Jeremy Hunt has told ITV News that the NHS is experiencing “probably the worst” winter crisis ever “in terms of pressures on the system”.
The Health and Social Care Secretary said that the current situation in the service is “not sustainable”.
He told ITV News National Editor Allegra Stratton it would “not be fair” if doctors and nurses faced similar pressures to 2017/2018 year in year out.
His comments came after figures showed that A&E departments suffered their second-worst month on record in January.
Mr Hunt said that “significantly more” money would need to be spent on the NHS over the next decade to ensure the country could cope with increased demand – including an expected growth of one million over-75s.
“I completely recognise the pressures that they have been going through and when they signed up to go into medicine they knew there was going to be pressurised moments,” he said.
“But I also recognise that it is not sustainable and not fair to say to them this is going to be repeated year in, year out.
“I think we’re beyond the time when words from me will make a difference. What they need to see is action.”
Figures showed that in January 85.3% of patients were seen, treated or discharged within the allotted four-hour slot.
This was considerably short of the 95% target, but still an improvement on the 85.1% from December.
Mr Hunt admitted frontline services were finding it “very tough” – compounded by high levels of flu – but argued that the NHS was “weathering the storm very impressively”.
“In terms of pressures on the system I think it probably is the worst ever because we’ve got very high levels of demand,” he said.
“We’ve got the flu outbreak which, although it’s not an epidemic, is the worst we’ve had for many years.”
The Health and Social Care Secretary moved to reassure NHS staff that he was recruiting as many doctors as possible.
Last year a consultant at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Omar Mafousi, told ITV News that increasing demand and current staffing levels were making working conditions “scary”.
Mr Hunt said the government had recruited 10,000 extra doctors since 2013 and had embarked upon the second largest recruitment scheme in NHS history last year.
But he said that it would take time for the doctors to be trained and not to expect instantaneous results.
“I want to reassure him of my commitment and this government’s commitment: we want our NHS to be the safest, highest quality healthcare system in the world,” Mr Hunt said.
“The way that we will relieve pressure on doctors like Omar is by getting more doctors trained so that we will have more people on hand to deal with those pressures.”
Asked whether he thought the NHS needed more money, Mr Hunt said the health service had been one of the “winners” from November’s Budget.
But he emphasised that money would not single-handedly solve the NHS crisis, stressing the need to forward plan.
“The things we can do we will but I don’t want to promise that there’s a silver bullet – winter is always a very difficult time for the NHS,” he said.
Mr Hunt added: “I don’t think there’s any doubt that going forward the NHS is going to need more money.
“In ten years time we’ll have a million more over-75s in this country and we want to be able to promise the British people that every single older person is going to be treated with the highest standard of dignity and respect.”
Mr Hunt also indicated the government should consider allowing the NHS to take over the social care budget.
The Health and Social Care Secretary said that Manchester was a good example of where social care and NHS budgets had been pooled.
“If you’re a 90-year-old lady with dementia who is probably going to be in and out of hospital a few times a year you’re not bothered if your care is being delivered through the social care system or the NHS,” he said.
“What you want is for it to be joined up – a single care plan, a single electronic health record.”