The Mark Drakeford interview: Vaccinations, schools re-opening and when life might be normal again – Wales Online

First Minister Mark Drakeford has revealed that he “can’t promise” Wales will be in a position to ease coronavirus restrictions towards the end of the month.

In an interview with WalesOnline, he also said that trying to give children the opportunity to meet outdoors would be one of his priorities when measures started to ease.

Mr Drakeford also provided an update on the plan for future vaccinations in Wales, and talked about the “resilience” of young people and how he hoped the government, schools and parents would be able to help them catch up when education returns to some form of normality.

Here are our questions and what Mr Drakeford had to say.

Can you tell us what the current situation is with regards to the vaccine roll out in Wales?

Well, the vaccine roll-out. We’ve seen the figures today were over 100,000 people vaccinated in Wales now. We’ve got 100 GP practices already involved in it – that will be 250 by the end of this month. We have 22 mass vaccination centres – that will be 35 by the end of this month, and the plans with the health boards are to use all the vaccine that we have available to us by the end of this month, when we will expect to get another delivery, and that delivery will give us further extra capacity again as we go into February.

The latest comparable figures puts Wales behind other UK nations on the vaccine roll-out. Why are we behind?

Well, first of all it’s just important to say, we are marginally different. This is not as though we are miles behind anybody else. We are a couple of fractions of a single decimal behind where other people are, and that will change. That will change as the roll-out goes on, as everything else has changed during the coronavirus.

At different points some people will be ahead, and some people will be marginally behind. There are a number of reasons why our position is as it is. The Pfizer vaccine is more difficult to use in Wales than some other places, because it’s a difficult vaccine to transport, and store and the rural nature of Wales makes that more of a challenge. In these early weeks we have had more of the Pfizer vaccine, less of the Oxford vaccine, which is easier to use. That will change over the weeks ahead, and that will allow us to get to the position we need to be in where the top four priority groups will all be offered vaccinations by the middle of February.

Everybody wants to see as many people vaccinated as quickly and as safely as possible, and everybody who is in one of those priority groups is very keen to know when they themselves will be made that offer. What I can say to them, and to you, is that everybody in the health service is working as hard as they possibly can to make sure that we are in a position in Wales to get the vaccine out as fast as we can to as many people as we can. We aim to complete the vaccination of those four top priority groups in line with every other part of the UK.

And you’re confident with hitting that target at this point?

Yes, we are confident in this way, that we have the infrastructure in place. Fantastic response from our GP community using the first community pharmacies for vaccination this week in North Wales. We’ll have the infrastructure on the ground. The other thing you have to have though is supply of the vaccine, isn’t it? You’ve got to have the supply you need so all those people can use the maximum use of the time they’re committing to to all of this. We know how much vaccine we are going to get over the next couple of weeks. People are working very hard on the UK level to give us certainty beyond that, but at the moment we know how much Oxford vaccine we’ve got this week and next week, but it will be a week before we probably know the volumes we’ll get after that, so it’s a combination of the supply and the capacity to deliver the supply. We’ve got the capacity to deliver. We could do more vaccination today if we had more Oxford vaccine, but like everywhere else in the UK, those volumes are having to be ramped up week by week.

First Minister Mark Drakeford
(Image: Matthew Horwood)

Why did it take until January 11 for the vaccination plan to be published?

Well, we were the first country in the UK to publish a plan so, you asked me a question as to why Wales were behind on some things but, with this issue, the plan issue, we were the first part of the UK, and I think it’s important to distinguish between two things. We have been planning for this since June of last year, but the very specific things of these two vaccines have only been confirmed literally in the last two weeks.

So the particular nature of the Pfizer vaccine – the fact that it has to be stored at the temperatures it does – the fact that it can only be used in batches of 1,000 doses at a time – all of that means that the last bit of the plan has to respond to the particular characteristics of the vaccine that you are able to deploy.

We’ve only known about the Oxford vaccine for the matter of a couple of weeks, so that’s why the final details of the plan couldn’t be decided back in September, because you simply wouldn’t have known enough to be able to do that. The final details of the plan have had to respond to the very particular circumstances of these two vaccines. That’s what we have done and our plan is now published.

Why won’t locations of all the vaccination centres in Wales be published?

We have published the 22 mass vaccination centres that are operating in Wales today. We have published a map with them all on it, and as we add more in as we get to the 35, we will update that map so that people know where those mass centres are.

Below that we are talking about using GP practices and community pharmacies as the main places the vaccine will be delivered.

