THE National Health Service is in the middle of its "toughest winter ever", facing the twin crises of rising coronavirus cases and continued high demand for its services.

Figures published today show the pressures on the NHS are continuing, and, although there have been some improvements in ambulance response times and A&E waiting times, hospitals are still experiencing some of the highest levels of demand on record.

Compounding the problem is the imminent wave of Omicron coronavirus cases, which the Welsh Government expects will peak in January. While early research suggests Omicron may be less severe than other Covid strains, the sheer numbers of anticipated infections means hospitals are still preparing for increased admissions.

Covid will also take its toll on NHS staff availability. Welsh health service chief Judith Paget told the BBC earlier today that as many as one-in-six health workers could be off work, either sick or self-isolating, during the peak of the coming Omicron wave.

Large numbers of NHS staff are also being drafted in to man vaccine centres and drive forward the Covid booster programme, which is aiming to immunise as many people as possible over the next few weeks and maximise defences against Omicron.


The new figures on NHS performance show the number of people waiting for treatment from NHS Wales has reached record levels, with the Welsh Government admitting they are likely to continue to rise.

There are now 680,000 patients on the waiting list – the highest recorded figure since comparable data was first collected in 2011.

In October, the latest data that is available, the number of people yet to begin treatment was more than 45 per cent higher than in the same month before the pandemic in 2019.

The percentage of people receiving treatment within the target 26-week period from point of referral remains extremely low.

Ambulance response times against the eight-minute target improved for the first time in November since February 2021, however, there were fewer calls made to the ambulance service and fewer attendances at emergency departments. Despite this, one in 10 calls made to the ambulance service were life-threatening – the highest on record.

Free Press Series: Members of the British Army during training in April 2020 to support the Welsh Ambulance Service in the battle against Covid-19. Picture: Via PAMembers of the British Army during training in April 2020 to support the Welsh Ambulance Service in the battle against Covid-19. Picture: Via PA

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “Our NHS is facing its toughest winter ever and our hardworking staff continue to show unwavering commitment to delivering high-quality care to hundreds of thousands of patients each month."

Funding worth £1 billion has been announced for NHS post-pandemic recovery this Senedd term, but the government spokesperson said "increasing challenges from Covid pressures mean waiting times have and will continue to rise".

The "immediate focus" will now be on "ensuring we deal with this next difficult phase of the pandemic and that patients can receive urgent care when they need it", they added.

Responding to the new figures, Welsh NHS Confederation director Darren Hughes said: "The whole of the health and care system is working tirelessly to find both short and long-term solutions to the challenges faced.

"This is at the same time as we’re seeing an increase in staff illness and isolation whist delivering the biggest and fastest vaccination programme the world has ever seen.

"The performance in some areas, for example in urgent and emergency care, is improving month on month but there are still enormous challenges ahead."

He added: “That’s why we must all do what we can to ease the pressure on the NHS this winter – by making sensible choices to limit the spread of Covid (including attending your appointment for a booster vaccine when invited) and accessing services appropriately by only calling 999 in a life-threatening emergency and using NHS 111 online as a first port of call for less urgent problems."