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THE level of ambulance calls in Wales is slowly returning to normal after a significant drop in 999 activity during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been revealed.

The Welsh Ambulance Service said incidents crews would normally deal with fell after lockdown restrictions were introduced in March, with the number of car crashes alone reducing by half.

The amount of people suffering falls also lessened as COVID-19 related calls took up the majority of paramedics’ time.

However, the ambulance trust’s chief executive said the frequency of emergencies was now beginning to rise once more.

Speaking at a virtual board meeting held via Zoom today, Jason Killens said: “As the pandemic started and the initial lockdown came in we saw a dramatic reduction in activity, particularly in the 999 service.

“That has, in part through the peak of pandemic, been superseded by COVID related work.

“They do remain prevalent in the community now, but that’s probably half of what it was during the peak in April.

“What we have seen in the last 14 days or so is a steady increase back to normal in the 999 service.

“We’re starting to see an increase in calls for chest pains, strokes and road traffic collisions, which had seen a drop off in the early stages of the pandemic.

“We have been very clear that the NHS is very much open for business and our message is very simple: if you are seriously ill or injured then you should dial 999 and we will come and provide the necessary and appropriate treatment.”

Ambulance crews are currently attending between 120 to 150 coronavirus related calls a day.

Despite this, the service has been able to maintain its performance in reaching serious life threatening incidents within eight minutes at over 70 per cent during May.

Mr Killens said he wanted to thank staff for their work throughout the crisis, acknowledging the personal risks they have taken.

He also paid tribute to Swansea-based paramedic Gerallt Davies who died from the virus last month.

He said: “A big thank you to all of our people who have been working really hard in very difficult circumstances over the last eight to ten weeks.

“Many of our staff have been personally affected by the coronavirus and there was the tragic loss of one of our own some weeks ago.

“We’ve had a number of staff in intensive care and away from work as a result of the virus, so it’s touched us as it’s touched every part of the community.”

The service has put in a number of safety measures to protect workers and has received a delivery 15,000 microguard suits brought in via air freight in the last ten days.

In addition, screens have been installed between desks within Welsh call centres.

This week the trust has also highlighted a number of cases where patients have become aggressive to crews after being asked to wear face masks.

Mr Killens warned those responsible that such incidents will not be tolerated.

He said: “We are very clear that assaults, violence and aggression against our people are never acceptable and there is never an excuse.

“We do pursue aggressively, with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, appropriate sanctions for those that do assault our people.

“I think it’s true to say that here in Wales we have seen stronger sentences when assaults do occur.”

Several councils in South and West Wales are keeping their recycling centres closed for now in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Bridgend, Cardiff, Carmarthenshire, Merthyr Tydfil, Neath Port Talbot, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Swansea and Vale of Glamorgan councils have all given updates on what is happening with their Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs).

In the Vale of Glamorgan, recycling centres are also closed until further notice. The council has had to remind residents throughout the lockdown to be careful with companies offering to remove waste.

They said: ''With many residents having house and garden clearances during the lockdown, it is important to remember that everyone has a legal duty to check that the person taking their waste away is registered to do so."

''Unfortunately, there is a small minority of waste collectors that choose to fly-tip waste, instead of disposing of it responsibly.''

A Bridgend Council spokesman said: “Our community recycling centres remain closed in line with national guidance, and the staff have been redeployed to support recycling and waste collections to ensure that these can continue during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are closely monitoring the situation, and are working alongside all Welsh local authorities to undertake a co-ordinated approach to reopening sites as soon as it is safe to do so.”

A spokesman for Cardiff Council said that currently household waste recycling centres in Cardiff remain closed but the situation is under continual review and further information will be provided on the council’s website and social media channels when further information becomes available.

Carmarthenshire says its remain closed in line with Welsh Government lockdown restrictions at present.

Merthyr Tydfil had initially planned to re-open theirs last week but following new Welsh Government guidance their HWRCs remain closed and won’t be re-opening in the foreseeable future.

