IT could be four years before NHS waiting times return to pre-coronavirus levels, the man in charge of the health trust that runs Hereford County Hospital has warned.

Glen Burley, who is chief executive of the Wye Valley NHS Trust as well as Warwick hospital and George Eliot hospital in Nuneaton blamed the delay on disruptions caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.

He was quoted in a story by The Observer newspaper today (Sunday), also reported one official as saying some hospitals will only be able to provide 40 per cent of the care previously delivered once the NHS reopens.

Patients will face lengthy waits for operations and tests as the push by hospitals to remain infection-free brings side-effects such as more closed beds, the paper says.

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Surgeons will also be carrying out fewer procedures than before the outbreak because of their need to wear more protective clothing.

The warnings come as hospitals face pressure to resume services for patients with conditions such as cancer, joint problems and obesity.

Sir Jim Mackey, chief executive of Northumbria Healthcare Trust, which runs seven hospitals in the North East, said: "Nationally, because there's a big backlog already, that could take several years to get on top of.

"It's not going to disappear overnight. Restoring normal services may be the biggest challenge the NHS has ever faced."

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents health service trusts, said hospitals would not be able to consistently stay within the NHS's supposed maximum delay period of 18 weeks to deliver treatment to patients for the foreseeable future.

"With social distancing and the need for personal protective equipment it is simply not possible in many services to deliver as much care as would have been possible in the past. Some services will not manage much more than 40 per cent productivity," he told the paper.

Mr Dickson said he feared politicians and the public did not fully understand the "mammoth challenge" that the NHS faces to return to normal.