Hospital waiting lists could take at least four years to return to the level they were at before the Covid-19 pandemic when numbers were falling, Wales' Health Minister has said.

The Welsh Government yesterday revealed plans to manage a backlog of appointments and treatments, which has built up since the beginning of the outbreak more than two years ago.

There were 691,885 patients on the waiting list in Wales in February, with more than a quarter of a million (251,647) of them on it for nine months or more.

At a press conference held this afternoon, Eluned Morgan announced a raft of measures aimed at cutting waiting times for people with non-urgent health conditions 

The plan sets a target for 35 per cent of all new appointments and 50 per cent of follow-up appointments being delivered virtually in future.

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It will result in an extra £60m being given to health boards over the next four years, increasing the amount committed to help the Welsh NHS recover from the pandemic to around £1bn.

Ms Morgan said: “Despite all of the pandemic pressures, the NHS has made huge efforts to increase planned care.

“Nearly 200,000 outpatient appointments are held every month, 16,000 people are admitted for treatment each month and more people than ever have been checked and treated for cancer.

“But it will take at least four years to return to pre-pandemic levels of activity when waiting times were falling and to do this, we need to make some changes.

“We also need to invest in equipment, new facilities and we need to keep on investing in our greatest assets, our NHS staff, so we can diagnose and treat people more quickly.”

She added: “The way the NHS deliver services has changed over the last year.

“Many of these changes will be here to stay and we need to reshape some of our expectations about the NHS.”

The Health Minister said the plan was designed to ensure no-one will be waiting more than a year for treatment in most specialties by spring 2025.

A series of "stretching targets" for health boards have been set out in the plan, which will also see NHS staff being offered incentives to work longer hours.

It follows the majority of appointments and treatments being postponed at the start of the pandemic to enable the NHS to focus on caring for people with Covid-19.

However, opposition parties have claimed the proposals do not go far enough, with the Welsh Conservatives describing them as "unambitious".

The party's shadow minister for health, Russell George MS, said: “Twenty-three years of Labour mismanagement has seen the NHS breaking all the wrong records in Wales.

“Only last week we saw the worst A&E waits and longest treatment list in NHS Wales history. Much more needs to be done.

“We need to be assured that this plan is more than a just sticking plaster to cover deep rooted issues.

“This is a matter of life and death for people in Wales. It’s about time Labour ministers started treating it as such.”

Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for health and care, Rhun ap Iorwerth MS, said it was important that targets are met.

He said: “What the NHS in Wales needs is a plan that looks at every aspect of the patient journey through the health and care sector.

“This has to start with increased focus on prevention, to reduce the number of people who are seeking health care in the first place, and must include plans to quickly support those patients who need care packages after hospital treatment, to free up beds in hospitals.

“It’s also not clear if government are taking any additional steps to address the severely depleted workforce across health and care.

“The fact that new targets are to be set is welcome, but we’ll have to assess the level of ambition and firmly hold the government to account to ensure targets are met.”

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