A&E experienced its busiest winter on record at Great Western Hospital, figures show.

Between January and March, almost 20,600 visited the emergency department at the Swindon hospital.

And, while the number of patients having to wait longer than four hours to be admitted or discharged was up compared to last year, it was down from a high of 5,897 in 2016/17.

It came as hospital executives pondered whether the traditional winter pressure was now extending to run all year round.

Julie Soutter, a non-executive director at GWH, asked: “It’s not been a particularly bad winter in weather terms and there’s not been a major flu outbreak, so why has demand gone up?

“If winter’s getting longer and it’s not weather driven and it’s not flu driven, are we actually seeing something that really is an underlying trend – and it’s not seasonal?”

But Jim O’Connell, chief operating officer at the Marlborough Road NHS trust said hospital managers were still finding it easier to make improvements during the summer and autumn.

The winter months had been characterised by higher attendance and more pressure on all wards, he added.

Nationally, last year’s A&E waiting times were the worst on record. NHS England data showed that 88 per cent of patients were treated or admitted to hospital within four hours between last April and March 2019.

Tim Gardner, a senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, said that areas of the NHS were “creaking at the seams”.

Ahead of the busy Easter bank holiday weekend, Great Western Hospital urged those feeling poorly to consider alternatives to A&E – like visiting the pharmacy or walk-in centre.

Julie Marshman, chief nurse at GWH. said: “The bank holiday season can be an extremely busy time for our emergency services and often, people will avoid seeking help as they don’t want to add to the pressure, but this is the last thing we want.

“It’s important for people to seek help and be treated quickly, before their condition worsens and they end up in hospital.

“There are some great local healthcare options in Swindon which you can access without an appointment and we’re urging local people to consider using them before coming into ED so that the department can support those who need it most.

“People who need urgent medical attention or advice should call the free NHS 111 phone number. This service is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and it is the fastest and easiest way for anyone to access urgent healthcare.”