Here are the coronavirus morning headlines for Wednesday, November 18, as it is reported the UK Government has a plan for families to be allowed five days to enjoy get-togethers over Christmas.
The Sun is reporting that UK Government are looking at the idea in a last-ditch bid to save the festivities across the UK – although it would be up to the Welsh Government whether to bring in the rules here.
Wales health minister Vaughan Gething has said there was a long time to go before he would be able to make a definitive statement about Christmas, which is just over five weeks away. Read what he had to say here. But the Welsh Government has pledged to a “four nation approach” to Christmas.
The Sun newspaper is now reporting on Wednesday that health bosses are looking at a a five-day run when households could mix indoors for festivities, starting on Christmas Eve.
They have said that Sage scientists have been modelling the impact of groups bigger than six meeting up.
With Christmas Eve falling on a Thursday and a planned Bank Holiday for Monday December 28, ministers are zeroing in on that five-day weekend for a short lifting of a ban on gathering in homes.
But those households that choose to link up are unlikely to be able to mix with others outside that grouping during the celebrations.
They and medics fear a full week of rules being relaxed would “normalise” mixing and want to cap it at a matter of days. Five ways to stop coronavirus spreading indoors.
No10 confirmed last night: “We are looking at ways to ensure that people can spend time with close family over Christmas at the end of what has been an incredibly difficult year.”
Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the original lockdown in March, suggested support bubbles could be extended to help enable families to meet at Christmas.
He told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Tuesday the proposal would increase the risk of coronavirus transmission but in a “controllable way”.
“There are ways of going part way which still reduce the risk – basically extending what are called bubbles – social bubbles, support bubbles,” he said.
“You could think of allowing three or four households to bubble together for a week but not contact anybody else, which would give more opportunity to see loved ones but not a free-for-all.”
Watchdog reveals failings over coronavirus deals
Ministers set aside normal standards of transparency as they scrambled to secure £18 billion of supplies and services in response to the coronavirus crisis, the public spending watchdog has concluded.
Firms recommended by MPs, peers and ministers’ offices were given priority as the Government raced against the rest of the world to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE) , the National Audit Office found.
Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said the failings uncovered in the NAO report may be the “tip of the iceberg” and called for ministers to “come clean” and publish all information about the contracts awarded.
The NAO’s investigation comes with the Government under intense pressure about claims of a “cronyvirus” culture which has seen allegations about key posts and contracts going to people linked to the Tory party.
The report found:
By July 31 more than 8,600 contracts with a value of £18 billion had been awarded, including £10.5 billion without any competition process.
A “high-priority lane” was established for firms referred to the PPE team by officials, ministers’ offices, MPs, peers and senior NHS staff, with about one in ten companies going through this route getting a contract, compared with one in 100 for those in the “ordinary lane”.
Contracts were awarded retrospectively after work was carried out, including a £3.2 million agreement with Deloitte to support the PPE team and an £840,000 deal with Public First for focus groups.
There was “inadequate documentation” in a number of cases on how risks, including potential conflicts of interest, had been managed.
Many of the contracts awarded were not published in a timely manner.
NAO chief Gareth Davies said: “At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, government had to procure large volumes of goods and services quickly whilst managing the increased risks this might entail.
“While we recognise that these were exceptional circumstances, it remains essential that decisions are properly documented and made transparent if government is to maintain public trust that taxpayers’ money is being spent appropriately and fairly.
“The evidence set out in our report shows that these standards of transparency and documentation were not consistently met in the first phase of the pandemic.”
It comes a day after it was revealed multi-million pound contracts were awarded to a Florida-based jewellery designer to supply the UK with PPE gloves and gowns at the height of the pandemic – with more than £20m of tax payers cash ending up in the hands of a middleman.
UK government documents show that it gave a firm run by American jewellery designer Michael Saiger contracts worth £790m to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitiser for healthcare workers since the start of the pandemic. They were among a total of £18bn of Covid-related contracts during the first six months of the pandemic.
Coronavirus laws branded ‘a mess’
Coronavirus laws have been branded a “mess” after figures suggested thousands of fines have gone unpaid or were withdrawn after being challenged.
Data obtained by the PA news agency under freedom of information laws indicated more than three in five coronavirus fines have gone unpaid in some parts of the country.
Thousands of fixed penalty notices (FPNs) have been rescinded by police forces after being issued.
Lawyers and campaigners said the figures illustrated how chaotic the laws governing Covid-19 restrictions had become, calling for a review of the process to make sure powers were being used fairly.
Lawyer Raj Chada, head of the criminal defence department at Hodge Jones & Allen, told PA: “The mess of Covid regulations know no bounds.
“Criminal law should be clear, certain and widely adhered to – otherwise it becomes arbitrary and unfair.
“These figures show that and worse – the situation is a farce.”
While Kirsty Brimelow QC, a human rights barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, said it was “predictable” people would stop paying the fines under the circumstances.
She said: “There is no means testing or appeal other than going to the magistrates’ court.
“It was predictable that people would stop paying fines. Some cannot afford them. Others may not have broken the laws and others may just be resentful that those in power acted as if the laws did not apply to them.”
She said the courts are already struggling to process serious criminal cases, and asked: “Why keep laws that will add to the case backlog in court? There needs to be a standard review system that people can access – away from the courts.”
Latest coronavirus cases for Wales
Public Health Wales (PHW), in its daily update on Tuesday, November 17, announced that 705 more people have been diagnosed with Covid-19 following a lab test. This was an decrease on 892 from Sunday.
