THE health service in Wales is showing "some signs of progress" in tackling record waiting lists for treatment "against a backdrop of a winter like no other".

Waiting lists have still increased, but at their slowest rate since the beginning of the pandemic, new figures published by the Welsh Government today, Thursday, show.

As of December, there were 683,000 people in Wales waiting to start some form of treatment.

Normal winter pressures were exacerbated by the Omicron variant of Covid and the need to draft health workers over to the booster vaccination programme, the government said.

The Welsh Conservatives said the figures "only go to show how much work there is to be done to get our national health service into a fit state that works for patients and staff".

Covid has hit treatment times by shutting down many non-essential services over the past two years, but problems with hitting patient targets in Wales generally predates the pandemic.

Today's figures reveal:

• The Welsh Ambulance Service received, on average, more than 100 callouts a day classified as the most serious or immediately life-threatening emergencies. Some 52 per cent of those calls in January were reached within the eight-minute target time – an improvement on December's rate but lower than the 65 per cent Welsh Government target. January was the eighth month in a row there were more than 100 life-threatening emergencies each day.

• Some 75,000 people attended emergency (A&E) departments in Wales in January. Around two-thirds (68 per cent) spent less than four hours waiting before their admission, transfer or discharge. The government's target is 95 per cent. The typical waiting time in A&E last month was two hours and 52 minutes. Nearly 9,000 waited for 12 hours or longer.

• Covid continues to disrupt treatment targets, with performance plummeting in the early months of the pandemic. In December, 53 per cent of the people on treatment waiting lists had been waiting less than 26 weeks (the government's target is 95 per cent). The number of people that same month waiting more than 36 weeks for treatment hit the highest levels since records began a decade ago.

What does the NHS say?

"Set against a backdrop of a winter like no other – including dealing with the full force of the Omicron wave in December and January – there were some signs of progress, including the number of patients waiting for treatment in December increasing at the slowest rate since the start of the pandemic," said Darren Hughes, director of the Welsh NHS Confederation.

He added: "We understand these small improvements don’t reflect the experiences of all patients and many continue to wait longer than they should for treatment, whether for scheduled or urgent care. NHS leaders are painfully aware of this and more is being done to support those on waiting lists."

Mr Hughes also warned the NHS expects "a significant uncovering of 'late presentations' emerging over the next two years, due to the impact Covid had on primary care, translating into further harm in the long run".