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First Minister announces further steps to unlock Wales

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ALL NON-ESSENTIAL shops in Wales will be able to re-open from Monday (22 June) as part the biggest unlocking of the coronavirus regulations to date, First Minister Mark Drakeford has announced today (Friday 19 June).

Retailers will be able to resume trading if they can take all reasonable measures to comply with the physical distancing duty in Welsh law to reduce the spread of coronavirus and protect shop workers and shoppers.

The changes are part of a comprehensive package of measures being introduced step by step every Monday over the next three weeks. Pupils will return to schools on 29 June and the requirement to stay local will be lifted, if conditions allow on 6 July.

The First Minister will today also alert the visitor and tourism industry to start preparations to reopen if the spread of the virus continues to decline.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “The threat of coronavirus hasn’t gone away but thanks to the efforts we have all made over the last few months, the number of people contracting coronavirus each day in Wales is falling, so too is the risk of meeting somebody with virus.

“Given the progress we have made, we are able to take some additional cautious steps to further unlock our society and economy. This includes more retailers being able re-open their businesses, as long as they take measures to minimise the risk to their staff and to the customers who visit their stores.

“Our focus continues to be on the health risks of the outbreak, but we can now begin to cautiously focus much more squarely on the wider economic and societal impact the virus is having.

“We have provided a huge amount of support to businesses and jobs as they hibernated during the pandemic – now we start to take these careful steps to restart our economy.”

On Monday, a series of changes will be made to the coronavirus regulations – the main change will be to enable non-essential retail businesses to open.

They follow the fourth statutory review of the coronavirus regulations by Welsh Ministers, using the latest scientific and medical evidence from the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), the Welsh Government’s Technical Advisory Cell (TAC) and the advice from the Chief Medical Officer for Wales.

Monday’s changes include: Enabling private prayer in places of worship where social distancing is maintained and gatherings do not take place;
Restarting the housing market by enabling house viewings to take place in vacant properties and house moves where a sale has been agreed but not yet completed;
Lifting the restrictions on outdoor sports courts but social distancing must be maintained. No contact or team sports will be allowed;
Enabling non-professional elite athletes, including Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, to resume training.
On June 29, pupils will be returning to schools to check in, catch up and prepare for summer and September under plans announced by Education Minister Kirsty Williams.

The requirement to stay local and not generally travelling more than five miles from home remains in place. However, new guidance will make it clear people are able to travel outside their local area on compassionate grounds. This includes seeing people at a care home or a youth offender institution – when these visits are allowed. People who are eligible to vote in overseas elections, where voting must be done in person, will also be able to travel.

Ministers have decided to lift the requirement to stay local on 6 July, provided the conditions allow. With the requirement lifted, people will be able to travel to tourist attractions across Wales.

The First Minister will today signal to some businesses and the visitor and tourism industry to use this period to begin to make preparations for reopening.

At the next review on 9 July, the Welsh Government will consider a range of specific options for opening:

Self-contained holiday accommodation;
Personal care services, such as hairdressing and beauty, by appointment.
Discussions will also be held with the hospitality sector about the potential phased reopening of pubs, cafes and restaurants while maintaining strict social distancing.

The First Minister added: “I know the wider tourism industry is keen to reopen and to salvage some of this summer’s season. I am therefore signalling owners of self-contained accommodation should use the next three weeks to prepare to re-open, working with their local communities.

“But I want people to know coronavirus has not gone away. We have some headroom to make this package of changes to the regulations, which will be introduced in a phased and cautious way in Wales.

“Many aspects of daily life in Wales will be moving into the amber zone in our traffic light system. But we all need to continue to take steps to protect ourselves from the virus – that means working from home wherever possible; avoiding unnecessary travel; only meeting with one other household outdoors; maintaining social distancing and washing your hands often. It may also mean wearing a face covering in some situations.

