Health chiefs have praised frontline staff for helping NHS services to run more smoothly over this festive period compared to last year.
They say people were seen quicker in accident and emergency departments, faced fewer ambulance delays and were able to leave hospital sooner.
“The health service is performing better this winter than last”
Figures show the average occupancy rate among general and acute beds between 24 December and 30 December this year was 87.5%, compared to 91.7% between 25 December and 31 December 2017.
During Christmas week this year, 9.8% of patients waited longer than 30 minutes to be transferred from the care of the ambulance service to an A&E department, compared to 17.3% last year. The percentage waiting over an hour was 1.8%, down from 4.8%.
There were also 1,587 fewer bed closures due to diarrhoea and vomiting or norovirus symptoms this year compared to last year.
High demand led to ambulances being diverted to a different A&E department on 17 occasions during the 2018 Christmas week, compared to 39 in 2017.
“The service has coped well with a very busy couple of weeks”
An NHS England spokeswoman said: “Thanks to the hard work and preparation of NHS staff, the health service is performing better this winter than last.”
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, added: “The figures for the Christmas period show that preparations put in place by trusts for this winter, and the dedication and hard work of NHS staff, mean the service has coped well with a very busy couple of weeks.
“Trusts have been working well with partners in the community, GPs, and social care to support patients to leave hospital at the right time and get back to their families over the festive period,” she said.
However, Ms Deakin warned that the NHS was not out of the woods yet. She added: “The next couple of weeks will be important to get a real sense of how well the service copes with any further spikes in demand.
“A surge of cold weather or flu now could still have a real impact on a health and care system that is running consistently at high capacity,” she said.
Danny Mortimer, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation and chief executive of NHS Employers, welcomed the figures but also said the NHS was “not yet in the clear”.
“The NHS has delivered significant improvements on last year’s performance and that’s welcome news for patients and the public,” he said.
“But the NHS is not yet in the clear, as the toughest days often come later in the winter when severe cold weather, flu and norovirus can strike,” said Mr Mortimer.
“We have yet to experience the same pressure as last year but it’s clear the NHS is in better shape this winter to respond,” he said.
“This is a tribute to the hard work of staff and the robust planning that has gone into preparing frontline services for this winter.” he added.
“It’s very worrying that we’re seeing so much overcrowding in A&E departments”
Meanwhile, Stephanie Aiken, deputy director of nursing at the Royal College of Nursing, warned that A&E departments were still “dangerously overcrowded”.
She said bed occupancy rates were higher than the 85% limit regarded safe by experts on every other day apart from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day over the last two weeks.
“It’s very worrying that we’re seeing so much overcrowding in A&E departments and wards before cold weather has hit in earnest, and while flu and norovirus levels are still relatively low,” Ms Aiken said.
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“The forthcoming long-term plan for the NHS must ensure sufficient funding to make winter overcrowding a thing of the past,” she said.
Provisional data also suggests that NHS staff uptake of the influenza jab is up from last year.
By 30 November 2018, 61.0% of frontline healthcare workers were vaccinated, compared to 59.3% at the same time in 2017.