welsh businesses have so far received from the UK schemes. So, just to repeat again, Llywydd, this afternoon, I welcome all those schemes and I'm very glad the UK Government has put them in place, and I'm sure there will be a point at which it will be possible to see how much of that help has been received here in Wales. Quite certainly, to agree strongly with what David Rees said about Airbus and Tata, as two absolutely major and fundamental employers here in Wales, both of them with global crises on their hands in aerospace and in steel making, I give David Rees an assurance that my colleague Ken Skates has been in direct and close contact with Tata management and with the management of Airbus, looking to see the things that we can do here in Wales. For example, on the skills agenda, where we remain willing and keen to do the things that we can do to help, but where the big issues—energy in the case of Tata, for example—are issues that lie in the hands of the UK Government, where the need to attend to them has been there for many, many months past, and is now urgently needed in order to secure the long-term health of those very important industries.
In the meantime, we go on using our £500 million economic resilience fund, which is not simply focused on the major companies themselves, but very importantly on supply chains, making sure that if large companies get into trouble, we're attending to the impact that that will have, the knock-on effect it will have on their supply chains as well.
We have all had to sacrifice a great deal of freedom, and I think it's very damaging for social unity when people in my constituency see visitors to the area that don't have to make the same sacrifices. People tell me that they still see it as being very busy in terms of visitors in their areas. And the more robust we can we be now, I think, the less tension will be created. It's important that we do reduce that tension because we look forward to seeing tourism reviving again. I do agree with the message of your letter to the police and local government, telling people to stay away from second homes and holiday accommodation, and so on. You say that that includes people who are already here. You say that leaving or staying somewhere they should not be visiting, without good reason, constitutes a criminal offence. Well, if it is a criminal offence, then shouldn't we empower the police more on this, including the possibility of heavier fines?
Well, of course we are always open to keeping a close eye on the powers available to the police currently and what we are doing through—
—things that we do in terms of fining and making the impact of the measures the police can take effective. The information we've always had from the police week by week is that they have what they need. Now, if that changes in the future, then, of course, we will think about that and see what we can do.
The actual evidence we have is that trips being made by people in Wales are stable. The number of trips made on 7 April and 28 April—two dates on which there were census points—were practically identical. So, there's not a great deal of hard evidence that more trips are being made. But we're dealing with people's anxieties, of course, and bank holidays create particular anxieties that they will encourage people to make journeys that are not essential and should not be made. That's why I wrote an open letter, alongside the police service, alongside the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, just trying to get that message across to people.
We are still all subject to the restrictions that Rhun ap Iorwerth referred to. Unnecessary journeys are not allowed in the current arrangements. Taking a trip to the beach, travelling a long distance to go to Snowdonia—that's not allowed under these arrangements. People shouldn't do it and, if they do, the police in Wales will take action.
The cost of the current lockdown will be felt not just in financial terms but also in healthcare terms. Cancer Research UK recently said that we're missing 2,300 cancers a week because of the reduction in GP referrals. It's clear that we need to spend a lot more money on health in the future, but we'll only be able to do that if we have a successful and growing economy.
The Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated that the cost of this lockdown will be anything from £500 billion to £1 trillion. The Government deficit in the UK is going to balloon by, perhaps, £300 billion this year—that's 20 times the entire Welsh Government budget. If we don't take some risks in getting the economy moving, and we have to take the risk that the infection rate of coronavirus will continue as it is—. So long as we can protect the vulnerable, or the most vulnerable, then does the First Minister agree that, if we are going to spend more on the health service in the future, we have, therefore, to get the economy back on its feet?
Well, there's something in what the Member says that I could agree with, because, of course, he is right that we have to make a success of the economy in order to be able to have the public services that we need. So, I agree with him in that very general proposition.
Where I can't agree with him is that this means that, provided we can protect the most vulnerable, we should be prepared to take risks with the health of other people. Because we're not talking about his health or my health, we are talking about the health of other people—other people who have children, who have families, and are not prepared to go down that road with him.
We will take the most careful and cautious steps forward—the steps that we believe will have the best impact for the minimal amount of risk, because any step beyond lockdown is a risk, but any sense of a cavalier approach to risk, in which we put people in harm's way knowingly, is certainly not something that I would be prepared to sign up to.
As we open the economy up again, and I agree that we have to be able to do that, then we need to do it in ways that demonstrate to the people we are going to ask to go back to work that we have thought about those risks, we have mitigated those risks, we have taken all reasonable measures to make them safe in the workplace, that we are not going to create conditions in which coronavirus simply takes off again and spreads like wildfire through the whole of the population, creating huge spikes again in hospital admissions, overwhelming critical care capacity and so on.
It's where you put yourself on the risk spectrum, and I want us to be at the part of the spectrum that demonstrates to people in Wales that we have seen everything we do through that public health lens, and we're not going to ask anybody to take a risk that we could have avoided.
It has been mentioned several times this morning that we're paying carers—rightly, in my opinion—a £500 payment in recognition of what they do. But what hasn't been mentioned this morning, and it was brought to my attention by a constituent who lives in Montgomeryshire, but works over the border, is that they won't be receiving that. Now, I hope that you will agree to join with me with the newly elected Tory MP in Montgomeryshire and also in Powys to seek assurances that these inequalities that exist, because we've put it in place and England haven't, could be addressed. It is completely unfair in that respect.
And the other thing that hasn't been mentioned about positive changes to our benefits for people in Wales is the additionality that we are paying and the difference between that for free-school-meal recipients. It's £15 in England per week and it's £19.50 per week in Wales. And, again, it really does demonstrate the difference between the thinking between a Tory and a Labour Government about who really needs help and who is actually getting it.
Can I thank Joyce Watson very much for that question and for bringing us back to what was one of the main focuses of my original statement, which was the inequality impact of coronavirus and the fact that the burden is being felt by some people far more than others and the actions we've taken as a progressive Welsh Government to try to mitigate that?
Now, our £500 payment is based on your place of work, rather than the place where you live. So, Joyce is absolutely right, there are anomalies. There will be people living in England working across the border in Wales who will get the £500 payment, and there are people living in Wales and working in England who won't. The answer to it, as Joyce Watson has said, is simple: make a payment in England as well, and find the funding, as we have found, to do that. I hear Conservative Ministers very regularly on the television telling us how much they value everything that those care workers are doing. What we've tried to do, and it's in a modest way, but it sends an important symbolic message, certainly, is that we've tried to put some of our money where our sentiments have been.
And the same is true of free school meals. We're all rightly worried about the impact of coronavirus on vulnerable families and children who otherwise would have had the support of the school around them, and everything else that we mobilise in Wales to make sure that those families get the support that they need. Our investment in free school meals, the £40 million that we've announced, means that those children can be sure of being fed right through the school holidays, the long school holidays, which we know are such a struggle for so many families. It is more than is being paid elsewhere, but we've always put more in this area. We've always had, throughout this Assembly term, a scheme of feeding children during the long school holiday—a national scheme, paid for through the Welsh Government. We're very proud to be able to continue that, and very grateful to Joyce for drawing attention properly to it this afternoon.
I thank the First Minister.
The next item is the statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales on the response to coronavirus, and I call on the Minister to make the statement—Ken Skates.
Diolch, Llywydd. I'd like to begin by first of all thanking Members across the Chamber, as well as our social partners and our colleagues in every area of public service in Wales, for the huge amount of work that's been done in contributing to and supporting the economic response to coronavirus.
Now, as I will come to outline, we've made a great deal of progress in delivering rapid support through our economic resilience fund through the Development Bank of Wales, and through business rate relief being administered by local authorities, and I'd like to pay tribute to everybody who's helped on that particular front.
Now, I say this because the need for this support could not be greater. Economies around the world are showing signs of record contractions and significant unemployment. The eurozone economy shrank at the sharpest pace on record in the first quarter, and even the strongest economy, Germany, recorded unemployment rising by 373,000 in April.
There are many businesses in Wales that have already had to take tough decisions. Of those businesses and venues that must currently remain closed, there are over 200,000 employees within those industries in Wales. Over a third of those work within the food and drink industries, and over a quarter work in the retail sector. This is before we take into account, of course, the supply chain impact. But our priority is public health and controlling the pandemic. Without public confidence in that, consumers will not go to shops, people will not travel and workers will not return to offices.
In the meantime, as thousands of individuals and businesses put their livelihoods on hold to save lives, the Welsh Government is taking decisive action to help all those businesses and individuals who have been impacted.
As it stands, we've invested £1.7 billion in support packages, equivalent to 2.7 per cent of GDP in Wales. This is a truly unprecedented commitment and a clear demonstration that we are standing up for businesses in all parts of Wales. Just last week, the Minister for Finance and I announced that over £0.5 billion-worth of relief grants had moved from Government to businesses, reaching 41,000 small businesses in Wales in the space of just a few weeks. All eligible businesses in the tourism, retail and hospitality sector are now benefiting from a year-long rates holiday. During my last statement, I told you we had added an extra £100 million to the amount of funding for the first phase of the Wales-only economic resilience fund, which totals £0.5 billion overall. That fund was paused at midday on Monday 27 April, following the very large number of applications, worth over £255 million in total.
Funding, I'm pleased to say, is now flowing to businesses, with over 700 applications being appraised and approved daily. The rate of applications has been unprecedented, and I'd like to thank the team of Welsh Government officials who have worked at pace to process applications and get money into the accounts of those businesses and organisations that need that support quickly.
We are reviewing how we can now utilise the remaining funding to support those firms who need it most and to protect our economy. I'd like to reiterate that this is not support that is being made available to small and medium-sized businesses in England; it's finance from within our own budgets here in Wales. I know that there are many firms here in Wales that are still in business because of our support that would have closed had they been based in England.
I've had some excellent discussions with colleagues right across the Chamber about the next steps with our ERF fund, and how additional finance through the Development Bank of Wales could be used. The development bank's COVID-19 loan scheme was fully subscribed in little more than seven days, after 1,600 applications were submitted. In an average year, the DBW processes around 400 applications. So, it's anticipated that the DBW will have processed all applications very shortly, and 567 of these loans have gone to small and micro businesses, safeguarding 4,571 jobs.
Last week's announcement about the UK Government's bounce back loan scheme, which is available here in Wales, was very welcome, and we continue to work with the UK Government to identify the gaps in provision for businesses in Wales. And, as I've said repeatedly now, we want to support good businesses in 2019 to be good businesses in 2021. We want to support people who had a good job in 2019 to have a good job in 2021. But there is a very real need for the Chancellor to learn lessons quickly from the schemes implemented so far, not least on getting funds to businesses faster, and I do think that there's a lot that we can learn from our very own development bank in this regard.
It's essential that the UK Government now goes further by providing the financial support needed for firms of all sizes to survive and recover to the levels of growth and prosperity that were seen before this pandemic. It must also look at how the furlough scheme is landing with businesses and heed their call for it not to be withdrawn before the crisis has ended.
