NHS staff should not be forced to work over Christmas to publish A&E waiting time figures, Jeremy Hunt has said, amid claims of a festive "news blackout".
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham insisted it was "simply unacceptable" for the publication of A&E data, including waiting times, to be suspended from tomorrow for three weeks over the "crucial" Christmas period.
But Health Secretary Mr Hunt accused Labour of caring more about political opportunity than patients, as he said the data was never published during the period.
Asking an urgent question in the Commons, Mr Burnham told Mr Hunt: "Given we know the figures are still being collected, there is absolutely no reason why it should not be published.
"You put a premium on transparency - rightly. So will you today order an end to this news blackout and instruct NHS England to maintain weekly A&E reports."
But Mr Hunt hit back at the Labour front-bencher: "We have never published figures over the Christmas period because to do so would mean we would have to force NHS staff to work over Christmas when actually otherwise, where it's possible, we would like them to be able to go home for Christmas just like (MPs).
"Let me ask you this question - when you were health secretary, did you publish any performance figures over Christmas? Did you?
"You didn't publish them at all. You didn't publish them at Christmas, you didn't publish them at Easter, you didn't publish any weekly A&E figures at all.
"So to come to this House and say this is somehow a news blackout says to me this is someone who is more interested in the political opportunity than in the care for patients."
The latest figures, published last Friday, showed A&E waiting times had hit record levels.
Mr Burnham brought the Health Secretary to the Commons to explain the performance of A&E departments and ambulance services and the plans in place to "help them cope" with winter pressures.
Mr Hunt told MPs he chaired his first meeting to prepare for this winter on March 17.
He said the country's ageing population has resulted in 350,000 more people over 75 compared with four years ago, which has led to more people turning up in A&E departments and greater levels of sickness among those who attend for treatment.
Mr Hunt said £700 million extra funding had been provided, telling MPs: "The winter will be tough but a number of changes made over the last four years will put us in a much stronger position."
He also thanked the 70 NHS staff who will spend Christmas in Sierra Leone as part of efforts to combat Ebola, adding: "They are the bravest of the brave and make our entire country proud."
Mr Burnham associated himself with Mr Hunt's praise of the efforts of NHS staff, although he said he also heard "a good deal of misplaced complacency" from the Health Secretary.
He said: "Winter hasn't begun in earnest but there are already signs of A&Es and ambulance services stretched to the limit.
"Last week a record number of people waited more than four hours in A&E and on trolleys. Ambulance response times are getting worse across England with some 999 calls taking hours.
"Overnight, news has emerged of an 82-year-old man who waited more than three hours for his ambulance to arrive at his nursing home and then waited a further 19 hours on a trolley in a corridor.
"This is appalling and there are fears that things will get worse when the House is in recess."
Mr Burnham asked Mr Hunt to publish his winter plan, noting that NHS staff need to know what is in it.
He also suggested the extra funding should have been made available sooner and asked for a full breakdown of how it had been allocated, amid concerns that it has not been reaching the front line but shoring up balance sheets in acute trusts.
Mr Burnham asked if the NHS had a "wider contingency plan" for the winter and what talks had taken place with other Government departments.
He concluded: "This is a serious situation. If patients and staff are to have confidence they need better answers than they have had so far. I hope (Mr Hunt) will start providing them now."
Mr Hunt insisted that more money had been put into the NHS than ever before and plans had been announced earlier in the year which also contained detail of how resources would be used.
He added to Mr Burnham: "If you want to compare, nine out of 10 people are being seen within four hours in this country.
"That is a higher number of people being seen than in any country, anywhere in the world that measures A&E performance - faster than Australia, faster than New Zealand, faster than Canada, faster than Scotland, Northern Ireland and, yes, faster than Labour-run Wales.
"Eight people wait out of every 100 more than four hours in A&Es in England - it's 15 people waiting more than four hours in Wales.
"You should concentrate on saving the NHS in Wales than running down (the NHS) in England where it's doing so much better."
Tory Simon Burns (Chelmsford) said: "Would you agree me with it is rather demoralising to staff and sad that Labour seek to turn the NHS into a party political football?"
Mr Hunt replied: "The Government's policy is to root out poor care wherever we find it and not to cover it up and conceal it for party political purposes."
Labour MP Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) said: "The College of Emergency Medicine gave you a 10-point plan in 2013. Could you say which of those 10 points you've enacted?"
Mr Hunt said: "We have enacted or started to enact every single one of them - some of them take a bit longer, some of the things they talked about were to do with the contracts for A&E consultants which we want to make sure are attractive enough.
"I'm pleased to say we are making some progress on that ... others are things we are starting to see happening this winter - more co-location of GP services at A&E front doors, better discharging procedures from hospitals."
Sir Tony Baldry, the Conservative MP for Banbury, said: "Is it not the case that Clinical Commissioning Groups and hospital trusts all across the country, including in Oxfordshire, are working very hard to ensure they can triage people at the entrance to Accident & Emergency departments so those that need primary care get primary care, and those that need A&E services get A&E services?
"Is this not simply a new form of political ambulance-chasing?"
Mr Hunt said: "You make an important point."