Ministers have been warned that the NHS needs urgent action to help it cope over the winter after A&E waiting times hit record levels.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said figures showing that 35,373 patients nationwide waited more than four hours for treatment in the first week of December should be a “wake up call”.
Nearly half of hospital trusts in the North East failed to hit the target for seeing A&E patients in four hours at the end of last month, recent data revealed.
Nationally, 7,760 people were kept on a trolley for between four and 12 hours before a ward bed was found - up from 3,666.
Mr Burnham said: “Before the Commons breaks for Christmas, ministers need to come and set out the measures they will take to help the NHS cope over the Christmas period.
“Labour has been warning the Government for months about the growing crisis in A&E but it has failed to act. But even ministers must now accept that these figures are a worrying wake up call. They are proof you can’t trust the Tories with the NHS.
“David Cameron has allowed A&E to sink into crisis and must now accept his responsibility to turn it around.”
Dr Cliff Mann, president of the College of Emergency Medicine, told BBC Radio 4’s World At One it was “a tough year” for casualty departments across the country.
“As the figures show, we are seeing record numbers of people attending our A&E departments and record numbers of people being admitted to our hospitals,” he said.
“It’s rather too often like trying to get a quart into a pint pot. There’s a real pressure on beds, particularly between the hours of about 10 o’clock in the morning to 10 o’clock at night.
“It does mean that an awful lot of patients are waiting rather longer than they should be to get into hospital, and that backing up in the A&E department then means there’s a problem off-loading patients from ambulance trolleys.”
Richard Murray, director of policy at the health think tank the King’s Fund, added: “It is pretty bleak. The performance numbers that have come out this week are probably the worst we’ve seen at this time of year for a very long time. And the number of people showing up at A&E is continually bouncing at the highest level the NHS has ever seen.
“This is only December. This is not the peak of the winter period.”
Dame Barbara Hakin, the national director of commissioning operations for NHS England, told World At One: “The NHS is under a huge amount of pressure at the moment. We are seeing far more patients than we ever have before.
“But we are still making sure that 91 out of 100 patients receive their treatment - they are either admitted or discharged from hospital - within four hours, which is a really high standard of care.
“Of course we are not complacent. The standard we set ourselves was that it would be 95 out of 100 patients. We have got plans in place to ensure that as we go through the winter, our patients can still be seen swiftly and promptly.”
She added: “The NHS in England is planning to ensure that it can deliver safe services for patients over the winter.”
Dame Barbara said that NHS England was putting in an extra £700 million for more beds, doctors and nurses, as well as additional services in the community.
“This is so that we can be prepared for January and February, which we always know are busy months,” she said.
“The money has gone into direct frontline services and we are already seeing plenty of places where they’ve got extra beds in place and extra staff. Obviously, sometimes it takes time to recruit staff and open up wards, but the money is available for the front line.”
But Dr Mann said that “very little” of the £700 million earmarked for frontline services had reached emergency departments, meaning that only “a small number” of doctors and nurses were able to be recruited at short notice to respond to the pressure of patient numbers.
“I suspect that a lot of it has gone to shoring up balance sheets in acute trusts, who are probably rather more concerned about the reputation they have with (regulator) Monitor than anything else at the moment,” said Dr Mann.