The economic resilience fund will support a significant number of businesses and enterprises facing cash-flow pressures. But the Welsh Government has always been clear it will not reach all of them. This includes support for the port of Holyhead. After the UK Government announced, on 24 April, that its support for ferry services and routes did not include the vital route between Dublin and Holyhead, I pressed the UK Government to look again, and I am pleased that they are. We look forward to working constructively to support the port, which is the second busiest in the UK, and it's absolutely vital to the economy of north Wales. It's also a vital link, transporting critical goods such as food and oxygen supplies for the NHS to the UK mainland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
As I said earlier, for now, the priority remains public health and controlling the pandemic. That doesn't mean that we are not thinking about the future for the economy and the pathway to recovery. It's essential we do look across all areas of Government, not just at the economic levers. I'm in regular contact with UK Government and devolved administration colleagues on this matter as we work to make our countries safer places to live and to work. We are giving careful consideration to how we exit lockdown, and we remain committed to working across the four administrations on developing the right policy on this.
Just yesterday, I joined my devolved colleagues in Scotland and Northern Ireland in setting out the common concerns we shared in relation to the UK Government's safer workplaces guidance. Now, as the First Minister has said, we are keen to avoid divergence wherever possible, and we published our recovery framework for how we will lead Wales out of this crisis in a way that keeps everybody safe and revitalises our economy as quickly as possible. We need a thriving economy that provides people with their jobs, their incomes and supports our public services; one where we we have a more prosperous, equal and greener Wales. The best way to do that is to get control of the virus now. I'm happy to take questions.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement, and thank you for your regular briefings to the spokespeople as well. Minister, you mentioned that the economic resilience fund was paused last Monday, I wonder if you could confirm more detail about the next phase of the scheme, because businesses will be absolutely anxious to find out when that's going to be announced and what's going to be in that.
There are some significant gaps that I know, from our discussions, that you are aware of, but perhaps you could clarify whether some of these issues will be identified in the next phase. I'm thinking particularly of newly self-employed groups of people; businesses that are not registered for value added tax, which are currently excluded from the scheme; and then, of course, there are the businesses that pay business rates, effectively, within their rent to their landlords; and also owner-directors of microbusinesses; and also support for charities or not-for-profit organisations that are not eligible for support currently.
And, of course, one of the biggest sectors that has been affected currently, I'm sure you'll agree with me, is the tourism sector, and it's looking like the entire season is going to be wiped out for them for this year, unfortunately. So, in that regard, I wonder if you could outline what considerations the Welsh Government has given to introducing any specific measures for the tourism and hospitality sector. And why has the Welsh Government given direction to local authorities to impose new criteria, which have excluded self-catering holiday-let businesses from accessing financial support through the small business rate relief scheme, rather than providing national guidance with which all local authorities could abide to ensure fairness? I think the other issue is about local authorities being a bit concerned about applying discretion, because they're not sure whether they'll be able to recoup some of the funding back afterwards.
Can I thank Russell George for his comments and also the constructive suggestions that he's made in recent weeks, which have contributed to our shaping of direct business support?
I'll just pick up briefly on the ERF programme and the further work that is taking place as we consider the next phase of that particular fund. Members will be aware that the UK Government recently topped up the non-domestic rates grant scheme by approximately £617 million. That will deliver a consequential for Wales, and we will be utilising that for business support. I'm aware that there are gaps. We are looking at what we can do to plug those gaps following phase 1, not just through the ERF, but also as we look to the next phase of the Development Bank of Wales support. Now, Russell George has outlined a number of areas where there are currently gaps that we are obviously giving attention to. That includes those businesses that are not registered for VAT; it includes businesses in shared spaces—regular market traders, for example—and also those bed and breakfasts that pay council tax rather than business rates. We will try to plug as many gaps as we can, but our financial resources are finite and our pockets are certainly not as deep as the UK Government Treasury.
Now, in terms of some of the work regarding specific sectors is concerned, in terms of tourism, I think everybody would recognise that it's going to be incredibly difficult for businesses in the tourism sector to generate much revenue at all during the 2020 tourism year. It's absolutely vital that we protect the health of the public, and therefore the health of the economy, for 2021, because revenue probably won't be generated by tourism businesses much sooner than the spring of next year. That means that a prolonged period of support will be required for the tourism sector, and other sectors such as the events sector and hospitality. The Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism is keen to ensure that the UK Government considers a lengthier period of support for the tourism sector. He is engaging very regularly with Ministers in the UK Government and with his colleagues across the devolved administrations on this matter.
I think it's absolutely vital, with regard to the discretion that we give local authorities, that we recognise that local authorities are often best placed to know what those local economic needs of their constituents, villages and towns and areas are. Indeed, the UK Government just recently, with topping up of the NDR grant scheme, gave local authorities the discretion to choose to make payments to businesses based on local economic need. I think it's right that we give guidance, but I also think that it's right that we give discretion to local authorities, because quite frankly, when it comes to knowing the detail of local businesses, they are best placed to make informed and proper judgments.
I take that last point, Minister, but I think there's still the issue of local authorities being nervous about taking some discretion, and perhaps some additional consideration could be given there.
My final set of questions, very briefly, is in regards to the recovery stage, which of course I think we all hope that we can move to as soon as possible. I wonder what support you've given to building construction that can take place, which has perhaps paused at the moment, in getting construction started again, and whether there's any consideration you've had with colleagues about relaxing some planning restrictions to allow some construction work to begin perhaps sooner.
The other issue, of course, is that many people in my own constituency can't work from home because they haven't got sufficient broadband or connectivity. So I wonder, Minister, if you could outline how the current outbreak has affected the Welsh Government's programme to improve broadband connectivity, such as the Superfast Cymru phase 2 project. I'm sure you'll agree with me that decent broadband is of course particularly important for homeworking at this time.
Then, finally, in terms of getting people back into work, I wonder what the capacity you could outline is for public transport and the ability to maintain social distancing. Is guidance in place? Has it been worked up? You mentioned last month, in your statement, funding mechanisms to support this particular sector. How is this funding being used? Perhaps you could report back on that. And what is your long-term strategy for public transport?
Can I thank Russell George for those further questions? I will speak with the WLGA regarding the variation in terms of how councils are supporting businesses on a discretionary basis, to ensure that all support that can be given to businesses is being given and that local authorities are not acting in an overly nervous way, as Russell has outlined.
In terms of the recovery, our concern first and foremost is with the health of workers and the health of the general public, and that's why we'll be keenly ensuring that practicing social distancing and practicing safe working measures is a priority for all businesses as they resume, and that includes the construction sector. The construction sector will have an incredibly important role to play in terms of stimulating economic recovery immediately after we emerge from this crisis, and we're working with the sector to examine how we can ensure that public investment in infrastructure is utilised to swiftly recover the economy. Members will be aware that many construction sites have remained open in order to contribute to the national effort to overcome coronavirus and to deliver important infrastructure schemes for the country. I'll liaise with the Minister responsible for planning regarding regulations and rules, but, as I say, it is absolutely vital that we prioritise the health and well-being of workers.
In terms of broadband, I'll ask the Deputy Minister to write to Members with an update on the latest phase of the superfast broadband intervention.FootnoteLink
And with regard to public transport, I can share with Members today news that work has been commissioned by the Department for Transport regarding future behaviours in terms of public transport usage. That will help to inform capacity planning and demand management across the population. What concerns us right now is that we need to guarantee that the health and safety of the travelling public and the people working in public transport is maintained. That will, in turn, lead to reduced capacity and, therefore, we need to manage expectations as to how many seats will be available on trains and on buses, and how we're going to go about ensuring that we can get as many people back to work in a safe way, in a way that does not compromise the health of people working on public transport systems or, indeed, the travelling public. I'll report back on how the funding has been used so far, the stabilising funding for rail and bus services, as we consider the longer term interventions that may need to be made in order to ensure that we have the best possible public transport system as we emerge from this crisis.
I thank the Minister very much for his statement and for the ongoing co-operation between himself and his staff and others of us across this Chamber. It's much appreciated.
If I can first refer to the economic resilience fund, I was very pleased to hear the Minister say in response to Russell George that he will try and ensure that as many as possible of the businesses that currently can't get access to support will get access. I raised concerns with him, for example, about bed-and-breakfast businesses that pay council tax rather than business rates, and also sole traders working from home. I wonder if it's possible for the Minister to give us some sort of idea about the timescale in which he hopes to make this decision. It's obviously very important that he avoids duplicating UK schemes and actually genuinely uses his resources to plug the gaps, but I'm sure that he will also understand that there are many very small businesses that haven't yet had support that are anxiously awaiting what he has to say.
With regard to the recovery, the Minister rightly talks about keeping everyone safe, and it's my understanding that new guidance is being worked on across the four nations to look at what a safe return to work will look like for many members of staff in lots of different industries. I'm sure the Minister will agree with me that some staff will need reassurance that, when this new guidance and these new rules are in place, there will be ways in which that can be effectively enforced. I know that he's aware of my concern about the capacity within local government to do that effectively. So, can he say any more about how he may be able to ensure that, when this new regulation is in place, workers can get the support that they need if they have to ask for rules to be enforced?
Llywydd, can I thank Helen Mary Jones for her questions, and again for, on a regular basis, offering ideas and also flagging up concerns that, hopefully, we've been able to address during the course of the pandemic?
Helen Mary has highlighted a number of areas of concern regarding the gaps that have emerged in terms of the support that is being offered, and one of those concerns is bed-and-breakfast businesses that pay council tax rather than business rates. This is one specific area that we're looking at as part of the next phase of support through the economic resilience fund.
And in terms of the timescale for announcing that second phase, work, as I've mentioned, is ongoing. I expect to receive advice and options within the coming week. An announcement will then be made swiftly following that. It's been helpful that we've been able to factor into our considerations the additional sum that will come as a consequential from the UK Government's top-up of the non-domestic rates grant scheme.
What is absolutely vital, though, I should say to Members, is that we retain some firepower for the actual recovery stage as we look to make strategic investments in our economy. We can't use up all of our resource in the response; we have to retain some investment for the recovery period.
And in terms of the recovery, Helen Mary is absolutely right: we need to give people confidence, whether it's employees or whether it's customers of businesses; we need to give them confidence that they can access goods and services in a safe way. And we are giving consideration, as part of the work on working safer, to the application of some form of certification—a kite mark, if you like, here in Wales that could offer up an opportunity for that guidance to be self-enforced by customers and by workers.
We're working with the Wales Trade Union Congress and we'll also be working very closely with the Welsh Local Government Association to ensure that sufficient capacity and systems are operational to guarantee that that guidance is being adhered to. The Wales TUC, in particular, has been very helpful in contributing to the importance of the social distancing regulations within the workforce, being able to provide us with examples and instances of concerns that have been raised with their members, and we've followed up each and every one of those reports. So, hopefully, our enforcement programme that has been in place since those regulations were introduced can be carried on after we begin the recovery period.
I'm grateful to the Minister for his answers. He's rightly said, and it's also something that the First Minister mentioned in response to questions today, that much of what will need to be done to protect and strengthen the Welsh economy can't be done by the Welsh Government alone, because the resources simply aren't there. And I wonder if the Minister can say a little bit more today about the discussions he's been having with UK Government about the support that's needed for some of our key businesses. We had the unfortunate news about General Electric going out to consultation about potentially a large number of redundancies. The steel sector, of course, continues to be a huge issue for us here in Wales in Port Talbot but also, of course, in Trostre in my own region. And I wonder if the Minister can say a little bit more about how those discussions with the UK Government are proceeding and whether he feels they fully understand.
