The Welsh Parliament narrowly rejected calls to declare a health emergency due to the “existential threat” facing the NHS.
With the vote deadlocked at 26-26, Elin Jones – the Senedd’s speaker or Llywydd and Ceredigion MS – used her casting vote against the Plaid Cymru motion in line with convention.
Mabon ap Gwynfor, the shadow health minister, urged the Welsh Government to recognise an unfolding emergency and bring the NHS “back from the brink”.
The Plaid Cymru MS warned that without a drastic course correction, the health service faces a highly uncertain future.
He said: “We have brought forward this debate today with one clear purpose: to try to convince the government we need to recognise the existential threat facing the NHS, which is so valuable to us, by declaring a health emergency in Wales.”
Mr Gwynfor, who represents Dwyfor Meirionnydd, pointed out that waiting lists have hit record highs in July, August, September and October.
He told the chamber that there are 582,000 people waiting for treatment – almost a fifth of Wales’ population, who are “stuck in this ever-expanding limbo zone”.
Turning to cancer services, Mr Gwynfor said only around 54% of patients started treatment within the recommended 62 days against a target of 75% which has never been met.
He added that ambulances spent a combined total of 22,000 hours parked outside hospitals waiting to drop off patients in December alone.
Mr Gwynfor quoted Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health minister at Westminster, as saying: “You would have to be living on Mars not to see the NHS is in an emergency.”
He urged Welsh Labour to “come back to earth and open their eyes to what is happening here on their watch”.
Pointing out that the Senedd was the first parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency, he urged Welsh ministers to do the same with health.
Russell George, the Conservatives’ shadow minister, raised concerns about a GP crisis, saying the number of patients per GP has risen by a third in less than a decade.
Mr George accused the Welsh Government of failing to sufficiently recruit, train and retain NHS staff more broadly than GPs.
He moved the Conservatives’ amendments, which urged the Welsh Government to develop a workforce plan and set a target to eliminate two-year waits by September.
The Montgomeryshire MS said: “The staffing crisis is so acute that we do need to act now to prevent the collapse of our NHS.
“Those aren't my words, those are the words straight from the British Medical Association.”
Mr George told MSs that 25,000 people are waiting more than two years for treatment in Wales but in England and Scotland such waits have been virtually eliminated.
Huw Irranca-Davies recognised the challenges but said it must be balanced against the miracles being performed daily by the health service.
The Labour backbencher praised the “amazing” treatment he has received from the NHS, saying he has not experienced long delays.
The Ogmore MS, whose wife works in A&E, said: “It isn't because, as somebody will say 'well, you're an MS, your name goes up the list’ – it isn't that.
“The NHS treats me like any other citizen. It's seen me, it's seen me promptly and it's getting me through the system as fast as it possibly can, and I'm having the best of service.”
Jane Dodds, the Lib Dems’ leader in Wales, focused her contribution on rural communities, calling for a rural GP premium to help with recruitment and retention.
The Mid and West Wales MS warned that GPs are continuing to say they have had enough.
She raised a Royal College of GPs survey which found that one in four did not expect to be in their current role in five years’ time.
Eluned Morgan, Wales’ health minister, said: “I don’t accept there is a health emergency and I’m not really sure what we hope to achieve by declaring a health emergency.”
During the debate on February 7, she told the chamber that the Welsh Government has prioritised the NHS in the face of more than £1bn of real-terms cuts.
She said achieving performance targets has been difficult because demand has gone through the roof, with referrals increasing by 10% last year to 1.5 million.
Baroness Morgan pointed out that almost 300,000 people – about the population of Cardiff – are seen as out-patients every month by the Welsh NHS.
She said more than 2,500 people attend A&E and about 1,100 people call 999 every day.
The minister stressed: “I think the vast majority of these people would say that there is not a crisis. People fall over themselves to tell me how great their treatment has been….
“You've got to balance it. We've got to balance all of the criticism with the great work that is being done in the NHS.”