THE number of patients in Gwent waiting more than 36 weeks for treatment by the end of March was the lowest for almost five years.

But unprecedented pressure on hospitals and bad weather at the end of February and in early and mid-March combined to dash hopes of hitting a key waiting times target.

Aneurin Bevan University Health Board had aimed to reduce waits of more than 36 weeks to 145 - relating solely to patients requiring spinal surgery - by March 31, and for much of 2017/18 was confident of doing so.

But an already challenging winter in terms of demand worsened in the second half of February and early March as several days of extremely cold weather - known as the Beast from the East - culminated in heavy snowfalls which disrupted services.

It left the NHS across Wales struggling to catch up, and further snow in mid-March added to difficulties.

In Gwent hospitals alone, more than 850 routine operations had to be cancelled from the end of February, scuppering the chances of hitting a target agreed with, and supported with extra funding from, the Welsh Government.

By March 31, 782 patients in Gwent had been waiting more than 36 weeks from referral for treatment, more than four times the target, but the lowest amount since May 2013.

The majority of these - 655 - were orthopaedic patients, but other specialties that were expected to have no patients waiting above 36 weeks by the end of March were also affected, notably ENT (ear, nose and throat, 65 patients), general surgery (36) and ophthalmology (24).

The latest referral to treatment (RTT) times figures for Wales show that despite an extremely challenging March, all health boards in Wales managed to reduce the numbers of their patients waiting more than 36 weeks for treatment. The treatment plans of all of them however, were affected to some extent by the weather and the pressures elsewhere in the system.

In Gwent, the health board's longer term plan is to eliminate all waits of more than 36 weeks by the end of next March, and to sustain that position thereafter, while reducing the numbers of patients waiting more than 26 weeks.

Plans for 2018/19 will have to be modified however, to factor in the unexpected backlog from the end of March.