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First Minister election ballot closed

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THE SPECULATION as to who will succeed Carwyn Jones as First Minister of Wales will soon conclude, as the ballot has now closed, with the result to be announced on Thursday (Dec 6).

Eluned Morgan, Vaughan Gething and Mark Drakeford have each put themselves forward for the leadership of the Welsh Labour Party and indeed the Assembly.

All three are currently members of the Welsh Government, with Ms Morgan acting as Minister for the Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning, Mr Gething as the Health Secretary and Mr Drakeford as Finance Secretary.

Mr Drakeford, 64, has styled himself as a ’21st Century socialist’, offering continuity and stability as a candidate, having worked as a Welsh Government special advisor under Rhodri Morgan and being the only Welsh Government cabinet minister to support Jeremy Corbyn when he ran for the UK Labour leadership in 2015.

The AM for Cardiff West has been in the Assembly since 2011, becoming Health Minister in 2013 before becoming Finance Secretary in 2016. His policies include an extension of the smoking ban to outdoor areas such as restaurants and town centres, the cutting of emissions through greater emphasis on public transport and building on Superfast Cymru – a scheme to rollout 733,000 homes and businesses across Wales.

Mr Gething, 44, in contrast, is championing the idea of change to prevent stagnation in a party that has been in power for nearly two decades. The AM for Cardiff South and Penarth has proposed policies including a national care service for elderly people, the removal of tuition fees for care leavers, provision of free school meals outside of term time to end “holiday hunger”, and expansion of the Welsh Government’s childcare offer to parents undertaking work-related education and training. Mr Gething has also supported giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote, and would like to see compulsory voting, as there is in countries such as Belgium and Australia.

Having joined the Assembly in 2011, Mr Gething became a Deputy Minister for Health in 2014 and Health Secretary in 2016.

The third candidate, Ms Morgan, has emphasised that the ideas put forward in her manifesto had been generated as a result of a listening exercise that she had conducted throughout Wales, ensuring that the proposed policies had grass roots support from beyond the bubble of Cardiff Bay. The AM for Mid and West Wales was determined to ensure that the creation of quality jobs and eradicating poverty was put front and centre of her manifesto commitments.

Ms Morgan, 51, prioritised five key themes which she believes will help to transform Wales for the future. Her vision aims tackle poverty and drive economic growth; care for the people of Wales; unite both the party and the nation; promote Wales as a confident green nation and prepare the country for a rapidly changing world. Ms Morgan became the youngest MEP when she was elected to European Parliament in 1994. In 2010 it was announced that Morgan had been granted a life peerage by the then Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. She has served as Shadow Minister for Wales in the House of Lords and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, was elected to Assembly in 2016 and became Welsh Language Minister in 2016.

Ms Morgan supports another referendum on whether the UK leaves the EU, but also believes her time in the European Parliament had given her international contacts that would have use whether Brexit happens or not. Likewise Mr Gething supports the People’s Vote campaign, yet has been criticised for previously failing to backing a Plaid motion on the issue in the Senedd. Mr Drakeford, however, is less set on another vote, saying he would only back it should the final deal fail to protect workers’ rights. As Finance Secretary, Mr Drakeford has been in charge of much of the Welsh Government’s approach towards Brexit so far.

Voting papers were sent to Labour members in Wales, as well as members of affiliated organisations and trade unions. For the first time, Welsh Labour have utilised the one-member-one-vote system, already used Labour in the rest of Britain and the method used to elect Jeremy Corbyn as the party’s UK leader. Previously an electoral college process has been used for such contests, which split the votes three ways between members, unions and politicians.

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Wales completes move to alert level 0

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THE MOVE completes the Welsh Government’s phased lifting of the alert level 2 protections, which were put in place on Boxing Day to keep Wales safe as the omicron wave swept across the country.

Some important protections will remain in place at alert level 0, including mandatory face coverings in most indoor public places, including on public transport.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said the relaxation of protections was possible thanks to the hard work of everyone in Wales and the success of the vaccination programme – more than 1.8 million booster doses have been given.

And, since the start of December, more than 36,000 people have come forward to have their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “We have passed the peak of this omicron wave and there are encouraging signs that cases of coronavirus may be starting to stabilise. But we all need to continue taking steps to stay safe – unfortunately the pandemic is not over yet.

“We are moving to alert level 0 and we will retain some important protections, such as face coverings in most indoor public places and risk assessments.

“We can do this thanks to the hard work and efforts of everyone in Wales and the remarkable success of our vaccine and booster programmes. Thank you all.”

On Friday 28 January, Wales will complete the move to alert level 0. This means:

  • Nightclubs can re-open.
  • The general requirement of 2m social distancing in all premises open to the public and workplaces will be removed.
  • The rule of six will no longer apply to gatherings in regulated premises, such as hospitality, cinemas and theatres.
  • Licensed premises will no longer need to only provide table service and collect contact details. The Covid Pass will continue to be required to enter larger indoor events, nightclubs, cinemas, theatres and concert halls.
  • Working from home will remain important but it will no longer be a legal requirement.
  • Businesses, employers and other organisations must continue to undertake a specific coronavirus risk assessment and take reasonable measures to minimise the spread of coronavirus, which may include 2m social distancing or controlled entry.

