NHS treatment wait in Wales reaches biggest number ever with health set to be key general election topic

The number of people waiting for treatment on the NHS in Wales has reached the highest on record. It has increased for the second month in a row with last month also having a record-breaking amount of patients waiting.

The figures released on Thursday show that in March there were around 599,100 individuals waiting for treatment – an increase on 591,600 the month before and the highest on record yet again. The number of open patient pathways – which is a higher figure as some people are waiting for more than one type of treatment – increased from just over 762,500 to just under 768,900 in the months between February and March.

The NHS in Wales is expected to be a key battleground in the upcoming general election. The Conservative party is sure to use the situation of the NHS in Labour-run Wales as a key campaign strategy ahead of July 4.

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The data released on Thursday reflects how challenged the Welsh NHS is at the moment – particularly after a demanding winter with NHS staff strikes. A target set by the Welsh Government to ensure that everyone received a diagnosis within eight weeks by March 2024 was not met though the percentage of instances where that is missed reached the lowest level since April 2020, suggesting some sort of return to pre-pandemic NHS performance. For the latest health and Covid news sign up to our newsletter here.

The data also shows that ambulance delays are posing a major problem for the NHS. This is often caused by a lack of movement through the hospital system. People are waiting outside A&E departments in ambulances because there are not enough beds in the hospitals and that is sometimes caused by a lack of social care in the community, which prevents people from being discharged.

In March around 23,000 hours were lost due to handover delays. A spokesman for the Welsh Government said: "We have been clear with health boards about the need to release ambulance crews from emergency departments quickly to support faster response times to those in most need.”

However there have been some improvements in NHS performance in Wales in the most recent data which is released by the Welsh Government. There is a target in place that at least 75% of patients should start cancer treatment within 62 days of it first being suspected and that target as never been met.

But in March 60.5% of people started their treatment within the 62 days target compared to just 53.4% the month before. The March figure was the highest since March 2022. A spokesman for the Welsh Government said: "However we need to see further work from the NHS to sustain and improve on this performance."

The Welsh Government uses the word 'pathways' as opposed to 'patients' as one patient could be waiting for treatment for more than one condition so they could represent more than one pathway. The way NHS data is measured varies across the UK nations. This makes it very difficult to compare the figures in Wales with England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. However, you can achieve a broadly comparable number for Wales figures with England by removing some known non-consultant led pathways which are not counted in England.

There are around 686,400 open pathways on consultant-led pathways (as opposed to pathways where you could see a junior doctor) in Wales, equivalent to 22 pathways (not patients) for every 100 people. For England the figure in March was 13 pathways for every 100 people. This means that there are more patient pathways open in Wales than in England when you take population into account.

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Key points from the data:

  • 48.0% of red calls made to 999 received an emergency response within eight minutes.

  • In March around 23,000 hours were lost due to handover delays at hospitals.

  • The number of patient pathways waiting less than 26 weeks for treatment decreased to 56% in March.

  • The number of pathways waiting longer than 36 weeks increased to just under 251,300 in March – an increase on the month before and remaining high in historical context.

  • Pathways waiting longer than one year for their first outpatient appointment increased to 61,100, which is 40.5% less than at its highest in August 2022. However the target of eliminating one-year waits by the end of 2022 was not met and has still not been met.

  • For those waiting for a diagnosis the numbers fell to just under 107,000 waiting in March. The number waiting longer than eight weeks, which is the target maximum wait, decreased to just over 39,900. This was the lowest since April 2020, suggesting a return to pre-pandemic levels.

  • For therapies the number waiting increased to just under 72,000 in March – the highest on record. And there was also an increase on the target of therapies within 14 weeks where 13,900 patient pathways were waiting. This was the third-highest on record.

  • The Welsh Government had a target to eliminate waits of more than eight weeks for diagnostic tests and 14 weeks for therapies by March 2024 and that was not met.

Commenting on the data Sam Rowlands, Welsh Conservatives shadow health minister, said: "These atrocious statistics stand as a stark warning as to what a Labour Government looks like and why Labour cannot be trusted to run the health service. Unlike in England where progress is being made to cut waiting lists the Labour Welsh Government are taking us back to square one with the longest NHS waits on record. The Welsh Conservatives want to see our Welsh NHS fully resourced every penny received for health from the UK Conservative Government but instead Labour has chosen to squander these funds on 20mph speed limits and 36 more Senedd politicians.”