In the statement, the Minister mentioned that there is a need for the Chancellor to learn some lessons, and he also mentioned the furlough scheme. Can the Minister confirm this afternoon that he is still in active discussions with the UK Government about wishing both to maintain the furlough scheme, as he said, during the months that come, but also looking for some flexibility? I'm thinking particularly of seasonal workers—everybody from people who might usually work in a hotel or caravan park or, indeed, as lifeguards, and whether he feels that the Chancellor is in listening mode when he's raising those concerns.
These are really important points, and I think I should just explain to Members as well that Helen Mary Jones and I have discussed some specific concerns regarding what may be small sectors, nonetheless they are important sectors including, for example, lifeguards who are employed from 1 April by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and therefore miss out on the current arrangements contained within the job retention scheme.
I'm pleased to say that I raised that specific case today with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Ministers, with Nadhim Zahawi, and I also pressed the case for Ministers to learn lessons on furlough schemes, as they have done on the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme—the interruption loan scheme. I was told, I'm pleased to say, that the UK Government is keen to ensure that furlough does not reach a cliff edge, that businesses, if they do require a lengthier period of support, will get that lengthier period, and I highlighted sectors of the economy, including tourism, and the aerospace industry, where a lengthier period of support may well be required. So, UK Government Ministers are paying attention to those concerns right now.
On a four-nation basis, we share intelligence—the devolved administrations and the UK Government. I'm pleased to say that, red-amber-green ratings that are applied to sectors by UK Government, by Welsh Government, indeed, by Governments in Northern Ireland and Scotland, are pretty consistent. Ours certainly is mirrored by the UK Government; the Scottish RAG rating obviously includes sectors such as oil and gas, as you might imagine, and we also have some sectors that are featuring particularly prominently right now. Steel is one of those; aerospace is another, and I've raised with UK Government Ministers the need for direct and significant intervention to support Tata, to support Airbus, to ensure that these key employers that have very deep and extensive supply chains across Wales are given the support to survive this virus. It comes as no surprise, I'm sure, that the support for such employers is a key feature of the weekly discussions that I have with the devolved administrations and with UK Government Ministers.
I thank the Minister for your statement this afternoon, and I would like to welcome the opportunity to question you as an 'Aelod o'r Senedd' for the first time.
Can I say that we really all appreciate the work that's being done with your interventions with the economy in Wales? But, Minister, on 14 April, the Office for Budget Responsibility produced a reference scenario on the shrinking economy. This was looking at the possible impact of coronavirus on the economy—the UK economy that is—and therefore, the public finances. The OBR were careful not to call it a forecast; it was instead a position baseline for other work. It will be some time before official statistics begin to reflect the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the labour market. The labour force survey used by the Office for National Statistics in the monthly labour market bulletin will be unlikely to reflect the impact of the pandemic until June at the earliest. However, one indicator may be the statistic issued by the universal credit director general on 15 April, showing that 1.4 million people signed up to universal credit on the preceding four weeks. The OBR scenario shows the UK economy shrinking by something like 35 per cent on the second quarter of this year. There is no doubt, Minister, that this will impact on Wales's financial situation, and given that Wales is more reliant on the service sector, currently making up 66 per cent of Wales's gross value added, Wales could be affected more than the UK in general.
Could the Minister outline his plans for dealing with the scenario produced by the OBR? In particular, once business starts to get back to work, perhaps getting to some sort of normality, the interventions that you may have to kick start the Welsh economy in those circumstances.
May I thank David Rowlands for his questions? There's no doubt that a recession now is unavoidable, but what we must avoid at all costs is a depression. And we've been playing a very significant part in ensuring that that doesn't happen in Wales. We have, so far, supported directly around one in five Welsh businesses with grants. We've also supported businesses through rates holidays, and, in addition to that, there's the UK Government's job retention scheme, and indeed, the self-employment income support scheme that is helping to keep businesses and to keep the self-employed essentially alive during what is an incredibly difficult period, even if it means hibernating activities for the short term.
In the longer term, already work is taking place across Welsh Government with regard to resetting the economy, and shaping a fairer, greener economy once we emerge from coronavirus, which will take us some time—it will not be a swift exercise in reshaping the economy, but it is nonetheless a very necessary one. And of course, the work that Jeremy Miles is leading on, in terms of those expert panels, the discussions that have taken place with external advisers, that will help to shape our interventions as we come out of this difficult period. Capital stumulus will play an important part in ensuring that the economy grows as rapidly as it possibly can do.
But David Rowlands is absolutely right in identifying the fact that Wales could well be more adversely impacted by coronavirus than other parts of the UK. There are similar sub-regions of the UK that could be hit just as hard as Wales—those areas where there's a high number of people who relied on heavy industries in past decades and those areas that have struggled to overcome the post-industrial challenges that we've seen. And that's why we are keen to work with those areas of the UK that share similar demographics, share similar economic challenges.
Later today, I'm going to be speaking with a number of metro mayors, just across the border, who represent such sub-regions. I'm keen to make sure that we share ideas, and that we share common approaches, and, indeed, that we share, where possible, a similar call for investment by the UK Government to be made in a way that reshapes the UK economy, and rebalances our economy across the United Kingdom.
Minister, it is perhaps inevitable there are going to be job losses amongst the six million furloughed workers in the UK. Tourism has all but collapsed, and much of the aviation industry, as you've already reported on, has reduced substantially. Now, we've heard announcements recently of the voluntary redundancies in my constituency, in GE, in Nantgarw. GE is a very highly valued company of engineering excellence, training a world-class workforce. Can you confirm that you are in contact with GE, and that the Welsh Government will continue to give all the support it can to the company, and to its workforce, over the coming months as we begin to come out of the coronavirus lockdown?
I'd like to thank Mick for his question. We've been a very loyal friend to GE, over many, many years. We've supported the company financially, we've supported the company in terms of the advice that we've been able to give it, and we are determined to support the company during this incredibly difficult period. Now, the voluntary redundancies consultation is going to last 45 days; it wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on it in any detail at this stage whilst that is ongoing. But I can confirm that Welsh Government have been in very regular contact with GE in recent weeks, and I have also written to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ask that the UK Government looks at what it can do to provide support to the aerospace industry.
We've seen a collapse in the sector across the globe. That means that it will be damaged for many years, if not decades, to come. But I am determined to ensure that, even though there may be a shrinkage overall in the global economy, the aviation sector and aerospace sector, Wales's aero sector emerges at least as strong as it went into it. Of course, there may well be job losses, but we need to ensure that those businesses that employ people with incredibly high pay rates compared to many other sectors, and those people who are very skilled, get the support that's required in order to guarantee as many jobs as possible when we emerge.
Many north Wales holiday let businesses contacted me when the Welsh Government announced revised criteria for business support grants, but only for them. One said that for many farmers, they represent an essential part of their income; the process is dreadfully stalled, causing great distress for my constituents. Another asked, 'How many self-catering businesses have to go bust before we get the help we were promised?' Another said, 'They're penalising genuine businesses. Ken Skates said that if you ran a successful business in 2019, then your business will be successful in 2020. I believed him and hope he will keep to his word.' So, how will you keep to you word?
How do you respond to the permanent employee of Guidant Global, which contracts to Airbus at their Broughton site, where their workforce of 500 were furloughed and served with an at-risk-of-redundancy notice on 28 April, who has asked for help?
Well, there are two points I'd like to make in response to Mark Isherwood: first of all, with regard to those businesses that operate small holiday lets, I'd just like to remind Mark that the economic resilience fund in Wales is a fund that is not available in England, and farmers who have diversified can apply to the ERF, as I've already said in response to other Members. We are looking at how the next phase of the economic resilience fund can continue to plug gaps and it's absolutely vital, I think, as I said to Russell George, that local authorities are given some discretion in terms of how they can support businesses.
In terms of the aero sector, the aero sector and a number of businesses in north-east Wales, like Airbus, are suffering from a significant drop in demand and therefore some businesses—some—have issued at-risk notices. But it's not just the aero industry that have done this—there are businesses within the food and drink sector, such as KK Fine Foods, which have done the same, and they've done it, in part, because of the general uncertainty within the economy, but also because of a lack of certainty over the future of the furlough scheme. And that's why it's absolutely vital that the UK Government learns from its lessons and amends and, where necessary, lengthens those periods of support that such schemes can operate for. Furlough has been very, very important in avoiding job losses to date. But in order to avoid job losses such as those that Mark Isherwood has highlighted that could happen, it's vitally important that the UK Government extends further the furlough scheme beyond the end of June.
Business improvement districts, such as the Bangor BID in my constituency, are crucial to the work of regenerating the shopping areas of a number of towns and cities across Wales. Their work will be extremely valuable in dealing with the huge problems facing our high streets as a result of the current crisis. Now, £6 million is to be allocated to BIDs in England, in terms of providing support for three-month levy payments. Now I was wondering whether there would be match funding for Wales, and if so, when? And does your Government have any intention to assist businesses in the 16 BIDs that are currently still paying a levy into the scheme? The Scottish Government has allocated £1 million to assist the 18 BIDs in that country.
Can I thank Siân for her question? This is something that the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government, I know, has been considering very recently. I'm pleased to say that a positive decision was made and I'll make sure that that is conveyed in detail to all Members.
Minister, I'd like to ask you about what will happen as we move forward, particularly in relation to the skills agenda. Now, I'm sure you're aware that parts of the south Wales Valleys not only have high rates of coronavirus, but have also been identified as being more economically at risk in terms of the fallout after the crisis as well. So, I'd like to ask you what plans there are for the Valleys taskforce to reflect this extra burden in their work, moving forward.
I'd like to thank Vikki for this question. The issue of skills is something that we in Welsh Government concern ourselves with very much right now. There is no doubt that skills have always played an important part in growing the economy in a sustainable and fair way and, as we emerge from coronavirus, investment in skills will become even more important in ensuring that people can get back into work and sustain good quality work.
The whole point of the Valleys taskforce was to ensure that wealth was being created in a fairer way in a part of Wales that has felt left behind and that has struggled to overcome deinsdustrialisation. Now, the way that you overcome deindustrialisation, as we know from various lessons elsewhere around world, is to invest in people, to invest in skills development in order to make those areas more attractive to investors and to empower people to be able to start their own businesses to support the foundational economy. And so I'm in no doubt whatsoever that the issue of how skills can be supported more will play very heavily in the consideration of the future workload of the Valleys taskforce.
I'll ask my deputy, Lee Waters, to write to Members regarding the future of the Valleys taskforce.FootnoteLink I think its work will probably come into very, very sharp focus very soon as we look to the recovery period.
I'm grateful to the Minister for his statement this afternoon. Could I ask him about the sort of support that the Welsh Government has made available to people who are self-employed or rely on microbusinesses for their incomes? I'm thinking particularly of taxi drivers, I'm thinking of people who have started up as self-employed painters and decorators, who are working at the moment without any income at all and who are finding life very, very difficult. But also social enterprises, particularly those who are involved in childcare and who need support, but also the sorts of social enterprises that are the heart-blood and the lifeblood of Valleys communities, where the social enterprises will deliver community support for which people rely on in their everyday lives. So, there are a number of those businesses that I'm concerned may have fallen through some of the gaps that exist in overall business support.
