Jeremy Hunt has acknowledged the NHS winter crisis is the "worst ever" but said staff knew what to expect when they “signed up” to work in the health service.
Official figures released today confirmed that A&E waiting time performance is at its worst level on record, and more than a thousand patients were left waiting for 12 hours or more in trolleys waiting for a bed.
Experts said patients are dying prematurely because corridors have become “the new emergency wards” this winter, despite unprecedented efforts and planning by staff and the cancellation of tens of thousands of operations.
The Health Secretary described this winter as the "worst ever" for the NHS, saying the flu outbreak had been "very, very tough" on frontline services, and adding: "In terms of pressures on the system, I think it probably is the worst ever because we've got very high levels of demand."
But when asked in an interview with ITV News whether he would apologise to under-pressure NHS staff, he replied: "I completely recognise the pressures they have been going through and when they signed up to go into medicine they knew there were going to be pressurised moments."
Mr Hunt did go on to say sorry to patients, telling the programme: "I take responsibility for everything that happens in the NHS. I apologise to patients when we haven't delivered the care that we should."
Justin Madders, Labour’s shadow health minister, said: “This startling admission shows how entirely out of touch with the reality of the NHS winter crisis Jeremy Hunt is.
“It follows the Prime Minister’s bizarre comment last month that cancelled operations were ‘part of the plan’ for the NHS and that ‘nothing is perfect’.
“The truth is that our hardworking NHS staff provide the best possible care in the face of unprecedented pressures and are all that stand between the current crisis and total collapse."
He was speaking as figures released by NHS England showed just 85.3 per cent of patients were seen at A&E departments within the waiting time target of four hours in January.
NHS England said the "worst flu season in years" had put a strain on services, but the result was an improvement on December and January last year - the joint worst months since records began.
More than 1,000 patients had to wait more than 12 hours to be seen - more than double the previous month, described as "shocking" by Royal College of Nursing chief executive Janet Davies.
"There's no more graphic illustration of how tough this winter has been for NHS patients and staff than the fact that last month, over 81,000 people going to A&E had to wait more than four hours for a bed in the hospital - the worst figure on record," she added.
"Over a thousand of those had to wait a shocking 12 hours or more."
She said "distressing scenes of frail elderly people in corridors on trolleys have become an all too familiar sight this winter", which is pushing people to quit the NHS.
Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said the figures demonstrate how the NHS does "not currently have a sustainable model" to cope during the busy winter months when illnesses such as flu and norovirus are more prevalent.
Figures also released by Public Health England (PHE) on Thursday showed there were 22 confirmed flu-deaths last week, taking the total deaths so far this winter to 215.
"The last six weeks has seen the acute services of the NHS under a sustained period of stress due to 'normal' winter pressures along with a surge in influenza," Dr Scriven added.
"Last year we coined the phrase 'eternal winter', but the last month and a half has shown an even steeper decline in performance as demonstrated by all the data available - particularly around ambulance delays, the four-hour emergency target and bed occupancy both in acute beds and critical care."
NHS England said more than 1.7 million patients were seen within four hours last month, an increase of 5.72 per cent on the daily average for the same month last year.
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