All recycling centres in Neath Port Talbot will be closed until further notice.

The council says these measures have been taken as, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the it now has to focus its street scene services on services that protect public health in its communities

All of Rhondda Cynon Taf’s community recycling centres are closed to the public.

‘The Shed’ reuse shops at Llantrisant and Treherbert are also closed until further notice.

The decision to close these facilities was made due to staff reductions and also to follow national guidance relating to social distancing and to avoid gatherings.

The council is asking residents, that where possible they keep green waste and other materials such as wood, scrap metal, mattresses, paints, rubble, clothes, furniture for disposal until after this national emergency is over and the recycling centres and collections return to normal service.

In Swansea, recycling centres have been closed since Tuesday, March 24 until further notice and the tip treasures recycling shop is also closed until further notice.

Hundreds of thousands of key workers considered critical to the UK’s response to the coronavirus crisis are earning below the so-called “real living wage”, data suggests.

The real living wage is a voluntary scheme devised by the Living Wage Foundation.  It is calculated independently from the government and is based on costs such as food, clothing and household bills. 

In the Vale of Glamorgan the estimated number of jobs below the RLW in 2019 is 5 per thousand, compared to 8 per thousand in 2018.

Meanwhile, in Cardiff the estimated number of jobs below the RLW in 2019 is 37 per thousand, compared to 45 per thousand in 2018.

One in five UK employees earn below the Living Wage Foundation rates, including hundreds of thousands of key workers including hospital cleaners and porters, teaching assistants and carers.

The Living Wage Foundation rates are currently £10.75 an hour for those working within London and £9.30 an hour for those working in the UK outside London.

The scheme is separate to the statutory National Living Wage, which is the legally-binding hourly rate for workers aged 25 and over. It is reviewed every year just like the National Minimum Wage (for under 25s).

The government raised the National Living Wage to £8.72 an hour from 1 April.

The GMB union said the coronavirus crisis had shone a light on the “rock-bottom pay” of the people “expected to risk their health to protect us”. It says more than three million workers could be affected and called for key workers’ wages to be raised.

Economists have, however, urged against further wage rises before the full toll of the crisis is clear.  The Low Pay Commission, an independent body which advises the government, warned it might be necessary to apply an "emergency brake" on long-term plans to continue to lift the statutory minimum. 

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: "It is right we ensure the lowest paid are fairly rewarded for their contribution to the economy, particularly those working in essential services during the biggest threat this country has faced in decades.

"This year's increase to the National Living Wage means we will be putting an extra £930 a year into the pockets of 2.4 million of the UK's lowest paid workers."

A visually impaired woman from Swansea said people like her lacked spatial awareness and would appreciate extra consideration if they had to leave their house, especially in shops.

Susan Thomas is fully aware of the two-metre social distancing requirements and is staying at home, except for the odd breath of fresh air in her cul-de-sac in Gowerton.

She has a condition called age-related macular degeneration, which has left her with peripheral vision only.

She said: “If I did have to go out I would find it very difficult.”

She encouraged people to get out of the way if they saw someone with a white cane on the pavement.

But she added: “If you see someone with a white cane at the edge of pedestrian crossing, for example, don’t be afraid to say, ‘Are you okay? Can I help?’

“People are very kind as well.”

Mrs Thomas said it has been “impossible” of late to get an online supermarket food delivery slot, and she no longer visits Tesco Extra in Fforestfach.

She said she was indebted to a team of volunteers who are delivering supplies from Co-op Food, Gowerton.

The 72-year-old also has family who help.

“I’m lucky,” she said. “And my general health is good.

“You do learn to adapt. There’s always something to do.

“I’ve got talking kitchen scales – today I’ve made cakes.”

But she said she missed her volunteering work with local support group Sight Life, which is contacting everyone on its database to offer support.

Sight Life director Kieran Harris said it supported 900 members in Swansea.

