Health and Social Care

Why our Welsh NHS has never been more important

Last month Paul Davies undertook a reshuffle to showcase the best of a talented Welsh Conservative team in the Senedd, with the promise to build a manifesto for next year which will cause a revolution in devolution and deliver genuine change for the people of Wales writes Andrew RT Davies.

After a decade away, it is a great pleasure to return to the health and social care portfolio, particularly at such a challenging time for our great NHS and social care sector.  

I think it’s fair to say we’ve all been humbled to see the fantastic work and bravery which has been displayed by our heroic frontline staff in the ongoing crusade against coronavirus.

We have some of the most talented health practitioners in the world and their skills have come to the fore during this tough period.  

From doctors and nurses saving lives in our hospitals to scientists in Wales leading global efforts to decipher and track changes to the genetic code of coronavirus, we have a proud story to tell.  

And that isn’t just isolated to Covid-19 but right across all areas of healthcare, as demonstrated recently with the news critically ill children in Wales will be the first in the UK to be offered a new NHS test that reads their entire DNA in the fight against genetic illness.   

In relation to coronavirus, no response is perfect with different ramifications to consider right across the public policy sphere, and understandably criticism has been levelled at all governments.  

It’s easy for me to sit here and commentate with a Captain Hindsight perspective but ahead of a potential second spike in the next few months, it’s imperative the Welsh Labour-led Government and ministers use the summer to learn all possible lessons from the first battle.    

In my humble opinion and with the virus currently at a very low circulation, it’s vital we use this period to ramp up our testing capacity and capability in Wales, including routine screening for frontline staff, to ensure we are fully prepared for the winter months.   

This is important not only to save lives but also to ensure that we can avoid other disastrous knock-on effects such as a shutdown of schools and the devastating impact this has on our children and their wellbeing.    

These have to be priorities and success will be dependent on scaling up our testing capacity and the implementation of a highly effective track and trace programme, which to the government’s credit appears to be developing, albeit with case rates relatively low.  

However, more needs to be done. Sadly, we’re still only seeing around a third of the testing capacity being used and even with such low levels of testing, it is still taking three days for around half of the test results to come back, which is simply not good enough.  

We need to be faster and broader in our testing regime if we are to avoid a resurgence and clamp down early on outbreaks. 

Since the start of the pandemic we’ve called for a laser light focus on testing as it will also enable us to address the other critical health issues we are seeing build up in the system, crucially the cancer care time bomb and waiting list backlog.   

The importance of reopening the single cancer pathway and ensuring it’s maintained during any future spike cannot be overstated, with a staggering collapse in referrals and entries during lockdown.  

Thankfully, the latest results for June show that more than 9,000 people accessed Welsh NHS cancer pathways.  

However, at the height of the pandemic only 4,913 patients entered the cancer pathway in April which was a frightening deviation of around 8,000 on the monthly average prior to lockdown.   

Ignoring problems such as cancer, delayed/cancelled operations and mental health can have serious consequences – now or in the future – and we can’t afford the cure being worse than the disease.  

As well as tackling the immediate challenge of Covid-19, as politicians it will also be our job to put forward a set of policies to the public at next May’s election – if of course the Welsh Government doesn’t get their way and delay them.    

First and foremost, I want to tackle the separate systems that exist in all facets of our Welsh NHS across seven different health boards and cause an administrative headache for staff.    

In name we might have a National Health Service in Wales but in practice it’s very different with a multitude of processes and systems in place which can make matters extremely difficult in a normal healthcare setting, never mind one fighting a pandemic.    

We’ve seen the pitfalls of this throughout the crisis with some health boards recording deaths in a different way, and the Welsh Government-run Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board (another problem altogether and more on this below!) not even using the system specially designed to record such deaths.   

We also see this frustration in normal day-to-day practices with the postcode lottery in the commissioning of services or the recruitment of staff, where inexplicably a nurse from Cardiff has to apply as an external applicant to move to a nursing position in North Wales.  

It’s why we need to see positive reform of the administration and management of the NHS in Wales by building a system that does what it says on the tin – a truly National Health Service – and not one that is suffocated by diktats which damages efficiency and hamstrings our superb frontline staff.    

But we also need to see leadership that delivers for patients and staff. It is beyond unacceptable and it should be completely humiliating for the Welsh Government that after five years of special measures the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board – named after Wales’ Florence Nightingale – is still in special measures.  

It’s a failure of leadership from the top that has left this health board to languish. Vaughan Gething – the Welsh Government’s Health Minister – has been responsible for running Betsi since it entered special measures and yet he still won’t set out a timeline to make sure targets are achieved. The impact of this decision on staff morale and patient confidence is hugely damaging. My firm commitment to patients and staff in our Welsh NHS across Wales is that I won’t allow any health board to languish in special measures and I’d certainly never let anyone feel as though we’ve abandoned them for five years.

It’s time to build a truly National Health Service in Wales, one which removes unnecessary bureaucracy and harnesses the wide array of strengths of our doctors, nurses, porters and staff.  

As your Health Minister I will make sure that I stand up for our Welsh NHS, listening to patients and staff alike, championing what works well but not being afraid to tackle the failings that let down our patients and staff.

Andrew RT Davies is the Shadow Minister for Health and Social Care and a Member of the Senedd for South Wales Central. NB – A shorter version of this article did appear in the Western Mail in July.

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