Record numbers of patients spent more than four hours in accident and emergency units in England in January, figures leaked to the BBC suggest.
During a difficult winter for the NHS, January appears to be the worst performing month in the past 13 years.
The figures also suggest record numbers of people waited longer than 12 hours for a hospital bed once seen in AE.
The BMA said the prime minister could no longer “bury her head in the sand” over increasing pressure in the NHS.
And it accused the government of failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation.
But a spokesman from the Department of Health said the vast majority of patients were seen and treated quickly, and busy periods in hospitals were supported by an extra £400 million of funding.
The figures come from a document compiled by NHS Improvement, a regulator in England.
It appears to show that from a total of more than 1.4 million attendances at AE during January:
- 82% of patients in AE – rather than the target 95% – were transferred, admitted or discharged within four hours
- more than than 60,000 people waited between four and 12 hours in AE for a hospital bed, after a decision to admit, known as a “trolley wait”
- more than 780 people waited for more than 12 hours for a bed
It comes as official NHS figures for December show that 86.2% of AE patients in England were dealt with in under four hours.
January’s leaked figures are the worst monthly figures on record since the four-hour target was introduced in 2004.
The situation in AEs has worsened since last January when more than 51,000 people had “trolley waits” of between four and 12 hours and 158 people had waits of more than 12 hours.
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Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently suggested the four-hour target may have to be scrapped and could potentially be replaced by another measure.
A spokesman from the Department of Health said they did not recognise the figures.
“It is irresponsible to publish unverified data and does a disservice to all NHS staff working tirelessly to provide care around the clock.”
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But the Royal College of Emergency Medicine said their figures backed up those seen by the BBC.
Vice-president Dr Chris Moulton said: “While increasing numbers of doctors is vital, the more pressing problem is a lack of beds.
“We simply do not have any more room to put patients – we have the lowest number of acute beds per capita in Europe.
“As a result, bed occupancy is at dangerous levels and exit block is putting lives at risk.”
‘Get a grip’
Dr Mark Porter, who chairs the British Medical Association council, said doctors had reported that this winter had been “extraordinarily tough” in hospitals.
“When social care isn’t available, patients experience delays in moving from hospital to appropriate ongoing care settings – preventing patients being admitted at the front end in AE,” Dr Porter said.
And he said the long trolley waits were a sign of a system under too much pressure.
“The government have so far failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation,” Dr Porter said.
“The prime minister cannot continue to bury her head in the sand as care continues to worsen.
“The government must urgently look at the long-term funding, capacity and recruitment issues facing the system as a whole if we are to get to grips with the pressures the NHS faces year in, year out, but which are compounded during the winter months.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said it had already called for an urgent review of winter pressures on the health service.
“These figures have not been verified and should therefore be treated with caution, but they are in line with the feedback we have been getting from trusts.
“NHS staff have responded magnificently to increased winter pressures, but the situation has become unsustainable.
“The rise in long trolley waits is particularly worrying, as there is clear evidence they can lead to worse outcomes for patients.”
Jim Mackey, chief executive of NHS Improvement, said the current level of demand in England’s hospitals was causing real problems.
“Such intense pressure on emergency services has had a real impact on elective services and patients are having to wait longer for non-emergency treatment, and this is also adding to the financial pressures being felt by NHS providers,” he said.
“Even with these pressures, the NHS continues to outperform health systems in other major nations.”
NHS Health Check
A week of coverage by BBC News examining the state of the NHS across the UK as it comes under intense pressure during its busiest time of the year.
- Inside AE: ‘Times are desperate’
- 10 graphs that show the NHS is in trouble
- ‘How the NHS has changed our lives’
- Voices from NHS frontline
- Video: What happens when a hospital clogs up
- Guide: Find out what’s for the chop where you live?
- Video: Cradle to the grave: What the NHS does for you
- Explainer: How each part of the UK compares