"Unprecedented" pressure on the health services has led to an increase in waiting times at accident and emergency departments across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, NHS chiefs have said.
Hospitals are supposed to see 95 per cent of patients within four hours, but the latest figures show in December Northern Ireland hospitals were well below that - with just 76 percent being seen on time.
And departments in England are also falling short at less than 90 per cent, according to the weekly figures - despite some improvement from the previous week.
ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen reports:
Health chiefs have urged people to take care in the impending cold snap as the NHS struggles to cope with "unprecented" pressure on services.
It comes as the latest figures for accident and emergency departments in England show a slight improvement in the number of patients seen within four hours - 89.8 per cent compared to 86.7 per cent the previous week - though still falling short of the 95 per cent target.
Dame Barbara Hakin, a director at NHS England, urged people to try their pharmacist or GP for minor ailments rather than heading to A&E.
Although we have seen a slight easing in the number of attendances and emergency admissions to A&E, the NHS continues to face unprecedented pressures on its frontline services - particularly A&E, NHS111 and ambulance services.
In light of the latest weather warnings across the country, we would urge people - particularly the elderly - to stay in the warm, ensure they have proper medication, get their flu jab if they have not yet done so, and seek advice from their pharmacist or their GPs for colds, coughs and minor ailments.
Accident and emergency departments across England saw 89.8 per cent of patients within the four-hour target window last week, new figures reveal.
The results, for the week ending January 11, mean the vast majority of departments again failed to meet the 95 per cent target - though it is an improvement on the previous week, when only 86.7 per cent of patients were seen within the target time.
Bosses say the figures are a sign of ongoing "unprecedented" pressures on the NHS this winter.
The Government has welcomed draft guidelines to tackle the A&E crisis, calling them "a major step forward."
"The expert committee that produced this guidance has said these nursing ratios are typical of current practice in A&E, showing our plans for safe staffing are working, and correcting some of the problems we saw at Mid Staffs," a Department of Health spokesman said.
"This Nice guidance will give the NHS evidence to make sure it has the right number of staff, improving patient care."
Ensuring enough nursing staff are available at A&E departments helps to make sure patients "get safe care," the director of clinical practice at Nice said.
Professor Mark Baker said of the NHS watchdog's draft guidelines published today:
Over 14 million people attended A&E departments in England last year. Nursing staff are often among the first to see patients and we know the care they provide is essential for successful treatment of every patient.
Ensuring there are enough available nursing staff, with the right skills, helps to make sure people in need of immediate medical help will get safe care, whatever the time of day or night.
There should be enough nursing staff on duty in Accident and Emergency departments to have two registered nurses to one patient in cases of major trauma or cardiac arrest, according to guidance published today.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice)'s draft guidelines also stressed there should be a registered children's nurse on each shift, or at least one A&E nurse with education and training in children's nursing.
Nice was asked to develop recommendations after concerns were raised about safe staffing levels following incidents such as the scandal in Mid Staffordshire.
Its guidance states that hospital boards, senior management and commissioners should ensure all A&E departments are able to deliver the nursing care patients need from the time of attending the department, through assessment and delivery of care to discharge.
Four consultants have told ITV News the Accident & Emergency departments at 50 NHS hospitals are already struggling as a crisis looms.Read the full story ›
The UK will "walk blindfold into another winter crisis" in hospital care if recommendations put forward in a report by leading doctors are not implemented and the strain is left on A&E services, a medical chief said.
Royal College of Physicians president Sir Richard Thompson said:
Over the past few years, services for ill patients have been stretched by the sheer amount of acute and emergency admissions, and we have to plan better for the future to protect patient safety.
These 13 recommendations are practical, evidence-based, and produced by doctors who care for patients daily - if we do not implement them, we shall simply walk blindfold into another winter crisis.
According to doctors from the College of Emergency Medicine, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons:
- Other health and social care workers physically located in emergency departments to bridge the gap between GP, hospital and social care services in order to support vulnerable patients.
- Community care and social care should be available seven days a week to support urgent and emergency care services.
- This would mean patients could be safely discharged outside of normal working hours.
A group of leading doctors has called for out-of-hours GP services to be offered alongside emergency departments at hospitals to stem the "overwhelming" number of A&E patients.
Doctors from the College of Emergency Medicine, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons, want every emergency department should have a co-located primary care out-of-hours facility.
Patients should not be expected to determine whether or not their injury is serious enough to warrant a trip to A&E or minor enough to contact a GP and should have access to both levels of care, doctors said.
However, the recommended it was inappropriate to expect A&E to deal with "anything and everything".