Some 95% of NHS hospital beds in England were full last week, according to figures that show the service’s winter performance.
The statistics come as the country’s health service continues to struggle through what has been described as one of the worst winter crises on record.
They also show that in the week ending 7 January, 16,690 patients were kept in the back of an ambulance for more than 30 minutes, while they waited for space in A&E. This figure was slightly down on the previous week.
Some 5,082 were delayed for more than an hour, an increase from 4,734 the previous week.
Just over 85% of patients arriving at A&E were seen within four hours, 1% down since a year ago and less than the target of 95%.
Sky News Health Correspondent Paul Kelso said: “The NHS treated more patients than the previous year, so demand is rising.
“Staff are working very hard to keep up but they’re still falling backwards on that key four hour target.”
To make life more difficult for the country’s doctors and nurses, there was a spike in the number of bed closures due to norovirus or diarrhoea and vomiting – 944 beds, compared with 731 the previous week.
The number of people taken to hospital for flu is also running at around 2.5 higher than the same time last year, according to figures for the week ending 31 December. There have been 48 flu-related deaths in England this winter.
Kelso said: “December was as bad as it has ever been for patients at the A&E departments in the NHS.
“This is despite the Government repeatedly saying that the NHS is better prepared than it has ever been and has all the resources it needs.”
The statistics come after a letter from Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS services, calling for extra investment in the health service.
Mr Hopson said: “If we continue to run the NHS at close to 100% capacity, day in day out, permanently in the red zone, it’s not surprising that the service can’t cope when we get a high – but entirely predictable – spike in demand.”
Mr Hopson called for an increase in the NHS budget to £153bn by 2022/23 – the sum which the Office of Budget Responsibility had said was needed to deal with the projected increase in demand for services.
Former NHS Trust chairman Roy Lilley told Sky News: “(The figures) are exactly as I thought they would be – a disaster for us.”
Pointing to the bed occupancy statistics, Mr Lilley added: “As hard as the NHS works to get people out of ambulances, into A&E and into a ward, it can’t get them home. There’s a log-jam building up there.
“Social services is on its knees. If we do anything to relieve the pressure, it would have to be with social services.”
Commenting on the figures, an NHS England spokesman said: “Despite the clear pressure on the NHS in December, with rising levels of flu and record numbers of 111 calls and hospital admission, we managed to hold A&E performance at the same level as last January.
“We also saw the best seasonal performance on NHS Delayed Transfers of Care in four years and went into winter with cancer and routine surgery waits both showing improvements.”