Video report by ITV Wales correspondent Owain Phillips
The Welsh Government has announced a £100 million investment aimed at reducing the record backlog plaguing the health system and "kick-starting" the recovery from the pandemic.
More than 568,367 patients in Wales were waiting for planned treatment in March 2021, including surgeries such as hip and knee replacements, post-mastectomy breast reconstructions and ear, nose and throat operations.
This is the highest number on record since data first started being collected in 2011.
Highlighting the impact of the pandemic, the figures for March 2021 also show over 216,418 patients had waited more than 36 weeks for their treatment. The figure for March 2020 was 28,294 people.
One patient on the waiting list is Juliette Anderson, who needs surgery for ongoing complications relating to the debilitating condition endometriosis.
Having spent years in pain, Juliette says she is looking forward to a "new lease of life" and being able to enjoy simple pleasures like spending time with her grandchildren.
But her operation, which was planned for last year, was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic - and she has not yet been given a new date.
Juliette told ITV News: "I had my post-op assessment in January . I met with the surgeon then in March, and it was all systems go. And then a week later we were in lockdown. Now they're saying they don't know when it'll be."
Juliette says she doesn't blame the health service, and has nothing but praise for the hardworking staff, but says life for her won't change until her surgery.
"I'm constantly at home. Lockdown is normal for me, even though it's been lifted," she said.
"I'm constantly in pain - it's just awful. I can't do simple things like look after the grandkids on my own, because of the pain-related seizures. It's just a nightmare.
"Endometriosis is an invisible illness. That's the worst thing - trying to explain how much pain you're in when you look quite normal."
Patient Juliette Anderson on waiting for her rescheduled surgery
Newly-appointed Welsh health minister Eluned Morgan said she is "under no illusions about the size of the task ahead", but that it is "a real opportunity to transform the delivery of health and care services."
The money will be spent on new equipment, staff, technology and finding new ways of working to help health boards improve services by increasing capacity and cutting waiting times.
Ms Morgan said: "Helping our health and social care services recover from the pandemic is going to take time, investment and a new approach to delivering care.
"The remarkable commitment of our NHS and social care workers has helped us through this pandemic to a point where we can now start to think about the future.
"I am determined that we now provide them the support they need to help the service recover."
Ms Morgan added the Welsh Government is committing £1bn of continued support for the industry's recovery.
She said: "We must take this opportunity to create a health and care system that is fit for the future.
"The pandemic saw the early and swift adoption of new technology and ways of working, I want to see health boards build on this good work."
The Royal College of Surgeons has warned that clearing the backlog will "take many years" to achieve.
Richard Johnson, director in Wales, said: “Unfortunately, we’ve become accustomed to seeing record-breaking numbers for the number of people waiting for treatment. It is important not to forget that behind these statistics are ordinary people waiting in pain and suffering for an operation.
“NHS Wales was already under pressure prior to the pandemic. The waiting list backlog must be a priority for the new health minister and Welsh Government."
Darren Hughes, director of the Welsh NHS Confederation, said: “The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the health and care system is well-documented and there’s no doubt that demand is high across the whole system.
“Leaders across the Welsh NHS are fully aware that there are a high volume of patients waiting to start treatment, but staff across the board are doing all they can to provide the best care to patients.
“We welcome the additional £100 million investment announced by the Welsh Government to help with the health and care system’s recovery from the Covid pandemic. This will help the NHS in Wales to tackle waiting lists and increase capacity as we focus on resuming planned care once more.
“The latest statistics show that although the general picture remains serious, we’re seeing green shoots in some areas where performance is starting to improve again.
“Over the last 15 months we’ve seen significant innovation and partnership working to improve services and respond to the pandemic. We need to capitalise on this opportunity to learn from new ways of working to transform services for the better across health and care.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a long way to go. It will take the NHS time to recover and we must not underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead and the support that staff working in health and care will require.”
Here is how the initial £100m investment will be shared:
Cardiff and Vale: £13m to increase capacity for a range of therapies and diagnostics, including staff recruitment and two new mobile theatres.
Powys: £2.5m to transform patient services and increase capacity for a range of services.
Cwm Taf Morgannwg: £16m for recruitment and investment in surgical and diagnostic capacity.
Hywel Dda: £13m to improve capacity for planned care, including hospital redesign, investment in diagnostics.
Aneurin Bevan Health: £17m for projects to increased capacity in planned care, diagnostics, therapies and mental health.
Swansea Bay: £16m to increase capacity in a wide range of areas, including theatres, recruitment and ophthalmology.
Betsi Cadwaldr: £20m to increase capacity in planned care, cancer, dental, diagnostics and endoscopy.
Velindre: £2.5m to increase capacity for radiotherapy.