Posted: Fri 3rd Jul 2020

Updated: Fri 3rd Jul

First Minister again points to UK Government to address ‘peverse’ situation where workers may have to choose between work or following public health advice for people living in or visiting the wrexham area

The First Minister of Wales has insisted a large coronavirus outbreak associated with a factory in Wrexham is being taken “very seriously”.

It comes as more than 600 people have signed a petition calling for Rowan Foods on the town’s industrial estate to be closed temporarily.

The latest figures from Public Health Wales show the number of cases linked to the ready-meal manufacturing plant has remained static at 283.

Meanwhile, the site’s owners and Welsh Government said there were no immediate plans to shut the plant after a Health and Safety Executive visit raised “no serious issues”.

Previously has raised economic challenges and choices faced by the local workforce in previous Welsh Government briefings, specifically mentioning a locally raised issue of cramped car sharing on the 22nd of June.

A week ago asking the First Minister if there were any plans for direct economic support in such situations so finance is taken out of public health questions, a situation Mark Drakeford called ‘perverse’.

Today we pointed the First Minister to those comments, and noted the situation is persisting. We asked if it had been assessed on how much it would cost Welsh Government to stop waiting and intervene now, for example via a targeted temporary furlough.

We pointed out the Welsh Government have asked workers to do the ‘right’ thing, even if it means financial cost to them, and asked is it time his government led by example on the finance v public health question, and stepped in.

The First Minister replied, in an answer that echoed earlier comments that indicated frustration with the UK Government: “You point to a very important fault line in the devolution settlement, and one which I guard very jealously.

“Because it’s really something I do very reluctantly, to use money that has come to Wales, to invest in devolved services, and to divert that money to pay for things that are the responsibility of the UK Government.

“Because every pound I divert to pay for something that’s not our responsibility is a pound less that we have to spend on our health service or education service, to build houses, all the other things that are our responsibility.

“I did write to the Prime Minister a week ago. I don’t have a reply to that letter, as yet, but I do know that this matter was discussed again by my colleague Vaughan Gething with other health ministers at the UK level.

“I once again put the case to the UK Government. We want people to do the right thing.

“We want people not to go to work if they are unwell and we don’t want perverse incentives for them to do that, because they fear that if they don’t go to work, they won’t have enough to live on.”

“That has clearly been a factor at play in Leicester amongst workers there, so this is not a Welsh issue. It needs a UK solution and the UK Government has solutions that they could implement.”

Concerns remain regarding the local factory after some staff revealed this week that they were ‘scared’ of going to work, but felt they had to because they couldn’t afford to live on statutory sick pay.

Writing on the online petition, the fiancée of one employee said she felt the lives of workers, their families and the wider community in Wrexham were being put at risk due to the factory remaining open.

The worries of signatories were raised directly with the First Minister by the Local Democracy Reporting Service at today’s daily press conference.

In response, Mr Drakeford said he believed the outbreak was under control and all appropriate measures were being taken to prevent the virus from spreading.

He said: “I can assure people that we are taking the situation very seriously indeed. It’s why we have mobilised a team of people who are experts in their field. It’s why we have insisted that the Health and Safety Executive has visited the plant and made an assessment of it.

“It’s why we have insisted that the trade union represents workers at that site have been involved in all of those discussions.”

He added: “Of course, I understand why people are concerned but I hope that people will draw some comfort from the fact that those people who are best equipped, who understand the most, who have the greatest expertise have come together in a team to control the outbreak.

“Their advice to us is that the things that need to be done are being done, that the outbreak is under control and that it is reviewed absolutely regularly.”

He said the current advice was that the factory was able to remain open. Mr Drakeford said it was important that any concerns held by workers were raised with their union representatives.

He said: “If there are individuals who feel that things are not being done in the way that they should be, please use your trade union.

“It is your mouthpiece; it is there to speak up for you and the Welsh Government is determined that its influence will be felt in the decisions that are being made on your behalf.”

On Tuesday the Health Minister gave the lunchtime update, noting a large increase in figures. We asked the Minister for context that day on those stats, however it was later that afternoon before it emerged the increase was largely due to ‘historic’ figures being added in.

There was no update on Wednesday, and asked the Minister yesterday if there should be more clarity than a few lines on a the Public Health Wales statement, and International Relations Minister, Eluned Morgan pointed us to the 2pm statement in her response.

Today we asked pointed to the irregular handful of sentances updates from Public Health Wales that is the limit of the official localised information. Week old Test Trace Protect pan-Wales data is made public, however there is no localised regular data.

We asked the First Minister if such information, along with data on numbers of people tracked and traced, those asked to self isolate, and if they are staff, friends or family would be released to give context to the outbreak.

The First Minister replied: “I think we are doing our very best to keep the public informed both in Wrexham and in other parts of Wales by issuing regular bulletins from Public Health Wales from the Outbreak Control Team.

“It has been meeting daily, it’s now moved to meeting three times a week because we believe that we have been effective in the interventions that we have made, and every time the Outbreak Control Team meet they publish information to keep local populations informed.”

“I am keen that we publish as much information as is useful for local people to be able to follow the actions that our system is taking, but I do think we are doing our very best to do exactly that.”

You can view today’s briefing, and the Q&A session on the below video: / Liam Randall – BBC Local Democracy Reporter tag team.

Top pic: Rowan Foods factory in Wrexham.

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