NEARLY 2,000 ambulance patients were left waiting for at least an hour to be handed over to hospital staff during Christmas week, latest figures show.

NHS England's weekly operational update showed some 9.8 per cent of patients (9,717) had an ambulance handover delay of more than 30 minutes during the week from Christmas Eve, down from 17.3% in the same week last year, the body said.

The number of ambulance patients being kept waiting more than an hour to be handed over was 1,830 - an increase from 1,744 the previous week, and 1,491 the week before that.

It equates to 1.8% of ambulance handovers taking longer than 60 minutes, down from 4.8 per cent (4,734 patients) on that same week last year - something described as "an improvement" by an NHS England spokesman, although the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said having to wait was "distressing" for patients.

The data also found eight hospital trusts were forced to temporarily turn away ambulances from A&E on at least one occasion in the week ending December 30, up from seven trusts the previous week, but down from 13 the week before that.

The bed occupancy rate during Christmas week was at 87.5 per cent, down from 91.2 per cent and 93.4 per cent the previous two weeks. The benchmark is 92 per cent.

The latest figures are based on an increase in patients arriving at A&E by ambulance - up from 96,284 to 99,091 to 99,156 during the most recent three weeks.

An NHS spokesman said: "Thanks to the hard work and preparation of NHS staff, the health service is performing better this winter than last, with people being seen more quickly in emergency departments, fewer ambulance delays, evening and weekend GP appointments across the country and more people able to leave hospital and get home sooner, all of which is good for patients and makes best use of NHS resources.

"While so far this year there have been fewer people reporting illness linked to flu, norovirus and respiratory problems, health problems over winter remain a risk, so the public can help us to help them by getting their flu jab and taking simple steps like keeping their home warm, and using convenient services like NHS 111 and high street pharmacists."

The latest data shows of the 12,723 patients arriving at A&E by ambulance on Christmas Day, 36 were kept waiting at least an hour for their handover. This included seven of the 70 ambulance arrivals at Warrington and Halton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

NHS England said that during an ambulance handover delay, very few patients actually remain in the ambulance and are moved into the hospital where they are attended by a paramedic.

Stephanie Aiken, RCN deputy director of nursing, said: "Having to wait outside in an ambulance in this way because A&E is already dangerously overcrowded is distressing not just for patients but also for staff, who can't provide proper care.

"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."

Danny Mortimer, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said the NHS had "delivered significant improvements on last year's performance," something he described as "welcome news for patients and the public".

However, he said the NHS is "not yet in the clear".

He said: "Ambulance delays and bed occupancy rates are both down, while we have seen far fewer A&Es diverting patients.

"This is very encouraging but our members tell us that the toughest days may well come later in the winter so they will be prepared for this."