People should not be put off seeking urgent NHS care during the coronavirus pandemic, Wales’s health minister has said, while the country’s chief medical officer warned stricter lockdown measures could return in the winter if virus transmissions increase.

Health minister Vaughan Gething said emergency department activity in May across the country was between 25% and 40% lower than would normally be expected, with attendances by children under 16 having more than halved.

Gething told the Welsh government’s daily press briefing “the NHS is here for everyone” after saying people should still be seeking emergency or urgent care.

One of the reasons for this will be because the majority of us have been staying at home, and we haven’t seen the same demand for emergency care.

But we do know some people have put off seeking care because they have been worried about going into hospital during the pandemic.

It is really important that people do not put off urgent or emergency treatment. The NHS is here for everyone who needs it.

Gething said more essential services were returning, while maternity, cancer, and mental health services “were all still available”.

But the health minister was unable to give a restart date for cancer screening services, admitting he was concerned about the “potential hidden harm” caused to patients whose screenings have been suspended.

Earlier on Tuesday, Wales’ chief medical officer, Frank Atherton, published a statement to the Welsh government which said though Covid-19 transmission rates were currently decreasing, any early or extensive reducing of restrictions would lead to “a return of exponential growth of viral transmission”.

Dr Atherton also wrote that Wales’s recent relaxing of lockdown rules could be reversed, saying: “I recommend that public messaging highlights the potential need to re-impose more restrictive measures in the winter if viral activity increases.”

Asked about the statement, Gething said that the winter would prove a “difficult period of time” as more people would be indoors where there was a greater risk of the virus surviving.

He said a range of key factors would decide on whether restrictions are re-imposed, including the number of people testing positive, the success of Wales’s Test, Trace, Protect programme, and numbers of hospital admissions and people in critical care.

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