Health and Care Services

Update – Responding to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

On the 14 February 2020, Senedd Research published an article outlining the UK and Welsh Government’s response to COVID-19. This blog post provides a further update on the virus in Wales.

Estimated reading time: 5 Minutes

9 March 2020

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

This is an evolving issue and this article is correct at the time of writing.

On the 14 February 2020, Senedd Research published an article outlining the UK and Welsh Government’s response to COVID-19. This blog post provides a further update on the virus in Wales.

Wales had its first coronavirus case confirmed on 28 February 2020 and a second confirmed on 5 March 2020. The number of confirmed cases in Wales now stands at 6 and this number is expected to rise further.  The Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Dr Frank Atherton has said he expects cases to rise in April and to peak in May or June.

The number of cases confirmed in the UK has now hit 285 (2pm, Monday 9 March 2020), with three deaths. Wales’ first case was confirmed in Swansea. The second patient was from Cardiff. Both had recently returned from a trip overseas. The 2 most recent cases were not linked. Both individuals had travelled from different parts of Italy back to Wales. One patient is from the Neath Port Talbot area, the other is from the Newport area.

UK Government’s Coronavirus action plan

The UK Government published its Coronavirus action plan: a guide to what you can expect on 3 March 2020. This joint action plan between the UK Government and devolved Governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland sets out a phased response to the virus. The initial emphasis was on the Contain and Research phases, but planning for Delay and Mitigation was also in place.

The overall phases of the UK Government’s plan to respond to COVID-19 are:

  • Contain: detect early cases, follow up close contacts, and prevent the disease taking hold in the UK for as long as is reasonably possible.
  • Delay: slow the spread in the UK, if it does take hold, lowering the peak impact and pushing it away from the winter season.
  • Research: better understand the virus and the actions that will lessen its effect on the UK population; innovate responses including diagnostics, drugs and vaccines; use the evidence to inform the development of the most effective models of care.
  • Mitigate: provide the best care possible for people who become ill, support hospitals to maintain essential services and ensure ongoing support for people ill in the community to minimise the overall impact of the disease on society, public services and on the economy.

On 5 March 2020, the Chief Medical Officer for Wales explained that Wales was still in the containment phase of the virus. However, the situation was moving towards the delay phase, but that was a gradual change.

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty told MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee on the 5 March 2020 “it is now highly likely that the virus is going to spread in a significant way” and that it was “highly likely that some people now being infected in the UK have no connection to overseas cases”.

The UK Government has said it will formally announce when it switches from the contain to delay stage – this has not happened yet.

The Prime Minister chaired an emergency Cobra meeting this morning [9 March 2020] to decide whether it’s time to escalate matters. The UK will remain in the containment stage of its response to the virus for now. The delay phase will see more action to slow the spread of the virus. Interventions such as school closures and banning big events are potential options set out in the joint action plan. In Wales, guidance for educational settings is provided on the Welsh Government website.

Whether the UK and Welsh Government will follow the actions of other countries by cancelling public events for example, will become clearer over the days and weeks ahead. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, suggested in one TV interview (5 March 2020) that “things like closing schools and stopping big gatherings don’t work as well perhaps as people think in stopping the spread”. The scientific evidence, he said, would have to support such action.

The most-circulated piece of advice is ‘wash your hands thoroughly       and often’.

The Welsh Government’s response – next steps

The Welsh Government, including NHS Wales is well prepared to respond to a COVID-19 epidemic in Wales, according to Wales’ Chief Medical Officer. He has said that NHS Wales has well-rehearsed pandemic influenza plans in place that will enable an effective response to patients affected by COVID-19.

Public Health Wales has been praised for responding quickly to detect cases, testing more than 630 people already for the virus, with the aim of preventing COVID-19 spreading. In Wales, most of these patients – around 90 per cent, have been tested for the virus at home. 

The Minister for Health and Social Services has said “the Welsh Government will continue to take all steps necessary to protect the health of the people of Wales”.

Current planning

The Welsh Government’s initial statement on COVID-19 focused on collaboration, and the UK’s four Chief Medical Officers and public health agencies working closely together to co-ordinate actions in response to COVID-19.

The first confirmed patient in Wales was sent to a specialist isolation unit in England with expertise in handling such cases.

As planned, this arrangement has changed as the number of confirmed cases rises across the UK. Welsh patients will no longer be treated in the specialist isolation units in England but within NHS Wales.

It is now inevitable that patients will need to be treated for the virus within Welsh hospitals. This is highly likely to put pressure on capacity, particularly in intensive care units, as the virus spreads.

In the weeks ahead, the Welsh Government will be under pressure to ensure there is sufficient access to critical care beds as the number of cases increases. Wales currently has fewer cases compared to the number of UK cases as a whole and Ministers will be hoping that this gives the NHS in Wales more time to plan and prepare. Moving the peak of the virus further away from the winter pressures on the NHS will help to ensure there is more capacity to respond.

Getting up to date information on COVID-19

The scale of COVID-19 and its threat in Wales, as across the UK, is still unknown as understanding about the virus and the disease it causes is still developing. Up to date, official information about COVID-19 and the action being taken by the UK and Welsh Governments can be found at the following links:

The Minister for Health and Social Services will provide an oral statement in plenary tomorrow (Tuesday 10 March 2020).

Article by Sarah Hatherley, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales

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