HOSPITALS in the region are already facing one of their bleakest-ever winters, with Accident and Emergency targets being missed in some of the worst figures seen since a four-hour wait was introduced in 2004.

And The Northern Echo understands that earlier this month, three of the region’s hospitals – Darlington, Durham and North Tees in Stockton – had to divert patients elsewhere because their casualty departments were so busy.

One woman who had to attend Darlington Memorial Hospital’s Emergency department last week, described it as “chaos” while praising the efforts of overstretched staff.

She said there were seven ambulances queuing outside, and one of the doors into the children’s waiting room couldn’t be opened because there were trolleys with patients on lining the corridors.

Among those having to wait were children who had been in car accidents and others coughing up blood.

It is understood that even children taken in by ambulance were waiting for more than seven hours to be seen.

The claims came as new figures from NHS England showed that A&E performance nationwide is at its worst-ever level while the health service has also missed a raft of other targets, including how long people wait to start planned treatment and waits for cancer care.

Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust had the worst figures in the region for October, with just 75 per cent of patients being seen in four hours. South Tees Hospitals, which runs James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough and the Friarage in Northallerton, which recently saw its A&E downgraded to urgent care, saw 87.7 per cent, while North Tees figures for October were not available.

Nationally the figure is one in six patients waiting longer than four hours, which are the worst figures since the four-hour target began in 2004. The target is 95 per cent.

Nuffield Trust chief economist, Professor John Appleby said: “These figures show the next government will immediately be faced with one of the bleakest winters in the NHS’s history.”

Peter Gibson, Conservative candidate for Darlington, said the best news for the town was that last week health secretary Matt Hancock visited and guaranteed the future of the hospital.

He said recruitment nationally was also an issue, which was why the government had recently relaxed immigration rules for NHS workers.

Jenny Chapman, Labour’s candidate for Darlington, said staff were “demoralised”.

She added: “If I talk about this at the moment it looks like I am talking it up because of the politics of it, but from talking to people there I am genuinely concerned. We need to make sure it is properly resourced and the staff, who do an absolutely brilliant job in extremely challenging circumstances, are properly supported. I am worried the pressures are starting to build and we are not even in winter yet.”

A spokeswoman for County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust said: “Like many other NHS organisations we have generally been busier this year. Our teams continue to work incredibly hard to manage demand.”

A South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust spokesperson said the number of extra patients due to the downgrade of Northallerton is only three to four, but did not specify whether this was every day.