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Written Statement - Contingency Planning for the Winter

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Carl Sargeant, Minister for Local Government and Communities

Over the last two winters Wales has experienced severe winter weather with the combination of extremely low temperatures and widespread snowfall causing disruption to services across the country. Given the relative unpredictability of the winter weather, planning in Wales has been based on a reasonable worst case scenario to ensure that our public services are prepared for the possibility of the kind of severe weather we have experienced during recent years.  Building on work undertaken and experience gained over the last few years, the Welsh Government and public and private sector organisations have been preparing to minimise any future disruption from such severe weather conditions.

Considerable attention has been given over the last two winters on the stocks of salt maintained by the Welsh Government and local authorities to treat the roads. I can confirm that Wales will start this winter season with higher level of salt stocks than ever before. Working with the Welsh Local Government Association, we have collated the level of salt used by each local authority in Wales over the last 6 winters. The target figure for salt stock at the start of the season for each local authority has been set at 1½ times their average salt usage over that period. To ensure that salt stocks are accessible across Wales, reserve stocks will be developed and situated in north, mid and south Wales, together with additional stocks being held in the M4 barns. A new ‘All Wales Salt Procurement Framework Contract’, which is available to local authorities and Welsh Government, has been let in 2011. Supplies can now be sourced from two UK salt producers and one importer. In addition, Welsh Government has also made contact with a number of suppliers which in case of urgent need could supply imported salt.

The existing Traffic Wales website has been re-designed and includes improved links to local authority websites for local information, improved links to weather information providers, ongoing development of a specific information area for freight hauliers and a page giving guidance on winter driving. The new website is scheduled to be launched this week.  Consideration is also being given to how increased information on road condition from monitoring stations can be made available to the public. This includes investigating other means of communication such as “twitter”, applications for “smart-phones” and an automatic messaging service during periods of high demand. Additional CCTV cameras specifically associated with winter service are also being considered.

The Welsh Government has held quarterly seasonal planning meetings with the NHS in regard to potential pressures on emergency care and has sought assurances from the NHS on their ability to deliver services to the public over the difficult winter period. An Action Plan has been developed by the NHS which aims to ensure that essential health care needs are met effectively when services become overloaded, restricted or non-operational.  A number of campaigns are in place to help alleviate pressures on health services.

A national Choose Well campaign was re-launched on 19 October, which will help patients choose the best place to go for treatment when they are ill. The Campaign’s objective is to educate the public about the range of healthcare services available and direct patients to the most appropriate healthcare setting for their needs when they become ill or injured.

The Keep Well This Winter (KWTW) campaign provides information and support to people aged 60 and over to enable them to keep well in the winter months.  It is organised around three main themes of Keep Well, Keep Warm and Keep Safe. KWTW is co-ordinated by Age Cymru on behalf of the Welsh Government.  Local activity is supported through the production of resources and the allocation of small grants. 

Last year saw a particularly bad flu season. In response, the Welsh Government has launched an influenza immunisation campaign this year aimed at reducing illness and NHS pressures. The target for flu vaccine uptake rate this year has been increased from 70% to 75% for older people and at-risk groups. The target for vaccinating health and social care workers who have direct patient contact is 50%. General Practitioners have been encouraged to order sufficient vaccine to achieve the uptake targets and the Welsh Government has purchased a reserve stock of flu vaccine. The Minister for Health and Social Services will be holding regular meetings with officials during the flu season and will also be meeting with heads of relevant professional bodies to ensure that the vaccination campaign proceeds as effectively as possible.

School closures during severe weather have a broad impact on both the public and private sectors as parents are drawn away from their place of work in order to provide child care. The decision to close a school lies with the head teacher and local authority. Last autumn/winter the Welsh Government issued guidance which gave advice to schools on whether to remain open or close in extremely bad weather. It was a joint publication with the Welsh Local Government Association. It includes a general risk assessment, which can be adopted to suit every school's circumstances and provides examples of the issues that schools may face, with suggestions on how to tackle them. The advice remains current and can be accessed online through the Welsh Government's website.

In addition to this, new absence recording codes were introduced in September 2010. Head teachers are now able to record pupils as 'not required to attend' in a small number of specific situations including severe winter weather. This means that should a school be forced to close half way through the day their attendance statistics would no longer be affected. Previously, head teachers may have felt compelled to pre-emptively shut their schools as such absences were recorded as 'authorised' and affected their attendance statistics.

Winter Fuel Payments are a reserved matter.  We are very aware that the UK Government has reduced the value of winter fuel payments this year, where payments will range from £100-£300 depending on the age and number of qualifying residents at the address. They have maintained the lower value Cold Weather Payments which provide qualifying households with £25 towards the extra cost of heating their home when the local temperature is recorded or forecast to be zero degrees Celsius or below for seven consecutive days. In Wales, the Welsh Government is funding ‘Nest’, its new fuel poverty scheme, which will help keep people warm this winter and reduce their fuel bills by providing advice on reducing energy use, benefit entitlement, money management, fuel tariffs and referral for free or subsidised home energy improvements. British Gas, which manages the ‘Nest’ scheme, is preparing to provide temporary heaters to householders who are awaiting heating installations with no alternative means of heating their home.  In addition, British Gas is operating a fast track service for householders they identify as being particularly vulnerable; they will aim to complete the heating installation within 5 working days from identification of vulnerability.

The availability of domestic fuel oil, particularly in rural areas, was an issue for concern last winter. This year, the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change has been working closely with industry and consumer bodies, including Citizens Advice, Consumer Focus Wales and other consumer bodies in England and Scotland in a national campaign to encourage consumers to buy heating oil early to ensure they are well prepared for winter.

The water companies operating in Wales – Dwr Cymru Welsh Water, Dee Valley Water and Severn Trent Water – have reviewed and updated their plans and guidance following the severe winter weather last year which includes having a sufficient amount of salt and chemicals for treating drinking water in preparation for the winter period.

Despite the best efforts of those involved in winter service, during adverse weather travelling conditions in some areas can still be difficult, ice free roads cannot be guaranteed and care needs to be taken.   The winter pages were launched on the Welsh Government website on 24th October providing information on weather forecasts, transport, school closures, local services and health. These will be updated as necessary throughout the winter.