Mr Harris urged friends and neighbours of visually impaired people to check on them.

“Often they are frightened of going out and having an accident,” he said.

But he added that, in some respects, visually impaired people were used to some measure of self-isolation.

Cardiff resident Dan Thomas, who is blind, said: “I spend a lot of time at home by myself anyway.

“I’m trying not to go out and be guided.

“I’m lucky – I’ve got a decent support network around me.”

The 32-year-old said he occasionally visited his nearby Tesco Express, where staff know him and can help.

“I do most of my shopping online, but getting a delivery slot is almost impossible,” he said.

“On March 22 I went onto Tesco’s website, and the nearest slot was April 11.”

Mr Thomas urged the public to appreciate the challenges that visually impaired and blind people faced if they had to visit a shop, especially during the coronavirus restrictions.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is campaigning to class blind people as vulnerable during the current pandemic. This would give them better access to food delivery slots.

The UK Government said it was working with retailers and volunteer groups “to identify others who may still need support in getting essential food supplies”.

RNIB Cymru volunteer Mr Thomas – who enjoys martial arts and has a cross-trainer in his Penarth Road flat for exercise – said he couldn’t get over how quiet his normally busy street was.

“I’m breathing easier,” he said.  “And it’s nice to hear birds other than seagulls.”

Councils in south Wales have revealed what’s happening with their bin collections in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Across Wales and the UK councils are having to strip back or even stop some services to move staff to priority services to cope during the outbreak.

So what’s the situation with rubbish collection services in these parts of south Wales?

In the Vale of Glamorgan, in order to continue collecting recycling, food and black bag waste as normal, the council has temporarily suspended the collection of green waste.

The council says it is encouraging residents to continue to recycle as much as possible, but will allow up to four black bags per household each fortnight.

In Cardiff, green garden waste and bulky waste collections have been suspended and a trial to separate glass waste for 17,000 homes has been suspended with residents asked to put glass in their green bags.

Household waste recycling centres have closed due to UK Government advice but green bag recycling, black bag and food waste collections are currently unchanged.

A spokeswoman for Rhondda Cynon Taf Council said: “In these unprecedented times, the council has turned its focus to the delivery of essential front line services only, redirecting staff from other areas of work to support critical services.

“All recycling and black bag/bin kerbside collections are currently operating as normal, with the exception of green waste, which has been suspended until further notice to enable all resources to be deployed into the main recycling and waste collections.”

Currently, dry mixed recycling is collected weekly as are food waste and nappies with black bags and wheelie bins.

 The spokesman went on to say: “The council is reviewing the impact of coronavirus on a daily basis, in response to the latest government advice or instructions or as a result of reducing staff resources.

 “We will continue to react as appropriate to any further developments in the instructions issued by Westminster and the Welsh Government.”

In Bridgend, general waste, recycling and garden collection services are currently continuing as normal.

A spokesman for the council said: “To ensure Kier can continue to offer a county borough-wide service, the two-bag waste limit still applies.

“Due to stretched resources, the missed, bulky and the delivery of bags rounds have been temporarily suspended.

“Any household currently awaiting a delivery of new landfill waste bags can use black bags or a similar alternative until the deliveries resume.”

A Neath Port Talbot council spokesman said: “Waste and recycling services are continuing as normal and being prioritised to minimise any disruption going forward.”

In Merthyr Tydfil, bulky waste collections have been suspended because staff being used in priority areas and both household waste recycling centres at Aberfan and Dowlais have been shut with the council urging residents to hold on to wood, scrap metal, mattresses, rubble, clothes and furniture for disposal for when they re-open.

Kerbside collections are continuing as normal at the moment but waste services are in the process of changing some collection rounds and residents affected have been sent letters letting them know about the changes.

South Wales’ fire and rescue service has agreed to increase the amount of money it takes from council tax payers by more than 4% next year.