I’m not sure what use it is to somebody who lives in Llandeilo to know where a GP practise in Llandarcy or Llandovery might be. It’s how much use that information is to people, and the second thing is there are some security issues. You will know that clinicians in Wales who have gone public about coronavirus – who have spoken out – and done videos and have gone on programmes like this – that they have suffered a torrent of abuse on social media from people who want to argue that coronavirus is a myth, and want to argue that people are telling lies about it and things.

When you’re talking about a GP practice you’re talking about where people work, not just for coronavirus, but for everything else that they do and will go on doing after coronavirus is over. There is a nervousness among some of our health care staff having all of that just put up on a website and made easy for anyone to get hold of, and at the moment we are respecting some of the concerns staff have. When your GP surgery is ready to vaccinate you, it will contact you, and you will know where it is.

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You have said that, by the spring, vaccination will have been offered to all the other phase one priority groups. This is everyone over 50 and everyone who is at-risk because they have an underlying health condition. Can you explain what you mean by spring?

We have said spring, because we want to give people the best idea we can of when that part of the roll-out can be completed.

We are simply not in a position to have the information we need to be, at this point, any more definite about it. The further the weeks go from where we are today, the greater the uncertainty grows about how much supply of vaccines we will have, how many vaccines there will be, what opportunities that will bring for us. As we get closer then we will try to get more precise for people as to when we expect that next batch of priority groups to be completed.

At the moment in the state of knowledge that we have in the Welsh Government about the sort of supply levels we can expect then we think that spring which, in my calendar, is sort of April/May time, that’s when we think we will be able to get that next group of people done. It just wouldn’t be sensible or helpful of me to offer people “it will be that Friday of that month”. I would be plucking that out of the air. As the information gets clearer, and more definite, we will be more definite with people in Wales, and that’s what we will want to do.

In around 11 weeks, we’ll start to see the people who have had their first jab have their second jab. Will that then see a slowing down of people who can be vaccinated as the supply is going to have to go to them?

It doesn’t necessarily mean the speed will go down, because we hope the volumes of the Oxford vaccine will be going up by that point. So, you’re right, we will have to be using volumes of the Pfizer vaccine particularly to go back and give a second dose to the people who got it at the very beginning. But, providing we are getting more volume of the vaccine, particularly providing we get more volume of the Oxford vaccine, that shouldn’t necessarily mean that the total number will go down.

Have you considered 24-hour vaccination?

There aren’t that many 80-year-olds who are keen to be out at three o’clock in the morning going to have their vaccine and, at the moment, those are the groups we are concentrating on.

There will be people, but I think there will be relatively small groups of people, for whom getting a vaccine at night, because of their working patterns or whatever it is, would be the right answer. When we get to that point we will look to make provision for them. At the moment what I don’t want to see is people sitting, waiting, for people to come through the door at three o’clock in the morning when they could be vaccinating a lot of people at three o’clock in the afternoon. It’s how you make best use of your staff isn’t it?

Is driving someone to a vaccination considered essential travel?

I don’t have the notes in front of me, but I think the answer is yes it is. Leaving your home for a medical reason is a valid reason for being out of home, and if you have to transport somebody there because they can’t get there by themselves then I think that would be a legitimate reason.

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What is your feeling as to when schools may be able to return?

Getting young people back into school is a top priority for the Welsh Government. I worry hugely about our young people, and the impact of coronavirus on them during the last calendar year. I mean, it has been deeply disappointing that we’ve been in a situation where we haven’t been able to get children back into school in the numbers I would have liked to have seen for face-to-face education.

It will all depend on where we are with coronavirus, and I don’t know if it’s worth me just spending one minute just saying to people where we are today with the virus.

We went into the lockdown in December where the number per 100,000 in Wales was above 650, and getting higher every day. Thanks to the lockdown measures, and to the huge efforts of everybody who will be listening into this have made, that’s down to 400 today. From over 650 down to 400, and the positivity levels, the percentage of people who have a test to turn out to be positive, has been falling every day now for a fortnight. Those are genuinely good signs that all the efforts people are making, and I’m hugely grateful for the ways in which people have once again wanted to play their part, that is now making a genuine difference in Wales.

It’s not making a difference in every part of Wales. Numbers in North Wales continue to go up, and we still have the issue of this new variant, and we don’t yet know enough as to if that was to hold in south Wales whether that might turn all that good work back in the opposite direction.

