Questions to the Minister for Health & Social Services

Janet: Diolch Llywydd. Of course, spokespersons are to scrutinise and challenge you, Minister, and I've done my fair share of that over the past few years. But I would like to put on record my thanks to you, as our health Minister, for the hard work, obviously, going on behind the scenes and the plans that you are putting in place and also for keeping us, as Members, updated and keeping the public informed. I felt that that should go on record, thank you. 

Now, coronavirus is most significant amongst older people and people whose immune systems are already compromised. These people are to be found in greater concentrations in residential care, nursing homes and in the domiciliary homecare setting. The seriousness of the threat is clear when considering the care home near Seattle, where there have been more than a dozen deaths and all the home residents now are confined to their rooms.

Last week, the First Minister advised that the Welsh Government would do more to provide advice to the social care sector. Care home residents are worried, care home providers and those delivering domiciliary care are worried. There is talk of issuing guidance, encouraging friends and relatives not to visit people in care homes until the risk of contracting the disease is more manageable. What steps will you be taking to support care home residents and reduce the risk of them contracting the virus?  

Julie Morgan AM: I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for that question and she's absolutely right that older people, and older people with complex health needs, are at much greater risk. And so we want to do all we can to protect them as much as possible, and we are working very hard to do that. The director for social services and integration is taking the lead in the Welsh Government. We're liaising very closely with the local authorities, which are obviously very close to the care sector, and we have got a lead director appointed to look at this subject. The lead director is from Powys. We've set up a working group that is looking at all the sorts of issues that she raises. There has been guidance already issued to the social care sector. It's guidance that is joint with England. So, it is the same guidance, but we are looking to produce another set of guidance, which will be done by a working group with all the people involved.

Janet: Thank you. One in 17 adults in Wales work in the social care sector. The United Kingdom Homecare Association has advised that it is important for social workers to understand that home care visits could take much longer than the usual expected time whilst dealing with people who are unwell, and warn that the situation was potentially extremely serious, particularly with regard to having sufficient staff to support older and disabled people in community settings.

Similarly, I have received an e-mail that highlights concerns that one infected domiciliary care worker could potentially unknowingly carry the virus into the homes of countless vulnerable older residents. Therefore, will you explain what steps you are taking to assist our care workers to reduce the risk of contracting the virus? What emergency measures will be taken to protect vulnerable individuals receiving home visits, and state what support will be provided to social care providers to help them find replacement staff, should some employees have to self-isolate? And a question I have is: are all 15 cases of coronavirus that have been identified in Wales actually designated as COVID-19? [Interruption.] Well, coronavirus covers a—.

Julie Morgan AM: Yes, I believe they are, answering that last question, yes.

If you look at the social care sector, there's a wide variety of issues that arise: there are the people who are living in residential care or in nursing homes; there are those people who are receiving domiciliary care, and then these are the staff who are going in, who Janet Finch-Saunders has referred to. And it's obviously crucial that we address all of those issues, about what is to happen if anybody in any of those groups becomes infected and how we deal with the whole situation. So, for that reason, we have set up a social care planning and response group, which includes local government—because, as I said, we're working very closely with local government—it includes the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, because it’s absolutely crucial, I think, that we work very closely with the third sector in addressing all of these issues, because the third sector may be very close to some of the communities that we are talking about, but also the third sector does have many volunteers who work there and who I'm sure would be willing to help us in this situation, if it does escalate. And it also includes Care Forum Wales, which, again, is a very important body to work with. So, we are working with all those bodies and what we want to do is to come up with another set of guidance, which will address those very important issues that she has raised.

Janet: Thank you. I think my next question is more directed to the health Minister. Sadly, there is good reason to be concerned too about front-line health staff. I've received correspondence from a Welsh general practitioner who has highlighted a lack of personal protective equipment and masks for front-line staff, but also people such as receptionists, nurses and housekeeping staff. He has rightly explained that there are not enough of them to be able to self-isolate, if there may have been possible exposure, and to still cope with the amount of pressure on our health service. What urgent action will you take to ensure that every front-line member of staff receives and uses the personal protective equipment as directed?

Julie Morgan AM: Well, I think the health Minister did, in his earlier response, say that these were going to be provided. And certainly this is an issue that we have discussed within the Government, but it's obviously a very important point that we are taking very seriously.