Sticking up for the valleys when government won’t
Leanne Wood MS puts forward the case for extra support for communities with the highest coronavirus rates
Where there is old housing, low income and insecure employment, there is poor health. How many times do we have to listen to the same findings from yet another report before someone listens and gives our communities what they need?
But this is the situation we found ourselves in yet again this week. Let me give you some background…
The areas with the highest rates of Covid-19 in Wales are Merthyr, Neath Port Talbot, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Blaenau Gwent.
It has been noticeable how quick people have been to try and say these high Covid-19 rates have something to do with “valleys culture”, as if the people in these communities somehow brought coronavirus on themselves. Those pointing the finger overlook the economic reality in our former industrial areas. They fail to understand what has happened in the forty years since the deliberate destruction of coal and associated industries.
In those forty years we’ve seen poverty rise, driven by low pay for many families. There are too many people living in housing that can only be described as poor, energy inefficient and overcrowded. We have patterns and structures of employment that mean that fewer people can work from home, or people are forced to work multiple jobs, coupled with a dysfunctional social security system that doesn't support people in all cases to isolate, and where people have to rely upon family members and friends for childcare.
So, before stereotyping, it would be helpful if people could understand these relevant facts. It is no accident that high Covid-19 rates mirror high deprivation rates.
A UK Government paper on support for self-isolation published in September concluded that only around 20 per cent of people told to self-isolate were doing so effectively. That means four in five people everywhere are not isolating properly. Given that we know the majority of people largely support government efforts to control the virus, this isn’t just wilful disobedience.
For some lucky people, taking a couple of weeks off work does not mean financial hardship. But for many, self-isolation means no work, so no pay. It means financial hardship for them and in many cases, for their families. There is a disincentive for some to isolate and, it's no coincidence that the areas where people aren’t isolating mirror, to a large extent, areas of higher deprivation.
Is it really any wonder when people face the choice between a possible risk to health versus a definite risk to income and the ability to put food on the table - they’re choosing food?
For some areas in the south of Wales, these conditions have created the perfect storm for coronavirus to take hold.
The current measures in place just aren’t working sufficiently. Instead of talking more lock downs and more restrictions, much more focus needs to be given to support people to self-isolate safely.
If people can’t afford to isolate on the £500 payment from government, then this payment needs topping up.
If people cannot isolate safely in their own house, then temporary accommodation should be offered.
If clinically vulnerable people who cannot work from home are too scared to go out to work, but can’t afford not to, they need extra support - at the very least in the form of another shielding letter.
If the web of infection is so big and so tangled that contract tracing teams just can’t reach the edges, then we need a different or additional approach.
These measures were all part of a proposal that Plaid Cymru took to the Senedd earlier this week. Just prior to the debate, the Welsh Government announced mass testing in Merthyr Tydfil, which seemed like a promising first step.
The infection rates for Blaenau Gwent, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr have been higher than Liverpool's, which has benefited from extra support and priority for new technologies. Given that Labour had been so supportive of areas in the north of England receiving additional support to help them combat high infection rates, it would have made logical sense for the Labour government in Wales to want to go just as far for the parts of Wales with the highest Covid-19 rates.
However, this is not what happened. Welsh Labour amended our motion to hit it of its content - effectively voting AGAINST Plaid Cymru's proposals calling for additional support for areas with high Covid-19 rates.
While mass testing in Merthyr Tydfil is a great first step, people need more than just a diagnosis – people need support to help keep them and their communities safe. Mass testing will help identify more infections, but when people cannot afford to self-isolate, or do not have the space in their houses to keep their families safe from infection, something more needs to be done.
And what about the communities across Blaenau Gwent, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Neath Port Talbot? They still have high infection rates, but they’re still waiting for even a first step.
On behalf of all these communities, I’m disappointed that the Labour-run Welsh government can’t and won’t recognise the specific conditions in our communities and can’t and won’t act on this. I will continue to raise my voice and speak up for the support that we need in our former industrial communities to help get rid of this destructive, harmful virus.