Alun Davies is absolutely right: social enterprises play an enormously important role across Wales, but particularly in areas where people are struggling to overcome the effects of heavy industry's decline. And I'm pleased to be able to tell Members today that, based on the latest figures, the proportion of ERF applications that have come from social enterprises is higher than the proportion of social enterprises amongst the 267,000 enterprises in Wales. So, there is no doubt that social enterprises will play a key part in drawing down ERF funding. And as we look forward, again within the Valleys area, the role of social enterprises will become increasingly important. I think, right across Wales, as we shape a fairer economy, social enterprises will play a more important and prominent role.
Mohmmad Asghar. Mohammad Asghar, can we have your microphone on, please? Can Mohammad Asghar's microphone be turned on? Try now, Mohammad.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. I appreciate your concern on tourism. Visit Wales has released the results of a survey of tourism businesses taken after the lockdown, which makes for grim reading: 96 per cent of businesses expect the future impact of the virus to be significantly negative on the sector. Operators have called on both Governments to help their businesses by urgently revealing an exit strategy, pointing out that, even if they reopen in June, they will have lost a key part of prime tourism season in Wales.
Given the vital importance of tourism to the Welsh economy, what discussions have you had, Minister, with other ministerial colleagues and others about ensuring Wales retains a viable tourism industry after this coronavirus, by air, sea and land? And I appreciate your concern on this. We are predominantly a rural area, so a rural economy must be taken care of and improved with tourism. Thank you.
Thank you, Mohammad. Both myself and the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism engage very regularly with our UK counterparts, and indeed with counterparts from the other devolved administrations on the issue of support for the visitor economy. Wales relies incredibly heavily on the tourism sector, and particularly rural parts of Wales, so it's vital that support is forthcoming from UK Government—a comprehensive package that will last beyond the immediate term to ensure that the 2021 tourism season is not lost, and to ensure that as many businesses in 2020 survive through to 2021 to take advantage of the recovery period.
I know that a huge number of businesses within the tourism sector in Wales are exemplar businesses across the UK and Europe. They have enabled us to proudly welcome people to Wales in recent years with the highest quality offer, with people who are employed in the sector employed to very, very high standards and with decent wages, and we want to make sure that as much of the sector as possible is buoyant in 2021. But what we can't do, equally, is put at risk the sector in 2021 by prematurely emerging from coronavirus and risking a second and third wave.
Minister, it was quietly announced in a notice to the press this week that the Welsh Government has joined the Wellbeing Economy Governments network alongside New Zealand, Iceland and Scotland. Now, Plaid Cymru has been calling for months for the Welsh Government to join this network, so we're delighted that you've listened to us on this.
I'm sure you'll agree that making well-being the primary drive of economic development has the potential to improve people's life experiences and leads to social progress and environmental renewal, and it sits alongside the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 quite perfectly. So, are you able to tell us, Minister, what discussions the Welsh Government has held with its new well-being economy partners so far and whether you're sharing ideas and good practice as part of this work that could help with the COVID-19 recovery process?
Well, I'm really pleased that a number of discussions have already taken place within the network. Those discussions have been incredibly productive, in that we've been able to share many ideas. We've been able to offer up from Wales initiatives such as the implementation of an economic contract to drive fair growth. We've been able to share, obviously, details of the well-being of future generations Act, and it's worth saying that we've actually been working with many of the countries that form the network for many months and many years—indeed, with Scotland, for example, on the development of the economic contract and lessons that could be learnt in driving the inclusive growth. So, I'm pleased that we are part of this network. I'm pleased that we've been working with countries that are part of the network for some time, and I hope that, as we emerge from coronavirus, the ideas that we share will lead to a fairer economy, not just in Wales, but hopefully globally.
[Inaudible.]—follow on briefly from questions from Vikki Howells and Alun Davies, on a similar theme, because the longer this crisis goes on, there's increasing evidence about some of the differential impacts that the pandemic is having on our most disadvantaged communities, and that certainly seems to be the case with mortality data.
So, can I ask you whether you have any analysis or whether this is also true for the economic impacts of the pandemic? Accepting that there's going to be obvious support needed from UK Government, can you reassure me that the continuing needs of those disadvantaged areas, like our Valleys communities, are given a specific consideration in your recovery plans, and to what extent the spatial impacts of the current economic disruption are being considered?
They're right at the heart of current consideration and they will continue to be. We have not just sectoral analysis updated on a daily basis, but also regional and spatial analysis that forms part of the intervention service that we've been announcing and will form part of the interventions that come during the recovery period.
And another reason why I'm keen to learn from other areas of the UK, whether it be through the well-being economy network or whether it be through direct discussions that I have with metro mayors and leaders of other sub-regions and the devolved administrations, is that we all share the common challenge that we have certain communities that are more disadvantaged, that we need to ensure have accelerated growth during a period of recovery and narrow inequalities rather than to see them further exacerbated and widened. My view is that—and it's a view that's shared across Government—we should take advantage of the recovery to narrow inequalities and at all costs avoid any measures that would lead to inequalities across Welsh communities widening.
We know now which types of businesses have been missed by the support scheme. We've talked a lot about them this afternoon. Generally grouping, however, does not work. For example, in retail, supermarkets and online retailers are having the equivalent of Christmas every week, and those who, for example, are predominantly clothing and jewellery stores are closed. We have exactly the same with road haulage. Those supplying food stores have been in an entirely different position to other road haulage members who normally supply to places that are closed and obviously have no work. Will the Welsh Government identify the gaps and contact the Westminster Government regarding those that come under its responsibility and produce a plan to support those areas that the Welsh Government are responsible for? We have these gaps; we've got to fill them.
I couldn't agree more, Mike, and that's precisely why we've been able to identify £500 million for the economic resilience fund, which is specifically designed to plug those gaps, but I have to say again that our resources are finite and we need to retain fire power for the recovery. The UK Government's pockets are much deeper, obviously, but it's absolutely vital that we intervene in a way that supplements and adds value to what the UK Government is doing. But please do recognise that our budgets are constrained and will be severely constrained for many months if not years to come, and therefore we need to make strategic investments.
We need to ensure that we stretch our investments as much as possible and that we get the maximum value for our investments. And that's not just in terms of the economic value; that's also in terms of how we can use our investments to drive decarbonisation; how we can use our investments to improve working conditions. And that's why I'm pleased to say that, during the course of plugging those gaps, we've been able to roll out the economic contract for thousands upon thousands more businesses that will now enable us to have a long-term conversation with Welsh businesses about how we can improve working conditions, how we can improve the health, mental health and the skills of the Welsh workforce, and how we can ensure that we go on decarbonising the Welsh economy.
I'd like to raise the case of Rubylicious dance studio. It's a fantastic company that is based in Canton in Cardiff West. My concern is that they should be—or they should have been—entitled to the £10,000 grant in terms of the business rate rebate, but unfortunately for them and also for other businesses in the same situation, the £10,000 has been passed on to the landlord who, in fact, doesn't actually have a business other than renting the premises, and the landlord here, as with other landlords, it would seem, is not going to suffer any financial loss and yet is refusing to pass on the £10,000. So, I thought maybe I'd ask you to address that and possibly as well have a word with the First Minister and ask him if he could ask his member of staff, Councillor Patel, to maybe pass on the £10,000 to Rubylicious in Cardiff West instead of pocketing it himself. I think that would be a really good thing to do. So, if you could do that, I'd be really grateful.
I'll certainly make investigations and enquiries into this specific case. I can't comment on specific cases without having all of the detail to hand, but I'll certainly investigate this matter. It's vitally important that we all work together to overcome coronavirus, not just the public health consequences but the economic consequences as well. So, I'll ask officials to look into this particular case but also just generally to take a look at how the grant arrangements are being administered across local government.
Minister, what plans do you have to work with the UK Government to support key employers in Alyn and Deeside? Airbus, Tata steel and KK Fine Foods are amongst many who are facing uncertain challenges, business challenges, economic challenges and extreme uncertainty. Minister, we need both Governments around the table to further support these employers and to further support those employees, both directly employed and any agency staff.
Can I thank Jack Sargeant for his question? I'm pleased to say that those companies that he's identified have benefited from direct Welsh Government support in recent times. It's absolutely vital that the support that is now being offered by UK Government in the form of the job retention scheme is lengthened. I've already mentioned in my answers to other Members how the aero-sector and, indeed, how KK Fine Foods are facing deep uncertainty right now because of a lack of detail over what will happen to the furlough scheme after the end of June, and I was reassured today by the comments from my counterpart in BEIS when he said that the UK Government are keen to avoid a cliff edge in the furlough scheme. I hope that will give some assurance to the likes of KK Fine Foods and other businesses that have issued those at-risk notices. And there is no doubt, as I've said to other Members, that the UK Government can carry out a swift learning exercise in the job retention scheme and make amendments to it that are necessary to protect as many jobs as possible in the future. As I said to Jack Sargeant at the outset of my answer, Welsh Government has stood shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Airbus, KK Fine Foods and Tata steel over many, many years, and, therefore, it's absolutely right that the UK Government now comes and joins us in supporting these vitally important employers so that they can get through coronavirus with as many jobs being retained as possible.
Many people have spoken today about the negative impact on tourism across Wales and, of course, my area is where tourism does provide a significant impact, perhaps disproportionately to other areas. We do know that tourism is worth £3 billion to the Welsh economy, but there's £2 billion-worth of funds from the Welsh Government. So, it seems very likely that, when we try to come out of lockdown and have some easement, the social distancing rules will make it virtually impossible for most tourism industries to survive, and I'm really pleased to hear what you're saying.
So, moving forward from that, I think what we need to look at, and you've hinted at it, is building up the small community innovation that we are finding, and one such innovation happened in Ammanford. I met with them two years ago, with Rob Venus, and he put in an application at that time to have some money. It's a community-based organisation that's moving on now to look at possibly building ventilators. So, I suppose my question is this: moving forward, we have to be more sustainable—that is obvious and evident from everything that's happened—and investment in innovation where it currently exists and can be expanded is probably one of the ways forward, as well as looking after the existing industries that bring vast wealth to this country.
Well, Joyce Watson is absolutely right—we've seen incredible innovation across Welsh businesses during the course of the crisis. We've seen distilleries turn their hands to making hand sanitiser, we've seen businesses in the aero sector produce ventilators, we've seen a huge number of businesses producing vital PPE, and I'm in no doubt that those efforts will continue for some weeks to come.
There will be opportunities that will emerge during the course of the recovery, and innovation will be crucial in making sure that we take full advantage of them, and that's why I'm determined to ensure that we intensify our call for businesses to utilise the calls-to-action funding, the economy futures fund that was set up to futureproof businesses, to drive R&D and innovation. One of those five calls is, of course, innovation, and I’m confident that we made the right decision when we published the economic action plan to include innovation as one of the five calls, and I'm absolutely determined to maintain it as one of the key features of our condition of funding in the years to come.
