NHS Wales waiting times causing 'public health crisis' as around 25% of population await treatment

Roughly a quarter of the Welsh population is waiting for NHS treatment. Credit: PA Images

NHS waiting times in Wales are causing a "public health crisis", the outgoing Public Services Ombudsman for Wales has said ahead of his departure from the role.

Almost 700,000 Welsh patients are on a waiting list for treatment - around a quarter of the population. This is an increase of 50% since the early days of the pandemic.

Speaking to S4C's current affairs programme Y Byd ar Bedwar two years on from the first lockdown, Nick Bennett said "many people will be in pain and suffering over the next few years".

Mr Bennett will leave the Public Services office at the end of March, following seven years at the helm.

Nick Bennett has warned that the NHS should not return to "an old way of working".

But he said he is worried about the impact waiting times will have on the Ombudsman's Office and the health service alike.

"I want to see this office being able to cope in the future," he said.

"Of course, we know that nearly a quarter of people in Wales are currently on a waiting list.

"Nearly 8% of the population have been waiting more than nine months - it's going to take years to deal with that."

Mr Bennett warned that the NHS should not return to "an old way of working".

"I think it's important that there are targets, of course, to ensure that waiting lists are brought down - but also, that we don't return to an old way of working," he said.

Mr Bennett added that there have been many great examples of innovative work by health boards during the pandemic and that such practice should remain.

'It's going to take years to get back to some kind of normality'

Responding to some of the Ombudsman's concerns, First Minister Mark Drakeford admitted there is a difficult time ahead for the NHS in Wales.

"Looking ahead, it's going to be a challenging time," Mr Drakeford said.

"The health services are trying to cope with the impact of the coronavirus, and they are also trying to re-establish everything else that is important in those services.

"We're investing more money, we're giving more training to get more new people in to try and help staff the service. But this is difficult for those who are suffering - they will have to wait for treatment.

"However, we will all have to try to acknowledge the fact that people in the service are trying to do everything they can every day to re-establish the system and to deal with the people who have been waiting."

The Welsh Government has promised to spend £1 billion to help the NHS recover from the pandemic before the next election.

It also said that a plan outlining how it will tackle waiting lists will be announced in April. 

As well as waiting lists for treatment, an urgent care unit director said the pandemic has been a huge challenge for the departments under his supervision.

Dr Paul Mizen said Christmas 2020 was the peak time for Covid in his hospital departments.

Dr Paul Mizen, Divisional Director at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board's urgent care units, said: "We had to adapt very quickly, and we had to learn how to handle Covid.

"We were seeing hundreds of people die across the country, and that was very concerning. 

"In the first wave, the intensive care unit was the biggest concern - we were up to over 50 patients [at the Royal Gwent Hospital and Nevill Hall Hospital]. We've never had more than 20 at any one time.

"Christmas 2020 was the peak for us - we had over 400 with Covid in our hospitals."

"We are still under pressure, and the winter has been difficult. We have tried to help staff, but we know that many have found it very difficult.

"We don’t have enough staff - and not enough staff across the health service. And that has been the case for years, before the pandemic.

Watch 'Y Byd ar Bedwar: Covid 19: Have lessons been learnt?' at 8.25pm on Wednesday 23 March on S4C with English subtitles