NHS A&E departments treated a greater proportion of patients within the target time of four hours last month than in the same period last year despite an increase in attendances.

Statistics for December show that 86.4% of attendees were seen, treated or discharged within the four hours target, up from 85% for December 2017.

More than 2.04m people attended A&E in England during the month, an increase of 2% year-on-year.

There was also a 4.6% increase in the number of emergency admissions compared with the same month last year.

In an indication of the pressure on the hospital system, the number of admissions has grown 5.4% in the last three months.

The A&E target figure still falls well short of the NHS’s constitutional commitment to see 95% of patients within four-hours, but will hearten health leaders as they enter the busiest period of winter.

Earlier this week NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens confirmed that he is considering changing A&E targets, with a proposal to introduce shorter waiting times for serious conditions that could see waits longer than four hours for more trivial cases.

Daily situation reports for last week, traditionally one of the busiest of the year, show that hospitals coped better than in the same period last year despite rising demand.

The number of patients held on ambulances outside hospital was up on the last week of 2018, with 12.1% delayed for more than half an hour, but that figure was down five per cent year-on-year.

In total however more than 50,000 patients have experienced handover delays on ambulances already this winter.

Bed occupancy was also down on the same week in 2018, with 93.2% of beds occupied compared with 95% last year.

While attendances have increased, the situation has been helped by milder weather thus far this winter, and lower incidence of flu and norovirus than a year ago.

An NHS spokesperson said: “Thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, monthly figures published this morning show the health service performed better for A&E services this December than last December, despite successfully caring for 3.9% more people within the current 4 hour target.

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“This week’s statistics also show lower hospital bed occupancy than the same week last year.

“What’s more, of the rising numbers admitted as an emergency, the increase in people treated and discharged on the day was three times higher than the growth in people having to stay overnight, which is good for people’s health and limits bed occupancy on wards.”

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