Minister, first of all, can I thank you for the help you've given to my constituency and the businesses there, particularly the ones I've written to you about? I very much await a response to some of the other areas, but it's been very helpful in those areas. The biggest employer in my constituency is Tata, as has already been raised by Members, and Tata employs not just directly but also the sub-contractors that go into Tata. So, it's a huge aspect of the economy, and my MP colleague often says it's the beating heart of our economy. But, when you speak to the Ministers in London, can you highlight the fact that the cap on CBILS at the moment is £50 million. For our counterparts in Europe, in Holland, it's €150 million, and in Germany and France it's 25 per cent of the annual turnover. Therefore, we are way behind our competitors in being able to support those large businesses, and there's also talk in Europe about states asking the EU to relax state aid rules, which is something the UK Government has always fallen behind to say they can't help. Can you, therefore, push the UK Government to actually look very carefully at how they can help Tata and particular businesses like that, because, without that type of support, we may be facing very serious challenges in the years ahead?
Yes, of course, we'll do that. I can assure David Rees we will do that and, obviously, it's a pleasure to help the businesses that he has represented in recent weeks who have faced incredible difficulties. I do hope that we're helping as many businesses as we possibly can in his constituency and across Wales overcome the challenges of coronavirus. But I think, in terms of the support that's required by Tata, a bespoke package of support is needed from UK Government. UK Government has stepped in to support some major employers elsewhere. We are pressing the case on a very regular basis, including just today, for the UK Government to support Tata, and I am hopeful that they will do so.
Thank you, Minister. We're taking a break of 10 minutes now, and can I ask Members who are taking part in the next statement to be back promptly? Diolch.
Plenary was suspended at 15:57.
The Senedd reconvened at 16:11, with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.
So, the Plenary reconvenes and we move to item 5 on the agenda this afternoon, which is a statement by the Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language on coronavirus, and I call on the Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan.
I'd like to start, as Minister for international relations, by noting that this week we'll be, in this country, noting VE Day, the end of the war in Europe, a war that I think should be a reminder to us all about what happens when international understanding fails, and, if ever there was an issue that reminds us of how interconnected our world is, then it's surely this coronavirus pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis has had a profound impact on all aspects of my portfolio, both domestically and internationally. Well over 1 million British travellers were abroad when the pandemic hit, and, since the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued advice for them to return home, all of our Welsh Government offices overseas have been involved in that repatriation effort, with officials in the middle east and in India particularly busy. This sharing of information has resulted in the successful repatriation of many Welsh citizens, including people like Dr Sundaram—I know the deputy speaker was very active in pushing for him to be returned to Wales. He's an intensive care consultant at the unit in Ysbyty Glan Clwyd, and we helped to return him from India. Now, we're aware that there continue to be Welsh people still stuck abroad who still need our support, and I'd encourage them to contact me so that we can highlight their individual cases to the FCO.
Now, countries all over the world are all scrambling to secure vital products in the fight against COVID-19, and, as Minister for international trade, I'm ensuring that, in our endeavours to secure PPE internationally, there's an understanding that 80 countries have export restrictions in place. The fact that it's hard to secure and buy paracetamol in our shops is largely because of the restrictions that have been imposed by the Indian Government.
But, of course, one of the key challenges we have as a Government now is to work out how we're going to come out of lockdown. The information being provided by our international offices is proving invaluable to give us ideas of how it's being done elsewhere, and I've had direct discussions with my counterparts in Brittany and the Basque Country to learn from their experiences.
Now, Wales and Africa groups across Wales are expressing huge concern for their partners in Africa. The lockdown there is having a devastating impact on the livelihoods of many millions of Africans, and food prices have dramatically increased in many countries. Now, we're consulting Welsh groups to see how they can use the small grants scheme to support their African partners at this difficult time.
And, on international trade, I can confirm that the second ministerial forum on trade has recently been held, and I remain in close contact with the relevant Ministers across the United Kingdom. Now, the UK Government seems determined to agree a deal with the EU by the end of the year, despite these new circumstances, so negotiations with the United States on a trade deal have now commenced, and work on preparing for negotiations with Japan and other priority countries continues apace. The Trade Bill has been laid in the Commons and we've laid the relevant legislative consent motion here in the Senedd.
I'm going to change to Welsh now.
I will be switching to Welsh now. Dafydd Elis-Thomas has had to reprioritise his entire portfolio as a result of the current crisis and provide emergency funding to support the creative industries, sport and culture, as well as reassigning the work of whole agencies such as Cadw, which have had to close all of their sites.
Now, in particular, I would like to update you on tourism, which is a foundation sector and is absolutely key to the Welsh economy. The sector was one of the first to be hit by the crisis and is among the worst affected. The support that is being provided to the sector by the Welsh Government has been appreciated, but we recognise that there is a long-term challenge facing this industry. And some within the sector are describing it as a 'three winter' challenge.
We are in ongoing discussions with representatives of the tourism sector through the COVID-19 tourism taskforce. Ensuring consumer confidence, as well as securing community support for reopening, will be key. Our campaign 'Visit Wales. Later' has been crucial in trying to strike this sensitive balance on quite a difficult path.
Major events also play a key role within tourism, and I want to manage expectations about restarting major events in Wales. However, I don't foresee any possibility that mass gatherings will return in the near future.
In terms of the Welsh language, COVID-19 has reminded us of the importance of the relationship between technology and the language. It's clear now how reliant we are on technology so that we can continue to work, learn and communicate with family and friends.
Cymraeg 2050 gives technology a central role, and therefore I am pleased to be able to announce today that Cysgliad will be available free of charge to individuals and businesses with fewer than 10 staff by the end of May. Cysgliad is a package that includes a dictionary as well as a Welsh spellchecker and a grammar checker, and it will assist all of us, I'm sure.
But sometimes technology can be a barrier. For example, it's not possible to offer simultaneous translation in Microsoft Teams at present. I have written to Microsoft to ask them to develop this as a matter of urgency.
Although the National Welsh Learning Centre has had to cancel every face-to-face Welsh lesson, the interest in online courses has dramatically increased. In just a week, over 3,000 new learners enrolled and 1,300 of those will start the course during this month.
You will also have seen that we've provided financial support to the National Eisteddfod, and it was important, as the Eisteddfod faced serious financial challenges, that the Welsh Government was there to support this unique festival. The Urdd will host the first digital Eisteddfod, Eisteddfod T, during the Whitsun holiday, and continues to work with the Llamau charity to support vulnerable young people and families.
In February, I launched a consultation on our policy for language transmission in the home, and I wish to announce now that I am to extend the consultation period until the autumn.
I am aware of the importance of the Welsh language particularly in health and care, and I've therefore asked the health Minister to bear this in mind in particular in sensitive end-of-life situations during this difficult time.
So, I'd like to finish by saying that I am extremely grateful to the Deputy Minister for all his co-operation and to all the staff members working within my portfolio, as well as all partners who have been collaborating with us, for responding in such a positive way in the face of the huge challenges that we're facing. I'm sure we will come through these dark times as different people, different organisations and a different country. But there is hope, there is light on the horizon, and it is important that we stand firm together to meet the challenges that still face us.
Thank you very much, Minister, and thank you for your work in bringing individuals back to Wales, and for your assistance with some of my constituents in Arfon in that regard too. I'm going to focus on an important aspect of your portfolio, namely the Welsh language. Research work by the University of St Andrews has come to the conclusion that the current pandemic could have a far-reaching impact on communities that are the heartlands of minority languages, including the Welsh language. So, what assessment has your Government undertaken, or what assessment does it intend to undertake, of the impact of the pandemic on the Welsh-speaking heartlands in the west of Wales, and what specific measures are you considering in order to prevent a decline in the viability of the Welsh language as the daily language within those communities?
Now, the Urdd camps—you mentioned the Urdd, but the camps specifically need additional support for the future, so what plans do you have to provide such support? And a few questions on the impact of the pandemic on the Welsh press—a grant of £50,000 has been allocated to the Welsh Books Council for publishers in both languages, so can you tell us how much of that has been provided to Welsh language publishers, and whether that is sufficient? Does the Government have any specific plans for those Welsh publications that continue to be published and therefore can't take advantage of the furlough scheme for their staff? These companies are making losses, because incomes have declined.
And, finally, can you tell us how much the Welsh Government has spent on COVID information advertisements in the Welsh language press, and has there been match funding provided by Westminster for this?
Well, thank you very much, Siân. We're very much aware that this virus—. Well, it's hit every part of Wales, but the effect, of course, is different in different parts of Wales. In terms of how many people are suffering, I think it's fair to say that some of those Welsh speaking areas haven't had the impact that some of the areas in the east have had, but, of course, the impact from the economy has been very striking indeed, and is likely to be ongoing in terms of tourism, particularly, and also agriculture, of course. There have been particular losses in terms of the dairy sector, and that is going to have a huge impact on that sector of the economy. So, we are highly aware of this. We have had some discussions with the partnership council, and have been discussing some of those fundamental issues, such as the chapels. People aren't going to those Welsh-speaking chapels, so we are considering what we can do to provide some assistance to them. So, we are having those discussions already.
In terms of the Urdd, I have been in regular contact with the Urdd from the very outset. Of course, the Urdd and the Urdd camps were some of the first centres to have closed, and, of course, in fairness to the Urdd, they do raise a great deal of their funding themselves—some 75 per cent comes from their camps. Of course, they have now been closed, and the difficulty is in trying to envisage when they will be able to reopen, and that is a very difficult thing to do at the moment. We are having regular discussions with the Urdd, and we were discussing this this afternoon with the education Minister to see whether there is any support that we can provide, but I do think that what's important is that we highlight the huge contribution that the Urdd has made to our nation. But they are facing huge challenges now in terms of the blow that they've suffered as a result of the closure of their facilities.
Now, of course, we still provide funding to the papurau bro in terms of ensuring that the Welsh language remains strong there. I’m not sure exactly of the breakdown between the Welsh-medium press and the English language press, but I can return to you on that. In terms of advertisements, you will be aware that Welsh language standards still apply for the Welsh Government and, therefore, those advertisements will be bilingual, but we’ve received no additional funding from the UK Government for that.
Thank you very much. I will turn now to two other issues that aren’t related to the COVID crisis, you’ll be pleased to hear, perhaps. What’s your view on the statutory instrument on the census, which is currently going through Westminster, in terms of gathering data on the number of Welsh speakers? The likelihood is that a sampling system will be used for those who are unable to complete the census online. And, of course, that could mean that the data on the number of Welsh speakers will be incomplete. Will your Government oppose the use of sampling in Wales as part of the 2021 census?
Finally, it appears that your Government will introduce the education curriculum Bill over the next few weeks. Can you confirm that you, as Minister for the Welsh language, will carry out a thorough assessment of the impact of the Bill on the Welsh language and on Welsh-medium education? There is one specific issue that is a cause for concern and that is the intention of the new legislation to provide powers to governing bodies rather than local authorities in terms of the language policies of schools. The decision to adopt immersion approaches during the foundation phase would be a choice for every separate governing body, and you can just imagine that that would undermine the robust language policies of a number of local authorities and would be a severe blow to the development of Welsh-medium education across Wales. So, will you hold urgent discussions with the education Minister in order to ensure that we strengthen the position of the Welsh language rather than weakening it through the new curriculum Bill?
