THE NHS in Wales is entering its “most challenging period” as it deals with the coronavirus pandemic and rising waiting lists, its chief executive has said.

Dr Andrew Goodall said the health service is treating people for Covid-19 but also dealing with other emergencies and routine appointments.

There are now record waiting times in Wales for treatments to begin with more than 600,000 on lists.

Accident and emergency units are also under pressure, and the Welsh Ambulance Service has had to call in support from the military for the third time since the pandemic began.

Dr Goodall told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it will be right to say that this feels like this is the most challenging period of time.

“We are still responding to a coronavirus context, we still have significant numbers in our system, we have high community prevalence levels, and, whilst the number of patients being hospitalised are much lower than we’ve seen over the last 20 months or so, it still means that we have patients who are affected by lots of the precautions that we take within our hospital and our healthcare environments.

“But the real thing that has changed over these last three or four months in particular is the recovery of activity because NHS staff want to ensure that patients are cared for and treated.

“We’ve actually seen months where high, if not record, numbers of patients are coming into our system from ambulances through to A&E, and of course we’ve been wanting to restore planned operations across the system.

“The numbers are increasing and we are probably at the fullest that we’ve seen across our system in the last 20 months at this stage.

“But we need to continue to make sure that we’re also able to bring in patients who have been waiting for access to care over the last 20 months.”

In August just 68.7% of patients spent less than four hours in an A&E department before being admitted, transferred or discharged – well below the 95% target. And nearly 8,000 people had to wait longer than 12 hours.

Last month, the Welsh Government rejected calls from the Conservatives to declare an emergency in the ambulance service due to increasing demand and rising waiting times.

However, a new report revealed that ambulance crews are facing long delays stuck outside hospitals waiting for patients to be admitted.

Healthcare Inspectorate Wales said crews had to wait more than an hour to transfer a patient on 32,699 occasions – with around half of the patients being over the age of 65.