LATEST Welsh NHS data for January showed the highest ever amount of patients waiting for treatment with 688,836 on patient pathways – over 5,000 more than the previous month – leaving 1-in-5 Welsh people on the waiting list.
The number of people waiting for over two years has risen nearly 30,000 in just four months and now stand at 56,500.
FIGURES LIKELY TO GET WORSE
The figures are likely to worsen due to the postponement of elective surgery across several health boards as resources shifted to booster jabs.
Additional figures showed a third (33.4%) of patients had to wait over the four-hour target to be seen in A&E last month. This is the third-worst month for the Welsh NHS on record.
The target to get 95% admittances seen in four hours has never been met in its 12-year existence.
9,150 patients waited over 12 hours in Welsh hospitals, nearly 600 more than in December.
Those over 85 spent an average of eight hours and 16 minutes to be seen in A&E – the longest since data was first recorded for this age group for the second month in a row.
In February, only 55% of responses to immediately life-threatening calls arrived within eight minutes when it came to ambulance performance.
The target of 65% of red calls reaching their patient within eight minutes has not been reached in over 18 months.
Only 22.6% of amber call patients – including strokes – were reached within 30 minutes.
The news comes the day after ITV reported that Nick Bennett, the Public Service Ombudsman, said NHS waiting times in Wales are causing “a public health crisis” that will mean “many people will be in pain and suffering over the next few years”.
SKY-HIGH NUMBERS SHOW FAILURE AS USUAL
Welsh Conservative and Shadow Health Minister Russell George MS said: “These sky-high numbers are devastating but not shocking because, sadly, they are becoming too common – but that cannot mean that we just accept that this is what Wales gets when it deserves so much better.
“We know that the pandemic massively affected waiting lists – not that they were great then with as they doubled in the year before Covid struck – but the excuse will eventually wear thin and become unjustifiable.
“This is all the more acute now as being stuck on a waiting list can prevent someone from working or delay their return to their job, when earning a wage is all the more important due to the cost of living increases.
“The Health Minister keeps saying the health boards will report back with their plans to reduce these waiting lists, but Baroness Morgan should be leading them to a solution, not sitting back like a passive observer.
“These crippling waiting lists that are breaking all the wrong records and show that, under Labour, business as usual is failure as usual.”
WG WELCOMES NHS SERVICES GETTING WORSE MORE SLOWLY
The Welsh Government took a different view of the data.
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “The Omicron wave continues to impact staffing levels, which placed a considerable strain on the NHS, with January 2022 seeing the highest level of staff sickness due to COVID since April 2020.
“Despite the number of staff absences, thanks to the heroic efforts of our NHS staff, January saw the second smallest month-on-month increase of the total waiting list since the start of the pandemic.
“Diagnostic waits over eight weeks, although a slight increase this month, are 14% lower than in January 2021 and a 22% improvement on the May 2020 position.
“Unfortunately, the combination of staffing, winter pressures and the ongoing Omicron wave meant some people continue to wait longer for treatment than we would like, with the over 36-week position increasing again this month.
“Consultants continue to see all patients in order of clinical priority, with the most urgent patients seen first.
“We are also focusing on long waiters. The January figure for waits over a year has shown a 2% decrease compared to December and is the lowest since August 2021.
“February 2022 saw an increase in the total number of calls made to the ambulance service compared to the previous month – and the same month last year.
“Despite this, performance against the eight-minute ambulance response target increased by 2.5 percentage points on January 2022.
“Emergency departments have also seen increased activity – with over a third more attendances than February 2021 – which has created significant challenges for hospital teams, and performance against the four-hour target remains well below what it should be.
“As ever, cancer services are in high demand referrals to cancer services have increased from December 2021. Whilst the number of patients starting cancer treatments decreased in January 2022, the number of patients told they do not have cancer improved over previous months, with over 11,500 patients informed they do not have cancer.
“This is partly due to the opening of Rapid Diagnostic Centres (RDC) across Wales, which have helped diagnose patients with concerning symptoms more quickly. These clinics, coupled with the £248m to support our NHS recovery plan, will help us to reduce waiting times for cancer services in the coming months.
“In April we will publish a detailed plan on how we will tackle the waiting times for patients whose treatment has been delayed by the pandemic.”
“THIS CRISIS IS UNSUSTAINABLE”
Responding to the figures, Dr Suresh Pillai, Vice President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine Wales, told The Herald: “The latest performance figures show the crisis facing the health system and urgent and emergency care in Wales.
“More and more patients are waiting for longer and longer periods – we know that long waiting times are associated with an increased risk of harm or even death, and there is no indication of improvement or respite for staff.
“The workforce is burned out, staff face moral injury, stress, and distress every shift.
“Patients face long, uncomfortable waits in crowded Emergency Departments, while other patients wait in the community for long periods for an ambulance.
“We are also seeing a sharp return of covid in the community and among healthcare workers.
“The already burned out and depleted workforce faces further shortages due to covid related absences.
“Crowded Emergency Departments are a high-risk environment for covid infection, particularly among the most vulnerable patients.
“This crisis is unsustainable.
“Staff are doing all they can to keep patients safe and minimise harm, but it is an extremely challenging crisis to manage. Patients are suffering as a result.
“It is imperative that we see action to improve the situation.”
NEW ACTION NEEDED
Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds MS called for new action to ensure that A&E attendees are seen within the 4-hour target. New figures showed that 33.4% of attendees weren’t seen within the four-hour target time.
Jane Dodds MS said: “It is clear the Welsh NHS remains in crisis, with A&E services the worst affected.
“Our amazing NHS staff are doing everything they can, but patients are paying the price for policy failures.
“The Welsh Government should be taking urgent steps to boost local health services and GPs to reduce the massive amounts of pressure on A&E departments and the backlogs impacting the ambulance service.
“We need to see more services moved back into local communities, which used to act as a vital buffer zone for A&E services.
“I am also extremely concerned that Army support for the Welsh Ambulance Service will end before winter. While I appreciate this is not the armed forces’ day job, now is not the time to be removing their support.
“The ambulance service is barely coping as things are and I would be extremely worried that removing the support of the Army before the end of winter could worsen the waiting time crisis across Wales.”
BOOZE-RELATED AMBULANCE CALLS ROSE IN FEBRUARY
Responding to the news that more calls were made to the ambulance service in February than the previous month, and that there has been a rise in alcohol-related calls, Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for substance misuse, Peredur Owen Griffiths MS said: “Today’s updated NHS waiting times are another reminder of the immense pressure our health service continues to be under.
“It is especially concerning news as the ambulance service was under huge pressure before restrictions were lifted.
“While freedom is to be celebrated, the resultant demand should not be.
“It’s clear that the ambulance service is struggling to meet the increase in calls – and let’s not forget that Covid has not yet gone away.
“We all have a role to play in helping prevent demand on our health services – and it’s more important than ever to see Welsh Government plans, which we understand are not due until April.
“Their plan needs to be comprehensive and address all stages – from the workforce to patient flow through hospitals – to incorporate preventative measures to ease the burden on frontline services in the first instance.
“It is vital that this plan is robust because getting the NHS back on track is one of the most important jobs of this government.”
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