“It is thanks to the efforts of everyone in Wales that we have slowed the spread of coronavirus but we can’t stop now. We need to do all we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the virus and to keep Wales safe.”

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Paul Davies MS quits as Leader of the Conservatives in the Senedd

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PRESELI Pembrokeshire MS Paul Davies quit as Leader of the Conservatives in the Senedd this morning.

The Conservatives’ Chief Whip also quit his frontbench role.

The dramatic move comes only 24 hours after Mr Davies got the Conservative Senedd Group’s unanimous backing.

However, later yesterday (Friday, Jan 21) – as criticism poured in – the Welsh Conservatives’ Executive met. In that meeting, Constituency Chairs reported widespread disbelief and anger among the Party’s members. Conservative Party Chair, Lord Davies of Gower, received particular criticism for a lack of leadership. Simon Hart, Secretary of State for Wales, also attended the meeting and was left in no doubt of the strength of feeling within the Party.

In a statement issued via the Conservative Senedd media office, Mr Davies said: “I am truly sorry for my actions on the 8th and 9th December. They have damaged the trust and respect that I have built up over 14 years in the Welsh Parliament with my colleagues and the wider Conservative Party but more importantly with the people of Wales.
“Whilst using the Senedd facilities at all times my colleagues and I maintained social distancing. There was no drunk or disorderly behaviour. We did not have to be escorted out of the building as some reports have suggested. What we did was to have some alcohol with a meal we heated up in a microwave, which was a couple of glasses of wine on Tuesday and a beer on Wednesday.
I broke no actual Covid-19 regulations.

“For the last 10 months of the pandemic, I have followed the Covid-19 regulations to the letter. As with everyone across Wales, I have not seen family members or friends, I’ve not eaten at my favourite restaurants and, like you, we enjoyed a subdued Christmas compared to other years. I will continue to follow the Welsh Government’s Covid-19 Regulations and I would urge everyone to play their part in defeating this virus so that we can all return to normality.

“My priority as Leader of the Welsh Conservative Group in the Welsh Parliament has always been to bring the Conservatives into government in Wales. Our main focus as the Welsh Conservatives must always be on challenging and removing a failing Labour government.

“I am grateful for the support of colleagues in the Welsh Conservative Party for their support in this difficult time, and especially to my wife Julie and my Senedd colleagues who have offered empathy, trust and advice. They have treated me with the same courtesy and decency I hope I have always extended to others.

“Over the last couple of days, I have been speaking with colleagues in the Senedd and the wider Conservative Party. Whilst they have confirmed they do not wish to see me step down, I believe that my actions are becoming a distraction from holding this failing Welsh Labour-led Government to account, not just on their rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines but from more than 20 years of their dither, delay and failure. Yesterday I indicated to the Conservative group in the Welsh Parliament that I wished to resign, but they urged me to reflect further, and we agreed to meet again on Monday. However, for the sake of my party, my health and my own conscience, I simply cannot continue in post.

“Therefore, I am stepping down as Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Welsh Parliament with immediate effect.”

“It is for the group to decide how best to choose a new leader, but I hope that process will be seamless and speedy, and I pledge my support to whoever becomes leader.”

Darren Millar blamed ‘wildly inaccurate and unfair reports’ and said:

“There was a member of catering staff present in the tea room for a short time after my arrival on the 8th December but she did not serve me a drink, nor did I request one. In fact, I encouraged the member of staff to go home and close up the counter as it had been a long day for her. No members of catering staff were present on the 9th December and the counter was closed for the whole evening.

“While I am advised that I did not breach coronavirus regulations I am very sorry for my actions, especially given the impact of the tough restrictions that people and businesses are enduring.

“For this reason, and given that Paul Davies has resigned as Welsh Conservative Group Leader in the Senedd, I have decided to step down from my front bench role in the Welsh Parliament.

“I am cooperating fully with ongoing investigations and will continue to do so.”
Whoever replaces Paul Davies, the role is likely to an interim appointment ahead of a vote of the Party membership after the Senedd election.

