Leighton Andrews, Minister for Public Services
The severe weather risks which winter brings, and the need to be prepared to address its potential impacts, require robust, collaborative planning between the Welsh Government and many other organisations across the public and private sectors in Wales. Over recent years we have seen how varied this risk can be from heavy snow falls and low temperatures to storms and flooding. Our planning has to be flexible and effective enough to cope.
The Met Office provides effective monitoring and warning systems to alert us to the potential for severe weather events. This allows us to be well prepared, organised and equipped to respond. At the local level there are well established arrangements in place, led by the four Local Resilience Forums, which bring together local agencies and organisations such as Local Authorities, Emergency Services and transport and utility companies. At a national level, the Welsh Government and key public sector organisations review preparations for the particular challenges winter can bring through the Wales Resilience Forum. These multi-agency response arrangements have been tested over the last year not only by the winter storms but through the response to Fire Brigades Union strikes and in the preparations required for the NATO Summit. This will stand us in good stead when challenged by the diverse risks of winter.
The private sector and members of the public also need to monitor the weather warnings and do as much as they can themselves to mitigate its possible impacts. In the same way, we can come together in our communities to help each other when winter bites and to help those who are vulnerable.
This winter, the key areas of concern for the Welsh Government will be supporting the vulnerable by keeping transport networks operational; ensuring health and well-being through the delivery of frontline services in local government and the NHS; providing support to reduce the impact of possible fuel poverty; and keeping business and the economy, in general, fully functional.
Safeguarding our most vulnerable people continues to be our main priority this winter. At the forefront of this is the flu immunisation campaign. The target for flu vaccine uptake this year is 75% for older people and at-risk groups, and 50% for healthcare workers who have direct patient contact. In addition to this, the flu programme is being expanded to include children aged four years. The campaign aims to reduce illness and to ease overall pressures on the NHS.
In the event of severe winter weather conditions, Wales NHS organisations have detailed business continuity arrangements and contingency plans which can be implemented to help maintain services. Health Boards, Local Authorities and the Ambulance Service have also developed joint winter plans for 2014/15. The Welsh Government continues to hold quarterly, seasonal planning meetings with the NHS, Local Authorities and the Third Sector. These provide assurances on organisations’ ability to deliver services over the winter and on overall capacity and joint planning.
Keeping people warm during periods of bitterly cold winter weather is crucial, especially for those who are vulnerable. Our Nest scheme provides advice to householders who are struggling with their energy bills on how to access this support, along with a range of other advice and support services including Benefit Entitlement Checks, debt and money management advice on energy tariffs, and a referral for eligible households for a package of free home energy efficiency improvements. The Warm Homes Discount, Cold Weather Payments and Winter Fuel Payments provide eligible householders with additional help to meet the higher cost of energy bills in the winter.
Our transport networks are critical to maintaining public services and keeping business functioning. As we saw during the heavy snow in 2010 and 2011, disruption to transport has wide-ranging impacts on society and the economy. In the light of the difficulties encountered with salt stocks during that time, we have increased our overall capacity in Wales to 250,000 tonnes and moved to a system of stock storage rather than relying upon stock replenishment during the Christmas period. These provisions enable Wales to be as self-sufficient as reasonably practicable in the event of a national salt shortage. Partnership working across Local Authorities also helps to improve service delivery and mutual aid. We are working closely with rail and bus companies to ensure that the public transport system is prepared.
School closures are a prominent feature of the impact of any heavy snowfall. Where school closures occur there is a resultant impact on local public services and businesses as childcare becomes the priority of parents. We have reminded Local Authorities, head teachers and school governors of the importance of schools remaining open in extreme weather. To support this, the Welsh Government and Welsh Local Government Association have published joint guidance entitled "Opening Schools in Extreme Bad Weather”. This guidance includes a general risk assessment template and advice on tackling common issues. As a result, we expect greater clarity and consistency of practice among schools.
The energy and water companies have important roles to play during winter to ensure that their services are maintained through all adverse weather conditions and that all customers’ needs are catered for. The Welsh Government meets regularly with the key utilities companies through a Wales Utilities Group which involves all key utility companies and responder agencies. The water companies have confirmed that they have winter preparedness plans in place and are able to communicate with customers en masse via text messages, email or phone calls, in the event of supply interruptions or emergency works. They will review communication methods in remote areas where problems have previously been encountered.
In relation to energy, as we have heard from the industry over the last few months, energy margins - the tolerance between demand and supply - are tight for the coming winter, particularly at peak times. They are being actively and constantly managed by National Grid. The UK Government is well aware of the position and through National Grid, is managing and planning for additional capacity to be available if required. This energy tightening in winter is likely to last for 2-3 years while energy generation transitions to more renewables on the system and traditional fossil fuel sources come off line.
Welsh Government officials are in regular contact with transmission and Distribution Network Operators (DNO), Scottish Power Energy Networks (SPEN) and Western Power, to discuss grid capacity and resilience. A Welsh Government official attends the UK Government’s Industry/Government Energy Emergencies Executive Committee (E3C) which provides oversight on, and plans for, UK energy resilience.
The DNOs communicate the status of outages to their customers via web pages and social media, and each DNO has an emergency telephone service.
The Office of the Chief Veterinary Officer (OCVO) issues advice to livestock keepers prior to, and during, the winter months to encourage them to have in place contingency plans in the event of an emergency, such as severe weather and flooding. OCVO continues to work with companion animal welfare organisations and stakeholders to raise awareness of pet owners to the needs of their pets in severe weather. Advice to livestock keepers and pet owners is available via the Animal Welfare page on the Welsh Government website and is issued through twitter and other streams as appropriate. Following the unseasonably heavy snow in North East Wales in 2013, the Welsh Government has developed a 'severe weather' Contingency Management Plan for more localised events. It will determine quickly if an intervention by the Government is required using field based staff.
All of the Welsh Flood Risk Management Authorities have plans in place to ensure they continue to deliver critical services during periods of severe weather, and routinely take actions to secure defence systems for the winter period. Natural Resource Wales and Local Authorities continue to engage in flood awareness and resilience activities throughout the year. NRW have recently published guidance on ‘What to do before, during and after a flood’. The coastal review, which was published in April 2014, showed that our continued investment in flood risk management helped to protect over 99% of at-risk properties. We are working to implement its recommendations to further improve our preparedness, resilience and response to such events.
We must not be complacent about the risk that adverse weather poses this winter. Whilst we have experienced relatively mild winters over recent years, we have also had some severe weather events and we have been fortunate that these have not been sustained over longer periods. The public services in Wales are aware of the risk and are taking appropriate actions to be prepared. I urge members of the public and businesses to take similar action.