Worsening pressures on A&E come as prime minister Rishi Sunak has officially missed his pledge, made in January last year, to cut the NHS waiting list.
NHS England began publishing previously-hidden data on patients waiting 12 hours or more last year, after reports by The Independent.
The latest figures for January show 178,000 people were waiting this long to be seen, treated or discharged after arriving from A&E – a record since February 2023 when the data was first published. In that month, 128,580 people waited more than 12 hours, and in December there were 156,000.
The number waiting at least four hours from the decision to admit to actual admission has also risen, from 148,282 in December to 158,721 last month – the second-highest figure on record.
Degrading corridor care and prolonged waits causing significant harm is tragically and increasingly the expected state in urgent and emergency care
Tim Cooksley, past president of the Society for Acute Medicine
Despite worsening A&E pressures, the NHS reduced its waiting list for a third month in a row.
An estimated 7.60 million treatments were waiting to be carried out at the end of December, relating to 6.37 million patients, down slightly from 7.61 million treatments and 6.39 million patients at the end of November, NHS England said.
However, this figure is 400,000 higher than in January 2023 when Mr Sunak first pledged to cut the NHS waiting list.
The latest figures also show some 13,164 people in England had been waiting more than 18 months to start routine hospital treatment at the end of December 2023, up from 11,168 at the end of November.
The government and NHS England set the ambition of eliminating all waits of more than 18 months by April 2023, excluding exceptionally complex cases or patients who choose to wait longer.
Dr Tim Cooksley, past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, warned: “Degrading corridor care and prolonged waits causing significant harm is tragically and increasingly the expected state in urgent and emergency care.”
Flu cases in hospitals increased against last week to 2,478 a day – the highest yet this winter and up 961 a day last year, during the same week there were 3,563 patients a day in hospital with Covid.
Dr Cooksley said flu and Covid outbreaks pressure many hospitals to declare critical incidents.
He added: “This is the severity of the crisis we face and it is of grave concern that a period of pre-election stasis will cause further delays to the transformation needed; inevitably leading to further patient harm and continued haemorrhaging of clinical staff.”
Some 70.3 per cent of patients in England were seen within four hours in A&Es last month, up from 69.4 per cent in December. The figure hit a record low of 65.2 per cent in December 2022.
The NHS recovery plan sets a target of March 2024 for 76 per cent of patients attending A&E to be admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours.
Ambulances took an average of 40 minutes and six seconds last month to respond to priority emergency calls such as heart attacks, strokes and sepsis. This is down from 45 minutes and 57 seconds in December while the target is 18 minutes.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: “It has been an extremely challenging winter so far with two periods of industrial action, including the longest strike in NHS history last month, so a further fall in the number of patients waiting for treatment and improvements in ambulance response times, is a testament to the continued hard work and dedication of NHS staff.”
He said the NHS is seeing more patients coming forward with complex and severe conditions as emergency admissions from A&Es were up 10 per cent in January compared to last year and the most urgent ambulance callouts up by 12 per cent.
“The figures for last week demonstrate winter pressures continue to hit the NHS hard, with hundreds more flu patients in hospital every day compared to last year, and challenges discharging patients affecting bed occupancy and the speed at which patients flow through hospitals,” he added.