Improvement in waiting time figures
Waiting times in accident and emergency departments of NHS hospitals in England improved for the second week in succession, but still failed to meet the target of 95% of patients seen within four hours.
Statistics released by NHS England showed that 92.4% of patients were admitted, transferred or discharged within the four-hour limit in the week ending January 18. Some 8,900 patients waited more than four hours for admission, which NHS England said was "significantly down" from the 12,000 recorded in the previous week.
NHS England's national director of commissioning operations, Dame Barbara Hakin, described the figures as "encouraging" but said frontline health services continue to face "huge pressures".
Some 377,000 people attended casualty departments in English hospitals over the course of the week - down from 389,400 the week before.
Of these, a total of 102,300 were emergency admissions, down from 105,200 the previous week.
Waiting times have been at the centre of political debate over the past months as a series of weekly winter health check bulletins revealed the 95% target being missed.
Ministers have put some of the blame on increasing numbers of people going to A&E, but the new figures show that for the first time this winter, overall attendances and emergency admissions have dipped below the levels experienced last year.
So-called "bed blocking" - caused by delays to patients' transfers to other care settings - hit an average 4,200 beds a day, its highest point this winter and higher than at any point in the winter of 2013/14.
Dame Barbara said: "For the second successive week there has been an improvement in A&E performance and we are seeing nine out of 10 patients in England within four hours. It is encouraging that performance is moving in the right direction.
"Although the number of attendances and emergency admissions to A&E has eased, the NHS continues to face huge pressures on its frontline services - particularly A&E, NHS 111 and ambulance services.
"I want to pay tribute to our staff for the excellent job they are doing in continuing to provide an incredibly robust response.
"With severe weather warnings across the country, we continue to urge people - particularly the elderly - to stay warm and look after themselves. They should ensure they have proper medication, get their flu jab if they have not yet done so, and seek advice from their pharmacist or their GPs for colds, coughs and minor ailments."
The NHS 111 phone line took 234,000 calls for the week ending January 18, down from 255,000 the previous week and a dramatic reduction on the peak of 439,000 for the week ending December 28.
In the past year, some 12 million calls have been made to the 111 number, with NHS England estimating that it resulted in treatment being given to two million people who would otherwise have gone to A&E and another 580,000 who would have dialled 999 for an ambulance.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: "These figures show that hospitals all over England remain at their limits and are sailing dangerously close to the wind.
"The Tory A&E crisis shows no sign of easing and too many patients continue to suffer poor care. It is having a damaging effect on the care of thousands of patients right across the NHS, with far too many now suffering the distress of having even the most urgent operations cancelled at the last minute.
"David Cameron must personally explain the steps he will take to bring England's A&Es back up to acceptable standards. He caused this crisis by making it harder to see a GP and taking social care support away from hundreds of thousands of people."