NHS officials insisted last night that North-East accident and emergency departments could cope despite new figures showing a massive increase in patients kept waiting more than an hour in the back of an ambulance.

The figures show that patients waiting to be transferred from ambulances to hard-pressed hospital A&E departments has soared almost nine-fold over the past three years.

Statistics released to the Labour Party after Freedom of Information requests to the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS), showed that the number of people waiting more than an hour to be transferred went up from 241 in 2010-11 to 2,165 in 2012-13.

The number of people waiting more than half an hour to be transferred from an NEAS ambulance to a North-East hospital A&E department also went up from 4,558 to 8,136 during the same period.

The shocking rise came on the same day Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt unveiled a £5 billion training programme that will see more staff working on A&E wards.

Officials say the long winter weather, an increase in flu cases and an outbreak of measles on Teesside have all contributed to the pressure on regional A&E departments.

Under the Government's new training plans, more medical students will be encouraged to work in A&E departments  alongside existing doctors and nurses.

The Northern Echo revealed the scale of the problem last year after paramedics were left waiting two-and-a-half hours at the James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough.

In April we revealed how the number of A&E patients waiting more than four hours for treatment at hospitals through the North-East and North Yorkshire had nearly trebled in only 12 months.

And three weeks agoit was revealed that emergency ambulance crews in the region are being stretched to breaking point after one in 10 calls to the NHS "non-emergency" 111 helpline resulted in an ambulance being dispatched - compared to only two per cent under the old 999 system.

Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham, said last night:  “These figures dispel the notion that the Tory Party is the party of the NHS.  The cuts which they are implementing are having a real effect on frontline services.”

Jamie Read MP, Labours Shadow Health Minister, said: "The unfolding crisis in A&E is a clear and visible symptom of a system under pressure and there is no more visible sign than ambulances queuing up outside A&E."

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "The NHS is seeing an extra one million more patients in A&E compared to three years ago and despite the additional workload it is coping well.

"Patients shouldn't face excessive waits for treatment and we expect NHS England to address ambulance handover times, including fining trusts when there are delays of 30 minutes or more."

James Wharton,  MP for Stockton South, said: “There are a number of reasons for it (the increased waiting times) including the number of people using A&E services for more routine services. That is an issue for hospital management teams.

“The new stacking system, which sees more urgent cases going to the front meaning the less serious cases are having to wait longer for treatment but the government is looking at what they can do to resolve that problem.
“The question people need to ask of the NHS is ‘Are people getting the best and most appropriate treatment’ but you can’t measure that by ambulance waiting times alone.”

A spokeswoman for the NEAS said: "Two of the last three years have been exceptionally busy for the NHS as a whole in the North-East. The winter of 2010 brought us extreme weather, while the winter just gone was one of the busiest of recent years in terms of clinical demand, due to things such as measles and the flu. All of this means an increase in patient demand.

"Year on year, the ambulance service sees a rise in call numbers. In fact over the last ten years, the volume of calls has more than doubled. NHS 111 - the sister service of 999 - got some bad press following its national launch in April, but here in the North-East it's working well. It is directing people with minor ailments who would normally have called 999 for help, or made their own way to A&E, to more suitable venues for treatment.

"The public can help by thinking carefully about whether their situation really demands a 999 ambulance. This would go a long way to easing some of the congestion in the system. Everyone within the NHS across the North-East is aware of the recent handover situation, and we are all working hard to make improvements."