HUNDREDS of patients arriving by ambulance at Warrington Hospital waited for an hour to be handed over to the emergency department.

The hospital has experienced its 'most challenging winter to date', according to a health chief.

Figures released by the NHS reveal that between November 20 and March 4 - 310 patients requiring emergency care had to wait at least an hour before being transferred to A&E after arriving via an ambulance.

A further 771 patients waited between 30 and 60 minutes to be admitted.

NHS England says that no patient should have to wait longer than 15 minutes in an ambulance before being transferred to A&E.

Chris Evans, chief operating officer at Warrington and Halton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: "Like most acute hospitals, the trust continues to experience winter pressures with sustained demand for emergency treatment and admissions.

"When required, we activate our full capacity protocol as well as taking additional measures - such as the opening of additional escalation beds.

"The ability to see, assess, discharge or admit patients within four hours remains a significant challenge for the majority of trusts, with deterioration in this standard seen regionally and nationally.

"This winter has been the most challenging to date, with an increase in the acuity of patients attending the emergency department.

"Emergency admissions have been above expected levels, consistent with our peers in the Cheshire and Merseyside region where we outperform both within the period and year-to-date.

"Like most trusts around the country, we are not achieving the target of 100 per cent of ambulance handovers within 30 minutes.

"However, we continue to be among the highest performing trusts in the region with an average of 85.2 per cent for the December to February period.

"We are working with the North West Ambulance Service to improve these vital handover times to ensure we get patients seen as soon as possible and release ambulance to attend other patients."

Meanwhile, Warrington Hospital's wards were operating at close to capacity for much of the winter period.

On average, wards were 89 per cent occupied - above the NHS' recommended safe limit of 85 per cent.

This target was met on only eight days during the winter period.

Monday, January 29, was the busiest day of the winter, when 95.6 per cent of hospital beds were full.

A number of temporary beds were also set up within the trust during the winter period, with 75 such beds in place on Wednesday, January 14.

Mr Evans added: "Again, like most trusts we experienced high demand in emergency admissions and as part of our winter planning prepared to open escalation beds to cope with demand.

"These beds were located on C22, Daresbury and the intermediate care ward at Halton Hospital.

"At the height of demand, this peaked at 75 escalation beds and we regularly had to use our ambulatory care unit as a bedded area.

"This is not a sustainable situation, and it places extreme pressure on our staff and requires us to seek additional temporary staffing to ensure that our patients remain safe and well-cared for."

A hospital spokesman added that its staff were doing 'good work in immensely trying circumstances'.