Members of the fire authority which covers 10 local authority areas in south Wales approved the budget proposals for 2020/2021, which will see the budget contributions from those areas go up by 4.25% which would give the service a budget of £74.87 million

The authority had consulted on a 4.5% rise but it has gone with the 4.25% rise at its meeting on Monday, February 10.

The 10 council areas that make up the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service area saw their funding from Welsh Government increase by an average of 4.4% in the latest provisional settlement.

In the Vale of Glamorgan, residents will pay a total of £6.38m, an increase of £333,013 or 5.51%.

Here’s how much each area will contribute compared to last year:

  • Bridgend will pay £7.05m, an increase of £308,626 or 4.57%
  • Rhondda Cynon Taf will pay £11.73m, an increase of £478,256 or 4.25%
  • Merthyr Tydfil will pay £2.92m, an increase of £134,169 or 4.81%
  • Caerphilly will pay £8.87m, an increase of £334,030 or 3.91%
  • Blaenau Gwent will pay £3.4m, an increase of £138,748 or 4.25%
  • Torfaen will pay £4.53m, an increase of £196,678 or 4.54%
  • Monmouthshire will pay £4.58m, an increase of £201,220 or 4.59%
  • Newport will pay £7.4m, an increase of £379,940 or 5.41%
  • Cardiff will pay £17.98m, an increase of £547,973 or 3.14%

And here are the main changes to the fire authority budget for next year which increase it by £3 million.

  • The pay inflation budget will increase by £1m or 1.5%
  • The fire pensions budget will go up by £900,000 or 1.2%
  • The Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) pensions budget will decrease by £400,000 or 0.5%
  • The premises budget for things like rates, energy and repairs will rise by £800,000 or 1.1%
  • The equipment and supplies budget will increase by £200,000 or 0.3%
  • The fleet budget will go up by £100,000 or 0.1%
  • The contracted services budget will rise by £100,000 or 0.1%
  • The capital financing charges budget will go up by £300,000 or 0.5%

There was some concern at the meeting about how the fire authority is going to cover pension costs

The Welsh Government provided a £2.8m grant to cover the costs of changes to fire service pension schemes but the fire authority report says this is a reduction on the already insufficient level of grant provided this year and that the authority is already overspending on this.

Councillor Steven Evans of Torfaen said he was concerned that they will have to find an extra £700,000 to cover pension costs.

Chris Barton, the treasurer of South Wales Fire and Rescue Authority, said: “They (Welsh Government) are underfunding pension costs. I expect that to continue.

“There is no prospect at this moment in time of additional funding.”

Councillor Val Smith of Monmouthshire raised her concerns about the impact of increasing funding contributions to the fire authority for her council.

She said that fire authority budgets are “like a different world” to council budgets and said that councils are “sort of on a shoestring.”

A spokeswoman for the fire authority said: “The fire authority today agreed a 4.25% increase in its budget bringing total expenditure to just under £75m for the next financial year.

“The budget uplift was necessary to fund a combination of pay increases, investment in safety critical equipment, appliances and fire stations and also to meet additional fire pension costs imposed by central government.

“The service is currently funded directly from the ten local councils in South Wales.  The increase represents an additional 4p per week for each person in the fire authority’s area. Overall, the cost of the South Wales Fire & Rescue Service still equates to less than £1 per person per week.”

The fire authority has included additional funds for insurance costs which are likely to rise above the level of inflation due to increasing premiums in the industry and has also set aside funding for the upgrade and replacement of software in fleet management and it has found savings in its capital financing charges budget.

Some patients from south Wales who need a heart operation may go under the knife in Stoke to keep waiting times down.

Clinicians are in discussions with the Royal Stoke University Hospital about the possibility of some Cardiff and Vale University Health Board patients heading up the M5 for surgery.

But it’s still early days, said the Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee (WHSSC), which helps plan specialised services for patients and is behind the cross-border cardiac discussions.

