Jeremy Hunt has admitted the winter crisis in the NHS is “unsustainable”, as figures revealed A&E departments suffered their second-worst month on record in January.
The health secretary told ITV News that he realised workers were under huge pressure, with large increases in the number of flu cases, and that more money would need to be spent over the next decade to meet demand.
“I completely recognise the pressures they have been going through,” he said.
“When they signed up to going into medicine, they knew there were going to be pressurised moments.
“But I also recognise that is not sustainable and not fair to say to them that this is going to be repeated year in, year out.
“I think we are beyond the time when words from me will make a difference.
“What they need to see is actions, things that are changing to reduce those pressures that we face.
“I think today’s figures are a sign that some of the things that we have done have made a difference...but that does not mean to say its acceptable, and there is lot more work to do.”
His words prompted a furious backlash from NHS staff, who said their roles had become increasingly difficult in recent years.
Labour shadow health minister Justin Madders said the “startling” comment revealed Hunt was “out of touch with the reality of the NHS winter crisis”.
“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 added.
“Almost eight years of sustained under-funding of our health and care services have resulted in the worst winter crisis on record, with almost 140,000 patients stuck in the back of ambulances for over 30 minutes. Saying these are ‘pressured moments’ totally underestimates the scale of the problem.”
NHS England reported one of its worst periods on record last month, with huge numbers of seriously-ill patients facing delays - some as long as 12 hours - waiting for a bed.
Figures show 81,000 waited more than four hours for a bed, and the number of cases of four-hour and 12-hour ‘trolley waits’ were the worst since records began in 2010.
Just over 85% of patients were seen, treated or discharged within the allotted four-hour slot - a slight improvement on the previous month - but levels still fell short of the 95% target.
Lib Dem leader Vince Cable said: “This is yet more evidence of the growing crisis in our health and social care services, where staff are being put under great pressure and quality of care for patients is suffering.
“When will the government wake up to the fact that they urgently need to commit additional funding?”
Hunt said the NHS was “weathering the storm” impressively and promised his retitled department would focus on recruiting more doctors and nurses.