If we can continue to see those numbers coming down then we, of course, want to have discussions with teaching unions and local education authorities as to the right point as to which some more school students can return. Students in exam classes, very young children for whom working at home is not really an option and I really want to see more children from vulnerable households – children who really, unless they are in school, just don’t have access to the sort of resources they need for learning. I really want to see more of those children coming back into school, and then we will be able to add more in.

It may be that we will be able to make a start on that after January 29, and then it will be half term I think before we will be able to see greater numbers, and to return more to the sorts of numbers in schools we were able to have earlier in the autumn.

If we have a situation in two weeks where cases are still going up in North Wales, but they are repressed in another part of Wales, you surely wouldn’t re-open schools in North Wales where cases are going up? But, you surely wouldn’t delay opening schools in another part of Wales, because another part of Wales was seeing high cases. Is that a possibility?

Yes. So the plan we published on the levels shows how you could have a regional variation in Wales and, you’ll remember at the time, there were an awful lot of people arguing that North Wales didn’t need to be under the same level of restrictions as south Wales. Obviously that argument applies in all directions. If, in a few weeks time we see a settled difference, and that’s really important, it has to be a settled and reliable difference – where some parts of Wales are in a less serious position than others, you wouldn’t want to hold them back because others are still facing greater difficulties.

Keir Starmer today has called for the rights of parents who are home-schooling to be able to apply for paid flexible furlough. Is this something you support or fund?

It’s not something we could fund, as we don’t get any funds to pay for furlough. It’s the UK government that pays all the furlough bills. On this issue let me just recognise the huge amount of money that they have spent and the efforts they have made on furlough. We have always argued for a more flexible approach to furlough though. The scheme is a bit rigid, and we’ve always argued that it needed some greater flexibility to meet individual circumstances of different industries, and to adapt to the changing patterns of coronavirus.

The point Keir Starmer has made today will be very consistent with the general point we’ve made all the way through. The UK government has done a huge amount in furlough, but it’s done it rather rigidly, and a bit of flexibility to adapt it in circumstances would have been a good thing all the way through, and would certainly be a good thing now where so many young people are being looked after at home.

Some young people, by March, would have had a year of restrictions and hindrances on their education. What is the plan to make it up to these young people, in terms of education and in terms of opportunity, going forward?

In education directly we announced back in the autumn that we were going to make £29m available to schools in this school year, and that’s enough to employ just about 1,000 extra staff. About 600 teachers and just over 300 classroom assistants to do catch up work with schools and children across Wales to make up for the fact that they had lost so much education earlier in the year. Obviously, we are looking again now. Our local education authorities have done fantastically – they have recruited over 900 – I think – of those people already. Those people are already there in the system offering catch-up chances to young people.

Given what we’ve now had to do at the start of this year then of course we are looking as a Welsh Government to see if we need to extend that additional help further into this calendar year, because there’s going to be more catch up that will be needed.

When we get to a point where we are slowly able to lift restrictions again, then high on my list will be to be able to offer children the opportunities for children to meet and play in the outdoors. We know the outdoors is safer than indoors. We tried to sustain the opportunities for young people to take part in sport, and to do that well into the autumn, and when we get to a point where we are beginning to lift restrictions then thinking of young people and thinking of opportunities for them to meet young people and socialise will be high on our list of priorities there too. It’s not just schools.

Is there anything broader, longer term, you can discuss?

I do think younger people are resilient in many ways, and ground can be made up, given the right help and the right circumstances. I don’t think we should talk ourselves into a sort of culture of pessimism about it. Young people are astonishingly resilient, astonishingly keen and able to learn. What we will have to do together – and that’s Government, parents, schools, teachers – is to find ways of helping them to make up ground that they have lost. It may, as you say, it’s not going to be made quickly necessarily. But I do think, as life returns to something like it used to be, we will find our young people catching up rapidly in many ways providing the help is there for them to do that.

I think not immediately, as you say, but when we’re not in the middle of a crisis maybe we should pause and ask ourselves about the nature of the school day, and the nature of the school year. We have a pattern which we inherited from agricultural times. We have three terms and long holidays, because that’s what children needed when they would help in the fields. As we begin to come out of this, and have a time to think about it, this might be the moment to ask ourselves ‘well, are those the right patterns?’ And whether those are the patterns able to help our young people most – to be able to recover from all of this and to be resilient to any future episodes of the sort that we have just lived through.

Parts of North Wales, especially in the north east, are seeing the virus is still going up. If you’re living there you’re seeing you’re in your home all the time, shops are closed, schools are closed and the virus is still going up. This is contrary to everything we’ve seen in the past, and I think you’ve suggested in the past this is down to the new strain. Given the cases are going up, why have we not strengthened the lockdown there?