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Aberporth mum praised by police following sea rescue

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POLICE have praised the quick-thinking and immense bravery of an Aberporth woman who saved an injured man from the sea.

Dyfed-Powys Police Inspector Owen Williams has commended mother-of-three Cora Thomas for her actions when she feared a man was in trouble off the coast at Ogof Llidw.

Cora was walking along the coastal path with her family on January 9, when she saw a group of people she suspected to have been drinking jumping from the rocks into the sea.

Immediately sensing the danger of the situation due to the combination of extremely cold weather, the possibility that they were drunk, and the fact it was getting dark, Cora stayed back from her family to keep an eye on the group.

But when they left, she feared someone had been left behind.

“It looked like they were having a party on the rocks, and when they saw me watching them they must have been worried I was going to report them,” Cora said.

“They walked off, but this one man had gone to the Ogof rocks, and the only way to get there and back is to swim – they had left him behind.

“I decided to stand there and watch, and I saw him get into the water, but he didn’t come back up.”

As Cora headed down the coastal path to get a closer look, she bumped into two men she knew, and explained what had happed.

The pair had not seen anyone, but as they looked down the cliff, they could see a pile of clothes on the rocks.

“I started screaming down to ask if anyone was there,” Cora said. “I did panic, but I thought I was going to see a body washing past us.

“After a minute or so, we saw him coming out of the water and he was clinging onto the cliff.

“He was so cold he was slurring, and couldn’t tell us his name.”

Dazed and confused, the man was wearing just underwear, had cut his foot and was struggling to speak, such was the cold he had been exposed to.

Realising they needed to warm him up as quickly as possible, Cora and the two men got him dressed, giving him a jacket to keep out the cold.

“He was slipping and sliding all over the place – we had to drag him up the cliff,” Cora said.

“He kept saying he was tired, and I was really worried if he fell asleep he could have fallen into a hypothermic coma. We had to try and keep him calm, and stop him from walking away or he could have slipped back into the sea.”

Police and Coastguard arrived at the scene shortly after, carrying the man by stretcher to an ambulance.

After hospital treatment, he was discharged and is understood to have recovered.

Looking back, Cora described the incident as “totally unexpected”.

“I’ve never been in that sort of situation before, and it was one of the scariest things I have ever been through,” she said.

“I’m glad I stopped when I did – I genuinely think that would have been the end of him if we hadn’t been there.”

Praising the emergency services for their response, Cora also highlighted the use of the WhatThreeWords app, which pinpointed her location to the police.

“Even though I’m local, I couldn’t explain where we were,” she said.

“It was a mixture of panic and not knowing how to describe it. We downloaded the app, which gives you three words to tell the call handler – when they said ‘we’ve got your location and we’re on our way’ it was a huge sense of relief.

“Everyone should download it – you never know when you might need it, and it could save valuable time in an emergency.”

Inspector Owen Williams, of Cardigan police station, commended Cora and the two men for their actions.

“Had Cora not kept a close eye on the group jumping in the water, the man would have been left behind and in severe danger of being swept out to sea or suffering from hypothermia.

“Undoubtedly, her concern and prompt actions – as well as the invaluable help of the two men involved – contributed to preventing a tragedy that evening.”

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Conservatives’ lockdown lock-in investigated

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THE CONSERVATIVE Party is investigating senior Senedd members and staff’s attendance at a lockdown lock-in held on December 8.

The allegations concern a meeting in the Members’ tearoom between Labour backbencher Alun Davies and Conservative group members and their support staff.

Conservative Chief of Staff Paul Smith, Darren Millar MS the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, and Preseli Pembrokeshire MS, the Conservative Group Leader Paul Davies attended the meeting.

The incident took place on December 8, barely a week after hospitality businesses in Wales were forced to close.

Those present claim they met in the members’ tea room to discuss legislation for possible inclusion in the Welsh Conservative manifesto with the former Labour Cabinet Minister.

