NHS crisis
A&E waiting times have plummeted to their worst levels in 10 years, NHS England has revealedReuters

Waiting times for A&E departments in England have reached their worst levels for a decade, according to figures from NHS England.

The government target is to see 95% of patients within four hours. But between October and December, only 92.6% of patients were seen within that time. This was the lowest performance since targets began being set in 2004.

The data said the recent major incidents being declared over the festive period – where hospitals have to deal with a sharp increase of patients – is one of the reasons why some hospitals missed the waiting time target.

Despite this, the health secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted waiting times in England are still "better than any country in the world", as nine out of ten patients are still being seen within the deadline.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "There is a huge amount of pressure, that's absolutely clear.

"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."

He added: "Targets matter but not at any cost. The priority is to treat people with dignity and respect."

However, the Labour opposition will take these figures as vindication of its central general election thrust warning anxious voters that the NHS is in danger from another five years of Tory rule.

Indeed, Labour's first election poster claims that the Tories want to cut public spending to 1930s levels when, they add, there was no NHS.

The new figures from NHS England show record numbers of patients enduring long trolley waits.

In the two weeks over Christmas, 20,962 Accident and Emergency patients waited up to 12 hours on trolleys – almost four times as many as the 5,573 over the same period last year.

However, Dr Sarah Pinto-Duschinsky, director of operations for NHS England said the figures actually show how the NHS is treating more people than ever within the four hour target.

She said: "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."

Last month, Sir Bruce Keogh, the medical director of the NHS in England, admitted some A&E departments were under pressure.

Speaking at a conference in London, he said: "The system is creaking, it is under pressure at the moment.

"A&Es are having to address increasing demand, the ambulance services are struggling in many parts of the country and we have a number of issues to deal with, which we are tackling."

Dr Cliff Mann, of the College of Emergency Medicine, believes some hospitals are reaching a "tipping point" as more patients seek emergency care.

He told the Today programme: "The thing that concerns me is this daily, weekly intolerable pressure is starting to have an effect on staff. They are more likely to become sick, they are more likely to be unable to work and they burn out and choose to go into other professions.

"That means this is not a sustainable situation."