It could take up to four years to clear the waiting list backlog in Wales caused by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, a leading NHS official has said.
Dr Andrew Goodall, chief executive of NHS Wales, said by the end of May around 60,000 patients were waiting more than 36 weeks for their treatment to begin after being referred.
But the overall waiting lists had not increased because there had been a large drop in referrals from GPs, he said.
Dr Goodall told the Senedd’s health, social care and sport committee that attendances at A&E departments across Wales had fallen by 60% in March and April, although in recent weeks they had started to recover.
He said there had been a “noticeable drop” in referrals for suspected cancer cases, which had been as high as 70%.
“Waiting lists are a concern and we have seen an impact on the length of time patients are already on our waiting lists,” Dr Goodall told the committee.
“We have seen a reduction in outpatient referrals coming in from GPs and they are 50% down on what we would normally expect.
“The waiting list in size terms has, to my surprise, reduced in total numbers. That is because we have maintained a level of activity while referrals have dropped off.”
Ahead of the lockdown, Dr Goodall said forecasts suggested 28,000 people would die in Wales after contracting Covid-19 and there would be 120,000 hospital admissions.
As a result, the NHS in Wales halted routine hospital appointments and procedures to focus on treating coronavirus patients.
With the lockdown easing, Dr Goodall said there was the beginning of a recovery in the numbers of referrals being made but it would take “some considerable time” for the NHS to return to where it was before the pandemic.
“I personally would be saying that this could well take us another sort of three to four years to recover and I would hope that we would do it sooner than that with some of the understanding that we have, but it could well be quite a long haul,” he said.
“I’m afraid the deterioration would have put us back in the fray two or three years as a minimum.”
He said there were also fears of a second wave of coronavirus infections this winter, which could combine with the annual flu season and the usual winter pressures on the NHS.