On December 8, the Senedd finished early because of technical issues with webcasting equipment. The record of the adjourned shows the Plenary Session attended by members ended around 5:45 in the evening.

The Sun newspaper alleges that drinking continued until the early hours of the following (Wednesday) morning.

‘WE DIDN’T BREAK THE RULES’

Those attending deny any breach of the lockdown rules.

A joint statement from Paul Davies, Darren Millar, and Paul Smith said: “We are profoundly sorry for our actions.

“While we did not break the rules, we recognise that what was part of a day’s work would not be seen to be following the spirit of them, especially given the tough time the country has been going through.”

Monmouth Conservative MS Nick Ramsay was named among those present in the tearoom at the time. His name was not, however, attached to the joint statement referred to above.

On Wednesday (January 20), Mr Ramsay denied he attended any ‘gathering’ on the day in question

However, his statement is profoundly unhelpful to the others named.

Through his solicitor, Mr Ramsay confirmed he was at the tea room on his own at the Senedd, without an invitation from anyone else, after work.

“He was hungry, and he wanted to get something to eat. He was working on an article for the Argus (his local newspaper). He sat on his own and was socially distanced,” said his solicitor.

“He attended the tea room at approximately 6 pm. He had chicken curry. He left at about 8 pm. Others came in whilst he was there, but it was not a ‘gathering’ Mr Ramsay was part of.”

Taking Mr Ramsay’s words at face value, he spent two hours in the tea room, and there was ’a gathering’, with people coming in and out.

Two hours is a long time to discuss an uncontroversial potential manifesto pledge with a Government backbencher.

Again, taking Mr Ramsay’s words at face value, an inference exists that the ‘gathering’ continued after he left.

If The Sun’s claims that the ‘manifesto discussions’ extended to 2:00 am are accurate – and an internal probe by the Senedd Commission is bound to find out – those involved are doomed.

MILLAR’S WORDS HAUNT TORIES

Darren Millar’s presence intensifies the Conservatives’ embarrassment at talking the talk but not walking the walk.

In May, Mr Millar led calls for Wales’ Health Minister Vaughan Gething to be sacked for eating a bag of chips in a park with one of his own children.

When it comes to words a speaker might regret in the future, Darren Millar’s video demand for Vaughan Gething’s dismissal is one hell of a hill to choose to die upon.

It doesn’t help when your party leader doubles down on the same issue, by alluding to it in a television interview months later.

“I don’t think anybody should break the rules,” Paul Davies said, seizing the moral high ground in an ITV Wales interview from September.

“The rules were there whether you were travelling to Barnard Castle or you were travelling to buy some chips. No one should have been breaking the rules.”

Suppose the Conservative Party follows the logic of their previously stated positions. In that case, Mr Millar’s and Mr Davies’ futures look bleak indeed.

Number 10’s response was less than a ringing endorsement.

Speaking at a lobby briefing, Boris Johnson’s press secretary, said she had not spoken to the prime minister about whether Paul Davies should stay.

She added: “The prime minister needs everybody – no matter their status, no matter their position in life – to be going above and beyond in following the rules on Covid.”

To his credit, Vaughan Gething rejected the opportunity to knife Mr Millar when asked about the lockdown lock-in.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

With a Senedd election only months away, the revelations have thrown the Conservatives into disarray.

Bitter recriminations have whistled around the media, involving briefing and counter-briefing from within the Conservative Party’s own ranks.

Candidates who are justifiably angry and at the sharp end of voters’ reactions have been told to shut up. Meanwhile, the hunt is on for who leaked the story.

This writer can confirm he was told about an unspecified issue involving chief whip Darren Millar before Christmas. Supposing it referred to Mr Millar’s personal life, he shelved it.

Just after the New Year, he was told Central Office was examining an issue concerning the Chief Whip and Chief of Staff.

