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Vaughan Gething MS, Minister for Health and Social Services.

First published:
31 December 2020
Last updated:

I indicated in yesterday’s session in the Welsh Parliament that I would provide a further update on the current pressures being experienced across the health and care system in Wales. The approval of the Oxford- AstraZeneca vaccine yesterday was very welcome news but the benefits are still some way off. The current situation across our health and care system remains exceptionally challenging.

I want to take the opportunity once again to thank our front line staff for their continued effort in the face of this relentless pandemic and to recognise their commitment, compassion and hard work. The last year has taken its toll on many front line workers and we have seen high levels of sickness that inevitably impacts on services for patients. The situation has become particularly acute with the surge in the transmission of the virus. At present there are more than 2,000 fewer staff available to work in late December than there were in September before the current surge. This has been exacerbated over the holiday period with increasing numbers of our workforce returning to shielding. 

Many aspects of our health and care system are stretched to the limit as they seek to provide essential care and treatment. Routine activity in hospitals has had to be limited and domiciliary care and care homes are experiencing similar constraints on the services they can provide. Together with normal winter pressures, this has resulted in very high levels of pressure. The situation is compounded by the significant increase in the numbers of patients suffering from covid that are now in hospital beds and in critical care.

Critical care is now operating at 141% of its normal capacity and is the most serious concern over the next few weeks into the New Year. While we always planned to increase capacity, the current position is precarious as adequate staffing becomes a real issue. We continue to see patients in critical care for long periods of time and sadly many deaths. In the last few days there has been an overall increase in covid-related hospital inpatients to more than 2600 – critically, for the first time, this has now exceeded the 2500 patients we anticipated. Sadly we now have a record number of more than 1600 confirmed covid patients in our hospitals across Wales.

Patients that are still very ill but beginning their recovery in hospital are now up to more than 800. This has an increasing impact on available beds, as these patients may need to stay in hospital for long periods of time.

Primary care services also continue to deal with exceptional levels of demand as does the 111 service and the ambulance services. On Monday the 111 services had over 4000 calls in just one day, which is the highest seen in a single day. We know that high community prevalence leads to higher hospital admissions, serious illness and the loss of our loved ones. It takes several weeks for changes in the community transmission of the virus to start to impact on the pressure on our hospitals. We are currently still seeing increases in hospital admission and the latest 7 day average is close to 120 hospital admissions per day, twice the level we saw in September.

This statement provides an honest picture of the scale and significance of the challenge we face across our NHS. However it is important to share following my oral statement yesterday to help describe the specific pressures that are being managed. It reflects a system that is managing its most critical period of the year with over 2600 less beds than normal and with 119 less ICU beds available than would normally be the case, as they are occupied by covid patients and are therefore not available to support our usual winter pressures activity.  The NHS is having to adapt during this intense period by reducing other activities and limiting access. The coming weeks present genuinely unprecedented challenges and no effort is being spared to combat them.

The impact of the virus is across all health and care services and we appreciate the collaborative effort that continues across sectors in Wales. We know there is a delay between the impact of lockdown and any reduction in pressure. It remains more important than ever that the public stay at home and help save lives. Together we can keep Wales safe.

This statement is being issued during recess in order to keep members informed. Should members wish me to make a further statement or to answer questions on this when the Senedd returns I would be happy to do so.