Plans to reduce NHS waiting lists in Wales will likely be delayed until the spring, health minister Eluned Morgan has warned.
Baroness Morgan indicated it could be months before elective surgeries are restarted due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Many health boards paused non-urgent operations last month so resources could be redirected to the coronavirus booster jab rollout and to help with the Omicron variant wave.
I am contacted on a daily basis, as I'm sure we all are, by constituents in pain wondering how much longer they can go onLaura Jones MS
The move prompted concern over the country’s already soaring waiting list times.
Laura Jones MS asked the minister during a virtual Senedd Plenary session on Wednesday if operations could be kick-started sooner to help those who are suffering.
Ms Jones said: “I am contacted on a daily basis, as I’m sure we all are, by constituents in pain wondering how much longer they can go on.
“Now we are seeing Covid numbers falling and hospital rates are stable, can you press to get elective surgeries started again to give people some hope?”
Responding, Baroness Morgan said: “I can’t tell you how aware I am of the many thousands of people across Wales who are genuinely suffering at the moment and are in a lot of pain. So it is, after Covid, my first priority is to get those waiting lists down.
“It’s going to be difficult during this period, and we all knew that, as Omicron worked its way through the NHS system, there would have to be a cutback in terms of the number of planned care operations being carried out.
“We’re getting the latest statistics on waiting lists tomorrow.
“But I’ve made it clear that I don’t expect us to get back to a place where we’re really tackling that waiting list until the spring because of the restrictions we have to put in place due to Covid.”
Baroness Morgan added: “I do have empathy with those who are in pain and I would encourage them to get in touch with their GP to make sure they’ve got support and painkillers to get them through to the point where we’re all desperate to get to.”
The minister said the Welsh Government is working with health boards to come up with a plan to reduce waiting lists on a regional basis, which could see people sent to hospitals further afield to receive surgery.
The most recent figures from October showed 680,000 people, or one in five of the population, were waiting for treatment, a record high. However, that was prior to surgeries being put on hold once more in December.
The latest Welsh NHS performance date is due to be published on Thursday.
England, for example, doesn't count reinfections, so that could make a considerable difference. Wales does count reinfections if they are 42 days apartBaroness Morgan
Another member, Gareth Davies for the Vale of Clwyd, questioned the minister on whether Covid restrictions were still necessary at all.
Baroness Morgan said: “The data we’ve had so far actually suggests those restrictions were helpful. We’ve definitely seen a difference in terms of hospitalisations.
“England certainly had higher rates of hospitalisations compared to all of the other three nations that introduced restrictions.
“The way we count cases is different in all four nations. England, for example, doesn’t count reinfections, so that could make a considerable difference.
“Wales does count reinfections if they are 42 days apart.”
She said some of the early calculations indicate that, while Wales had 170,000 people with Covid over the period, had they not added restrictions, like England, the country would have seen an extra 40,000 people contract the virus.