Accident and emergency departments experienced their busiest period of winter over Christmas as hospitals struggled to cope with the demand.
New figures released by NHS England have highlighted the strain on the health service over the Christmas week.
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Some 16,900 people had to wait in an ambulance for at least 30 minutes before being seen at A&E, while 4,700 were forced to wait for more than an hour.
The number of patients waiting half an hour jumped up from 11,900 the previous week.
In addition, there was a record high in non-emergency calls to the NHS’ 111 hotline in the week ending December 31.
The number of calls received – 480,400 – was up 21% on the previous week and the most since the hotline was created.
An NHS England spokesman said: ‘Hospitals, GPs, ambulances and other frontline NHS services have been extremely busy between Christmas and New Year, reporting higher levels of respiratory illness and some indications of increasing patient illness severity and flu.’
The spokesman added: ‘In the light of these pressures, the medical and nursing-led National Emergency Pressures Panel has now enacted, for a time-limited period, the NHS’ Winter Pressures Protocol to free up further staff and beds for patients needing urgent and emergency care.’
Ambulance crews should have to wait no longer than 15 minutes to hand patients over to A&E staff after arriving, according to the Department of Health.
Hospitals have been forced to abandon thousands of non-urgent operations as pressure on hospitals continues to mount.
Bed occupancy climbed as high as 93.5% on New Year’s Eve, well clear of the recommended safe limit of 85%.