Ambulance handover delays outside hospitals in England are now lower than at this point last year, in the latest sign winter pressures on the health service may have eased.
Flu patient levels are also continuing to fall, though the number of medically fit patients unable to leave hospital beds remains close to an all-time high.
Health chiefs said the figures were a “much-needed glimmer of light”, but warned NHS workers remain under “significant” strain.
Some 18% of ambulance patients in England waited at least 30 minutes last week to be handed to A&E teams, NHS data shows.
The figure has fallen four weeks in a row since hitting a record 44% in the seven days to January 1.
Delays are now lower than in the equivalent week last winter, when the proportion stood at 20%.
Some 6% of patients waited more than an hour last week to be handed over to A&E teams, compared with 8% at this point in 2022.
The number of flu patients has also dropped for four consecutive weeks and is now down more than three-quarters (76%) from the start of the year.
An average of 1,291 people were in hospital with flu each day last week, a decrease from 2,034 the previous week and the lowest since early December.
At this point last winter the average was just 36.
The rate of flu admissions to hospital stood at 1.4 per 100,000 people last week, down from 1.5 the previous week and the lowest since the beginning of November.
The sharp drop in flu levels comes after a surge in cases in the run-up to Christmas, which health experts described as the worst flu season for a decade.
But despite these positive trends, hospitals are still struggling to discharge people who no longer need to be there.
An average of 13,983 beds last week were taken up by patients who were fit to leave, close to the record 14,069 in the week to January 8.
At this point last year, the number stood at 12,257.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive at NHS Providers, the membership organisation for NHS trusts in England, said the drop in handover delays was a “much-needed glimmer of light”, but warned the health service was “not out of the woods yet.”
She continued: “Last week, nearly 14,000 patients who were medically fit to leave hospital couldn’t, due to a need to invest in capacity in social care, rehabilitation and community services.
“To relieve pressure on the whole system – ambulances, hospital A&Es, mental health and community services – we need to tackle workforce shortages, staff exhaustion and burnout, and the worrying lack of capacity.”
A total of 41% of patients ready to leave hospital last week were actually discharged, though there were wide variations across the regions, with 49% discharged in eastern England and only 30% in north-west England.
Some NHS trusts are continuing to discharge as few as one in 10 medically fit patients, with levels as low as 7% at Liverpool University Hospitals, 8% at Stockport NHS Foundation Trust, and 9% at both Warrington & Halton Teaching Hospitals and the Northern Care Alliance in Greater Manchester.
Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation which represents the whole healthcare system in England, said: “Ahead of the worst week of industrial action to hit the NHS, health leaders are worried that the service is under very high pressure.
“Despite the government investment, nearly 14,000 medically fit patients are still in beds they do not need to be in and this is not helped by the funding to help discharge them coming far too late in the day to make a meaningful difference.
“Add the prospect of further waves of industrial action that will only increase in severity of disruption unless the government shows willingness to negotiate with the unions, and the fear is that the NHS will forever be in this grim position where people coming into the health system are in need of care at a greater rate than they are leaving it.”
A series of strikes by NHS workers have been announced for next week in an ongoing dispute over pay, with nurses in England and Wales taking industrial action on February 6 and 7, along with ambulance workers at five services on February 6 and 10, midwives and physiotherapy staff in Wales on February 7 and physiotherapy staff in England on February 9.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England medical director, said: “While there have been continued improvements in ambulance handovers and there are now fewer flu patients in hospital compared with the peak last month, today’s figures show that NHS staff remain under significant pressure.
“Last week saw more people being taken to A&E by ambulance than the week before, bed occupancy is still constrained and the number of people remaining in hospital who no longer need to be there has increased to almost 14,000, while illnesses like flu and norovirus remain a real concern.
“NHS staff are working incredibly hard to continue to provide the best care for our patients in the face of continued demand, and we are incredibly grateful for their efforts over this winter, which we know has been particularly challenging.”
Norovirus cases in England have increased slightly, with an average of 393 adult hospital beds occupied last week by patients with diarrhoea and vomiting or norovirus-like symptoms, up week-on-week from 371.
The equivalent number at this point last year was 316.