Anyone who reads about the Welsh NHS will be familiar with Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. Anyone who lives in north Wales is likely to know someone who has had a sorry experience.

The state of health services from Holyhead to Wrexham is deeply concerning – ultimately a victim of Welsh Government incompetence that has left patients and staff suffering.

From emergency care to treatment waiting times, the health board is underperforming, more often than not, worse than anywhere else in Wales.

As they are on the frontline, NHS staff are experiencing the lion’s share of the challenge. But they are hard-working public servants that do their best in a system that perpetually lets them down.

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Because it is not just patients that pay the price for poor healthcare, many of the staff are left in stressed out and seemingly impossible situations. A report by The Royal College of Physicians found consultants in Wrexham Maelor Hospital were some of the “unhappiest” they have ever seen.

But this should not be surprising given how the nationwide under-recruitment of NHS staff, presided over by a Labour Government in Cardiff Bay, is a chronic issue in north Wales.

This has led to outcomes such as the longest A&E waits and the longest treatment list in Wales. Ysbyty Glan Clwyd, for instance, saw only 35% of patients being seen within the four-hour target in April. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, 156,000 people are languishing in pain on a waiting list, up from 96,000.

One of them is Mrs Jones from Clwyd West. Mrs Jones has been waiting for a hip replacement for more than a year. In that time, she has received little to no communication from the Health Board.

In December, she went for her pre-op appointment. But the waiting times are so long that the three-month window to have an operation after a pre-op came and went, prolonging her wait even further. And then last month, a year after being referred, she was told that her operation would be delayed again until she saw a cardiac specialist, and to this day she has still not been given an appointment.

Now in that year, Mrs Jones has suffered with substantial pain, has had to give up driving, and must rely on her neighbours who she feels lucky to have, but to whom she feels like a burden. 

Mrs Jones is retired, and instead of enjoying life like she should be, she is stuck at home, in pain, her freedom stolen. It is no good the Welsh Government telling Mrs Jones that they are looking at how things can improve or that waiting lists are as they are because of Covid. Because those excuses won’t give Mrs Jones her independence back.

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One of the main ways health boards are challenged to improve and prevent letting down patients like Mrs Jones is through investigations and performance reports. There have been a number of such reports in recent months, the two main threads that follow through these – whether it be about vascular, mental, or diagnostic and therapy services – is understaffing and, shockingly, a failure to follow through on recommendations on other reports.

It is clear that the blame must lie with the leadership and oversight, which is ultimately the Labour Welsh Government, especially given it spent five years in special measures and, so, under direct ministerial control.

When the health board was taken out of special measures in late 2020 by the Welsh Government, mid-pandemic, I felt that there was something we were not seeing.

The 2018 Ockenden Review, undertaken due to the dire state of health services in north Wales “found that the systems, structures and processes of governance, management and leadership introduced…were wholly inappropriate and significantly flawed. The Board was alerted to those significant flaws, both internally and externally, for many years before action began to be taken”.

From what I could see in 2020, little had changed. In some respects, it had grown worse.  The after-effects of Covid and the return to normality had not yet presented themselves, so the move felt very premature.

The National Wales: Sam Rowlands MSSam Rowlands MS

It has become increasingly clear that the decision to take the health board out of special measures was a mistake. There are several cases where poor outcomes continued, and areas in need of addressing simply weren’t dealt with. I believe, the decision was wrong and – given it was six months before an election – very political.

This is extremely disappointing and even more so when the Labour Government are pushing for more Senedd members in Cardiff when hundreds of much-needed doctors, nurses, and important healthcare staff could be recruited instead.

Aside from our Wales-wide proposals to deal with issues like the backlog through regional surgical hubs, it is imperative ministers learn the lessons of their past and impose a reformed special measures regime to provide the Health Board with the leadership and resources necessary to address failings and deliver high-quality healthcare.

The people of north Wales deserve better - there is no time to waste.

Sam Rowlands is a Member of the Senedd for the North Wales region.