More details emerged about an alleged party in the Senedd during lockdown which involved Senedd Members and their staff. At this stage, ten days ago at the time of writing, the story’s bones were in place. Shortly afterwards, we discovered national media already had much of the same information.

We probed further and, this Tuesday afternoon decided we had enough to publish. We invited the Conservative group press office to respond.

With the Welsh Government under increasing criticism after Mark Drakeford’s disastrous appearance on Radio Four on Monday, an opportunity to spike the Conservative guns was desperately needed.

One theory runs that Alun Davies, the Labour Member concerned, was turned in by another member of the Labour group – a Regional Member of the Senedd – who dislikes him.

It is not going too far to suppose that throwing Alun Davies under the bus to get at the Conservatives’ big guns was a price Labour thought worth paying.

The Labour press office’s statement and Alun Davies’ carefully-phrased appeared in Cardiff-based media minutes after we broke the story online.

We hadn’t even requested a comment from Labour before publishing our original article.

Having a statement ready, showed remarkable foresight by Labour’s spin machine.

None of the above distracts from the embarrassment the Conservatives have suffered.

That has not prevented a certain amount of gallows humour.

Among the tarter observations made to The Herald by one insider was that after going so aggressively at Vaughan Gething over ‘Chipgate’, things couldn’t have rebounded on a more deserving Welsh Conservative than Darren Millar.

LEADERSHIP QUESTIONS

Paul Davies is widely respected as a decent man whose own moderate and constructive instincts were pushed aside in favour of more combative and aggressive messaging.

The Conservatives’ tone in their media statements and appearances has notably calmed down in the last couple of months.

Some insiders claim Paul Davies’ failure to clamp down on his candidates’ anti-devolution rhetoric is a sign of weak leadership. They say failing to be upbeat about devolution could reap the whirlwind at elections to the Senedd.

However, the blame doesn’t all lie with Paul Davies; the nonsensically fractured leadership model the Conservatives have in Wales is also to blame.

Conservative MS David Melding wrote that an alien landing at the Conservatives’ annual conference in Llandudno who asked to be taken to the leader, would have three possible candidates: Simon Hart MP, Lord Davies of Gower (the Party Chair), or Paul Davies MS.

Where there are three centres of power, there are competing interests and egos. That causes friction. And friction produces a lot of heat and not much light.

If Paul Davies stood down, there are not many options to replace him.

David Melding and Angela Burns (the most moderate and most politically able respectively) are standing down.

Darren Millar would be out of the running.

Nick Ramsay’s problems with his Monmouthshire constituency rule him out.

Laura Anne Jones succeeded the late Oscar Ashgar last year, although she has previously been an Assembly Member.

In the last leadership election, Suzy Davies, runner up to Paul Davies, finished eighth in her party’s list primary in South Wales West. She faces a ferocious constituency contest in Bridgend.

That does not leave a vast pool from which to draw a leader: Russell George, Janet Finch-Saunders, Mark Isherwood and the elephant in every room, former leader Andrew RT Davies.

Andrew RT Davies failed to command the backing of the Senedd group and left in a huff. The composition of the Senedd group has not much changed since then. However, Andrew RT Davies’ former Chief of Staff and devoted Senedd abolitionist Chris Thorne is head of campaigns for the Conservatives in Wales. It’s a combination that may play well with the faithful but repel the voters and the Senedd group.

The lack of an obvious alternative could play to Paul Davies’ advantage. Besides, any new leader’s appointment would, necessarily, be interim. If the Senedd election goes badly, they become a footnote. If it goes well, they might still be picked off in a subsequent poll of party members favouring another candidate more appealing to them.

Such an approach went well with Jeremy Corbyn.

And, of course, the Senedd election could be delayed, leaving any interim leader in limbo as party members whinge at not having had a say in electing them.

Whatever – or whoever – happens next, the Conservatives will need good luck and a following wind to cling onto their current relative strength in Wales’ opinion polls.

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