A WHSSC spokeswoman said: “Suitable patients will be identified by their heart surgeon and cardiologist and the option discussed with patients before any decision is made.

“At this point, therefore, we are not able to confirm numbers as no decisions have been made and no patients contacted.”

Stoke is 150 miles from Cardiff – but it’s not unheard of for surgeons in England to treat patients from Wales. Many children from south Wales with cardiac conditions are treated at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children.

Meanwhile, a paper before Swansea Bay University Health Board at its latest meeting said Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital had agreed to take on some cardiac surgery cases from the Swansea Bay area as well as from Cardiff and Vale.

But WHSSC said it did not intend to take up the Liverpool offer at the moment.

It said: “Swansea Bay (UHB) has developed robust plans to ensure that no patient will be waiting longer than 36 weeks for heart surgery by the end of March 2020, so at this point we are not seeking an outsourcing option for patients.”

WHSSC said it outsourced cardiac surgery cases from Wales to Royal Stoke University Hospital in 2010 and 2015.

A Cadiff and Vale University Health Board spokesman said: “We have nothing further to add to the comment that WHSSC provided.”

The money you pay to the police in south Wales is likely to rise by between 5% and nearly 8% next year.

The potential South Wales Police precept rises have been laid out in a report from police and crime commissioner Alun Michael set to be considered by the police and crime panel in Merthyr Tydfil on Thursday, January 30.

The exact rise won’t be known until the force has received confirmation of police grant funding for 2020/21 from the Home Office which is likely to come before the meeting so a firm proposal should be made by the commissioner at the meeting itself.

The General Election in December delayed the announcement of the grant for 2020/2021 so final approval can’t be given until that is known.

The commissioner’s report says the likely range of precept increases has been calculated by looking at the likely impact on resources and the cost pressures that South Wales Police faces.

Last year, a 10% precept increase to £257.52 was implemented despite not enough members of the panel voting in favour of it.

The report shows that next year’s increase will depend on whether there is allowance made in the police grant for inflation.

if there is then the rise is likely to be 5% but if not then it is likely to be just under 8% (7.85%).

The force is planning to make £1.25 million of savings for 2020/21 which will come from increased collaboration, procurement, transport, income generation and fleet management.

These will mean that the force has cut its budget by £60 million since 2010 due to funding from UK Government decreasing by a third in that time.

The largest area of spending for South Wales Police is on staffing which accounts for about 80% of the budget and successive years of budget cuts have meant a reduction of 432 police officers.

But the first 6,000 of the 20,000 extra police officers announced by the UK Government will see an increase of 136 officers for South Wales Police but there is no information yet on where the other 14,000 will go.

The force also has to factor in spending on pay awards, pensions, non-staff inflation and borrowing costs.

Based on a flat cash settlement and precept increase of 5%, this is the force’s projected spending for next year which would leave a £4.9 million budget gap before any extra efficiency savings are included.

  • £280.5 million on employees
  • £3.5 million on direct staff
  • £11.3 million on premises
  • £5 million on transport
  • £23 million on supplies and services
  • £17.5 million on agency and contracted services
  • £12.9 million on capital financing costs.

But, once less income and specific grants are taken into account, this means a total spend of £303.5 million for next year.

Then, when  external grants and a 5% precept increase are factored in, it takes it down to £298.6 million, leaving that remaining budget gap of nearly £5 million.

The budget on proposed capital schemes for 2020/21 is over £48 million and the estates scheme budget is over £39 million which includes a tactical firearms range and a new learning and development centre at its headquarters in Bridgend.

The capital budget also includes £1.95 million for information and communication technology (ICT) and just over £2 million for the vehicle replacement programme.

The police consults on its budget proposals every year and this year South Wales Police received over 1,000 responses to its consultation with 766 (73%) saying they are willing to pay more for their policing which the report says shows the public realise the risk around decreasing funding for policing.

