Waiting times in accident and emergency departments in England have plummeted to their worst levels in more than a decade, with just 92.6% of patients being seen within four hours.
NHS England released records showing it has failed to meet the target of seeing 95% of patients within the time limit as the Government admitted there was a “huge amount of pressure” on the health service.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said hospital bosses feel they are “running just to keep still” to cope with rising demand.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “There is a huge amount of pressure, that’s absolutely clear.”
But he added: “I think we also have to recognise, despite the particular pressures, despite the major incidents - and you always get some major incidents at this time of year - that the NHS is continuing to see in A&E departments nine out of 10 people within the four-hour target.
“That is actually better than any other country in the world that measures these things.”
Regionally Hull was named as having the third worst record overall in the country, with reports of ambulances having queued out of the hospital over the weekend.
Sheffield and York were also listed as struggling with the latter having had to declare an emergency yesterday owing to the volume of people coming in.
When broken down, the quarterly records show the country’s major A&E departments fared even worse, with fewer than nine in 10 patients - 88.9% - being seen within the target.
Dr Sarah Pinto-Duschinsky, director of operations and delivery for NHS England, said: “Today’s figures show that, in the three months to the end of December, more than nine out of 10 A&E patients in England continued to be seen and treated in under four hours - the best measured performance of any major Western country.
“In the immediate run-up to Christmas, the NHS treated 446,500 A&E attendees, up 38,000 on the same week last year. And there were 112,600 emergency admissions - the highest number in a single week since we started publishing performance figures in 2010.
“We faced similar demand over Christmas itself. In the week ending December 28 A&E attendances were up more than 31,000 on the same period last year, meaning we successfully treated more patients in under four hours than ever before.”
Hospitals were required to treat 98% of patients within the four-hour time limit until 2010 but the Coalition scaled the target back to 95%.
The figures were released as several hospital trusts were forced to activate major incident plans to cope with a surge in demand at emergency departments.
Charities warned that the surge in demand for A&E services was being fuelled by cuts to social care.
Richard Hawkes, chairman of the Care and Support Alliance, said: “These statistics reflect the huge pressure not just on the health service but also the ongoing squeeze in council-funded social care. Chronic underfunding has left hundreds of thousands of older and disabled people, who need support to do the basics, like getting up or out of the house, cut out of the care system.
“This has a knock on effect on the health service that is forced to pick up the pieces when people become isolated, can’t live on their own and slip into crisis.
“Every day, our organisations hear horror stories of people who struggle to get the support they need. This also has a huge impact on carers, who we know are struggling right now. Chronic underfunding has seen dramatic year-on-year rationing of social care support for older and disabled people and their carers, excluding thousands from the support they desperately need.”
Richard Kramer, deputy chief executive at Sense, said: “The figures released today reveal a worrying increase in waiting times at A&E departments over the past few months. The NHS is clearly under a great deal of pressure and struggling to keep up. However these figures are a symptom of a much wider problem.
“A serious lack of funding for social care over the past few years has left many older and disabled people without the support they need. In many cases this has resulted in an increase in falls and hospital admissions as people struggle on without support.
“The Government must provide local authorities with enough funding to provide adequate social care to prevent an increased burden on the NHS.”
Janet Morrison, chief executive of Independent Age, said: “These new A&E figures demonstrate deepening problems in our whole health and social care system, not just accident and emergency departments.
“Cuts to social care, which is funded not by the NHS but by councils, mean fewer frail elderly patients receive the support they need to stay out of hospital. And once in hospital, there are too few support services available for them to be quickly and safely discharged.
“As a result the entire system is in danger of becoming blocked at times of increase demand, such as we are seeing now.”
Overall, 5.6 million patients turned up to emergency departments during the three months up to Christmas, the records show.
Dr Mark Porter, BMA council chairman, said the figures showed “unprecedented levels of pressure” and called for more funding for the NHS.
He said: “Patients should be treated on the basis of need, rather than arbitrary targets, but these figures show the NHS is under unprecedented levels of pressure.
“Staff are working flat-out but the system is struggling to cope with the sheer number of patients coming through the door.”
Dr Porter said there was “no getting away from the fact the NHS needs more investment” and called for plans to be put in place to deal with rising demand.
He added: “In the longer term, for the NHS to meet rising demand, we need to address the underlying problems in the system. Preventing unnecessary A&E admissions by having an effective, out-of-hours telephone service is an important part of this, so there needs to be a marked improvement in NHS 111 to ensure it is clinician-led.
“We also need a long-term solution to the crisis in social care, to reduce the number of patients being inappropriately held in hospitals. Outside of hospitals, we need to support general practice which is struggling to cope with unprecedented levels of demand and a shortage of GPs.”