WAITING lists for NHS treatment have shortened in Wales for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

Newly-revealed data for October will provide welcome relief for the health service, which has struggled to cope with a wave of patients whose treatment was delayed during periods of lockdown restrictions.

While the decrease on patients on waiting lists is modest – estimated to be around 1,600 fewer in October than in September – the figures suggest work to ease the backlog could be beginning to have an effect.

Government estimates show there were around 753,000 open patient pathways for treatment in October, and around 589,000 individual patients on treatment waiting lists in Wales.

The Welsh Government welcomed the news and said “progress continues to be made on the longest waits”, but also noted increased demand on emergency services, including the highest-ever number of the most serious ambulance callouts.

But critics argue the government is yet to have a handle on the situation, and say problems have existed in the Welsh NHS since before the pandemic.

Russell George, the Welsh Conservatives’ shadow health minister, said a “cost-of-pain crisis is a living nightmare for those forced to wait months, if not years for treatment”.

“Labour need to get a grip on the NHS and stop breaking all the wrong records,” he said, asking: “Is it at all surprising to see doctors consider striking alongside nurses, ambulance workers, and midwives in Labour-run Wales when we see numbers like this?”

The subject has proved an emotive one, not least in the Senedd, where recently first minister Mark Drakeford launched a fiery defence of his government’s management of the health service, amid criticism from Senedd Tory leader Andrew RT Davies.

Mr Drakeford told Mr Davies it was "absolutely shocking” to criticise matters in Wales “with the mess that your party has made to the reputation of this country around the world”.

But a recent wave of industrial action has affected healthcare on both sides of the Severn Bridge, with workers in both Wales and England striking over their respective governments’ pay offers.

Last week, Argus editor Gavin Thompson called on the Welsh Government to take ownership of the issues for which it has responsibility.

Welsh ministers’ claims that their hands were essentially tied unless the Treasury gave them more money to spend on nurses’ wages are ”an abject failure to take responsibility that harms the very democratic institutions which they work in”, he argued.

And what of the health workers themselves?

Responding to the latest Welsh Government figures on waiting lists and hospital demand, Darren Hughes, the leader of the Welsh NHS Confederation, said there was “no hiding” from the pressures on healthcare, and said any recent improvement in the figures was likely to be wiped out.

“With pressures building and as the impact of strike action is felt in the days and weeks that follow, we must expect statistics to worsen, with both patients and staff bearing the brunt,” he said.

“Without a long-term investment plan to transform social care, and without the Welsh and UK governments entering into meaningful negotiations with trade unions, any progress made, or planning and preparation to mitigate the worst of the effects of pressures, will be inconsequential.”