NHS trusts have run up a deficit of nearly £900m in meeting the huge increase in demand for urgent and emergency care.
An analysis of demand shows that 5.34 million patients attended providers’ A&E units between October and December 2016, which is 200,000 more than at the same period last year.
Providers also saw a 3.5% increase in the number of patients requiring major further in-hospital treatment.
These winter pressures have contributed to a deficit of £886m by NHS trusts in the first nine months of the 2016-17 financial year.
It comes despite the health service being given extra money to help it get on top of its finances after the record £2.45bn overspend in 2015-16.
Hospitals have faced significant problems discharging patients because of a lack of community services.
Jim Mackey, Chief Executive of NHS Improvement, said: “NHS providers are treating more patients than ever before, which is a tribute to the hard work and commitment of their staff.
“But times are extremely challenging, and things are unlikely to get any easier in the short term.”
The regulator predicted the deficit could be cut slightly by the end of the financial year in April to between £750m and £850m – but still above the £580m figure predicted earlier in the year.
Some 135 out of 238 trusts had racked up a deficit in the nine months between April and December.
The total is less than half the figure at this point last year, but the improvement has only been achieved because of a special one-off £1.8bn fund this year to help hospitals plug the gap.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents trusts, described the latest figures as worrying.
“We shouldn’t kid ourselves. The NHS’s underlying financial position is not sustainable,” he added.
The NHS is in the middle of the tightest financial settlement since it was created. Since 2010 the budget has been rising by a little more than 1% on average compared to more than 4% during the rest of its history.
Richard Murray, Director of Policy at The King’s Fund, said: “There has been a huge effort from staff right across the NHS to manage unprecedented levels of demand and we should recognise the progress that has been made in halting the downward spiral of NHS finances inherited from previous years. Given the backdrop of rises in delayed transfers of care and staff shortages, this is no small achievement.
“But there is no doubt that these are worrying figures that highlight how serious the NHS’s financial position is, both in this year and the years ahead. Even if the Department of Health manages within its spending limit this year, the prospects for the rest of this Parliament are extremely challenging.”