Face-covering rules, which apply on public transport and in most public indoor places will remain in force after 28 January, with the exception of hospitality settings such as restaurants, pubs, cafes and nightclubs.

Everyone must also continue to self-isolate if they test positive for coronavirus but the Welsh Government has reduced the self-isolation period from seven to 5 full days.

People are advised to take 2 negative lateral flow tests 24 hours apart on days 5 and 6. The self-isolation support scheme payment will return to the original rate of £500 for all those who are eligible.

The next 3-weekly review of the coronavirus regulations will be carried out by 10 February, when all the measures at alert level 0 will be reviewed.

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Appeal to get Pilgrim sculpture back on its feet nearing target

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The forlorn sculpture.

A FUNDRAISING appeal to raise £7,500 to re-erect a sculpture of a pilgrim on the hilltop above the ruins of the famous Strata Florida Abbey in the Cambrian Mountains is within £700 of hitting its target.

The Pilgrim, or Y Pererin in the Welsh language, was created by artist Glenn Morris and erected on Penlan, the hill overlooking Strata Florida Abbey, near Pontrhydfendigaid, in 2012.

Sadly, the sculpture collapsed in high winds in 2019 and now lays forlorn on the hilltop, located between Devil’s Bridge and Tregaron.

This sculpture, created as part of a temporary exhibition, has become a popular and iconic part of the Welsh landscape, with strong connections to Welsh culture, language and identity.

Following its collapse, the sculpture is now missing from the skyline of Strata Florida and the fundraising appeal aims to rebuild a new stronger, permanent Pilgrim to stand the tests of time.

The Pilgrim/ Y Pererin sculpture before it collapsed.

Planning permission for the new sculpture has already been secured and Glenn Morris is eager to begin the project.

The World Monuments Fund has offered to provide match funding if the community raises £7,500 by February 3. Anyone wishing to contribute to the fundraising target can donate online at https://localgiving.org/appeal/pilgrim/ .

An extra fundraising event for the Pilgrim appeal is being held on February 18. A 3.5 mile walk along a mixture of logging roads, farmlands and through ancient forest to reach the 12th century Cistercian abbey ruins of Strata Florida will be followed by a guided exhibition tour and Welsh tea.

This pilgrimage will be led by Guided Pilgrimage, a not-for-profit company providing a range of Celtic pilgrimage experiences in West Wales.

Strata Florida was a thriving community 900 years ago. Today, the conserved ruins of the old abbey church and part of the cloisters are in the care of Cadw, the Welsh Government’s heritage agency, and can be visited by the public from Easter to late autumn.

The remains are only a small fraction of what was once a much larger abbey, stretching over an area of 126 acres where the rest survives below ground as a well-preserved archaeology.

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Denial of Wales-specific Covid inquiry ‘no longer tenable’ say Welsh Conservatives

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THE WELSH CONSERVATIVES have reiterated their call for an inquiry that focuses exclusively on the actions of the Welsh Government in tackling coronavirus in a letter to the First Minister.

It was prompted after it was revealed that the Welsh Government have been aware that NHS Wales was not prepared for an airborne virus as far back as 2004, following the SARS outbreak. Despite committing to an audit and allocation to rectify the lack of isolation facilities, this did not materialise.

The letter from Andrew RT Davies MS, which states “decision made in Wales should be scrutinised in Wales” follows a weekend when Mark Drakeford was keen to highlight that his government had “always taken a different approach in Wales [compared to the British Government], one that does things step-by-step”.

Concerned: Andrew RT Davies

In the letter, the Welsh Conservatives leader questions why, despite him stressing divergences in the approach to coronavirus, the First Minister still feels it “inappropriate to separate” from the British Government “when the time comes for accountability”.

The Labour Government policy is for its actions to be included in the UK-wide inquiry that will chiefly investigate the actions of the Conservative Government. There will be a Scotland-specific inquiry after Nicola Sturgeon commissioned one.

Joining the Welsh Conservatives in their calls for a Wales-specific inquiry are the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Group, the British Lung Foundation, Medics 4 Mask Up Wales, the Institute for Welsh Affairs, and Plaid Cymru.

Commenting on the letter, Andrew RT Davies MS said: “The position of exercising wide-ranging emergency powers that curtailed the liberty and closed the economy of the Welsh people but avoiding accountability through an inquiry that focusses on how those decisions were made is no longer tenable.

“Under Mark Drakeford, Wales has experienced the highest Covid death-rate of UK nations, seen its children lose more time for learning than anywhere else in the country, and imposed economically cruel and clinically unnecessary restrictions in an overzealous attempt to tackle the Omicron variant.

“We, along with bereaved families and medical groups, believe that the decisions that led to these outcomes need to be put under the spotlight, not hidden in the shadow of an inquiry that will inevitably focus on the British Government.

“Indeed, if Mark Drakeford is so confident in the actions of his government, then why is he against having them examined in a Wales-specific inquiry? That is what people will be asking when British and Scottish leaders have ordered investigations into their own handling of the pandemic.

“As I say to the First Minister in my letter, it is not too late for him to change his mind and take this opportunity to do the right thing and order that inquiry.”

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