Councillors have asked for a rethink in the structure of a Cardiff Capital Region scrutiny committee after it failed to attract sufficient councillors.

Members of the CCRCD joint scrutiny committee were unable to vote on agenda items because not enough councillors turned up to the meeting.

The terms of reference for the committee currently state that seven of the 10 councillors assigned to the committee must be present for a vote to take place, however only five full members turned up.

The committee is responsible for monitoring the CCRCD projects and make recommendations to the CCRCD cabinet.

The Cardiff Capital Region City Deal (CCRCD is a programme between the UK Government, the Welsh Government and the 10 local authorities in south east Wales. It aims to bring about significant economic growth in the region through investment, upskilling, and improved physical and digital connectivity

The CCRCD scrutiny committee is made up of a non-executive member from each of the participating authorities. They are Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Cardiff, Caerphilly, Merthyr Tydfil, Monmouthshire, Newport, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Torfaen and the Vale of Glamorgan.

Some councils have nominated a deputy, who will sit on the committee if the full member is unable to turn up. However, the deputy does not have a vote.

The deputy for Monmouthshire County Council, Cllr Alan Davies said: “I don’t think this current situation is sustainable.

“We have got deputies who can’t talk and members not turning up.

“Both deputies and full members need to know the full details.

“I think it’s ludicrous that I have come today because I haven’t seen the paperwork and I don’t have a vote.”

Concerns were also raised over the lack of representation from Torfaen and Newport who are in the process of nominating their representatives for the committee.

Cllr Parsons said: “Torfaen has had at least three members since this committee began in 2018.”

The committee chairman Jon-Paul Blundell said: “It’s worrying to see them chopping and changing so often.”

A Torfaen council spokesman said: “A report is going to full council next week seeking nomination and appointment of a representative from Torfaen council to the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal Joint Overview and Scrutiny Committee.

“The Council is required to appoint a new non-executive member to this joint committee and unfortunately, a series of recent appointees have had to step down from the committee due to taking up roles on the council’s cabinet committee.

“We will notify the host authority, Bridgend council, once a new representative and deputy are appointed.”

A training session will take place later in the year allowing members the opportunity to review the terms of reference.

It would allow members to consider the most effective way of ensuring the committee carries out its role.

The committee could consider meeting more than four times a year and increasing its size.

All recommendations for agenda items discussed in the meeting today (January 20) will be postponed until the next meeting, quorum permitting.

The plan to keep fire and rescue services going in south Wales in case firefighters go on strike over pay has been revealed.

Operation Ategol (Welsh for auxiliary) is South Wales Fire Authority’s plan to make sure services keep running in the event of industrial action by firefighters.

Firefighter pay is decided at a UK national level and despite a pay rise being due on July 1 no agreement has yet been reached so the Fire Brigades Union have said they are preparing for a trade dispute.

The overall annual cost of Operation Ategol is £350k which is used to draw down resources to deal with any strike action.

They have used it before during strike over pensions back in 2013/2014 with 50 periods of industrial action over 18 months.

The plan caters for auxiliary firefighters, incident commanders, additional professional firefighters, instructor contracts to provide training and a part-time manager so everyone is ready for deployment.

The auxiliary firefighter teams is currently made up of 80 firefighters despite the number being 180 during the 2013/2014 disputes.

Councillor Dan Naughton of Cardiff asked if there was a strike would 80 staff be enough to carry out the duties required.

Director of technical services Richard Prendergast says the 80 firefighters are far more experienced than the 180 they had previously.

He said: “It is a massive challenge but we do have the auxiliary reserve which has been used and has been trained. We are in a much better position than we were last time.”

Mr Prendergast said they’d much rather there was a national pay agreement but they’d look to improve the numbers if there is a dispute.

He also said that tactics would change to be more defensive as they have less resources adding that life risk would be more important than property risk.

Mr Prendergast said: “The service provision in times of industrial action is not the service provision we have when there’s no industrial action.”

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