CORONAVIRUS and staffing pressures, combined with normal winter pressures on the NHS, are to blame for ongoing problems with treatment delays and hospital waiting times, according to the Welsh Government.

New figures for the past two months reveal the number of patients waiting to start treatment in Wales is nearing 700,000, and the backlog caused by Covid is judged to have had "a clear effect" on the health service's ability to meet targets.

The number of people waiting longer than the 36-week target for treatment is now the highest on record, and fewer patients are being treated within 26 weeks than in the previous month.

The Welsh Government said the pandemic had placed "a considerable strain on the NHS" and staff absence in January was at its highest for nine months.

"Despite the number of staff absences, thanks to the heroic efforts of our NHS staff, January saw the second smallest month-on-month increase of the total waiting list since the start of the pandemic," a government spokesperson said.

But the Welsh Conservatives have called on ministers to "move up a gear" and tackle the record waiting lists, with 690,000 people now waiting for treatment.

"These sky-high numbers are devastating but not shocking because, sadly, they are becoming too common – but that cannot mean that we just accept that this is what Wales gets when it deserves so much better," shadow health minister Russell George said.

“We know that the pandemic has had a huge effect on waiting lists – not that they were great then with as they doubled in the year before Covid struck – but the excuse will eventually wear thin and become unjustifiable."

The figures also show demand for emergency services remains high.

In February, the Welsh Ambulance Service has received more than 100 'red' callouts - the most serious category of emergency - a day, on average, for the ninth month in a row. Response times have improved slightly but are still below the target level.

And at emergency departments, the number of people attending was up 8.7 per cent on January's figures. On average, someone will now wait three hours in A&E before being admitted, transferred or discharged - the third-highest wait time since monthly records began in 2012.

The Welsh Government said said the surge in demand on A&E departments had "created significant challenges for hospital teams".

The government has confirmed it will publish "a detailed plan" next month to lay out "how we will tackle the waiting times for patients whose treatment has been delayed by the pandemic".