Thank you. Well, in terms of the census, we are keeping a close eye on how those questions are posed because people answer in different ways depending on the question asked, of course. So, we are keeping a very close eye on that. We will have to look at sampling and consider what they’re likely to ask in that area and how that could perhaps impact the census. The important thing with the census is that you compare one decade with the next. Therefore, I do think that sampling is likely to introduce changes and perhaps not provide us with the assessment that we would expect to have. But we are in a different situation now, perhaps, and we will continue with those negotiations on the census.
In terms of the curriculum, well, I’ve just come off a call with the education Minister and we were discussing this very issue. So, you can be confident that I am keeping a close eye on what’s happening. The Minister for Education is aware of the situation and is committed to ensuring that we do keep a close eye on developments. Of course, we don’t want to change the policy that we currently have or see that anything within that curriculum Bill would have a detrimental impact on what we have already developed and achieved.
Can I thank you, Minister, for your statement and very much warmly associate myself with the words that you said in reference to VE Day, about the importance of international co-operation? That is a very timely reminder, I think, the anniversary of VE Day that's upon us this week. Can I also thank you for the assistance that you've given to people from my own constituency, as a Welsh Government, who have been stuck overseas in recent weeks? Obviously, it's been a very distressing time for them and their families, and I was particularly pleased to see my constituent Dr Sundaram returned, as were the patients who he's been caring for in Ysbyty Glan Clwyd during this particular crisis.
Forgive me if I'm wrong here, but your statement did imply some criticism of the UK Government for its determination to secure a free trade deal with the EU by the end of the year. If that's not the case, then I apologise for having suggested it, but it did seem to suggest that you were criticising the UK Government for going full steam ahead with that. Clearly, we're in the middle of a crisis, absolutely, but it's all the more important therefore that we have a basis from which our economy can rebound from that crisis, and free trade deals with the EU, with the USA, with Japan, and indeed with other nations, are one way that we can help the global economy to get back on its feet post COVID. So, do you accept that it's actually quite a good thing that the UK Government is pressing ahead with trying to secure those trade deals, and can you confirm that the Welsh Government is able to participate and contribute to those discussions? Because obviously we want these to be good deals for all parts of the UK, including Wales, and to make sure that our priorities are heard via the Welsh Government, yes, and also, of course, via the UK Government as well while their feet are at the table.
Thank you. Yes, it was really good to be able to support those Welsh people who have been stuck abroad, and particularly good to welcome home somebody who can make such a huge contribution to the NHS. We were very pleased that we could support him and so many other people from Wales who've managed to come home. There are still some people abroad. I know that the UK Government now have put about £75 million towards chartering planes to bring people home, because many countries have closed their air space. So, whilst they're encouraging people to come home via commercial airlines, in some countries that's simply not possible, and that's why those chartered flights have had to be put on. There are still some abroad and they're, of course, the more difficult cases to come home. It's probably worth also emphasising that there are loans available for those people who may be getting into financial trouble while they're abroad at the moment as well.
In terms of the trade agreements, I think most people would recognise that we've got quite a lot on our plate at the moment, in terms of not just the Welsh Government, but also the UK Government. It is pretty clear to us that the UK Government is, at the moment, still very keen to make sure that they try to get an agreement by the end of the year in terms of Brexit. I think what we would caution is the fact that if you can't get a deal by the end of the year, then the impact economically for us—and this was before COVID—could be pretty far reaching. And, even if you were able to negotiate the best trade deal in the world with the United States, even the case that the UK Government have put forward is that the best outcome we could expect is an increase of about 0.16 per cent contribution to our gross domestic product over a course of 15 years. Now, you compare that with what happens if we leave the EU without a trade deal, we'd be down about 9.3 per cent over 15 years. So, really, I think we have to think very carefully about this, but I'm sure my colleague Jeremy Miles will want to explore that a bit further later on. But, if they are terribly anxious to persevere with that, I would absolutely caution, give them a degree of caution that I think that they should consider at this particular time. We do, of course, accept now that Brexit has happened.
Can I turn my attention now to the other part of your statement that dealt with tourism, if that's okay? So, I was very pleased to hear you refer to tourism, because, of course, it is a little bit disappointing, I have to say, that we haven't had statements on this particular theme in our virtual Plenary sessions since the start of this pandemic.
Tourism, of course, is a vital part of our economy, as you've already recognised, and you will have seen that there was a recent report from the University of Southampton and the Centre for Towns that made reference to the fact that it looks like coastal communities are going to be particularly hard hit as a result of this current pandemic, and find it perhaps more difficult to be able to recover than others. And that's, of course, because most coastal towns, certainly on the north Wales coast, are heavily dependent on tourism for their economic well-being.
You made reference to the taskforce that's been established on tourism. I'm pleased that there is some focus within Government on this issue. Can you tell us who sits on that taskforce? Can you also tell us what particular action the Welsh Government is taking, given the more significant contribution of tourism to our economy, to actually have a look at how it can modify some of its economic resilience funding in order to support better the tourism industry? We know that we've got lots of seasonal workers, for example, who didn't qualify for the coronavirus retention scheme, but a good proportion of their income would be spent locally, and they're not able to do that because they don't have sufficient spending power.
The UK Government has also established a zoos support fund recently, to support animal attractions across England. Do you have plans to establish something similar here in Wales? We've got the Welsh Mountain Zoo, in my own constituency, Anglesey Sea Zoo, and a whole host of other attractions across Wales that might be able to benefit from that. And I do think that it's about time that we tried to plug some of these gaps that we've currently got in the industry. Because what we don't want to do is lose some of these fantastic attractions, which were thriving businesses before the pandemic, and can continue to be, providing they get the right support to get through.
Thank you. I think you're absolutely right that we are incredibly aware of the impact that this coronavirus could and is having on our tourism sector. And the problem is that it looks like it's going to be a long-term issue, if you think about social distancing and the practical issues of getting people into hotels, of serving food—this is not going to be a quick fix by any means. And that's why we have been discussing in those COVID-19 meetings with those representatives—there are representatives, regional representatives, at those bodies, there's also a representative who's the Welsh representative to the UK tourism representation, where they are discussing the same kinds of things, so there's a direct link into what's happening in the UK as well.
And one of the things that they're starting to talk about is what protocols need to be put in place in order to reopen those facilities, because that's going to be critical to building the confidence of people to come back. And that's part of the problem, that we could be in a situation when we start to open facilities that actually people won't come, unless they are absolutely confident that those measures are in place to protect public health. We've also been in constant touch with people in places like Llandudno, for example. I've spoken to some of the bed and breakfast representatives there, who were desperately anxious before furlough was introduced, and calmed down quite a lot after that, but of course many are very concerned about what will happen if and when furlough comes to an end. So that's a very difficult issue for us.
I know that zoos are haemorrhaging money at the moment, and I'm particularly aware of what's happening in Folly Farm in Pembrokeshire, for example. There are no plans at the moment to look at that, but I think we recognise that that is a particularly unique situation, so maybe we can look at that. Let me go away and have a think about that one.
Thank you very much for your statement, Eluned. I'm particularly concerned to hear that there's so much suffering going on in Africa because of the spike in food prices, but hopefully we can help do our bit to mitigate that.
Three things. One is, I had a meeting with university vice-chancellors just before Plenary, along with David Rees and others. And I was interested to hear that there is still quite a lot of interest amongst international students wanting to come and study in Wales—particularly, Cardiff University emphasised that there's a lot of interest. So I think it's more about, as we move forward in beating this pandemic, how we can make international students confident that Wales is a good place to come to study, given that, wherever people are living, we have got to live with coronavirus for the time being. So, obviously they'll want to be certain that the public health standards that they've come to have in their own countries are being applied in this country. So, I wondered what discussions you're having with the UK Government on instituting temperature taking at airports, testing, and mandatory two-weeks' isolation for anybody coming from abroad, regardless of their nationality. It seems to me that that would reassure both international students and the communities like mine who are going to be hosting international students, were they to be studying at Cardiff University, going forward. There might even be an opportunity—
Can you come to a conclusion, please?
Okay. Separately, I wanted to ask you about the international discussions—the free trade discussions that are going on with the United States, because I'm somewhat alarmed that we might be rushing into an agreement with the United States that could have horrendous implications for Welsh farming and Welsh food. The way in which the US food industry has failed to manage coronavirus, which has led to the death of many food-processing workers in the United States, is not exactly an advert for why we definitely don't want those sorts of lowered food standards coming to our country. So, I wondered if you have had any discussions with the UK Government on this to reassure us that we will not be having much lower food standards imposed on us.
Thank you. Well, it's been quite interesting, the British Council have done quite a lot of surveys in relation to the interest of Chinese students—whether they still want to come to study in the United Kingdom. And it's quite interesting, as you say, that the majority of them still seem to be very interested. There are about 39 per cent of them from China who seem to be undecided, and so that suggests that we do need to put some measures in place to make sure that they do have that confidence that you talk about. And that's why these protocols are going to be really, really important, I think, going forward, to give them that confidence. Indian and Pakistan students, in the same survey by the British Council, they suggest that 50 per cent of them are not likely to cancel their plans and they seem to be more interested in making sure that they follow through on that. There have been discussions with Global Wales and the UK Government about how we build the confidence of those people.
Of course, since about 29 January, there has been a need to self-isolate, if you're showing symptoms, coming into this country from elsewhere. But I think there probably is a question that we still need to ask, and it is something that I asked Frank Atherton this morning, which is: should we be, perhaps, going a little bit further and suggesting that everybody who comes in should self-isolate for a couple of weeks? It's quite interesting to note that we seem to be slightly different from a lot of other countries in the world on that one. But that is something that we discuss at our weekly meetings with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I have had, as I say, a meeting with the education Minister where we discussed some of those issues.
On free trade, I did have a discussion yesterday with Greg Hands, who's the Minister responsible for the negotiation with the United States on creating that new free trade agreement. I did emphasise the importance of making sure that those standards that we hold dear are adhered to, but that the language in the negotiation mandate is pretty vague and that, actually, we think it should be tightened up. I think it is important that they understand, and it is something that I emphasise very clearly, that we do want to make sure that we stick to these high environmental standards, animal welfare standards, labour standards, and consumer standards. Those are all things that we will be looking out for in those agreements. He understood that and we emphasised the importance of a level playing field when it comes to imports into this country, and that the standards that we expect, in terms of animal welfare, for example, need to be adhered to, otherwise there could be a danger that they could undercut what we are able to produce in this country.
May I thank the Minister for her statement and thank her for her support for all of my constituents who have found themselves in different nations recently and have been able to make their way home? So, thank you very much for that.
There are a number of issues that have already been mentioned, so I will just focus on social care. You mentioned in your statement the importance of care, particularly end-of-life care, and Welsh-medium provision in that sector. Of course, we all understand the relaxation and the abolition of some of the regulations in the care sector because of this COVID-19 outbreak, but could I ask you what you are doing personally to ensure, as far as possible, that Welsh-medium care is available to our older people in the care sector, particularly those who are first-language Welsh speakers?
Thank you, Dai. I am entirely aware that this is a hugely important issue for people, particularly in some areas of Wales, and that’s why I have written to the health Minister to ensure that he is aware of the importance of the Welsh language, particularly when it comes to end-of-life issues and ensuring that there is awareness and that there are staff available who are able to have discussions in people’s mother tongue. Now, the commissioner has said during this period that he will not be pursuing hospitals and other healthcare facilities in relation to standards at the moment, but I do think that it’s important to highlight just how important an issue this is for some of those patients who are facing an appalling situation at the moment. So, that has been emphasised to the health Minister.
