Wales First Minister warns of danger to NHS from new Covid strain

The impact of the new strain of Covid-19 on the NHS in Wales will be “profound” if cases continue to rise unchecked, the First Minister has said.

Mark Drakeford said the new variant provides “better understanding” for the large increase in cases and people being admitted to hospital in Wales from late November.

At the end of November, the seven-day coronavirus rate for Wales was 232 cases per 100,000 people but this is now 623 cases per 100,000 and rising, he said.

There were just under 1,700 people in Welsh hospitals with coronavirus symptoms a month ago but there are now more than 2,300.

“Our critical care units are operating beyond their normal capacity and our NHS and frontline staff are certainly stretched to the limit,” Mr Drakeford told a Welsh Government press conference.

Over the weekend, more than 100 deaths were reported by Public Health Wales.

“Unless we can regain the grip on the spread of coronavirus, we will undoubtedly see more deaths here in Wales,” Mr Drakeford said.

“If we continue to see the case rise go on unchecked, fuelled by this new highly infectious variant of the virus, the effect on our NHS will be profound. We must do everything we can to prevent that from happening.”

The Welsh Government took “unavoidable action” to place Wales under Tier 4 restrictions over the weekend and to change Christmas arrangements after receiving information about the spread of the variant in the country.

“Of course I wish that we had been able to give everyone more notice of these changes but, in light of the information we had in front of us, it was imperative to take swift action to prevent further harm and to save lives here in Wales,” Mr Drakeford said.

He told the press conference there are more than 600 cases of the new variant in Wales but this is a “almost certainly a significant under-estimation”.

This is because only a proportion of the Welsh tests go to the two lighthouse laboratories able to detect it, he said.

Mr Drakeford said the Welsh Government will have discussions with trade unions in Wales to see if “anything can be done” for people who will be working on Christmas Day this year.

“Of course we recognise the fact that there will be many people who have to give up their Christmas Day and, in this unique year, that means they will be missing out on arrangements that other people are able to make,” he said.

“So we will discuss it with the trade unions, and other public sector partners, to see if there is anything that can be done.

“It’s more complex than it sounds. If we are able to do something, it’ll have to be a solution that is workable and deliverable.”

Data from the Office for National Statistics’ coronavirus infection survey shows the new strain of Covid-19 was present in 28% of samples from Wales in the second week of December, the country’s deputy chief medical officer said.

Professor Chris Jones said this figure is “more than double the number in the previous week”.

“Public Health Wales colleagues advise us that they feel this new strain could be causing up to 60% of coronavirus infections in Wales,” Prof Jones added.

“This new variant looks very likely to be the significant driver of the huge growth in cases we’ve seen in Wales in recent weeks.”