Welsh NHS needs to 'radically' change to recover from the pandemic, says NHS Wales boss

hospital a&e and Judith Page
Credit: Welsh Government/PA

The interim chief executive of the Welsh NHS has said the way the service delivers care will have to change “radically” if it’s to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Judith Paget, who was head of Aneurin Bevan Health Board, took over the top job at the beginning of November and will be in post for the next 18 months while a permanent chief executive is appointed.

In her first appearance before Senedd members since taking up the role, she told MSs that the health service has to learn from the way it did things differently during the pandemic.

“I think everybody accepts and recognises that we can't just go back to what we were doing before.“We have to learn from the way in which we've adjusted the way which services are delivered to move forward to take advantage of those, so we are at expecting health boards to radically change and fundamentally change the way in which care is delivered.

"But making sure we focused on some of those key areas such as endoscopy, cataract operations, orthopaedics, access to diagnostics and imaging are on our agenda.”

Wales coronavirus infection rate was at its highest level in October since estimates began on July 2020.

Also giving evidence to the committee, Andrew Sallows, the Welsh Government’s Delivery Programme Director said that it’s important to note that the challenges of the pandemic are still causing intense pressure.

“Infection prevention control, PPE, the workforce implications really are all continuing to impact on our ability to deliver our historic core capacity and productivity levels that we would previously have been able to undertake.  

“So alongside the scheme that Judith's pointing out, it is a challenged position and one that we're working with the service really to try and improve and transform as well so that we can take the opportunity that covid has brought us."

According to the Welsh Government £248 million is to be invested in the NHS Covid recovery fund. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

However, the health chiefs resisted one Senedd member’s call for a Wales-specific inquiry into the way the pandemic has been handled.

The Welsh Government is resisting opposition calls for a separate inquiry for Wales, saying the best way of learning lessons would be to ensure the UK-wide enquiry, planned for next Spring, has an element focussing on decisions taken in Wales.

Asked by Natasha Asghar if those lessons would best be learned in a Wales-specific inquiry, Judith Paget said her personal view was that a UK-wide report would be more effective.

“If this is a personal response to a question, my view is that the response to the pandemic across the UK was knitted together in many aspects and so, this is my personal view, that a UK approach would be appropriate.

“But I do think it's important that through the negotiation on the terms of reference, that we understand what specific issues we might want to focus on from a Welsh perspective. But I would say this is my own personal view.”

Dr Frank Atherton believes the challenges the public have faced during Covid across the four nations have been similar. Credit: ITV Wales

Her view was echoed by the Chief Medical Officer, Frank Atherton, who was also giving evidence to the committee.

“There are questions clearly that need to be answered. But you know, throughout the pandemic, we have tried to keep very close to our counterparts across the four nations so that we have common solutions.

“Obviously, there's been different policy decisions taken in different countries in some areas, but the reality is that many of the decisions and the challenges that we faced were common.“And it's also a question of the resources that we would need if we did have a separate Welsh inquiry.

"To have two separate inquiries running at the same time it would be extremely difficult, I think, to manage at the same time as we're still managing the tail -  hopefully the tail end of the pandemic.“So if we are able to, to influence the UK inquiry so that the questions which rightfully are being asked in Wales can be addressed through that route. I think that's the best way but that's a personal view.”

The Conservatives say that the reason "radical change" is needed is because of "mismanagement" of the Welsh NHS by successive Welsh Labour Governments.

Shadow Health Minister for Health, Russell George MS, said: “Labour’s mismanagement of the Welsh NHS over the past two decades has left our health service lunging from crisis to crisis so change is desperately needed.

“A series of poor decisions from the centralisation of services to poor staff recruitment and bed cuts has put our NHS under incredible pressure and left 1 in 4 people in Wales stranded on an NHS waiting list.

“It’s simply not good enough and these aren’t new problems which started because of the pandemic, they are sadly a result of Labour’s dire management of our treasured health service over the last 22 years.

“It is clear things cannot continue like this and Labour ministers must listen to frontline staff and bring forward a plan that will help turnaround the fortunes of the Welsh NHS.”

Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru’s Health Spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth MS said, “The need for changing the way care in our NHS is delivered has never been so pressing.

“With immense pressures on the NHS this winter, we must avoid being trapped in this endless cycle where waiting times are getting increasingly worse. We’ve only had short term fixes from the Welsh government so far, which change very little in the long run.

“Hand in hand with any plan to deal with the developing situation as we head into winter, we need to see from Government a long-term post-Covid plan to tackle long waiting times, prioritise services like cancer diagnosis and treatment, and approach investing in our NHS with the innovation it requires.

“And crucially it has to be done in genuine partnership with social care.”