In one very important way measures in that part of Wales have been strengthened in this way, which is that we were in a position where we had a lockdown in Wales, but across the border in north west England things were still at a lower level where shops were open, restaurants were open and the border between north east Wales and north west England is very porous. Much more recently that part of England has been put into the same level of restrictions as Wales, and I genuinely think that will help. I think it will stop that risk of people moving across the border and bringing strains of the virus with them. The protection of North Wales has been strengthened in that way.

The cabinet here met on Monday to discuss whether or not we need to strengthen measures in Wales, and at the end of this week I intend to be setting out how we intend to strengthen the current regime, particularly in relation to the workplace and also in relation to supermarkets. If there are further measures that are necessary then, of course, we will take them, but when figures across the whole of Wales are modestly and in a preliminary way heading in the right direction our focus was to take action on those places where people most mix when they are not in the home. We’ll be doing that not just for North Wales, but for the whole of Wales.

If we’re having a conversation in 10 days time where cases in North Wales are still going up, would you need to start considering stricter restrictions there?

We would certainly have to be considering that if numbers go up in any part of Wales. North Wales, as you know though, is itself divided between north east and north west. In north east Wales Wrexham has the highest figures in the whole of Wales today. Anglesey and Gwynedd have amongst the lowest in Wales, so if you were trying to distinguish parts of North Wales where extra restrictions were needed you’d probably have to look under the bonnet of North Wales as well to see whether it’s the whole of North Wales, or whether it’s those parts where the virus is at it’s most virulent.

How and when do you think we could be out of this? When do you think we will be back to a realistic sense of normality?

I think one of the things we learnt a lot about coronavirus in 2020 is the seasonality of it. This was predicted in the beginning, as you know, that it was a virus that wouldn’t like the summer and the sunlight, and it would thrive in the cold and the dark and the damp. But I think it’s turned out to be even more true than it was even predicted in the beginning.

We had that period in June, July and August last year where numbers really were down, and then it came back much faster and much more seriously in September and into October. My own guess, and I am probably no better than anybody else at this, you’re going on what you see and what you think, is that with a combination of the vaccine, different testing regimes, that this summer will look better than last summer. People will have a more predictable and more dependable sense that people will be able to be out and about, not in their own homes, going on holiday.

We’ll still be asking people to be careful, we’ll still be suggesting to people that they should keep a social distance, but it will be very different to what it is now. I won’t be so optimistic about going into the autumn of next year, when I think the virus is likely to make a re-appearance, and we’ve got the current new variant. People would have heard about the South African variant, there’s a variant in Brazil. This is a virus that will fight back as viruses do. As you look for ways in which you can defend against it, it looks for ways it can get around those defences. The summer will be better, and we’ll all have to work very hard in the second quarter of next year to make sure we keep it at bay.

Is there any additional support being planned for businesses?

We will definitely be looking to see where we can extend support to businesses in Wales. We are in discussion with the Treasury about the money we get from them, and how we can use it to do that. Some people would have seen the confusion last week when the Treasury announced £227m extra was coming to Wales and then changed their minds and said no it wasn’t coming after all – that we’d already got it.

But we are looking at the money we have currently, whether we will get any extra help from the UK government and we are committed to providing further help to businesses beyond the help we have announced so far. We have the most generous package of business support of anywhere in the UK here in Wales, but I recognise for some businesses that will start to run out as we move further into this year. That’s why are are starting to look at what more we’ll be able to do. Particularly on those businesses that you have just mentioned – those businesses who had a successful future in front of them this time last year – and who then had their future snatched away from them by coronavirus. I want them to be able to go on having that successful future, and to build that future back up for them in 2021.

Shops remain closed in Wales
(Image: Matthew Horwood)

Everyone was incredibly concerned by the death of Mohamud Hassan, who died on Saturday night in Cardiff. I appreciate there’s an impending investigation, but can we have your thoughts on this please?

What happened is a matter of genuine concern – not just to his family who must be very badly affected by it, but also in communities more generally at what has occurred. That is why it is so important that there is a full independent investigation of it all that puts their findings rapidly as possible into the public domain in an as open and detailed way as possible.

My colleague, Jane Hutt, the minister who deals with these things, has been talking today to the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales, and to the Independent Complaints Authority to make those points on behalf of the Welsh Government. This needs to be investigated, investigated independently and investigated thoroughly and the results made known to not just members of the family but the wider community as well.

