As we move out of the pandemic, Wales faces huge challenges, and none more so in our treasured National Health Service.
It’s been an incredibly challenging 18 months, but it’s been humbling to witness the commitment, work and bravery of our heroic frontline staff in the ongoing crusade against coronavirus.
After May’s Senedd election and the subsequent shadow cabinet reshuffle, I’m hugely honoured to have been appointed as the Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Health.
As the official opposition, we will scrutinise and hold ministers to account, but will also offer the hand of cooperation where possible to ensure Wales and our NHS bounces back from the most difficult year we’ve experienced.
And it’s in this spirit that I want to wish the new health minister, Eluned Morgan, the very best as she embarks on the significant task of finishing the job on COVID-19 and ensuring we get the NHS get on the road to recovery.
Ultimately, our people and communities need the government to succeed in the next couple of years if we are to see Wales and our public services turn the page on one of our most difficult chapters in our history.
Great progress has been made in the fight against coronavirus, but the next couple of months will be focused on finishing the job, and returning capacity in our healthcare system to fight other diseases such as cancer.
The UK’s stunning vaccination success story – enabled thanks to the Conservative Government’s decision to procure outside of the EU scheme and delivered by our outstanding NHS and volunteers – has protected lives and allowed us to embark on a safe path out of lockdown.
Welsh Conservatives have been clear that we will support ministers in their endeavours to allow the economy and society to re-open as safely and as quickly as possible, and that remains the case.
We must remain vigilant as the growing clusters of the Indian variant are a concern, but if the data, especially in relation to hospitalisation rates indicate we can move forward, then we should continue to ease restrictions in a sensible manner.
This is important economically, but particularly in public health, where it’s vital we start addressing the other critical health issues we are seeing build up in the system, such as the cancer care time bomb and waiting list backlog.
The pandemic has increased waiting times significantly, but in the year before coronavirus hit, waiting times in Wales had doubled, and targets for treatment in A&E and for cancer continue to be missed or never met.
Latest figures show more people than ever - the equivalent of 18% of the Welsh population - are waiting for treatments, with a staggering 568,367 people on waiting lists in March, up 24.4% on the same time last year.
And despite very low coronavirus rates, patients are still struggling to obtain face-to-face appointments with their GP, as waiting lists spiral out of control and mental health concerns escalate.
This means too many people are experiencing unnecessary pain, and many are stranded whilst they wait for routine surgery and potential cancer treatments.
In the next month, we need to see far more urgency from the Welsh Labour Government to support frontline staff and implement detailed recovery plans to tackle this troubling backlog.
Ministers should expand the use of rapid diagnostic centres and explore the introduction of specialist hubs to tackle routine surgery as soon as possible, and we need more detail on the £1bn recovery plan.
And then as we move forward, it’s vitally important we learn the lessons from the past 18 months, with governments of all colours – across the globe – making good decisions and bad.
Throughout coronavirus, Labour Ministers repeatedly insisted we do things differently in Wales and that announcements and decisions taken in England do not apply to us.
Yet for some inexplicable reason, they do not want these decisions to be subject to scrutiny in an independent public inquiry held here in Wales, which is absurd.
Decisions made in Wales had a direct impact on lives here in Wales, and it is the Welsh Conservative view they should be put under the microscope of an independent public inquiry here in Wales, and not run the risk of being a footnote in the already announced UK inquiry.
Tragically, nearly 8,000 people have died in Wales over the past 18 months – the highest rate of any nation in the UK – and we owe it to their families to ensure they have answers, and that Wales is fully prepared for any future pandemic.
A Wales-specific pandemic inquiry will ensure we learn these vital lessons moving forward – and only Wales’ First Minister can commission it.
For the families who’ve lost loved ones, Mark Drakeford should ensure his government’s decisions are given scrutiny here in Wales. It’s the very least they deserve.
Russell George MS
Welsh Conservative Shadow Health Minister