Referring to your responsibility for tourism in and to Wales, holiday parks and many other tourism businesses receive most of their annual income between Easter, which they've already lost, and the October half term. Even if they manage to stay afloat this autumn, they fear they will go under over the winter impacting on the jobs they provide and all the businesses in their communities they and their customers sustain. What plans, therefore, does the Welsh Government have to support Welsh tourism businesses taking account of their seasonal nature and, thereby, to protect our coastal and rural communities?
And regarding culture and the arts, in Flintshire, north Wales music tuition centres have been told that they're ineligible for the Welsh Government's £10,000 business grant, because they don't receive small business rate relief. Will you therefore confirm whether the arts sector and other recipients of charity and not-for-profit organisation business rate relief with a rateable value of £12,000 or less are also eligible?
Thank you. It is a real concern, in terms of the tourism sector, that we are talking about this three-winter prospect that they are confronting. Now, I think there's so much we can do as a Welsh Government, but this is a matter that the UK Government also understands, and so, we will be making sure that, as far as possible, we are asking them to help us out in this very specific sector that is really perhaps more exposed than many other sectors because of the seasonal nature that you emphasised. Furlough is great while it lasts. But, as you mentioned, there are also lots of people who perhaps are employed on a seasonal basis that may be not eligible to apply for furlough because that season hadn't quite started. So, already there are people who are very exposed.
When it comes to culture and the arts, you will have seen that some of our funding for the arts and sports, we have repurposed that; about £17 million has been repurposed. There is a £1 million cultural resilience fund and there's a £7 million arts resilience fund that maybe you could suggest that they look at as an alternative. But you may have seen today also that there has been an extension to the support in terms of business rates grants that will be open for sports clubs and for charities as well. So, maybe they could look at that now as an alternative source.
Minister, I want to focus on the international trade aspects of your responsibilities, and in your statement, you highlight the fact that the UK Government is continuing—or, actually, has just started its UK-US trade deal discussions, and it's still ongoing with its UK-EU trade deal discussions. My concern is that they may be trying to play each other off, and in a year in which there are political ambitions in America for a President who's coming up for re-election, that may be dangerous. But can I ask a question as to how much feedback you are getting, Minister, on the progress of those discussions? And also, what involvement is the Welsh Government having in setting the negotiation mandates for Japan? Because you've highlighted that, actually, the Japanese agreement will be more important to Wales than the US agreement. So, are you having any input into setting the mandate for the Japanese discussions?
Thank you. The negotiations with the US only started yesterday and, obviously, they were very much broad opening discussions, so, there was not much detail being talked about. There are a 100 people involved in those negotiations from the UK Government side alone and, of course, it was useful, therefore, to be able to speak to the Minister responsible yesterday and to highlight those things that we have been highlighting for many months about the priorities for us in Wales. Of course, amongst those is a commitment to make sure that the NHS is protected. We also made it clear to him that, actually, just keeping the mandate where it is now, which is not going backwards from where we are, perhaps won't be enough, because it may be that, at some point in future, we may want to look at better integration of health and care, and so it may not be enough to just go from where we are and to secure where we are.
Beyond that, we've made it clear that we expect this negotiation to continue with the devolved administrations. To be fair, they have really been quite respectful so far. The problem is, of course, we still don't have a formal situation, and that was something that I was able to emphasise once again yesterday—that, until we get a formal concordat in place, then we feel a little bit exposed, despite the fact that they are actually respecting and involving us in the pre-negotiation phase. And that's also true for Japan. So, our officials are very much involved in building up those discussions ready for the Japan negotiation.
But, we are confident that we are able to state our opinions very clearly and that they are actually taking on board some of the concerns we have. One of those is the climate change issue, for example, where it's pretty clear that the United States is not going to be willing to play on some of those grounds. But who knows what might happen in terms of the United States elections? There may be scope for us to reopen some of those issues at a later stage. One of the interesting things that I've learnt as well, though, is that, whilst in the past we thought that the whole negotiating with the United States may just come to a standstill during the US presidential elections, it does seem now as if those negotiations will be continuing throughout the presidential elections.
Thank you. And finally, Mohammad Asghar.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer and thank you, Minister, for your statement. I appreciate your concern on tourism. Visit Wales has released the result of a survey of tourism businesses taken after the lockdown that makes grim reading. Ninety-six per cent of businesses expect the future impact of the virus to be significantly negative on the sector.
Operators have called on both Governments to help their businesses by urgently revealing an exit strategy, pointing out that, even if they reopen in June, they will have lost a great key part of the prime tourism season in Wales. Given the vital importance of tourism to the Welsh economy, what discussion, Minister, have you had with ministerial colleagues and others about ensuring that Wales retains a viable tourism industry, especially—which is my concern—rural area tourism, which, in fact, creates more than £8 billion for the Welsh economy? How are you going to deal with it, and how quickly are you going to deal with it? Thank you.
Thank you. One of the things that I think has been very clever in terms of the marketing strategy is to make sure that that's been changed slightly during this period. So, the phrase, 'Visit Wales. Later' has been something that we've been trying to emphasise. But it is a tightrope that we've got to walk here, because for the time being, it is difficult to encourage people to come to those areas. That's not something we want to see at the moment but there will come a point where we want that to happen, so it is important that we get that positioning right. As you say, there's real fear within the sector and I don't think it would be right for the Government to just be striking out and saying, 'This is how we want to come out of this'. We've got to do this with the sector. The sector has to be involved with it, and that's why we are working with the sector very closely at the moment to look at what protocols should be put in place to help us come out of this, to build people's confidence, to know that when they're going into some of these tourism sectors those places will have been deep-cleaned or those social distancing issues will be respected, and that there will be a limit to how many people can go into particular places. But all of those things have to be agreed with the industry and we can't do it alone.
I think just the other thing to emphasise—. I obviously work extremely closely with my colleague Dafydd Elis-Thomas, and Ken Skates I know has a real interest in this portfolio as well. The one thing I would emphasise is that you're absolutely right: although there may be an increased emphasis in some of our rural areas, the one thing that I know my colleague Dafydd Elis-Thomas is always keen to emphasise is that tourism is something for the whole of Wales; it is not specific to any particular part. It does touch on so many parts of Wales and that's why you're absolutely right: we need to be there for the sector.
Thank you very much, Minister.
The next item on our agenda this afternoon is the statement by the Counsel General and the Minister for European Transition on coronavirus, and I call on the Counsel General and the Minister for European Transition, Jeremy Miles.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. As Wales faces the greatest public health challenge it's faced for over a century, we have acted together in order to safeguard our communities, to protect our health and social care services, and to save lives. The steps that we are taking are making a difference. We know the sacrifices that people are making as we continue to live with restrictions on our daily lives. It's important that we do start to look forward cautiously and carefully to the future, anticipating what kind of place Wales and the rest of the world will be once the pandemic is under control. Managing the recovery from the pandemic will be a major challenge for all, including the Welsh Government.
The First Minister has set out a framework to lead Wales out of the coronavirus crisis in a way that keeps everyone safe and revitalises our economy as soon as possible. It lays out the basis for the easing of the current restrictions and will be informed by the best scientific data.
Tomorrow, the First Minister will again review the latest evidence and consider the current restrictions. He has been clear that his strong preference would be to agree a common set of measures and a common timetable across the UK. We are, of course, making our own preparations to ensure that the interests of the people of Wales remain paramount.
The Llywydd took the Chair.
Looking further ahead, we will ensure that our future recovery work will be consistent with our programme for government, ensuring that the principles of social justice, fair work and environmental sustainability lie at the heart of our thinking. This will include learning from the experience of how Wales has risen to the challenge of recent weeks.
As part of our future recovery preparations, I have held an initial series of round-table discussions with world-leading experts—prominent figures in the field of economics, the labour market, climate change, public services, and business. Their contribution will help us to emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient.
Each of these round-tables has focused on a specific issue: we've discussed the impact of the pandemic on public services, on the economy and vulnerable people, and considered how to ensure that we have a green recovery.
I've published the names of all of the participants in this first round of discussions. All the sessions have been energising and thought-provoking, offering insight into the challenge. They've provided a tremendous springboard from which we can move forward.
The discussion on a green recovery reinforces the importance of the environment to Wales's economy. We will be looking for progressive, innovative solutions to respond to wider environmental challenges and to answer the climate emergency. It also recognised that behaviours of both individuals and businesses have changed through the COVID-19 crisis in ways that have led to significant environmental benefits. We need to find ways to help people maintain these changes in the long term, and in working to rebuild our economy to deal with the impact of COVID-19, the judgments we make must and will reflect our commitment as a Government to tackling climate change and to enhancing biodiversity.
Supporting the most vulnerable and ensuring that no-one is left behind will also be at the heart of how we seek to emerge from the economic impacts of COVID-19. In our discussion of this, there was a recognition that there needs to be an open public debate on the kind of Wales that we all want; a recognition that there has been a shift in the value people place on different sectors of the economy, with a renewed appreciation of the huge contribution of our key workers.
New supply-chain and innovation opportunities have also emerged from the dreadful challenges we have all been facing. The discussion on public services was broad-ranging and covered the breadth of our much-valued public services. The discussion focused on three broad cross-cutting themes: the resilience and reform of public services; the digital agenda—and in terms of the role it can play with regard to transformation and tackling digital exclusion; and then the role of public services in the places, in the communities, that they serve.
Life with COVID-19 under control will not simply be a matter of returning to normal. Much will have changed profoundly, and getting a broad perspective from leading international experts is an important part of bringing fresh independent thinking and creativity to our strategy for addressing that new reality. But it is of course equally important that we hear from people in Wales, and in the coming weeks I'll be convening a further series of virtual round-tables with experts from across Wales, who will bring their own expertise to the discussions. We'll also be hearing from our social partners and from stakeholders across Wales, and we're also encouraging submissions to be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, and the ideas are already coming in.
So, while we draw in external views, our recovery plans will be grounded in Wales and reflect the unique challenges and opportunities that we are facing. I'd like to close by thanking all our partners for their significant efforts in responding with incredible pace to the challenges and problems posed by this terrible disease. Their ongoing support will be a vital part of our recovery plans.
I want to thank the Minister for his statement and to wish him my best wishes as he starts this new role. Repairing the damage our economy and our society is going to face is likely to be the most significant challenge that the Welsh Government has faced since it was first established, so I'm really pleased to see the creation of this new role in co-ordinating the recovery.
I agree with what you've said, Minister, that we don't want to return to business as usual after this crisis, and by that I mean a return to considering it to be acceptable to pay care workers such pitiful rates, and, in a wider sense, a return to tolerating shocking levels of poverty in an allegedly rich society.
The emphasis on economic, environmental and social justice that was identified in your statement, Minister, is certainly to be welcomed as well. It's a way of making sure we make the best of this world-changing event, and create a future that's free of the mistakes of the past. In terms of the economy, the past few weeks have brought to bear who the key workers in our society really are. They're not the people earning above a certain threshold as per the UK Government's original immigration plans but the people who keep us safe. You've referenced, Minister, the fact that this appreciation shift has taken place, but could you tell us how the Welsh Government intends to synergise social value with economic fairness in the future? Do you have plans to implement a new deal for social workers, for example giving them fair pay and career paths? And I'd also like to know whether you have any plans to offer economic and mental health support to the key workers who've really borne the brunt during the crisis?
