Coronavirus cases in Wales fall to the lowest number since early November

Here are the coronavirus morning headlines for Friday, January 29, as cases fall to the lowest point since the start of November and details of a return to the classroom are set to be revealed.

First Minister Mark Drakeford will announce today that lockdown is being extended by another three weeks in Wales, but the very youngest primary pupils could begin to return to school next month.

The youngest learners will begin returning to classrooms after the February half term, but only if rates of coronavirus continue to fall.

Coronavirus cases across Wales have fallen below 200 cases per 100,000 people for the first time since early November.

In its three weekly review of the third lockdown the Welsh Government said it will work with schools and education authorities on “a phased and flexible return to school after 22 February”, if the public health situation continues to improve. That will start with the youngest pupils.

Authorities review the situation every 21 days, and on Wednesday chief medical officer Dr Frank Atherton said a Wales-wide easing of lockdown restrictions is unlikely until the end of February at the earliest.

The reproduction R value for the virus on Wednesday was said to be between 0.7 and 0.9, while figures from Public Health Wales showed that the country’s seven-day case rate stood at 204 cases per 100,000 people, down from 270 cases per 100,000 on Friday.

Fourth vaccine to be approved in the UK

The latest news in Wales comes as a fourth Covid-19 vaccine could be approved for use in the UK within weeks as late-stage trials suggested it was 89% effective in preventing coronavirus.

The UK has secured 60 million doses of the Novavax jab – to be produced on Teesside – which is believed to offer protection against the new UK and South African variants.

It was shown to be 89.3% effective at preventing coronavirus in participants in its Phase 3 clinical trial in the UK, which involved more than 15,000 people aged between 18-84, of which 27% were older than 65, Novavax said.

The vaccine will now be assessed by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed, as he thanked volunteers who made the results possible.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the NHS stands ready to roll out the vaccine if it is approved, which he said would provide a “significant boost to our vaccination programme and another weapon in our arsenal to beat this awful virus”.

The chairman of the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, Clive Dix, said the results were “spectacular”, adding: “The efficacy shown against the emerging variants is also extremely encouraging.

“This is an incredible achievement that will ensure we can protect individuals in the UK and the rest of the world from this virus.”

The jab has shown around 60% effectiveness against the South African variant, which has been worrying scientists due to concerns vaccines may not work against it, but it offered 86% protection against the new UK strain.

Two vaccines have already been rolled out in the UK – from Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca – while a third from Moderna has been approved for use.

The Novavax jab would be delivered in the second half of 2021 if it receives MHRA approval.

Deepening row over vaccines in Europe

The new vaccine development comes amid a deepening row between the European Union and AstraZeneca over vaccine supply shortages in the bloc.

Brussels has demanded doses be sent from British plants to make up for a shortfall, but Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said the Government will not allow vaccines intended for the UK to go to the EU.

However, German MEP Dr Peter Liese warned the UK it would be acting like former US president Donald Trump if it pursued a “UK first” contract for the vaccines.

“If it’s true what some say that the UK had a “UK first” contract – that it’s guaranteed that they will get everything and everybody else has to suffer – then this is like Donald Trump. He did a US-first policy,” he told the BBC’s Newscast podcast.

“That’s why we have a huge problem. For the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, there are two plants. One in the EU and one in the US. And the US doesn’t export even to Canada. Everything comes from the European Union.

“We cannot be the only one who plays fair in this game. If others say, ‘UK first’, ‘US first’, then we have to say, ‘EU first’, but I hope – I really hope – this will be sorted out and everybody will get its fair share.”

The Guardian suggested the EU could block millions of coronavirus vaccines from being exported to the UK within days in response to shortages in the bloc.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was accused of siding with the EU by suggesting she may publish details of coronavirus vaccine supplies arriving in the country as early as next week.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said such a move would be “deeply irresponsible”.

The UK Government previously claimed that setting out how many doses are expected and when could breach commercial confidentiality.

Meanwhile the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is expected to approve the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for use in the EU on Friday, although it is not yet clear whether it will set an age limit.

German authorities have said there is currently “not sufficient data to assess the vaccination effectiveness from 65 years”.

Booking number for NHS staff shared online

In Wales, some people have received their Covid-19 vaccination “ahead of programme” after the booking number for frontline healthcare staff was shared on social media.

Cardiff  and Vale University Health Board explained that the booking number for frontline staff to arrange appointments at its mass vaccination centre had been shared on social media and apps.

At the weekend some people managed to arrange appointments to have their vaccine “ahead of programme”.

The health board stated that since the booking number was shared it has become “increasingly difficult” for frontline staff to secure an appointment due to the high number of calls being made.

In other news, coronavirus vaccinations were denied to police officers after what was understood to be a last-minute intervention by the Welsh Government.

One serving officer with  South Wales Police, who wished to remain anonymous, said the vaccines were set to be offered to staff based in the Vale of Glamorgan last weekend.

It is understood that these vaccines were due to be given to the police officers as the batches were set to expire but that the Welsh Government intervened and insisted they be given to people in the top four priority groups as set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

Cases in your area by postcode:

Revised testing strategy in Wales

A revised coronavirus testing strategy has been unveiled by the Welsh Government.

The original strategy, which was published in July 2020,  has been updated  to reflect the fact there is now a greater understanding of the virus and better technology at our disposal which can test on a far greater scale and at speed.

The roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine, which has  now been administered to more than 10% of the population  in Wales, has also been taken into account.

One main aim of the strategy is to provide more regular testing for NHS and care home staff, as well as patients in hospitals, to reduce the risk of the virus spreading in these closed settings.

A community testing framework has also been published which builds on the pilot schemes in  Merthyr Tydfil  and Lower Cynon to test asymptomatic people in communities where the virus could be more prevalent.

Pupils’ reading and maths skills are down

Primary-age pupils’ performance in both reading and maths has dropped significantly following school closures during the first lockdown, a study suggests.

There is a “large and concerning” attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers, research from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) charity has found.

The gap is estimated to be the equivalent of seven months’ learning for both reading and maths.

Interim findings from the study suggest that Year 2 pupils had a lower achievement in the autumn as a likely result of missed learning.

Pupils, on average, were making around two months’ less progress in maths and reading in autumn 2020 compared to a 2017 cohort, the research said.

The study is based on data collected by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) from assessments in reading and maths taken in November by nearly 6,000 six and seven-year-olds

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