The total number of people in Wales who have now died with lab-confirmed coronavirus now stands at 2,243. What is behind Sunday’s spike in coronavirus cases?
Blaenau Gwent is now the local authority with the most cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day average with 342.1 , up from 303.5 on Monday.
Neath Port Talbot is now the second highest area for infection at 291 after a substantial fall in the Merthyr numbers.
Merthyr Tydfil, once the centre of the virus in Wales, cases in Merthyr have now fallen to 286.8 from 303.4 yesterday.
Cases in your area:
Enhanced visiting scheme allows families to help around 300 care home residents
A care home group has enabled almost 300 residents to be cared for by their family members through an enhanced visiting scheme that launched in August.
Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare care homes identified residents who were deteriorating and invited relatives to become part of their care plan, developing a “Safe Visits” protocol to enable meaningful contact.
Selected visitors are tested weekly, trained in using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and agree to a contract setting out what the care home expects of them, such as not exposing themselves to situations where they are at an increased risk of catching Covid-19.
They help care for residents most in need of extra support, such as those showing signs of significant cognitive decline, weight loss, decreased mobility or distressed behaviour and mood disturbance.
The scheme, running across its 46 homes, allows family members to be close to their loved ones – brushing their hair, holding their hands and helping them with daily activities.
The majority of the visits involve touch of some kind and only take place in homes which are Covid-free.
The group currently has 198 enhanced visiting plans in place, and more than 300 relatives have now visited their loved ones in a safe, controlled and managed way over the past two and a half months.
The daughter of one resident, who did not see her mother until July, said the enhanced visits have been “invaluable”.
Tiered system ‘inadequate’ for second lockdown exit in England, say medics
The tiered system of Covid-19 restrictions is “inadequate” and must be revised before England leaves lockdown leading medics have said, amid reports of a plan to briefly relax household mixing around Christmas.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said the previous system was “inconsistent” and did not contain the spread of the virus, echoing a Government adviser who warned the tiers needed “strengthening”.
The Government will decide next week how to end the second national lockdown.
Ministers have insisted it is too early to tell whether the lockdown has succeeded and virus infection levels will be low enough to allow festivities to go ahead but Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said it was his “very firm expectation” that measures will be eased significantly in December.
Now the BMA, which represents doctors, has presented its own blueprint for leaving lockdown including “triggers” under which areas would move up and down the tiers.
The blueprint suggests non-essential travel between tiers should be “restricted” and “more robust” quarantine procedures should be put into place.
Social mixing should be encouraged to take place outdoors and there should be a two-metre distance between tables in pubs and restaurants, according to the proposals.
The blueprint also suggests the rule of six be replaced with a “rule of two households”.
Singer credited with helping Moderna vaccine
And finally, a one million US dollar donation by Dolly Parton appears to have helped fund the production of a promising new coronavirus vaccine.
In April, the country singer announced she had donated the sum to Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville, Tennessee, for coronavirus research.
This week, US company Moderna announced its coronavirus vaccine may be 94.5% effective against Covid-19, and Parton is namechecked in the preliminary report.
Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the report states that the work was supported by the “Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund (Vanderbilt University Medical Center)” amongst other groups.
The development comes after Parton tweeted in April: “My longtime friend Dr. Naji Abumrad, who’s been involved in research at Vanderbilt for many years, informed me that they were making some exciting advancements towards research of the coronavirus for a cure.
“I am making a donation of 1 million dollars to Vanderbilt towards that research and to encourage people that can afford it to make donations.”
While she has yet to acknowledge her involvement since the new report on the Moderna vaccine, Parton’s fans have cheered the apparent impact of her donation.
The news even prompted one Twitter user, Ryan Cordell, to record a cover of Parton’s hit single Jolene, replacing the famous lyric with the words “vaccine, vaccine, vacci-ine”.
Plaid wants Wales to buy its own vaccines
UK nations should be allowed to procure coronavirus vaccines themselves if Westminster chooses to pass on them in future, Plaid Cymru’s deputy leader has said.
Rhun ap Iorwerth said he had concerns Wales could end up with fewer doses of a jab from US firm Moderna than it would have if the UK Government chose to place orders with it earlier.
The UK Government, which is in charge of vaccine procurement, says it has now secured five million doses of Moderna’s vaccine after the firm announced on Monday that its jab may be 94.5% effective against Covid-19.
Mr ap Iorwerth, who is also his party’s shadow health minister, told the PA news agency: “I just couldn’t see the harm in Wales trying to procure this Moderna vaccine given that the UK central procurers decided ‘no, we’re not going to bother’.
“I’ve got nothing against cooperation between the nations of the UK. If there’s an agreement that can make sure there’s a basic level of a vaccine that can be secured in a particular way, as there would have been with with PPE, fine. And if that works and that delivers a vaccine that’s great.
“But I can’t see why that should preclude Scotland, or England or Wales, being able to come to agreement ourselves as well, especially in this kind of context – when the UK decided we’re not chasing this one up. Wales could have been.
“By now on Moderna, it’s probably the case that the UK is going to be doing the bidding on our behalf, so maybe we’ve missed that boat. We might end up with a decent supply of Moderna, but we might not.”
He added: “Throughout all of this, I just feel the Welsh Government has been at its best when it’s been trying to exert as much control over its ability to respond to the pandemic as possible. And it has tripped up most often when it’s decided to throw its lot in with a four-nations approach.”