Thank you, Delyth Jewell, for those questions, and I think the challenges that you identify in your question were very much at the heart of the discussion that we had on Monday of this week, which focused exactly on the impact on the economy and on vulnerable cohorts of people in the economy. One of the issues that we discussed at some length, really, was the point that you have just made and the First Minister was addressing in the questions to him earlier, which is that recognition of our dependence, as a society, on people doing roles that have been undervalued and overlooked, as he has said in other contexts. The notion that we are celebrating anew the role of key workers who have not had the recognition in many sectors that they should deserve is absolutely at the heart of the sort of things that we'll need to and wish to address as part of repairing and recovering from COVID. You've talked specifically about social workers, and I'd like just to associate myself with remarks the First Minister made earlier about the need to make sure that social workers, in particular, are rewarded for the contribution they have always made, and the visibility of their contribution I think is particularly enhanced in these current circumstances.
I was also struck by the way that some of the differential impacts that COVID has had on particular groups in our society who have suffered, you know, particular vulnerability at work. So, a high concentration in the sectors affected by COVID of people who are under 25, a disproportionate effect in terms of the sectors that are in furlough on women over men. So, I think the pressures and the burdens that COVID is imposing on the economy is exposing some of those underlying unfairnesses, which we will all want to tackle and which this process is an effort to understand how best we can do that as we emerge from the new challenges that COVID places on that.
Thank you for that, Minister. I am sure that I'm not alone in sensing a growing fatigue amongst some members of the public with the current restrictions, so as much as I fully appreciate that the focus of your work is going to be on wider policy issues, it would be really helpful if you could also consider how there could be a road map of how we are coming out of the lockdown. Some of the simple things that people miss most, like embracing family members that they haven't been able to see for a while—how that could link in with the far wider-reaching issues, the important issues that you're looking at. In terms of the social aspect of your work, could you tell us, in the medium term, how you're going to tackle, as a Government, the mental health crisis and loneliness that have been exacerbated by the crisis? We've also found out that homelessness was in many ways a political choice of Government, so does the Welsh Government intend to learn from what's happened with this crisis and abolish homelessness for good, not just when it is crucially medically necessary as it is at the moment?
In terms of the environment, how are you going to balance the needs of responding to this current public health crisis with responding to the crises that hadn't gone away, like the climate emergency and all of the inherent tensions between the two? How do you intend to push for a massive shift towards public transport use at the end of this crisis, when the timing is right, for example—and I appreciate that's not an easy balance to strike at all? How will the Welsh Government ensure that creating a health environment plays a key role in its plans in all portfolios in the future?
Finally, Minister, I'd ask if you're going to be working with behavioural economists to tackle some of the bad habits that people may have fallen into during this lockdown, like no longer maybe recycling as much, and how we can also promote some of the really good habits, such as not using cars as much and using digital technology more? Will you consider, for example, having car-free zones in cities on certain days of the week or looking at the possible benefits of moving to a four-day week in the public sector? I know you won't have all the answers to this now, Minister—I fully appreciate that—but I'd like to hear some of your initial thoughts on some of these matters.
Well, I think the breadth and depth of the range of questions that Delyth Jewell has posed there is its own illustration of the set of challenges that we all face as a country and internationally, indeed, in responding to COVID and the new realities it will create. I think any one of those questions merits an hour-long answer, but I won't test the patience of the Llywydd with that.
Just to give, if I may, some thematic responses, the First Minister has published the framework that will guide his decisions in relation to how we move out of lockdown when the time comes. To the point that you make about that, the equality aspects are very keenly understood by us, because the experience of the lockdown and, indeed, the experience of infection by COVID, is not felt in the same way by people in all our communities, and so those judgments are important reflections in how we take those steps, and that's part of that framework. And I'm particularly struck by the impact on children in disadvantaged homes who may not have access to the resources that some others have, and the keen impact that will be felt by those in a continuing way after COVID, which goes to that broader point about the kind of new country we would wish to see and the fairness agenda, which she's talked about.
In terms of public services, there was a whole session that we've had, discussing some of that, and I think one of the aspects, which her question alludes to, is our capacity in the current crisis to respond, in some ways, more rapidly and in a more joined-up way than Governments everywhere have been able to do in the past. I think, in particular, the efforts around homelessness, the intervention there and the rapidity of the effect of it have been particularly striking.
Just briefly on that last point that she made, about the environment, I think she makes a very good point, if I may say, around the behavioural changes that have been contributors to the better air quality and to the appreciation of buying food locally, where people can do that, and the access to green spaces, all of which is very positive, and I'm sure most of us would hope to see that that would continue. But I think one of the lessons, signals, and salutary notes for us, I think, is that it isn't a given that when we come out the other side of the time we're living in now, people will wish to continue all those behaviours. It's part of the challenge, I think, for all of us in public life, and governments in particular, to try and foster those behaviours that can contribute to some of those broader goals.
I think public transport is a very good example of that, and she highlights that in her question. We would hope, I think, that people would wish to maintain the kind of air quality that we have and find it easier to use public transport than they have in the past, but people will also be judging against that the social distancing imperatives, won't they? So, there'll be a complex set of judgments that people will want to make, and we need to try and help people to build on those positive behaviours, while recognising that this isn't always going to be a straightforward journey. But certainly, the choices that we make in how we come out the other side from the COVID experience will have a bearing on the climate change objectives that we've set ourselves and which we're still very much committed to delivering.
Can I thank you, Minister, for your statement, and also for the briefing that I received from you today? It was very useful, actually, just to get your perspective on how your role fits in within the Government, because it is such a broad role and has an impact on so many different departments, so I welcome you to it. It's going to be a big challenge, I think, for everybody to adjust to the new working arrangements that might emerge after this pandemic is under control, and you certainly have my support in wishing you all the very best in how you take this forward.
We've obviously hit a strange period in our history that's going to shape the way that we view things, going forward, for everybody who's been through this pandemic, just in the same way that people who've been through wartime scenarios and previous pandemics like the Spanish flu pandemic have experienced. And, as you've alluded to, we've seen some significant changes in behaviour; lots of people who never thought it would be possible to be able to run their businesses from home or to have most of their staff working outside of their headquarters and office premises have found that they've been able to do that, and, of course, that's brought its own challenges as well, in terms of people's mental health and well-being, particularly where they might be individuals who live alone.
But, clearly, in spite of the fact that we've taken those leaps and bounds forward, there are still going to be some challenges. You've mentioned the digital issue already for young people, particularly, in our schools in terms of being able to continue with their education. But, obviously, there are lots of people who might be finding it difficult to continue with their work pattern because of the digital divide that they are experiencing. So, the digital divide between rural areas and urban areas, for example, I think is a bit of a challenge, given the fact that not everybody has access to high-speed broadband, and then, of course, we've got this divide between, perhaps, older and younger people. So, can you tell me a little bit about whether this is a theme within the work streams that you're taking forward? I think that that in particular is going to be something that I would hope we would all want to embed in the future, in terms of our economy being digitised, going forward, because I think that if we're ahead of the curve in terms of building the right infrastructure and making sure that people have got access to these things, then that would be a good thing for us in the longer term.
Can I also just touch on the round-tables that you've had? I'm very pleased to see that those have taken place and that you've got more that are planned. Having looked at the membership of them to date, they do appear to be a little bit business light. Can you give me some confidence that there are more people from the private sector, and the business sector in particular, that are going to be in the next panels and round-tables that you've got planned?
Thank you for that. Just on your initial remarks—and thank you for the support that you've indicated—with regard to the broad-ranging aspects of the role, one of the key points that we are seeking to ensure happens is that the Government in all its aspects has a common understanding of some of the challenges that lie ahead and that that can be fed into the work of Ministers and civil servants and be mainstreamed in our shared understanding, across portfolios, of what some of the impacts are. It's obvious that there'll be interventions in one area that will impact others, and so that's part of the rationale.
On the digital point, which was the main point of his question, the issue of digital exclusion absolutely is at the heart of the sorts of issues that we've been discussing, both in terms of the immediate response to COVID, recognising that there are benefits, clearly, in how local authorities have been able to provide much more information online about the support they are able to give to people who are isolated, and the speed, really, of our ability to introduce GP appointments online, over video, at scale. I think part of the challenge for all governments in the future, really, is not to unlearn that behaviour and to be able to make that kind of change into the future in, hopefully, more benign contexts, in more benign climates.
But the point that you make is absolutely at the heart of the discussion we had yesterday, for example, about public service reform and the importance, obviously, of continuing the process of delivering services digitally, because that frees up human capital for other support the state can give, and also to build into that the notion of how we tackle exclusion, so that you're involving the user and the service user in the design of those services so that you're taking people on that journey with you as well as addressing the points in your question around digital competence, but also digital access. Yes, it's about broadband, and that does have a spatial dimension. It's also about access to kit, isn't it? Not every household has a laptop and a couple of smartphones, and people can't go to libraries at the moment. Internet cafes don't exist in the way they used to. So, these are access challenges as well as challenges of competence.
There will also be, I think, challenges in the future from the choices that he is describing in his question. People who can work from home may choose to do that more in the future than they have. That may do something to where people choose to live. If people don't feel they have to be in such close commuting distance, then the distribution of habitation may change, and that may also pose pressures in the future on broadband distribution. So, there are quite big challenges there.
On the representation of business, in a sense, there were 21 people, I think, over three sessions, so, actually, everyone is lightly represented, I think, in that context. We had a couple of businesspeople, I think, in one of the sessions yesterday, who spoke very much from a finance perspective and from an entrepreneurial perspective, which I thought was a very important contribution to the discussion and a very valuable contribution to the discussion. We'll obviously want to make sure, when we do our next set of round-tables, that we continue that level of representation across the board, to make sure that there's a range of voices in that mix.
Thank you for those answers, Minister. Can I just ask you as well about how you're working with other Governments across the United Kingdom? Clearly, we've heard messages from the First Minister and other Ministers about the desire to lift the current restrictions on a pan-UK basis, and, of course, we all recognise that, in terms of our economic links, for example, there is a big east-west dimension to the Welsh economy, particularly in north Wales and in parts of the M4 corridor, which we can't ignore. So, if restrictions are lifted on one side of the border and not on the other, that will add all sorts of complications, potentially, to the way that we come out of the pandemic and recover from it.
So, can you tell us precisely what sort of discussions you are having? I know that it's obviously important that we ensure that Wales's interests are looked after within any kind of recovery that we have and lifting of restrictions, but can you also give me some assurances as well that there won't be different geographic approaches within Wales that could potentially increase the risk of an increased infection rate in places where, for example, tourism is important? If you re-open the gates on tourism, perhaps that could disadvantage places like north Wales and parts of mid and west Wales, too. One of the issues that seems to be the case is that we've obviously got different rates of the spread of the pandemic in different parts of the country, so I know that north Wales, for example, appears to be about two or three weeks behind the situation in south Wales. So, these are the sorts of things that people are expressing concern to me about throu