More than 12,000 ambulance patients in England waited at least 30 minutes to be transferred to an A&E department last week, the highest weekly total of the winter so far, as health chiefs warned the worst could still be to come.
A total of 2,986 people waited more than an hour to be handed over to an A&E unit between December 31 and January 6, up 63% from 1,830 the previous week, and a further 9,299 had to wait between 30 minutes and an hour, the figures released by NHS England showed.
The rise comes despite the figures showing hospitals were coping better this winter than last year.
Some 277,646 patients waited for more than four hours to be admitted, transferred or discharged after arriving at A&Es in England in December, down from 300,893 in December 2017 despite overall attendances increasing from 2,003,954 in December 2017 to 2,046,541 last month.
In hospitals, 93.2% of all beds were occupied last week, the NHS England performance figures showed – higher than the benchmark of 92% – and one NHS Trust, Croydon Health Services in south London, reported 100% bed occupancy all week.
The data also showed 280 patients had to wait 12 hours or more from the decision to admit to an A&E department last month, down from 517 in December 2017.
An NHS spokesman said: “Thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, monthly figures published this morning show the health service performed better for A&E services this December than last December, despite successfully caring for 3.9% more people within the current four-hour target.
“What’s more, of the rising numbers admitted as an emergency, the increase in people treated and discharged on the day was three times higher than the growth in people having to stay overnight, which is good for people’s health and limits bed occupancy on wards.
“We are now in what can be the most pressured time of year – flu, other winter bugs and adverse weather conditions can all increase, so the situation is being closely monitored.”
Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “There is more demand on the NHS but that is something those of us on the frontline have been warning of for some time and it cannot become an acceptable rationale for poor performance.
“My sincere hope is that the so-far mild weather has not lulled our leaders into a false sense of security and that just because things are better than 12 months ago does not make it good as key targets in preparing for winter were not achieved.”
Dr Fran Woodard, executive director of policy and impact at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Behind these figures are people waiting anxiously for a diagnosis and treatment, during a period when lives are already being turned upside down, despite the best efforts of NHS staff facing greater demand for their services and increased pressures.”
Separate performance figures for elective care in November showed 527,677 patients were waiting for longer than 18 weeks to start treatment.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth criticised the “staggeringly bad” NHS England figures, saying they were a “shocking indictment of nine years of Tory cuts, failure to recruit staff and a botched NHS reorganisation”.
“Patients are waiting longer in pain and distress, with a real risk that their health could deteriorate further,” he said.
“Patients deserve better.”