Research by the King’s Fund think tank found 6% of patients waited four hours or longer in A&E between January and March 2013, the highest level since 2004.
The findings mean that for the first time, the government missed its target that no more than 5% of patients should wait more than four hours in A&E.
A total of 313,000 patients waited four hours or more, up more than a third on the previous three months. The data show a 40% increase compared with the same quarter in 2011/12.
Derbyshire LMC secretary Dr John Grenville told GP: ‘The overall problem is that the NHS is under very considerable strain, because of the numbers trying to access it and ever increasing costs at time of financial stringency.
‘Under that sort of situation, the front doors of the NHS notice the situation first – and that’s general practice and A&E.’
He said it was possible that strain on A&E would deflect more work back to general practice.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, RCGP chairwoman Dr Clare Gerada warned that the pressure on A&E was mirrored in primary care. She told the programme the NHS was close to ‘grinding to a halt’.
King’s Fund chief economist John Appleby said: ‘Emergency care acts as a barometer for the NHS. The worryingly high number of patients waiting longer than four hours in the last quarter of 2012/13 is a clear warning sign that the health system is under severe strain.’