Can you understand the anger when incidents like this happen? Can you understand why, when incidents like this happen, not commenting on the specifics of this one, but can you understand why there is real anger within communities in Wales?

People are right to be angry. I represent in the Senedd the most ethnically diverse constituency in the whole of Wales. I live in Riverside in Cardiff – the most ethnically diverse ward in the whole of Wales. We know things are often stacked against people from different communities. Not necessarily because people are directly discriminatory, but because discrimination happens in so many indirect and every day ways, and that is particularly true about the criminal justice system and the risks that black people face in the criminal justice system in Wales. It isn’t just in criminal justice, it’s in mental health and other services too.

We will publish our race and equality action plan in couple of weeks time, drawn up with the help of many people from the black community – particularly as a result of the disproportionate impact the coronavirus has had on people from those communities here in Wales.

I’m a Labour politician and the Labour party has always been motivated by making sure we do everything we can to offer the fairest possible changes to people – whoever they are, wherever they come from. I’m determined that the Labour government in Wales will live up to that for black people.

Can we talk about the clean air plan? Do you think this is enough to help tackle climate change?

The clean air plan is one strand in the actions the Government needs to try to deal with climate change. It’s not by itself the answer to climate change, but every aspect of our daily lives is going to have to make a contribution to the great effort we have to make to deal with that other emergency. We declared climate change to be an emergency in Wales before coronavirus hit us, and that emergency has not gone away.

The things we can do in relation to clean air are one of the things we can do, but it’s much broader than that. Our ambition to shift house building in Wales into a much more carbon neutral, renewable space, where energy that is used by houses is very different to what it would have been in the past. We have houses in the Neath Port Talbot area which now generate more electricity than they use, and that electricity is fed back into the grid and the people living in those houses get a small income as a result. So, you know, across everything we do – whether it’s transport, whether it is housing, whether it’s the way industries treat emissions – in everything we do we have to make a contribution. The clean air plan makes its contribution. It’s a very important plan – polluted air kills people. It’s one strand in a bigger picture.

What are your plans for the M4 relief road?

The Burns Commission has been set up as reported. It says the impact of coronavirus, and the way in which we plan to reduce the number of people who work in big offices, to extend the number of people who work at home, will give us a period of years before the M4 builds back up to the sort of congestion that we saw this time last year.

We need to use that year to do a series of things that the Burns Commission suggests. One is to invest in the main railway line, and to build six new stations on it, so people can leave their cars there and use public transport. To make sure that is linked to bus services, and bus services around Newport and the commutes need to be improved as well.

It will allow us to complete the dualling of the Heads of the Valleys Road. That will allow traffic which, at the moment, has to come down to Newport and along the M4 in order to go further west in Wales, to go straight down the Heads of the Valleys Road and make its way into west Wales without needing to use the M4 at all.

All of these things add to a solution which will draw traffic off the M4 itself, and allow it to flow without seeing the sorts of hold-ups and congestion that we’ve seen in recent years. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but those are the main elements in the plan.

How likely is the Senedd election set to go ahead in May?

I am very committed to having Senedd elections. Personally, I have always thought that five years is too long and that four years is the right term for the Senedd. It needs a democratic refresh, but the elections have got to be held when people feel safe. It would not be a good democratic test if people were too nervous to come out of their homes, go to a polling station where they know that hundreds of other people have visited during the day. We will put a bill in front of the Senedd later this month to allow the presiding officer to delay the election by a period.

If we can’t do it at the beginning of May, which is still my preference, then it’s very important I think to hold it before the summer. I don’t think delaying the elections into the autumn is a good idea at all, because we might face coronavirus coming back at us again then. So if it had to be a few weeks delay to get us firmly into the part of the year where things are better, we’d have to face that if it was necessary, but we’d still be holding it at a time when the days are longest, the sunshine is out, when coronavirus is in retreat and where people would feel most confident in coming out and taking part in an election.

If I had a magic wand I would hold it on the first Thursday of May, and we will still be working to try and make that happen. What I’m saying is, in the circumstances you described, where people wouldn’t feel confident to go and vote then the shortest possible delay is what I’m interested in. I think delays into the autumn would bring as many problems as they would solve.

When is the earliest you’re likely to review people meeting outside?

Reviewed on January 29, and the general point is I made earlier is the point I raised on trying to find opportunities for children to meet outdoors. If we’re in a position at all, and I can’t promise we will be, if we’re in a position at all to begin to lift any of the restrictions the first place we will go is give people more opportunities to be outside together.